Japan vs China in 1937

Was there any reason for the “West” not to get involved in the Japanese invasion of China in 1937? Surely they had interests in Shanghai (and elsewhere in China), and Hong Kong would have been under threat. (the Japanese had already occupied Manchuria in 1931).

Ans there was the Panay incident, in which a US gunboat and three Standard Oil tankers were “unintentionally” sunk with the loss of 3 lives, and 43 wounded. Japan apologized, and paid $2 million indemnity, and both sides considered the case closed. (the “Rape of Nanking” started the day after the sinking). Was the US being too timid here?

The “West” did get involved. The Western powers attempted to intervene diplomatically when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, through the League of Nations. Japan simply walked away. After that, the U.S. and other countries imposed increasingly harsh sanctions.

But the UK and France were so traumatized by World War I they were reluctant to confront Germany, which was a direct existential threat to both of them. There were even more averse to a war on the other side of the planet. The U.S. public was overwhelmingly isolationist.

Before 1933, Weimar Germany was in no position to oppose Japan, and after 1933 Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan became allies of convenience, and came together in the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, joined by Italy a year later.

The U.S.S.R. actually did fight a small scale, undeclared war against Japan in China from 1932 to 1939. But the U.S.S.R. viewed China as a peripheral to its interests, and Stalin was much more concerned with internal threats (most of which were figments of his imagination). A re-arming Germany would have been of secondary concern. Japan’s adventures in China were a distant concern, literally and figuratively.

The trade sanctions imposed on Japan by the United States are the reason Japan eventually made their move on Pearl Harbor and the oil fields of Indonesia. Those sanctions were a result of Japan invading China and other places. So certainly the West didn’t approve of it, but they weren’t being directly threatened. Japan might have even got away with not attacking Pearl Harbor and just focusing on their strategic needs, but instead thought it inevitable that the US would go to war if they attacked European colonies.

Japan was in a tough strategic position (of its own expansionist making), it was basically dependent on American oil during the 1930s, and as it seized land throughout Asia the United States ramped up economic sanctions and export controls targeted at Japan. The United States was hesitant to embargo oil exports to Japan out of a recognition that Japan was so dependent on them, it would have a very high likelihood of bringing Japan to the point of war with the United States. After seizing French Indochina in 1941 the U.S. finally felt that the line had been crossed, and began an embargo on oil exports to Japan.

Japanese war planners essentially felt that this would now necessitate an attack on the Dutch East Indies to acquire their oil reserves. More bellicose elements felt that doing that would essentially require too an attack on the United States, for the reason that the United States had made warnings against attacking the Dutch East Indies. Japan basically was feeling the effects of a vice, it knew even at this point it likely couldn’t win a war with the United States, and the United States and its actions against Japan were curtailing Japan’s ability to grow stronger. It was thus seen that Japan’s only option was to act aggressively, take the Dutch East Indies to secure oil supplies, and then bloody the nose of the United States in order to back it out of East Asia. This would then allow even more Japanese expansion and would end Japanese reliance on Western oil imports.

It’s interesting that Japan likely gravely miscalculated the American public in two different directions. Firstly, it massively overestimated Roosevelt’s political capacity to respond to an invasion of the Dutch East Indies. Roosevelt was basically putting out a serious bluff, because the domestic politics of the United States in 1941 certainly would not have permitted Roosevelt to declare a “pre-emptive war” against the Japanese Empire over the conquest of some Dutch Colonies many thousands of miles away. So the reality is the Japanese could have taken the Dutch East Indies, would likely have not faced a declaration of war from the United States, and could have focused on retrenching its strategic acquisitions.

Long run I think Japan conquered a whole fuck of a lot of shit, and am skeptical it could have held onto that territory long term (I use that term to mean more than say, 20 years in this case), I think it would have been an endless series of Asian wars and drain on Japanese resources and likely eventually lead to an economic collapse and retrenchment from its overseas possessions–in some ways Japan would be looking at trying to build a smaller version of the British Empire with less resources than the British; and the British made a deliberate decision to not put up much fight as its Empire broke away, the Brits realized there was simply no winning that battle and no profit in trying.

But of course the reality is Japan felt it needed to attack Pearl as part of its overall scheme to seize the Dutch East Indies, and its second miscalculation was that a devastating attack at Pearl would sap American resolve and force America to a negotiating table. Japan hoped for some sort of deal in which maybe it makes a few territorial concessions (especially of territories it probably knew it couldn’t hold), in exchange for an end to all sanctions, or even guaranteed access to x barrels of fuel per month–Japan had offered to make territorial withdrawals in the exchange for a cessation of American economic warfare and guarantee of fuel supplies just months before.

In attacking China, Japan was simply doing what the West had been doing in China and Asia: carving out their own colonial empire. The US responded with an embargo to send a message that it was going to defend its economic and political interests in the region.

