Power and Primacy

A Recent History of Western Intervention in the Asia-Pacific

by A.B. Abrams (Author)
Monographs XII, 313 Pages


Today the Asia-Pacific region stands on the verge of major change, with centuries of western dominated regional order being seriously challenged and quite possibly nearing its end. The emergence of a potential new order dominated by regional rather than extra-regional powers - an «Asia for the Asiatics» in the words of Japan’s pan-Asian scholars - means it is now more than ever essential to understand the history of the current western-dominated system, the full implications should it continue and the nature of the West’s intentions towards the region.
This book undertakes the task of elucidating the complex and little-known history of western intervention in the Asia-Pacific, providing information critical to understanding contemporary developments

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Part I War with Japan and its Aftermath: How Western Powers Met New Challenges to their Dominance in the Pacific
  • Chapter 1
  • Japanese Empire: The Rise and Fall of Asia’s First Independent Industrial Power and How It Undermined Western Hegemony in the Pacific
  • Chapter 2
  • The War Against a Defeated Japan: Elimination of a Threat to Western Hegemony in Asia
  • Chapter 3
  • Emergence of a People’s Republic in China: Efforts to Undermine the Rise of an Independent Asian Power
  • Chapter 4
  • Sukarnoism and the Rise and Fall of an Independent Indonesia: Wars both Overt and Covert to Return an Asian Power to Western Clienthood
  • Chapter 5
  • America in the Philippines: How the United States Established a Colony and Later Neo-Colony in the Pacific
  • Chapter 6
  • Vietnam’s Thirty Years of War
  • Part II Intervention and Conflict in Korea
  • Chapter 7
  • The Outbreak of War in Korea
  • Chapter 8
  • The Korean War: Part I – Meeting a New Challenge to Western Regional Primacy
  • Chapter 9
  • The Korean War: Part II – Mass Destruction
  • Chapter 10
  • The Korean War: Conduct of Western Militaries on the Ground
  • Chapter 11
  • The U.S. Military in South Korea: Comfort Women and Destitution
  • Chapter 12
  • Targeting North Korea: Cognitive Dissonance and Information War
  • Part III A Shifting Balance of Power and the West’s Role in Asia Today
  • Chapter 13
  • Modern Japan and Western Policy in Asia
  • Chapter 14
  • Economic War on Asia: South Korea and the Asian Tigers
  • Chapter 15
  • Asia Divided: Unifying Economic Initiatives in the Asia-Pacific as a Threat to Western Primacy
  • Chapter 16
  • The Russian Factor in the Asia-Pacific
  • Chapter 17
  • Western Militaries in the Asia Pacific Today: Part I – China’s Rise and the End of the ‘Anglo Saxon Lake’
  • Chapter 18
  • Western Militaries in the Asia Pacific Today: Part II – China’s Twenty-first-century Confrontation with the West
  • Chapter 19
  • North Korea: Nuclear Weapons and Ideology
  • Index

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Since the expansion of the Portuguese Empire to the Asia-Pacific in the early sixteenth century the West has long been intrinsically involved in the region through the projection of its military power. By the beginning of the Second World War regional maps demonstrated the near complete dominance of Western empires over the peoples of the Asia-Pacific. The entire region, except for the Japanese Imperial territories including the home islands, Manchuria, Taiwan and Korea, was comprised of territories either subservient to the interests of Western powers or, in most cases, ruled by them directly. Much of Indonesia was known as the Dutch East Indies while Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were known as French Indochina. British Malaya, British Borneo, Hong Kong and a number of strategic islands were among other extensive British owned territories – not to mention Oceania which had almost entirely been forcefully depopulated and repopulated by European settlers. Thailand was divided between British and French spheres of influence and made a client state under the Anglo-Siamese treaty which granted Britain extensive one-sided concessions. China was similarly long subjected to ‘unequal treaties’ with and forced to grant extensive territorial concessions to Western imperial powers. The Americans ruled the Philippines and Guam as colonies, as the Portuguese ruled Macau, the Maluku Islands and East Timor among their ‘possessions.’ Germany and Spain had also formerly held extensive colonial possessions in the region – one where Asian self-determination was suppressed by the dominant military might of the West.

Direct European rule and near absolute Western dominance could change only with the end of the West’s longstanding monopoly on modern industrial and military capabilities, which came with the modernization of Japan in the late nineteenth century and the Soviet Union’s rapid Stalinist industrialization program in the 1930s. Both of these developments challenged the Western centric world order and put significant pressure on the Western empires, which had otherwise sought an indefinite colonial ←1 | 2→administration over their Pacific territories.1 The emergence of two major Eastern nations as military and industrial powers caused a momentous shift in the global balance of power. Imperial Japan and the USSR were key to facilitating the independence of numerous Asia-Pacific states – providing arms, ideologies and inspiration, which allowed Asian peoples to challenge the Western empires. The result was the postwar emergence of independent Asian Pacific nations capable of opposing Western regional designs after centuries of subjugation, all of which were largely facilitated by either Japanese pan-Asianism or Soviet communism – in several cases by a combination of both.

