Eighty years on from the war in Europe, we still fail to understand the war in Asia, and the ways it shaped China.
When war broke out in Europe on September 1, 1939, China had been fighting alone against Imperial Japan for two years. Indeed, for many years China had lost territory to a rising Japan – such as Taiwan in 1895 and Manchuria in 1931.
Largely unmoved by the invasion of China by Imperial Japan in 1937, Western powers such as Britain and the US stood back as neutral bystanders. Indeed, the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 only made the war that was already in full swing in Asia even less important to Europeans, as they now battled for their own survival.
The USSR’s decision to join Germany in invading Poland in September 1939 was bad news for China. By 1939, China’s Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, was desperate for the USSR to fully commit to fighting against Japan. After all, the Soviets had been embroiled in an on-off border conflict with the Japanese since 1932.
But the week before war broke out in Europe, the two great enemies of the USSR and Nazi Germany made an unlikely friendship treaty – the Nazi-Soviet Pact. So the USSR was now in a peace pact with Japan’s ally. Furthermore, during that same month – September 1939 – the USSR declared a ceasefire in its border war with Japan, and the two sides proceeded to negotiate their own Russo-Japanese peace pact. China fought alone for four years.
Western powers remained neutral in the Asia-Pacific region until December 7 to 8, 1941, when the attacks on Pearl Harbour, plus British colonies, forced them into war against Japan. During the war, Western indifference showed through the attitudes of leaders, epitomised by Winston Churchill. Although he would go on to lament the loss of key colonial outposts, such as Hong Kong, he chose not to prioritise defending them.
Months before Hong Kong was attacked during the same dawn as Pearl Harbor was raided in 1941 – December 7 on Hawaii’s side of the international dateline, December 8 for Hong Kong – Churchill wrote privately that there was “not the slightest chance” of successfully defending the colony from Imperial Japan. In the months before the attack, he did little to improve the situation. Unfit and inexperienced troops would bear the brunt of frontline defence, and a rout was inevitable. Western indifference to the war in Asia lingers on to this today.
The consequences of Western attitudes toward the war in Asia were and are far-reaching. When an imperial power fails to defend its colonies from attack, the empire’s days are numbered.
And the war did not only result in the decline of European empires across Asia and beyond. The failure of Western powers to sustain meaningful support left Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists weak and vulnerable after World War II ended, ill-prepared for the Chinese Civil War that would follow. The communists were able to seize power and maintain it. As did the communists in North Korea, thanks to the help of communist China.
American popular culture may suggest that the USA singlehandedly won the war in Asia – a slight against the 14 million Chinese killed during the war – but its efforts to win peace in the region were less conclusive.
While remembering the anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland and the outbreak of war across the continent, we should also be aware of the war in Asia that raged both before and after the war in Europe.
Paul Letters’ latest novel, The Slightest Chance, is set in wartime Hong Kong and China.