The Far East: Geopolitics of the Open Door

The designation “Far East” for the United States is a geopolitical misnomer, a reflection of the powerful impact Great Britain has had upon the American worldview. If one would stand on the shores of San Francisco Bay, for example, and look across the Pacific, one would naturally be looking west. Yet, Americans have always referred to Asia and the Pacific as the “Far East.” Conversely, if one would stand on the shores of New Jersey and look across the Atlantic one would naturally be looking east. Why, then, is NATO our “Western” alliance? Because these directions only correspond to the perspective of London and the British Empire. From Washington, they remain a convenient inheritance; their only problem is inaccuracy.

As far back as the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. had interests in Asia, but lacked the resources to implement meaningful policies. The “China trade” of the nineteenth century was alive but small, consisting mostly of tea and silk, and, in 1853, Commodore Perry “opened” Japan to outside commerce. But the “Open Door” notes at the turn of the century remains the epitome of the triumph of principles over policy; ambition minus means.

With the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the acquisition of The Philippines, the United States became a Pacific Ocean power but lacked the capacity to defend its interests against foreign encroachment. Japan, in particular, was the rising star of the region and had already defeated China (1895), occupied Taiwan and Korea, and would soon defeat Russia (1905). To assert itself in the region, the U.S. Secretary of State John Hay (who once was Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary), circulated a series of diplomatic notes in 1899-1900, requesting that several European states plus Japan (then in occupation of China) to respect that nation’s territorial integrity and to maintain strict discipline in their approaches toward the government and people of China.

While Hays’ notes were acknowledged, they accomplished very little, and, like the Monroe Doctrine earlier, remained abstract principles devoid of either the means or the will to force adherence. For the next forty years, this would remain American policy toward China and would result in a steady collision course with Japan that would only be settled by Pearl Harbor, the subsequent war in the Pacific, and the beginnings of the atomic age. Throughout this period, until Pearl Harbor, the United States would cling to policy pronouncements regarding Japanese invasions of China, of which there were several, but always minus the will and means required to support policy with force.

Within this long period, the only time that American geopolitical ambitions were matched by diplomatic policy came in the 1921-22 Washington Naval Disarmament Conference. A landmark in arms control history, the conference succeeded in limiting Japanese ambitions in the Pacific by prohibiting the expansion of naval bases, restricting the construction of new warships to a ratio lower than the U.S. and Britain (5 to 3, respectively) and by adhering to the original Open Door principles against further Japanese expansion against mainland China. The U.S. also succeeded in abrogating the 1902 Japan-British military alliance by replacing it with the new arrangements.

Hailed at the time as a new breakthrough in world politics, the Washington treaties did not even survive the decade. They remain as case studies in the futility of legalism versus reality and as the tragic effects of geopolitical ambitions unsupported by either will or means. The 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria (a Chinese province), for example, was condemned by the League of Nations and the United States in the form of the “Stimson Doctrine” (named for the Secretary of State). Like future aggressions of the period by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, such legal declarations actually helped bring on war by allowing diplomatic processes to appear as ends in themselves rather than covers for aggression, as they actually were.

By 1936, both Germany and Japan were out of the League of Nations and the Washington treaties were only memories. Within a few years both Britain and the U.S. had their backs at the wall, without recourse than to defend themselves against the Luftwaffe and the Imperial Japanese Navy and Air Force.

World War II took 76 million lives and countless more were maimed and injured. The only serious geopolitical moves taken prior to war were by the Axis, leaving the democracies to rely on liberal internationalist thought, called “appeasement” in Europe. America’s Open Door notes, like the Stimson Doctrine, the infamous Munich Conference of 1938, and the many other benign but misleading foreign policies remain to this day classic case studies of how not to conduct foreign policy against aggressive enemies.

Whether these lessons have been learned or even learned too well will be taken-up in subsequent geopolitical essays of the Cold war period.