This book explores the recent history of Western intervention in the Asia-Pacific region and its impacts – from the waging of the Pacific War against Japan to the extensive continued Western involvement in the twenty-first century. The means consistently used by the Western Bloc to maintain their extensive regional influence and their primacy, both as the center of power globally and as the dominant force in Asia, are covered extensively. The Pacific War marked a point of no return for the centuries old Western colonial structures, with the Japanese Empire’s string of early military victories expelling the Western empires from their colonial possessions across the region – many of which had been held continuously for several centuries. The example set by Japan’s successes inspired nationalists across the region by demonstrating that the West could be confronted and defeated. In the words of Dutch Prime Minister Gebrandy, the Japanese had undermined both ‘white prestige’ and the ‘racial instincts and inferiority complexes’ which had for so long facilitated Western dominance – posing an existential threat to the status quo.2 Though Japan was eventually brought to its knees, with what U.S. President Harry Truman referred to as ‘a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth’ devastating 69 of its cities in a nuclear and firebombing campaign killing millions, the legacy of its victories could not be reversed. The end of the Pacific War marked the beginning of a new era for the Asia-Pacific, and challenges to Western dominance emerged across the region from insurgencies in Malaysia and the Philippines to successful armed struggles against Western military forces in Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam – twice in the case of the latter two. The overthrow of the U.S. client government in China in ←2 | 3→1949 and establishment of the People’s Republic of China furthered this trend towards genuine sovereignty and a decline in Western influence.

The Western powers have since 1945 undertaken extensive efforts to maintain their regional dominance, and this struggle has continued into the twenty-first century. Armed interventions in the immediate aftermath of the Pacific War ranged from the British, French, American and Dutch military efforts to re-obtain their overseas colonial possessions following Japan's defeat to the United States’ abolition of the People’s Republic of Korea by military decree and imposition of a military government run by leaders hand-picked by the U.S. military itself. The U.S. deployment of vast fleets and over 1,000 nuclear warheads across East Asia in the 1950s to maintain a favorable balance of power against then non-nuclear China and North Korea was another example of an attempt to maintain regional dominance by deploying overwhelming force when challenged by the capabilities of emerging independent regional powers. More recently the announcement of the ‘Obama doctrine’ and ‘Pivot to Asia’ in 2010 marked the beginning of a redeployment of substantial American, British, French and other European forces to Asia under a single banner. The Western Bloc, since the Second World War led by the United States, has thus remained both consistent and resolute in its attempts to maintain its position as the dominant power in this critical region. An analysis of the means by which Western powers have waged wars on, overthrown or otherwise undermined independent and post-colonial states and installed client governments in their place across the Asia-Pacific to cement their dominance, and the impacts of all of these efforts on the region and its peoples, is thus critical to evaluating the overall impacts of Western interventionism in the region.

From the dismantling of the Japanese Empire and the country’s subsequent remaking under an American military government to the wars that formed China, Indonesia and Vietnam as independent nations and the deals made by Western powers to grant independence to states such as the Philippines in exchange for continued concessions to their former rulers, the circumstances of state formation have tangible implications to this day. These are explored in the first two sections of this work – with each chapter focusing on different aspects of Western intervention in the region. The legacy of decolonization and the independence struggles of ←3 | 4→the twentieth century continue to shape the Asia-Pacific in the twentyfirst century, an understanding of which is crucial to comprehending the region today. Contemporary inter-Korean and Korean-American relations for example can only be fully understood with a knowledge of the major events that occurred on the peninsula after the Japanese occupation ended in 1945, with the background of the Korean War, the differing cultural and social influences on each of the Koreas and the factors which shaped modern North Korean ideology and identity and led to a perceived need for a nuclear deterrent.

The Korean Peninsula has been a site of paramount importance regarding Western involvement and attempts to maintain dominance over the Asia-Pacific region, and was the site of the only major modern conventional land war the Western Bloc has fought in Asia. The Korean War represented the most direct confrontation between Western and Asian powers since Japan’s fall, and the peninsula has ever since been at the center of several key conflicts including the Western Bloc’s confrontation with Asian nationalism, the People’s Republic of China, Soviet communism, and more recently the ‘Axis of Evil.’ A great deal regarding the conduct of Western powers in the Asia-Pacific, both in wartime against an Asian adversary and in peacetime towards a population under their power, as well as the means used by the Western Bloc to wage war on Asia-Pacific nations and the effects on populations, both allied and otherwise, can best be explored in the Korean conflict. This makes Korea the most suitable exemplar of a number of phenomena regarding the nature of Western intervention in the region. As a result of these factors and the ongoing nature of the conflict, which has lasted for almost three quarters of a century, the second of three sections is devoted entirely to a detailed coverage of Western intervention on the Korean Peninsula.

