Japan's Bridge to China: The Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902

  By M.P. Benedict, February 2006; Revised
As the twentieth century dawned, the European maritime powers had largely carved up the Eastern Hemisphere into colonies or spheres of influence.  In the Far East, China, in the trade with its huge population, was looked upon as a prize valued by British and other European commercial interests.  It was no less a prize for an eastward expanding Russia, France's recent ally, and Britain's most persistent adversary in Asia.  The Empire of Japan, such as it was, seemed not a factor in this European Great Power game.  True, Japan had defeated China in their war of 1894-95, and had secured the Ryukyu Islands and Formosa.  True also, she had participated in quelling the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 (the only non-Western participant).  Important indemnities and trade concessions had come of these events, as had recognition of Japanese interests in "Corea."  Japan was looked upon as distant and exotic, and not as a great power, but her six modern battleships, engineered, built and armed in British yards, constituted the strongest fleet in the Far East in 1901.

In Great Britain, the 1897 Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria's reign celebrated the British Empire on which the sun never set.  Here were pomp; circumstance; power.  Others knew better.  The day after the Diamond Jubilee parade displaying British imperial strength, Rudyard Kipling published Recessional in The Times, a poem portending imperial decline.

There were Britons who could recognize that Great Britain was being overtaken in industrial might by Germany and the United States; that these young countries with large populations and modern industry were likely to upset a balance of power that had been determined by Britain since the Congress of Vienna in 1815.  What to do?  By 1901, the year of Queen Victoria's death, influential Britons recognized that Britain and her Empire, a Great Power in relative decline, must abandon her "splendid isolation."  Britain was no longer in a position to be the sole arbitor of power balances.  Negotiated in the autumn of 1901 and finalized early in 1902, Great Britain made her first formal military alliance with the Japanese Empire; an alliance that was not fateful for the future of Britain, but for the future of East Asia.

From 1899, Britain and its Dominions were fighting a war against Boer farmers in South Africa that took three years and an army of 300,000 men to win.  At the same time, the Russian Bear kept interfering in affairs in Afghanistan on Imperial India's Northwest Frontier, and continued expansionist moves toward the Pacific in close proximity to British commercial interests in China.  As a result of Russian involvment in quelling the Boxer Rebellion, and on that pretext, Russian troops had entered Manchuria making it a virtual Russian protectorate, and a buffer for the Trans Siberian Railway to Vladivostok.  This "Russian" port city, and the Russian army, were critically close to Korea where Japan had commercial and strategic interests.  Japan had been engaged at least since its Chinese war of 1894 in detaching the Korean kingdom from Chinese influence.  In Japanese eyes, whoever controlled Korea held a knife at the throat of Japan. 

Some have seen commonality in this alliance of two island maritime nations, both monarchies, and with Japan having modeled her new fleet on the Royal Navy.  But they were not natural partners.  Their common concern was Russia.  With the possibility of conflict among powers in the Far East over China, and wary of the Franco-Russian alliance,  Britain began to reassess her strategic position.  The Boer War had indicated that the Empire was overextended in sea power.  Naval construction, not only in Russia and France but in Germany, and soon the United States, would presently render a great part of Royal Navy policy obsolete.  Soon, powerful navies in combination would be able to challenge British control of the vital sea lanes.  By pooling naval assets with the Japanese, Britain could reduce her Far Eastern presence and concentrate more ships in the Mediterranean and in home waters.  The combination of Britain and Japan would give Russia a reason for caution.  Russia was likely to be less disruptive both in central Asia and in the Far East.  For the Japanese, an alliance with the perceived greatest Great Power carried not only a trump card in the Far East, but great prestige as well.  Japan was worthy of being an ally, and someday a Great Power. 

