Some comments are so good that shouldn’t be allowed to sink in remote discussions threads.
Commenter Vendetta writes on China vs. Japan in the late 19th century:
The British did not provide any of this assistance for free. Japan had to pay for every weapon and every warship supplied by British yards. Its ability to do so came courtesy of its greater successes in governance and economic modernization relative to China.
European arms dealers and shipyards were every bit as open to business with the Chinese as they were to Japan. In fact, largest and most powerful battleships of the First Sino-Japanese War belonged to China’s Beiyang Fleet.
Not that it did them much good, because Japan succeeded where China failed by investing in the long-term development of institutional knowledge and its own national arms industry.
Japan invested not just in shiny new weapons but in the men who would use them. Japan spent hard currency to send officer cadets to study abroad in European naval academies, to keep observers aboard foreign fleets, and to maintain European military missions training its own sailors at home. These efforts paid off over time by creating a professional officer corps and pool of native military expertise.
Likewise on the industrial side of the military-industrial equation, where there was no direct leap from total dependency on British imports to building dreadnought battleships of their own. Building a native arms industry is a painstaking process that takes decades of sustained efforts and spending.
Japan started making those efforts in a way China never did until almost a hundred years later. They started off small, in the naval sphere learning just to do the maintenance work on the vessels purchased from Britain, then the repair work, then assembling minor components for them, then major components, ordering mostly completed vessels from foreign yards but finishing them off in their own, then building very small ships on their own, then working their way up to larger and larger vessels, building licensed copies or custom designs drafted to order by foreign naval architects. Finally, having accumulated decades of experience and practice in this way, by gradually expanding the share of work contracted to Japanese yards as well as sending observers to study at British shipyards, they were able make the leap to designing entire warships on their own and building them without any foreign assistance.
Japan started this process within years of the Meiji Restoration, and China made no comparable efforts until the latter half of the 20th century, which only began paying off in the last 10-15 years (in a very major way, nonetheless – China now holding third place as global arms producer, miles ahead of any fourth or fifth place contender, a rank Japan didn’t even come close to at its peak).
China’s arms production efforts were scattered, inconsistent, and half-hearted. The Japanese made conscious decisions to spend less on having the best fleet they could right now in order to set aside enough money to invest in being able to build and operate the best fleet 20-30 years from now. China had a similar, if not larger budget to work with than Japan throughout most of this time period – but never maintained as much of a priority on military development and modernization, and when it did it focused its spending on buying the shiniest and most prestigious new toys from abroad instead of investing in native capacity to build these modern weapons or operate them effectively.
To put this in more specific and concrete terms, China had one shipyard that saw any effort to turn it into a modern production center for warships, the Jiangnan Arsenal. For most of this period, operations at Jiangnan never went much farther up the chain of development I outlined above than being able to do maintenance and repair work or produce minor components for warships. Small, obsolete harbor gunboats were the only warships this yard was ever able to build from the keel up until the 1930s, when it was able to deliver its first and only major vessel, the Ning Hai, a small light cruiser that had been built to match its sister Ping Hai – which itself had been commissioned and built at Japan’s (!) Harima shipyard. Work on the Ning Hai was itself being completed overseen at Jiangnan by a team of Harima’s shipbuilders, and progress on the vessel more or less came to a halt once relations worsened and Japan withdrew these experts and their supervision.
Japan, by contrast, developed not just one but four major national yards to the point of being able to produce major warships – Kure, Yokosuka, Sasebo, and Maizuru. This in addition to several smaller yards assembling various weapons and components, not to mention several massive privately owned yards like those of Mitsubishi and Kawasaki which ended up capable of turning out dreadnought battleships of their own, as well as smaller private yards capable of producing lesser vessels as well – Harima, Fujinagata, Uraga, not even going to try listing them all.
Japan not only succeeded in producing a nationally owned and subsidized arms complex capable of producing modern weaponry across the full spectrum of arms, from a hand grenade to a capital ship (a major struggle for any up-and-coming nation), it even managed to develop a thriving system of competitive privately held firms alongside it.
This is not something the British could have just given to the Japanese, let alone something they would have wanted to give them. Vickers had no intention of being shut out of one of its most lucrative markets by creating Japanese competitors.
True, Japan still was dependent on the assistance it obtained from Britain at the time it overcame China and then Russia – but then again, China was just as dependent on European powers to supply its own warships, even more so in that it depended on European mercenary officers to actually run their ships for them, whereas Japan’s were merely manned by Japanese officers who’d been trained by Europeans.
Even Russia, too, was far from fully independent in supplying its own arms – most of the battleships sunk at Tsushima, as well as those commissioned to replace them, having been built in foreign yards or to foreign designs and relying on Britain, France, or Germany to supply critical compinents like their main armament.
What was different about Japan in this time period, however, as opposed to China, was that Japan kept a relentless and steady focus on self-strengthening, whereas China did not, and Japan took advantage of every opportunity that it saw, while China squandered most of its own.