The third section of this work analyzes contemporary relations and factors affecting the balances of powers in the Asia-Pacific. Economic warfare and its implementation in the region are explored, with particular attention being paid to the 1997 Asian financial crisis and its continuing implications. Changes to the military balance of power in the region and Western attempts to maintain a longstanding dominant position are also analyzed, drawing on critical studies carried out by military analysts, ←4 | 5→governments and think tanks. The exploitation of divisions amongst Asian powers, the suppression of regional economic initiatives and promotion of those which strongly favor Western interests, and the nature of the Western Bloc’s relations with and means of exerting influence over its client states as a vital means of furthering its goals, are also explored.

The recurring and primary cause for conflict in the Asia-Pacific region between the West and those states which have asserted their independence and opposed Western dominance and intervention has been a stark conflict in their worldviews. This is a factor consistent in almost all such conflicts in the region. It does not refer to a clash of capitalist and socialist ideologies, often perceived to be the cause of most regional conflicts during the Cold War, but rather refers to nations’ perceptions of the nature of international relations, the Asian regional order and states’ right to selfdetermination. Several independent Asian states which emerged in the aftermath of the Pacific War have sought an international regional order comprised of sovereign states equal in their rights to their sovereignty, including self-defense and self-determination and prohibiting forced external interference into any state’s domestic affairs – the same order enshrined in the United Nations charter. The Western Bloc on the other hand has consistently sought a framework of international relations under which both the world and regional orders are centered on its own dominance – allowing Western powers to influence the affairs of all other states and retain indefinite dominion over the Asia-Pacific. This essential clash of word views, which largely dates back to the 1940s when the popular slogan ‘Asia for the Asiatics’ was seen as a critical threat to the status quo of Western regional dominance, has continued in various forms ever since. It has been the underlying cause of most major conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region in the modern era, from Indonesia and Vietnam’s wars of independence to the United States’ ongoing tensions with both China and North Korea today.

After reading this work the nature of contemporary relations in the Asia-Pacific and their historical and contemporary determinants can be better understood, as can Western intentions towards the Asia-Pacific. The British paper the The Economist was among the Western sources which claimed: ‘Outside China, every Asian country bar North Korea welcomes America’s presence in the region and wants it to remain.’3 Then ←5 | 6→U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a key architect behind the expansion of the American military presence in Asia, stated similarly though more bluntly in 2011: ‘An engaged America is vital to Asia’s future. The region is eager for our leadership and our business.’4 Whether, based on the United States and its Western partners’ intentions, their historical conduct in the region and the impacts of their previous interventions, this ‘desire for American leadership’ – if it truly exists – is well deserved can be ascertained.

As then U.S. President Barack Obama declared in May 2016 regarding the future the United States intended for the Asia-Pacific region: ‘America should write the rules. America should call the shots. Other countries should play by the rules that America and our partners set, and not the other way around.’5 Whether this vision will be attained and the primary means used by state actors on all sides to either bring about a continued Western dominated regional order or to prevent it will be elaborated. Understanding of vital historical background, the goals of major state actors and the means used to obtain these goals over many years are all key to comprehending the ongoing and decades long conflict being waged ideologically, militarily, economically and otherwise for the future of the Asia-Pacific – the outcome of which, given the region’s vital importance, is set to determine the fate of the entire world in the twenty-first century.

←6 | 7→


Asia-Pacific: Collective term for East and Southeast Asia.

China: Unless otherwise specified will from 1949 in political contexts refer to the Beijing-based People’s Republic of China rather than the Taipei-based Republic of China. The Republic of China will from 1949 be referred to as Taiwan.

East Asia: The region encompassing China – including Taiwan, the Koreas and Japan. Geographically also includes the Russian Far East.

Pacific War: Otherwise known as the Pacific theater of the Second World War.

Southeast Asia: Members and observers in the ASEAN including Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Western Bloc: Alliance of leading Western powers established in the early Cold War and led by the United States, since incorporating East Germany, including Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Portugal and the United States. All but Canada, Luxemburg and Norway were major colonial powers – with these three having spent extended periods incorporated into larger European empires. Often abbreviated to ‘the West.’


1 Frey, Marc and Pruessen Ronald W., The Transformation of Southeast Asia: International Perspectives on Decolonization, Armonk, NY, M. E. Sharpe, 2003 (p. 11).