The alliance agreed in 1902 was not a forgone conclusion.  Both Japan and Britain had respective outstanding problems with Russia, and both made separate overtures to St. Petersburg to see if resolutions could be agreed upon.  After the possibility of an Anglo-Japanese alliance was broached by the Japanese, in October, 1901, separate talks between Japanese and British diplomats were held with their Russian counterparts.  It is hardly likely that the Russians did not see the possibility of such an alliance, but no resolutions to the major problems were forthcoming.  These talks went on from October to December, 1901.  In both countries, those most in favor of the alliance seemed to be the military officials.  The Royal Navy was in favor due to the expenses of both the late Boer War and the increasing costs of naval construction.  The Japanese army and navy were in favor because of the backing of a powerful ally in case Japan were attacked by Russia.  Even if she remained neutral, Britain had value as an ally.  She would not attack Japan.   There was some misgiving on the part of the foreign offices of both countries, but the deal was sealed and announced as a defensive alliance in February, 1902.

Initially, the Anglo-Japanese alliance was defensive in intent.  But things change, and sometimes in the East, "yes" can mean "no."  After the alliance was announced, Russia began to reneg on agreements to reduce their troop strength in Manchuria.  It seemed inconceivable that Japan, mostly undeveloped, without industrial might, and almost bereft of natural resources, would challenge the Russian Empire.  But under the umbrella of alliance with the British Empire, in 1904, Japan attacked Russia in the Far East in the absence of a declaration of war, a precedent Japan would again employ more than once.  This approach seemed to Japan the only means of securing her interests as she did not have the resources or financial credit to wage a long war.  She must strike quickly and use all advantages to obtain and control Korea.  Interestingly, the Japanese Foreign Office "forgot" to inform the British ambassador of the attack.

Indeed, the war was not the absolute Russian collapse that has been depicted.  Russia was able to continue the war after a year, and it was in fact Japan that was on the verge of exhaustion.  Her financial credit was wrecked, there were alarming shortages of spare parts and ammunition, and the Japanese army could not deploy the 250,000 men she needed to reinforce the army in Manchuria.  The Russians in the meantime, had transported over 1,500,000 fresh troops to the Far East.  They did suffer a naval defeat at Tsushima, but Russia is a land power.  Some scholars feel that Japan had a very sophisticated strategy of how to get out of the war when her immediate objectives were met, but the overtures to the United States for arranging negotiations with Russia seem to be due to President Theodore Roosevelt's favorable view of "plucky little Japan."  The public face of Japan has often been a great part of its underlying mystery.

Regardless of the intent of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, the effect was to provide cover for Japanese expansion to the Asian mainland, first to Korea, which was soon annexed to Japan, and later, at the beginning of World War I, to the German trade areas in China.  The alliance was renewed in 1905 and again in 1911.  After World War I, with Germany no longer a naval threat, and with Bolshevik Russia no longer an expansionist power, the alliance was ended in 1923.

It might be debateable that from the inception of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, Japan intended to expand as soon as possible to the mainland of Asia.  To industrialize, Japan needed raw materials she did not have.  She would then need markets for finished industrial products, and living space for her increasing population.  Surely once the huge Russian Empire had penetrated China, Japan would be left out.  Why not use the "trump card" of alliance with the British Empire to secure a foothold in range of the Chinese prize?  At the beginning of the twentieth century, the main security concern in the East was a clash between European Great Powers; colonial world powers who were interlopers in Asia.  The colonial powers thought in terms of threats to their Asian colonial territories and spheres of influence coming from other European colonial powers.  As the twentieth century unfolded, the threat came not from Europe or the United States, but from Asia itself.  It came initially in the form of Japanese expansion as an ally and as a strategic partner of the British Empire.  Once Japan was entrenched on the Asian mainland, the strategic reality was reversed.  Korea, under Japanese control, became a knife at the throat of China.


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Nish, Ian.  The Anglo-Japanese Alliance, 1894-1907.  London, 1966.

Okamoto, Shumpei.  The Japanese Oligarchy and the Russo-Japanese War.  New York, 1970.

Tomion, Jack W.  Strategy and Diplomacy of the Russo-Japanese War Reconsidered.  Newport R. I., Naval War College, 1974.