The Anglo-Japanese relationship during the time of uncertainty, August-October 1894

The first two months of the First Sino-Japanese War was a time of uncertainty.4 People with the benefit of the hindsight know that the Japanese enjoyed great military success over the Qing, but it was difficult for contemporaries to predict which side would prevail when the war broke out in the summer of 1894. The Japanese were successful in the opening battles at P'ungdo and Songhwan. but the Qing military presence was not wiped out from Korea. There also were many individuals who believed that it would be difficult for the Japanese to defeat the Qing military forces, as argued by Nicholas O'Conor (Sir Nicholas from May 1895) and Sir Edmund Fremantle, the British Minister in Beijing and the Commander-in-Chief of the China Squadron respectively.5

The Japanese themselves also had to embrace the uncertainty of war. Shortly after the official declaration of war, the General Headquarters submitted the ‘General Strategic Outline,’ which followed the line of argument which had been forwarded by Ogawa Mataji in February 1887.6 The Japanese military planners declared that their ultimate objective was to send large number of troops into the Bohai Bay and deliver a decisive blow to the Qing as quickly as possible. To accomplish this objective, the I.J.A. would send the Fifth Division into the Korean peninsula and check the Qing land force. In the meantime, the I.J.N. would act against the Beiyang Fleet in order to seize command of the Yellow Sea, so that troops could be sent to the Chinese capital district by sea. However, the proposal also mentioned that if the I.J.N. could not gain firm command of sea, then they would focus on defending Korea, and in the worst case scenario, in which the navy was defeated by the Beiyang Fleet, they must then withdraw the troops and men-of-war to Japan and prepare for defensive warfare. The fact that there were several alternative plans indicates that the military planners were confronted with several possibilities.

And as the I.J.N. could not engage with the Beiyang Fleet in the Yellow-Sea in early August, the General Headquarters concluded that they must expect that the war would continue at least until the following spring.7 This inevitably induced officials to change their war plans already after the first month of war.8 While they would instruct the I.J.N. to seize the command of the Yellow Sea as soon as possible, they decided to reinforce the Fifth Division in Korea by sending the Third Division to Korea, which would together formulate First Army Corps. Its objective was to wipe out the Qing military presence out of Korea, and then enter into the Chinese territory. By this time, the General Headquarters was setting its eyes on the Liaodong peninsula, which it thought could serve as a strategic base for the campaign towards the Chinese capital district in the following spring. Still, it was only after the Japanese managed to win the land and naval battles at Pyongyang and the Yellow Sea on 15 and 16 September, with relatively little damages and casualties that they could proceed according to this blueprint. Victory was far from inevitable. And even if they managed to win these battles, it would have been impossible for them to proceed further if they lost too many lives and resources in that process. In those cases, they would have to act upon different plans.

The first two months of the war was also the time when the Anglo-Japanese relationship was particularly difficult, as these two countries were entangled in several questions relating to the rights and obligations of neutral countries during the times of war.9 The biggest issue for the British government was the protection of commerce with China conducted by merchants from neutral countries. British diplomats in Beijing and Tokyo were therefore instructed, already before the declaration of war, to request that the Chinese and Japanese militaries not threaten the treaty ports or neutral commercial vessels.10 To this, the Japanese government replied that it would adhere to the Paris Declaration of 1856, which stipulated that belligerents must respect the rights of neutrals.11 At the same time, it requested the British to comply with the obligation of neutrals and respect Japan’s rights as a belligerent. The Paris Declaration prohibited neutral countries from shipping goods or sending personnel which would support the war efforts of belligerents.12 If commercial vessels from neutral countries were under suspicion of carrying contraband of war, belligerents had the rights to stop, search, and confiscate them; and if the commercial vessels refused to act upon the instructions, then belligerents could undertake extreme measures. The Japanese government also set up a prize court, to which merchants could appeal if they thought they were being accused unjustifiably for carrying contraband of war, and also submitted the regulations detailing how the prize court would be administrated.13

The Japanese government also attempted to justify its conduct towards the Kowshing - a British steamer which was sunk by the I.J.N. warship Naniwa on 25 July 1894 while transporting Chinese troops and weapons to Korea - by insisting upon the rights of belligerents.14 It explained that although the war had not been declared at the time of the sinking, three Japanese cruisers had already begun engaging two warships of the

The first Sino-Japanese war and Anglo-Japanese relations 169 Beiyang Fleet near the waters where the Kowshing was sailing, and therefore a state of war had existed. Under these circumstances, Naniwa had the right to stop neutral vessels transporting Qing troops and weapons, and to take extreme measures if the crew refused to comply with its instructions. According to the report by the captain of the Japanese warship, the crew of Kowshing initially agreed to abide by his instruction to head towards the Japanese naval base in Sasebo, but were prevented from doing so by the Qing troops and officers. The Chinese armed themselves with weapons on board, warned the crew not to follow the Japanese orders, and even started firing towards the Japanese warship. The captain of Naniwa felt threatened, and concluded that he had no other option but to sink the ship. The Gaimusho argued that there was no breaching of international law by Japanese naval officers, and insisted that the Qing should be held liable for this incident, as it would not have occurred if the Chinese troops and officers had not rebelled on board and the crew had been able to follow the Japanese instructions.