←7 | 8→

2 Hotta, Eri., Pan Asianism and Japan’s War 1931–1945, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007 (p. 217).

3 ‘“Disorder Under Heaven,” Special Report,’ The Economist, April 22, 2017 (p. 9).

4 Clinton, Hillary, ‘America’s Pacific Century,’ Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011.

5 Obama, Barack, ‘President Obama: The TPP would let America, not China, lead the way on global trade,’ The Washington Post, May 2, 2016.

←10 | 11→


Japanese Empire: The Rise and Fall of Asia’s First Independent Industrial Power and How It Undermined Western Hegemony in the Pacific

Eastern peoples were, for the greater part, still subject to racial instincts and inferiority complexes. The Japanese slogan ‘Asia for the Asiatics,’ might easily destroy the carefully constructed basis of our cultural synthesis … Japanese injuries and insults to the White population – and these were already being perpetrated by the detestable Asiatic Huns- would irreparably damage white prestige unless severely punished within a short time.1


So far and wide have the roots of Japanese victory spread that we cannot now visualize all the fruit it will put forth. The people of the East seem to be waking up from their lethargy.2

MOHANDAS GHANDI on the impact of Japan’s military successes

Imperial Japan in a Western Dominated Regional Order

Since Western powers first came to dominate the Asia-Pacific region in the sixteenth century, racial stereotyping and perceptions among Westerners of Asian races as inferiors came hand in hand with military occupation and colonial rule. The British Empire in its occupation of Singapore, Myanmar, Malaysia and parts of China, condescendingly referred to Asian peoples as the ‘little yellow men.’ Their attitude to the so called ‘yellow race’ was in many ways similar to that of other Western imperial powers in their own military involvement in the region. A great deal of the pride of Western imperial powers was based on their perceived racial and civilizational ←11 | 12→superiority relative to others, and particularly to the ancient Asian civilizations which they had conquered. The West’s leading powers between them maintained an effective monopoly of both modern economies and industrial technologies, and the disparity between these and their resulting modern militaries relative to those of the rest of the world were the cornerstones which facilitated the indefinite continuation of their empires and sustained the West’s global primacy for several centuries. This would come to be challenged only with the industrialization and military modernization of Japan and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century – marking a major turning point in the history of the region and the wider world.

Japan had initially been a partner of Western powers in Asia. The country’s economic modernization was accomplished using Western models, a process initiated as a defensive response following the United States Navy’s forceful opening of Japan to trade in 1854 under the Treaty of Kanagawa.3 The country went on to adopt all that was Western, from ballroom dancing in Western dress to the modern capitalist economy and military. Japan had initially been subject to the ‘Unequal Treaties’ with Western powers which categorized it, as with the rest of Asia, as an ‘uncivilized nation’ inferior to those of Europe. While Western powers militarily threatened Japan, Western citizens were granted extraterritorial rights putting them above the laws of Japanese courts, and terms of trade highly favoring Western economic interests were also imposed. Such treaties were signed with the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany (then Prussia) and Spain from 1858 to 1868. Many Western cultural practices were adopted at this time because it was crucial for the Japanese to prove to the Western powers that they were a ‘civilized nation.’ The only way to be considered ‘civilized’ under the Western-centric world order of the time was not to adhere to one’s own culture – but rather to adopt prominent aspects of Western culture.

Over time Japan gained the approval of the Western powers and threats to its independence largely subsided. The government succeeded in negotiating revisions of the unequal treaties, primarily through a combination of military and industrial modernization and adoption of ‘civilized’ Western practices. Japan’s armed forces were heavily modeled on emulation of those of the Western powers, from the weapons used and uniforms worn to ←12 | 13→the command structures. Following a rapid modernization program, the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy proceeded to claim victory over the Russian Empire in 1905. Although Russia was only partially considered a Western nation at the time, it had adopted some limited industrialization along Western lines and become, largely by virtue of its size, one of the world’s largest economies and greatest powers. The defeat of this Christian world power by a small Asian nation was a shock to Western imperial nations, which began to perceive Japan’s rise as a potential threat. There was much fear and speculation of a coming ‘Yellow Peril’ – under which Japan would lead Asia to overcome the West and ‘civilization’ would be lost. Fear of this emerging ‘Yellow Peril’ was widely used by European scholars and leadership to encourage a heavier hand and more interventionist policies in Asia and a more complete subjugation and occupation of China to eliminate the potential for an alliance of Asian peoples to rise to challenge Western primacy.4

By the 1930s Japan’s armed forces were among the most modern and capable in the world and could rival those of the greatest Western empires, in many fields surpassing them technologically. The country had increasingly developed an Asian nationalist ideology, and many in Japan were appalled at the state of their East and Southeast Asian neighbors subjugated under Western imperial rule. Several Japanese intellectuals sought to support other Asian nations to become independent from the Western empires. One of these was Duke Konoe Atsumaro, who established the Pan-Asian East Asian Common Culture Society and sought to boost China’s economic development through mutually beneficial educational and cultural ties. He played a central role in overseeing the creation of pan-Asian ideology at the turn of the century (Konoe died in 1904). Due to European occupation of almost all neighboring countries and instability in China, however, early efforts were met with limited success.

