OLD FRIENDS, NEW ENEMIES: BRITAIN AND JAPAN 1921-1941
The Anglo-Japanese Alliance, signed in 1902, was terminated under pressure from the Americans in 1921. Its substitute, the Quadruple Treaty of 13 December 1921, which included the USA and France, was little more than a political agreement. However, in spite of the formal loosening of the Anglo-Japanese ties Japanese diplomacy under Shidehara Kijuro strove to maintain amicable relations with Britain. At least throughout the 1920s Tokyo regarded this approach to be most helpful in furthering its principal strategic goal, Japan's economic expansion in Asia. The conflict between long-term interests of the two superpowers the global and the regional, could not lie buried for too long. Whereas Britain (with US support) was interested in maintaining the status quo in the Far East and expanding trade with China, Japan was bent on destabilizing and fragmenting that country. The turning point came in 1931 when Japanese troops invaded Manchuria and turned it into a Japanese colony in all but name. Britain reacted with caution, which displeased both the Americans, who had hoped that London would stand up to the challenge at least politically, and the Japanese, who had expected more understanding from their former ally. Stung by the international condemnation of its actions in China, Tokyo grew defiant and in 1933 decided to withdraw from the League of Nations. Two years later London signalled that it was ready to break the deadlock. A mission headed by Lord Frederick Leith-Ross went to Tokyo to bring about a rapprochement but the Japanese rejected the British overtures. It seems that the precarious situation in Europe, where Britain was unable to stop Germany and Italy from flexing their muscle, both spurred and undermined the British initiative aimed at wooing Tokyo away from an alliance with Berlin and Rome. London's conciliatory mood was gone, however, when Japan mounted an all-out invasion of China in 1937. The direct threat it posed to British interests in China made Britain throw its full political and economic weight behind Chiang Kai-shek (including allowing him to use the Burma Road as a supply route). The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939 cast a shadow on Japan's relations with Germany. On the British side the unexpected understanding between Germany and the USSR raised the last hopes of a fresh start in its relations with Tokyo, possibly including an alliance against the Soviet Union, now a close friend of Hitler's Third Reich. However, it was Japan's invasion of French Indochina in 1940-1941 that gave such a scenario the final blow: Britain joined the US in declaring sanctions on Japan. Tokyo retaliated by going to war. In its aftermath both insular empires, the Japanese and the British were wiped of the map.
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