A bit of an historical side note, but the Nazis were actually a major trading partner with Nationalist China and provided a lot of aid to modernize the equipment and training of the Nationalist Chinese Army, 8 of a planned 60 divisions had been equipped and trained with German weapons and tactics under von Falkenhausen at the time of the outbreak of the war in 1937. It was only with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War that Hitler chose the Japanese over the Chinese, and even then there were unsuccessful efforts to mediate an end to the conflict by Germany, the Trautmann mediation.

The threats to Shanghai and Hong Kong were theoretical at best; the Japanese did nothing to occupy them until they went to war with the US, UK, Dutch, etc in 1941. The Japanese government couldn’t apologize quick enough, profusely enough or repeatedly enough for the Panay incident which diffused it rather quickly. It most certainly wasn’t an intentional attack by the Japanese government though it may have been by the Japanese military which had a habit of ignoring the expressed wishes of the Emperor and government in the name of carrying out the ‘true’ wishes of the Emperor, for example the occupation of Manchuria in 1931 by the Kwangtung Army was carried out against the express orders of the Emperor when the general responsible for communicating the order let it be known what the orders he was carrying were and decided to take a ship rather than a plane to deliver them. The clear message was that the Kwangtung Army had until he decided to leisurely show up to deliver their orders to start a war and make the orders he carried moot. There’s even a word for this type of behavior, Gekokujō.

Simply, the West had its hands full with Europe. Europe was a much bigger deal to them, much closer to home.

I think the OP is asking if the US and western Europe should have just ignored what Japan was doing in China. No sanctions. No more that a tut-tut.

In an abstract sense I would suggest allowing overt aggression begets more overt aggression until it is opposed. The best time to stop it is early on.

If you are going to quote Ken Burns you should attribute it.

They couldnt. Japan was becoming a top 3 naval power. That meant they posed a threat not only to Asia but to Australia and even the US.

?? I see that Indonesia has “0.2% of the world’s total oil reserves”. My understanding is that Japan acquired Indonesia and Malaysia for strategic Rubber reserves.

Incidentally, I was reading Raymond Chandler again recently. In the story, the footpath in front of the hotel had been dug out – to recover the rubber paving.

I agree with you.

I was just trying to clarify what I think the OP was asking.

Remember though that this was all a mad circle. The Japanese had a huge navy which required more oil than they had so they needed to conquer places with oil which needed a bigger navy…

(Not to mention other resources)

There was only a limited sense in which there was a ‘China’ to side with. Following the Chinese Revolution in 1912, China fell into the "warlord’ period, with collaborationist governments and resistance fighters in occupied areas.

I don’t think that it was clear that Shanghai and Hong Kong were ‘under threat’ at the time: Japan wanted control of the resources, not necessarily the trading ports, and Japanese efforts seem ??? to have been directed at just replacing Chinese control and trade, which was in competition to European trade anyway.

There were oil reserves on Borneo and Sumatra, which were the main reason for the Japanese Southern advance, as well as rubber and tin in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.

Even now, there are oil fields on Borneo, which is shared between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Sultanate of Brunei.

Even with the big navy they had an estimated 1 year reserve at the start of the war. The only reason they needed more oil was to go to war. Oil supply triggered the war: it didn’t cause it.

The situation in Europe was different, and it tends to color analysis of the importance of oil.

One year is nothing.

If you are looking at your fleet running out of fuel in a year and need to capture resources to stop that you need to start now. Not a month before the fuel was gone.

IIRC Dan Carlin explained the fuel situation in Japan in one of his early episodes of Supernova in the East podcast. It was pretty dire.

I am still trying to find Carlin’s numbers on oil consumption (which was very bad) but I found this snippet on the general need Japan had for resources and how reliant they were on foreign supply (particularly the US). He does mention oil here but there is another part where he details oil consumption by the navy alone and how it was hugely, shockingly in excess of supply (having a hard time finding that part).

You can see easily how that is not a comfortable situation for them:

(Queued to the spot I mentioned…specific numbers given starting at 1:17:23):

That was a one year oil reserve before the entire Japanese war economy came to a screeching halt, not simply that their navy could no longer sail. They needed the oil to continue the war with China, the US led embargo included the UK and the Dutch East Indies, leaving Japan with no source of oil unless it caved to US pressure and quit China. All of Japan’s foreign policy under the ultranationalists was a mad circular logic. The reason Japan invaded Manchuria and then all of China was out of a perceived need to be self reliant on the resources needed in order to be capable of waging total war, thus securing its place as a major power. When it then became bogged down in China, it needed to secure a source of oil to be able to continue its goal of being self reliant on other resources in order to be capable of independently waging total war thus securing its place as a major power - which now necessitated it going to total war with the US, UK, and others.

I recall learning that gas rationing in the US during the war had nothing to do with conserving fuel but rather automobile tires. The Allies controlled the fuel, the Japanese the rubber, so rubber for tires was hard for us to come by. They wanted people to drive less for that reason.

IIRC Silly Putty (the thing you played with as a kid) was invented because the US was looking for alternatives to rubber during WWII.