In the scholarly field the pan-Asian movement in Japan, manifested most profoundly through the famous Kyoto school and its renowned associated historians such as Naitō Konan, sought to challenge the West’s extremely Eurocentric definition of modernity and depiction of history. The Kyoto school constructed a Sinocentric East Asian region as a historical universe with unique dynamics of modernity. They sought to determine ←13 | 14→the social and cultural characteristics of an ‘East Asian modern age,’ and to define modernity themselves rather than have it defined for them by Western powers. It was critical for the future of Asia to compete with rather than acquiesce to the Western definition of modernity, which tied Westernization inextricably with modernization. With China’s civilization long predating that of Japan, and with Chinese thought and history profoundly influencing that of Japan over centuries, it was not surprising that they would choose China as the center of their pan-Asian narratives.5 Indeed, the Japanese long saw themselves as the true cultural representatives of ancient Chinese and Confucian thought – a far cry in their eyes from China’s own highly corrupt and militaristic Guomindang government Japan would soon engage in war.

Pan-Asian ideology advocated regional co-operation and unity against foreign exploitative forces, aiming to end Western imperialism which had brutally subjugated Asian peoples for over three centuries. The Asia-Pacific region would co-operate in economic development and defense to bring about regional co-prosperity. Leading pan-Asian figure Naniwa Kawashima described the ideology and Japan’s responsibility as the only modern and free Asian nation: ‘We will liberate various Asian peoples from their enslaved state, placing them under the management of first-class national governments. Rallying them all into a unified bloc, we will free them from the unjust, aggressive chokehold … we will curb the unjust, inhumane, thoroughly evil actions, which have been undertaken by the Europeans.’6

Under the influence of pan-Asian thought, the Japanese government had sent agents and support to various nationalist movements throughout the Asia-Pacific. Indonesia was one example, where nationalists were sponsored to visit Japan and discuss the future of their country’s independence after centuries of Dutch occupation.7 Many individuals were also inspired to act themselves, such as Captain Hara Tei of the Imperial Army who renounced his service to fight alongside the First Philippine Republic against the American invasion; Yoshida Yamada who, after working for the School of Sino-Japanese Trade Study in Shanghai, who joined Sun Yat-sen’s anti-imperialist revolutionary movement and was lost in action;8 and the many Japanese educators such as Kawahara Misako who, seeking to aid China’s emergence as a modern economic partner in Asia, endured ←14 | 15→great hardship to teach a new generation of Chinese leadership throughout the country at the behest of the Chinese government. All of these were inspired by the idea of seeing Asia develop freely from their subservience to Western imperial interests.

Philosopher and scholar Kiyoshi Miki, a prominent member of the Kyoto school and esteemed student of the school’s founder Kitaro Nishida, had first conceptualised an Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere of interdependent economies - under which the wider region would follow Japan to modernise and industrialise and gain freedom from Western domination. Miki had developed a substantial influence over Japanese workers’ movement and engaged closely with Marxist thought, but saw the path to freedom for all East Asian peoples being through Japanese solidarity and support. The idea of a Co-Prosperity Sphere built on the concept the New Order in East Asia, an idea of Atsumaro Konoe’s son Prince Fumimaro Konoe, although this previous design had been limited to Northeast Asia alone. While the idea of a Co-Prosperity Sphere was officially adopted,9, 10 Miki himself would strongly disapprove of the methods used to bring about its creation - namely the imperialistic tendencies which emerged in Japanese conduct towards fellow East Asian peoples who they were supposedly emancipating. While to some the idea of liberating East Asia held strong appeal, to others allegiances lay not in pan-Asian solidarity but in Japanese interests alone - with the Co-Prosperity Sphere and liberation being convenient pretexts for an imperial project. Thus while some in the Japanese elite continued to emphasise fraternity and a sense of injustice after witnessing the subjugation of the region to Western imperial interests, others sought to emulate Western conduct and behaviours which had empowered Europeans through exploitation of the region for centuries and adopted very similar paradigms for viewing other Asian peoples. This was described by Tamura Yoshio, a member of Japan’s biological warfare unit, who stated regarding war crimes committed: ‘I had already gotten to [a point] where I lacked pity. After all, we were already implanted with a narrow racism, in the form of a belief in the superiority of the so-called “Yamato Race.” We disparaged all other races. ... If we didn’t have a feeling of racial superiority, we couldn’t have done it.’11 Japan’s actions in Asia grew in many respects to resemble the very powers from which they had sought to free it. There remained strong ←15 | 16→divisions within the Empire between the two schools of thought until its final defeat, which explained the discrepancy in conduct towards East Asian populations under different commanders in the Imperial Army.