Ah, but you say, Japan had more opportunities because those opportunities were just given to them, by the British, who needed a geopolitical partner in the region.
To that I counter that the Japanese not only proved better at taking advantage of opportunities, but also at creating these opportunities for themselves.
If you look at the bigger picture of British diplomatic history, the suggestion you’re making that the British took a backwater nation like Japan and deliberately turned them into a regional superpower just to have a counterweight to the Russians would be entirely unprecedented and out of character to how they always operated everywhere else.
Perhaps the nearest and closest example would be Britain’s defense of the Ottoman Empire against Russia in the Crimean War and at other times in its long decline. Yes, they did go to war for them – once, and regretted it afterwards. At no point however did they attempt to systematically modernize the Sultan’s armed forces and turn the Turks into a real great power again. On the contrary, they were all too happy take the lead in dismantling the Turkish Empire – shearing off Egypt, encroaching farther and farther in the Arabian Peninsula, and sponsoring the Greeks in the Balkan wars of independence.
This example illustrates a larger and consistent theme of British policy throughout the centuries – Britain had no use for weak allies, and would happily throw any of them under the bus or help themselves to the pickings if they proved too weak to stand on their own two feet.
The Confederate States are another prime example of this policy. Britain had the capacity to turn the course of the entire American Civil War by entering – the Royal Navy of 1862 was an order of magnitude stronger than the Union fleet, and the US arms industry was cripplingly dependent on British imports, down to the point of needing to import rifle barrels from Britain due to the lack of machine tooling capable of making them to a serviceable quality and quantity in the US. Most of the Union Army’s rifles were in fact manufactured in Europe outright, and a British blockade would have cut off these imports and allowed the Confederacy to buy them up instead, with its cotton able to reach the markets.
It could have been that easy for them, and any far-sighted strategists would have recognized the advantage of fracturing the emerging American empire and keeping the US tied down with a neighboring rival. They didn’t do it though, because the Confederacy couldn’t win on its own, and Britain wasn’t a nation in the habit of putting its own interests at risk to do charity for the weak (the Crimean War being a recent and rare exception that was still leaving a bad taste in their mouths).
Likewise with the Dutch, an on-again, off-again ally that had fought several naval wars against Britain but were their key partner in numerous wars against France. The Dutch were eventually conquered and subjugated by Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France. When France was defeated, the British had the chance to restore the Dutch as a bulwark against the French once more (which eventually might have turned into more of a bulwark against Germany).
Instead they took the opportunity to throw the Dutch out of Ceylon, South Africa, and Malaya, and several years later joined the French in preventing the Dutch from putting down the Belgian separatist uprising.
The British don’t get sentimental when it comes to alliances. Their oldest and most famous one is with Portugal. See the Pink Map dispute for how much that counted – Britain threatened Portugal with war over some remote and completely undeveloped wastelands in the center of Africa. Most countries are self-centered and bullying like that when it comes to dealing with their lessers, but have one or two little favorites they’ve got a soft spot for, who they might actually go out of their way to do a favor for. The French had the Poles. The Russians had the Serbs. The British had no one.
Now you’re trying to tell me that these same Brits would go and turn the Japanese into a major power at their own expense, just so they could have an ally against Russia? Ridiculous. Throughout its history, Britain would make alliances wherever it saw an advantage in doing so – but never did they go and try to turn weak nations into strong ones just for the sake of having an ally. They were happy to use the American Indians as allies when they found themselves at war with the Americans, but had no qualms about leaving them to the mercy of the US once that was no longer the case. They never tried to cultivate the Confederacy or Mexico into being long term allies against the US (and in their contingency plans for the case of an early 20th century war against the US, no British army would have been sent to fight in Canada). The Dutch were pilfered of half their colonies and deliberately hobbled from becoming a major power again, the Portuguese were shouldered aside in Africa, the Austrians were thrown under the bus in the War of the Austrian Succession (the Austrians bring ready and more than willing to continue fighting but the British calling it quits first and suing for peace before they had a chance to win back Silesia), and the Turks were plundered and short of various territories by the British, who only acted to keep Russia from seizing its own share of the spoils from them, not to arrest their decline or reverse it.
If you need yet another example, consider the case of Persia, another battleground of British and Russian influence in the same time period as the rise of Japan. Russian expansion into China was indeed a major British concern, but second to that of Russian expansion into India. Persia, then, would have been the more relevant bulwark against the Russians in Asia than Japan, the Royal Navy being more than capable of containing any seaward threat from the Russian Far East.
Why then, was Japan given the privilege of alliance with the British Empire, while Persia was treated like any other third world nation and carved up into spheres of influence with the Russians?
Because the Persians were weak, and the Japanese were strong. Same story for why the Chinese were treated one way and the Japanese another. Japan showed strength, determination, and unity, China showed weakness, vulnerability, and division. The Japanese envisioned a future of themselves as a modern power and worked diligently to build toward that goal. The Chinese mostly imagined the more glorious days of their past, and dithered and quarreled internally.