However, the Foreign Office was not sympathetic to this explanation, at least at the early stages of war.15 By the second week of August. British diplomats learnt about the details of the incident from European crews and passengers who had managed to survive.16 The latter argued that while it was true that the Chinese troops and officers had warned the captain of Kowshing not to follow the instruction of the Japanese men-of-war, it was still questionable whether the latter should have sunk a neutral commercial vessel on 25 July. After the outbreak of the mutiny on board of the Kowshing, the crew explained the situation on the ship to the Japanese officers, and requested permission to return to China. This seemed reasonable as war had not yet been officially declared, but the Japanese officers did not permit this and instead chose to sink the ship. Some survivors also claimed that the Japanese naval officers showed little interest in saving Chinese soldiers and officers who were thrown into the sea, and some of them even fired upon the survivors.

These reports circulated around East Asian treaty ports by early August through newspapers, and terrified the British residents. They started to insist that it was too dangerous to recognise the rights of belligerents to East Asian countries.17 Although the revised Anglo-Japanese treaty had been signed two weeks prior to the declaration of the war, it had not yet been enacted at this stage, and therefore the British subjects in Japan still enjoyed extraterritoriality within the Japanese territory. There were many individuals who thought the British government should insist to the Japanese authorities that they keep their hands off from British merchant vessels based upon this right. Some officials in East Asia, including Fremantle and Hiram Shaw Wilkinson, the Acting Judge of the consular court in Japan, were sympathetic to the treaty port population.18 Fremantle in particular developed a strong sense of antipathy towards the Japanese after the Kowshing incident, and this sentiment continued to affect him until he left China in May 1895.19

In late August, these two countries became entangled in another issue related to the rights of neutrals which strained their relationship even further. As shown in the previous chapter, in late July the Japanese government had complied with the British request to refrain from conducting any warlike operations near Shanghai and its approaches even if the war broke out, so that the commerce of the neutrals would not be disturbed. However, after the outbreak of war, the Japanese Ministry of Navy received numerous reports from its officers who were sent to Shanghai that the Qing was producing ammunition in arsenals near Shanghai and also bringing in contrabands of war into the port through neutral vessels.20 The Japanese became suspicious that the Qing was using the port for military logistics, and also that the British authorities might be turning a blind eye towards the Chinese, thus taking advantage of the Japanese promise not to launch attacks in the Yangzi region. This complaint was forwarded on 20 August from Foreign Minister Mutsu Munemitsu to Henry Le Poer Trench, the British Minister in Japan.21

It is interesting to see that naval officers from Britain and Japan, who had managed to maintain a relatively cordial relationship with each other for much of the time after the Meiji Restoration, suddenly started to observe each other with suspicion. The Japanese naval authorities soon recognised that Fremantle had become unfriendly towards them after the Kowshing incident.22 Their resentment was duly shared by Mutsu and Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi. who led the government decision-making process during the war.23 And when Mutsu forwarded the complaints of the Japanese naval officers to Trench, he argued that the British diplomatic authorities must take more active measures to prevent the Chinese from taking advantage of Japan’s guarantees regarding Shanghai, or his government might become compelled to revoke it.

When this issue was reported home, it caught the attention of senior officials at the Foreign Office and of Cabinet ministers.24 After consulting the Consul-General in Shanghai, the British authorities denied the accusation that contraband was being brought into that port.25 They also pointed out that it was unjustifiable for the Japanese government to withdraw its promise as it should have known about the existence of arsenals near Shanghai prior to the outbreak of war; besides, weapons produced from the arsenal were used only for the defence of Yangzi basin, and the output was not substantial.26 The Japanese government considered this reply unsatisfactory, and continued to suspect that the Chinese were supplying their military through Shanghai with British cooperation.27 It continued throughout September to insist to Trench that the British authorities must take every step to ensure that the Qing was not taking advantage of the neutrality of Shanghai.28 The Foreign Office replied that it would not tolerate any military manoeuvres towards Shanghai.29 The Cabinet duly agreed to send naval reinforcements to China in case the Japanese contemplated launching a surprise attack on Shanghai.30