Kawashima himself observed the dangerous changes which took place in this regard as Japanese forces conducted themselves as conquerors rather than as liberators. He stated: ‘our military authorities now stationed in Manchuria must ease up on the excessively interventionist approach they have assumed in the affairs of Manchukuo and restore cooperation as the operating mode in Japanese-Manchurian relations.’ He warned: ‘If in our zeal to capitalize on patriotic passions to effect an immediate territorial settlement we turn our backs on the enduring ideals of Imperial Japan and do nothing more than reenact the evil deeds of the European and American powers, there will be repercussions. We will not see the day when we can make definitely clear to Asians and other peoples of the world Japan’s true spirit and gain their heartfelt allegiance and trust.’12

In September 1940 Japan invaded French-occupied Vietnam and ended the brutal French occupation which had lasted over half a century. Although Vichy France was if anything their enemy at the time, the British, Americans, Australians and Dutch nevertheless all found it unacceptable for an Asian power to intervene to end Western rule over an Asian colonial possession. The potential for the formation of an alliance of Asian powers, regardless of whether by force or consent, as per the Japanese proposed Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere that was beginning to take shape, was a considerable threat to their continued regional dominance. A unified Asia independent of external influence, with its large population and considerable resources combined with Japan’s institutional system and advanced industrialization techniques, was furthermore a very potent threat to the West’s primacy and continued position as a global center of power.

Signs that Japan would implement a rapid regional modernization program throughout the Asia-Pacific were it to replace the Western imperial powers as the dominant power in the region were already manifold. Examples included the Empire’s extensive industrialization and infrastructure development in Japanese controlled territories such as in Taiwan, where agricultural development was also substantial,13 and in northern Korea. Korean economic output had increased tenfold after thirty years of Japanese rule.14 If similar growth occurred throughout the region it would ←16 | 17→have been the most significant threat yet to Western economic and military primacy by ending the critical disparity between the developed West and the subjugated, dependent and industrially backward Asian nations. Small and resource poor Japan had itself been able to challenge the West economically and militarily, and had it implemented a modernization program across the region based on lessons from its own rapid industrialization the military and economic clout of the resulting Japanese led Asia-Pacific power bloc would very likely have surpassed that of the Western powers. While the Koreans and other subjects themselves were not the primary beneficiaries of this economic development, the modernization of the Asia-Pacific under a united Asian Empire was an imminent threat to the West’s position.

As well as its potential to modernize Asia and end Western economic and industrial primacy, Japan also challenged the centuries-old and strategically critical Western military primacy in the Pacific. Western imperial powers were particularly threatened because Japan had withdrawn from the American and British drafted Washington Naval Treaty and London Naval Treaty. These treaties had been written to ensure Western military dominance in the Asia-Pacific region continued. The Washington treaty stated that the United States Navy had to equal the Japanese Navy by a ratio of at least 10:7.15 The London treaty meanwhile restricted the Japanese Navy to 12 heavy cruisers, where the United States and Britain were permitted 18 and 15 respectively. Similar restrictions were placed on other warship types, with the combined tonnage of Japan’s light cruiser fleet restricted to 100,450 tons where Britain and the United States were permitted fleets of over 335,00 tons between them.16 Even before its withdrawal however, Japan had focused on developing a better trained and technologically superior warships, fielding more advanced carrier aircraft, battleships and submarines – something which they were able to achieve to compensate for their considerable quantitative disadvantage.17, 18

To prevent the emergence of a unified, modern and militarily powerful Asia the Allied Western powers initiated a trade embargo on Japan and cut off 90 percent of the country’s oil supplies. This embargo was effectively an act of war. Under the United States’ Export Control Act steel exports to Japan were also cut. Cutting off Japan from its oil supplies was seen by many in the United States leadership to be a guarantee that ←17 | 18→war would break out. As a modern industrialized nation Japan needed oil to be able to operate its economy and military, otherwise both would be crippled. Oil in the region was controlled by the British and Dutch in the territories they occupied, while Japan also relied heavily on imports from the United States. Japan’s leadership thus perceived military action as a necessary measure to ensure the coutnry’s survival.