In Japan the priorities of the state and the people and between all the factions of the elite were in harmony with one another, as they all shared the same goal: make our country rich and strong (and when this happens, I too will then become rich and strong). This is much the same as the case of China today, in the midst of its own comparable golden age of prosperity and development.
In the China of over a century ago, however, this was not the case. Where there was a fundamental divide between the state and the people, as the state was dominated by a minority ethnic caste, where the factions of the elite were united only in the fact that they remained rich and strong by keeping the country as a whole poor and weak, and where the masses hardly had any stake in whether their country won or lost because either way, their lives would still be just as miserable.
Sounds all too much like the America of today, doesn’t it? Complete with the both of them having a massive opium crisis, going hand-in-hand with a failed war on drugs. They do differ in the details; after all, the Russians never sank the US Navy and unloaded crates of Afghan poppies on our shores, instead we invaded Afghanistan ourselves and put the poppy farmers back in business…
But there’s the same fundamental failure dooming the efforts of the China of over a century ago and the America of today to escape these death spirals, which is a failure of the national spirit and will.
Yes, the Chinese were outgunned in the Opium War, on a technological level. They were never going to defeat the British at sea. But that alone doesn’t mean they couldn’t have won the war. Think back to what caused the war in the first place. Britain and Europe had a massive demand for Chinese goods, but China didn’t need anything the British were producing. Pay up in silver or take a hike, you’re the ones who need to trade, not us. Opium was how the British turned the tables, by finding something the Chinese would want from them (and soon, need from them).
The point is, China was self-sufficient. All the British could do with control of the sea was cut China off from foreign trade – and China didn’t need that foreign trade at all. That and the British could sail up and down the rivers and lob shells at all of China’s cities.
There was no stopping that either…but what could that have accomplished, if the Chinese really were determined to carry on the fight? Think about the Vietnamese in their war with the US. There were individual towns in Vietnam that were hit with more firepower by the US Air Force in a day than every British gunboat could have brought to the shores of China in a year. But the Vietnamese persevered through it, year after year, until the Americans got fed up and went home.
Consider the losses that Soviet Russia was willing to endure to win against Nazi Germany, the worst any army has suffered in all human history. Or the Germans themselves, and their Japanese allies, fighting on and on after Allied bombers had burned dozens of their cities to the ground. The Taliban in Afghanistan, who’ve now spent an entire generation fighting the American empire, with no sign of slowing down. The Houthis in Yemen. The Dutch in the Eighty Years’ War. The French in the Hundred Years’ War. Paraguay in the Triple Alliance War. Too many examples to count throughout the ages of people who fought on past the point any sane person would’ve given up hope, because their hearts were set on it. Fight on, no matter what the cost.
The Japanese of this time were a people who had that kind of heart. They only lost it in 1945, once their entire navy was sunk, once every city in Japan was burned to the ground, once the entire nation was brought to the brink of starvation.
The Chinese of this time were not. China lost the Opium War because China as a nation never had its heart set on winning it. They took a few punches to the chin and threw in the towel in the third round. “Oh well, we tried.”
A failure of will that ran from the top of the nation to the bottom of it. A government too detached and alienated from the people to inspire them to make any sacrifice it would take. An elite that stood to gain more from being the middlemen of the drug trade destroying their nation than trying to fight against it (and were ready to quit in any case when a few of their expensive boats and palaces got blown up). A people who had no reason to throw their lives away for a state that if anything despised and abused them far more than the British did.
A system that is rotten like this from the top to the bottom will collapse under pressures that even a far smaller, but more spiritually healthy society, could find a way to endure.
That was China then, that’s America right now. You really believe the country with the most invasive and sophisticated surveillance system in the history of man, satellites in space, and troops in over 120 vassal countries around the world couldn’t figure out where all the heroin is coming from and stamp it out if it wanted to? The fact is though, it doesn’t happen. The elites who aren’t profiting from the situation themselves have more important things on their minds than the millions of people miserable enough to poison themselves for a brief escape from the world they’re stuck in, and the same goes for pretty much everyone else. Ask anyone who pays taxes if they’d pay more if they knew it would go to solving the opium crisis. Okay, you might get a lot who say they would. Then try asking how much more they’d pay for it. Put a price on halting the slow death of their nation. $5000? $2000? $1000? $500? $100? Odds are, not as much as they’d spend on buying a new TV.
If Japan had been as weakened, corrupted, and decayed a society as China, the British would have never offered them an alliance or assistance of any kind. They’d have found it more profitable to run the same scams on Japan and subjugated it in the same fashion as China.
Conversely, if it had instead been China that was powerful and modernizing, the British wouldn’t have hesitated to make an alliance of convenience against Russia with them instead of Japan. If push came to shove, the arms manufacturing lobby had far more clout with the British government than the opium growers in India, and Britain would have more than made up on its losses in the drug trade by selling the Chinese battleships instead.