The British attitude over the Kowshing and Shanghai issues were particularly resented by Japanese diplomats in Korea and Hong Kong. They did not appreciate the fact that a British commercial vessel had agreed to transport Chinese troops and weapons to Korea in July, when it was obvious that the Qing was intending to mobilise against Japan as these two countries were on the brink of war.31 Japanese diplomats perceived the Kowshing as having taken hostile action against Japan at its own risk, and that its owners had no right to complain about its sinking. When they learned that the British government was trying to hold Japan accountable for the loss, they became extremely suspicious that it held pro-Qing inclination, despite declaring its neutrality on the surface.32 In Korea, Japanese diplomats had already experienced difficulties with their British colleagues in June, and they continued to do so after the outbreak of war. They particularly resented the presence of two Britons in Inchon, William Henry Wilkinson and W. Osborne, the Vice-Consul and commissioner of local customs, who frequently complained that the Japanese ranks and files stationed in that port were interfering with the rights of neutral residents.33

Britain and Japan experienced other minor problems over the obligations of neutrals. Shortly after the declaration of war, British authorities chose to detain Japanese vessels which were being built in Britain. The commercial vessel Tosamaru, owned by the Japanese government-subsidised Nihon Yusen Company, was held at a shipyard in Glasgow, as the British feared that the Japanese would use it to convey troops.34 Meanwhile the warship Tatsuta was ordered to stop by the Resident of Aden while it was on its way to Japan.35 Both Tosamaru and Tatsuta were regarded to be contraband of war, and thus the British authorities thought they should not be handed over. The British government eventually agreed to release the ships after receiving appeals from the Japanese counterpart, but these incidents were enough for the former to send the message that it would uphold strict neutrality over the war, and thus was not interested in doing any particular favours to Japan.

Despite experiencing various difficulties after the outbreak of war, the British and the Japanese governments managed to avoid military confrontation, as they were well aware that such development did not suit their interests. Although the British were somewhat wary about the possibility of a Japanese attack towards Shanghai, East Asia remained to be a relatively unimportant region from their point of view. They were thus reluctant to be involved in any unilateral military engagement in this part of the world, which always carried with it the threat of significant financial cost and the risk of a Parliamentary outcry. The Japanese too could easily predict that it was not prudent to open another battlefront when they were already faced with land and sea battles in Northeast Asia. After the Japanese achieved decisive victories in Pyongyang and the Yellow Sea on 15 and 16 September, the protests to the British government over questions related to Shanghai became less frequent.36

Neither were the ministers and senior officials in Tokyo and London always receptive to the voices from China and Korea. Although the Japanese government did agree to some extent with the opinions of its diplomats in East Asia over the question of the Kowshing, and took various efforts to justify their actions, it nonetheless guaranteed to the Foreign Office that it would make full compensation if there was firm evidence that the I.J.N. was to be blamed for this incident. Upon hearing this, the British authorities agreed that they would refrain from making any firm conclusions over this issue until the completion of a thorough investigation.37 The Foreign Office also concluded, after consulting the Law Officers of the Crown, that it was inappropriate to deny Japan the rights of belligerents guaranteed by international law, even if the British still enjoyed extraterritoriality as the treatyport population insisted. This was particularly the case as the Japanese government had taken every necessary step to exercise the rights of belligerents, by establishing a prize court and setting up reasonable regulations for its usage. And the senior officials did not forget to warn their Vice-Consul in Inch’on, after receiving several reports, to refrain from taking actions that might induce suspicion; Christopher Gardner, who had caused difficulties with the Japanese military authorities in Korea in June, was removed from Seoul and replaced by Walter Hillier.38

However, the Foreign Office’s decisions were based more upon its pragmatic calculation about the limits of power that Britain could exert in East Asia than any friendly feeling towards Japan. As one official in the Foreign Office wrote, if the British government were to insist that the Japanese keep their hands off its commercial vessels at all times, then it must be prepared to enforce this through the use of naval force, but the China Squadron simply did not have adequate numbers of warships to protect every commercial vessel in East Asia.39 Faced with this reality, the Foreign Office had to hope that the belligerents would honour their pledges to respect the rights of neutrals. Although it is unlikely that the Foreign Office would have made this decision if it was not confident that the Japanese understood international law, this should not be seen as an appreciation of Japanese westernisation; after all, the British also expressed satisfaction when the Qing declared that it would respect the rights of neutrals.40 The Japanese government too was driven by the calculation that it was too dangerous for them to overstretch the war. And yet, despite the fact that the British and Japanese decision-makers strongly wished to avoid complications with each other, they still ended up experiencing several issues as soon as the war broke out.

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