The United States’ own Eight Action Memo, an intelligence report on the Second World War from October 7, 1940, strongly indicated that Washington sought to take measures to provoke Japan into committing an ‘overt act of war.’ This was supported by several members of the Office of Naval Intelligence. Similar strategies had often been implemented by Western powers, where non-violent provocation was used to goad an adversary into war – allowing the Western Bloc to depict itself as responding to rather than initiating aggression. Indeed, the Eight Action Memo and Western embargoes on Japan are until today scantly mentioned in relation to the causes of the outbreak of the Pacific War. The memo stated that public opinion in the United States would not support a war of aggression, it was thus seen as highly desirable to provoke Japan into starting a war itself. This would increase public support for the war. The memo read: ‘It is not believed that in the present state of political opinion the United States government is capable of declaring war against Japan without more ado … If by [the eightpoint plan] Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war, so much the better.’ These measures included military escalation in the region, but most crucially an oil embargo and economic warfare against Japan.19

In 1941 the Western powers’ economic warfare efforts against Japan escalated, as dictated by the memo. In July a full oil embargo was imposed and all Japanese assets in the United States were frozen. Japan’s oil reserves were set to run out, and although the country had been hesitant to start a war with the major Western military powers the oil embargo necessitated such action. (The United States itself has similarly used protecting its oil supplies as a just pretext for military intervention since then.)20 It was essential for the United States to enter the war against Japan with its public onside. If Japan were to successfully create a pan-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere it would mean an end to Western imperial dominance in the region, and this could seriously threaten the future global primacy of the Western world. To allow the Asian nations including China to be united under a single ←18 | 19→economic, military and political bloc led by a modern and demonstratively highly efficient world power such as Japan was an unacceptable outcome.

When in December 1941 Japan engaged itself in a war with the leading Western powers in the Asia-Pacific region, including Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and the United States, it was initially victorious over all of them. Japan won every major battle for the first six months of the war. From the battles of Guam and Wake Island, Bataan and Corregidor in the American occupied Philippines, to taking British occupied Hong Kong and Singapore, and battles from Borneo to Java in Indonesia to name but a few, the Japanese won victory after victory against Western military forces. For the Western powers defeat at the hands of these ‘racial inferiors’ was a great humiliation. Their belief in racial superiority had been a cornerstone of Western society and empire for well over a century. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had several times reiterated: ‘The Aryan stock is bound to triumph.’21 This belief held by the Western imperial nations had been so suddenly challenged with the swift destruction of their armies and sinking of their navies by the first and only modern Asian nation, a very small one no less, which had singlehandedly defeated all of them.

The Western imperial powers were deeply humiliated by their defeat at the hands of a small Japanese force, as clearly shown in British historian Professor Angus Calder’s account of the British military defeat in Singapore and the devastating impact of this in undermining the psychology and world view of the West. Singapore had been the leading overseas British military site in the world and the center of the Empire’s control of the Asia-Pacific, Oceania and its vital South Asian colonies, with more personnel stationed there than in Britain itself in peacetime. Calder wrote:

Most British officials, soldiers, planters and businessmen in Asia had underestimated Asiatic peoples in general. Their racialist contempt for ‘little yellow men,’ against whom their clubs maintained a color bar, was unlikely to foster loyalty to the British Empire among Chinese and Malay subjects. Their power depended not on their subjects’ love, but ultimately on the Royal Navy. Whites had faith in the great Singapore naval base … It symbolized the UK’s will to remain a great power in the East and to guarantee the safety of kith and kin in Australia and New Zealand … British behavior in Penang [in northwest Malaya] was symptomatic. Even after the Japanese, on Pearl Harbor day, invaded the Malayan Peninsula, British inhabitants complacently flocked to the bar of the Eastern Oriental Hotel. But soon air raids brought terror and chaos. Whites – and whites only – were evacuated in haste. Almost all British ←19 | 20→officials, doctors and nurses withdrew, leaving Malay and Indian subordinates to make terms with conquerors and serve the sick.22

Calder goes on to conclude:

Next day the commanding officer, General Arthur F. Percival, surrendered. The largest army ever assembled by Britain in the Far East, 130,000 British, Empire and Commonwealth troops, became prisoners of war of 50,000 ‘little yellow men’ … the façade of Western imperialism had been blown away like balsa wood. A high U.S. official had recently warned that if Singapore fell it would ‘lower immeasurably the prestige among Eastern peoples of the “white race”, and particularly of the British Empire and the United States.’ So it proved.23

Military defeat at the hands of the Japanese not only undermined the West’s view of themselves as superior powers, but it also changed the perception of the West by Asians and subjugated peoples at the time – who had for so long seen the imperial powers that ruled them as an undefeatable superior force in the world. Japan’s 1905 victory against Russia had previously inspired those under European imperial rule throughout the Asia-Pacific and beyond, showing that a European Christian empire could be defeated by an Asian power. As Indian political analyst Pankaj Mishra had noted: ‘For the first time since the middle ages, a non-European country had vanquished a European power in a major war. And Japan’s victory sparked a hundred fantasies – of national freedom, racial dignity, or simple vengefulness – in the minds of those who had sullenly endured European authority over their lands.’24 Mohandas Ghandi, later to become India’s renowned independence leader, observed the profound psychological impact of Japan’s victory, stating: ‘so far and wide have the roots of Japanese victory spread that we cannot now visualize all the fruit it will put forth. The people of the East seem to be waking up from their lethargy.’25

Japan’s string of victories from 1941 swept European imperial rule out of much of Asia where it had been entrenched for several centuries, in many cases for over 300 years. This if anything had a greater effect on the Asian populations’ perception of the West than their victory in 1905. American historian John Dower referred to Japan’s success in ‘forever destroying the myth of white omnipotence,’ one which had prevailed for centuries across the Asia-Pacific and been a key facilitator of Western imperial rule.26 The loss of this substantial psychological asset, and evidence that European rule ←20 | 21→over the Asia-Pacific could not be justified by ideas of racial supremacy, was met with much apprehension by Western leaders. Dutch Prime Minister Pieter Gerbrandy expressed in a meeting with Winston Churchill and other Western leaders the need for immediate retaliation, not to ‘defeat fascism’ or ‘liberate’ Asian peoples, but because Japan threatened to undo the work of centuries of European imperialism by undermining the image of Western supremacy.

Underlining the true importance of this Western prestige to imperial domination of the Pacific region, Gerbrandy stated:

Eastern peoples were, for the greater part, still subject to racial instincts and inferiority complexes. The Japanese slogan ‘Asia for the Asiatics,’ might easily destroy the carefully constructed basis of our cultural synthesis … Though a lengthy Japanese occupation of important parts of the Pacific Territories might not necessarily turn the final victory of the Western powers into virtual defeat, it would at least prove a formidable obstacle to a real peace in the Far East. Japanese injuries and insults to the White population – and these were already being perpetrated by the detestable Asiatic Huns – would irreparably damage white prestige unless severely punished within a short time.27

Gerbrandy’s fears were shared by German leader Adolf Hitler. While Germany was then in a frugal alliance with Japan, its Nazi leadership was notably distressed by the rapid victories of their Asian ally over their European adversaries for fear that the prestige and supremacy of the Western races and empires be undermined by an Asian power.28 While the punishment Gerbrandy had called for would come swiftly and terribly, the psychological impacts of Japan’s victory were nonetheless substantial. As Oxford University Professor E. Hotta concluded: ‘Southeast Asia stood at the point of no return after the Japanese occupation.’ She attributed the subsequent independence of Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Cambodia and Myanmar all being largely due to the psychological impact of Japanese victories over European imperialism. While Japan was ultimately defeated, they had themselves defeated the idea of Western supremacy and so delegitimized European imperialism in the eyes of the Asian peoples.29

Japanese victories had a profound psychological impact on the people of the Asia Pacific and even of India, to the strong detriment of the ideal of Western supremacy. An example was the The Bombay Chronicle which, having previously suggested that the Western powers would punish Japan, ←21 | 22→changed its tone in 1942 to talk for the first time of Western ‘blunders and inefficiency’ in the defense of Singapore. It instead hailed the ‘heroic’ China as Asia’s new hope for the future. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, similarly attested to the psychological impact of the Japanese victory, stating:

My colleagues and I are of the generation of young men who went through the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation and emerged determined that no one – neither the Japanese nor the British – had the right to push and kick us around. We are determined that we could govern ourselves and bring out children in a country where we can be proud to be self-representing people (having previously been under foreign rule). When the war came to an end in 1945, there was never a chance of the old type of British colonial system ever being re-created. The scales had fallen from our eyes and we saw for ourselves that the local people could run the country.30

This was true across Southeast Asia, and several countries owed their independence largely to the legacy of the Japanese Empire.

Though Japan had effectively learned how to build a modern economy by following the West’s example to the letter, the cultural and ideological influences of the West on the country went far deeper than dresses and ballroom dances. Japan was inspired by Western medicine, arts, technology but also ideology. Japan’s elites were deeply influenced by European theories of racial superiority and ‘exceptionalism,’ which they also applied to their own nation as they had done with other Western behaviors and ideas.


XII, 313
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
Western Intervention in the Asia-Pacific World Order Primacy and Power
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. XII, 740 pp.

Biographical notes

A.B. Abrams (Author)

The author is an expert on Asia-Pacific international relations, recent history and geopolitics.


Title: Power and Primacy