The Wars for Asia 1911-1949 by S.C.M. Paine (Professor of Strategy and Policy at the US Naval War College) was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012 and represents an ambitious attempt to tie together events that are usually treated in isolation. Paine’s idea is that the long civil war in China which finally ended in 1949, the war between China and Japan that was waged more or less continuously between 1931 and 1945 and the Pacific phase of the Second World War from 1941 to 1945 make very little sense unless they are considered as all being part of a single multi-level struggle.
The various players in these interconnected wars made decisions that often seem incomprehensible, foolish or even suicidal but once the connections between these wars are taken into account it becomes clear that the players concerned were often choosing the best (or thought they were) from a range of relatively unpalatable options.
The starting point for the whole struggle was the collapse of the Qing dynasty in China in 1911. This left a power vacuum that proved to be a temptation not only for various Chinese factions but for outside powers, most notably Russia and Japan and later the US.
Much of the tragedy that followed stemmed from the inability of various players to comprehend that other players had entirely different agendas and priorities. The Chinese Communists assumed that the Soviet Union would want a communist takeover of China and would therefore support them to the hilt. The Soviets however wanted a weak divided China (as a non-threatening neighbour) and they wanted Japan as an ally rather than an enemy (fearing being caught between Germany on one side and Japan on the other flank) so the Soviets were quite happy to sell out the Chinese communists and cut deals with the Nationalists and the Japanese.
Chiang wanted US aid and believed the US would back him to prevent a communist takeover. For Chiang the civil war in China was the priority. For the US the priority was their war against Japan. As a result they were entirely unable to work together as effective allies and this would eventually lead to the shipwreck of American China policy.
The author also makes some vital points about war aims, particularly limited versus unlimited objectives. The advantage of limited objectives is that your opponent is not fighting for survival so that once he accepts the unlikelihood of victory he will be willing to accept a negotiated peace. If however you have unlimited objectives, such as regime change or the total absorption of the entire territory of the enemy, the the war becomes a fight to the death for your enemy and he will fight on even victory seems hopeless. In such a situation even a relatively weak enemy can become a deadly foe – he is on “death ground” and is fighting for his very survival. Japan’s foreign policy had been spectacularly successful up until 1937 because Japan’s wars were for strictly limited objectives. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-06 for example did not threaten Russia’s survival. Once the costs of the war became unpleasantly high Russia was willing to negotiate a peace settlement. The 1931 invasion of Manchuria was another war of limited objectives. China would certainly survive the loss of a few provinces. In 1937 Japan made the fatal mistake of transforming the war against China into a war of unlimited objectives. Now China’s very survival was at stake. The many factions within China – Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang, the many warlord armies, the Communists – now stopped fighting one another and united against Japan in a war to the death, a war that was simply beyond Japan’s long-term capabilities.
Equally important was the failure of so many of the parties involved to remember that wars are fought not for military objectives but for political objectives. If you lose sight of this you can win every battle but lose the war. This was a mistake that both Japan and the US made. The Japanese almost invariably defeated Chinese forces in battle but their war against China ruined them economically, earned them the undying hatred of the Chinese and embroiled them in a disastrous war against the US. The US won the military struggle against Japan in spectacular fashion but politically the war was a triumph for Stalin and the Chinese communists and in many ways a disaster for the US. They defeated one enemy, Japan, which was never a significant threat to them anyway and conjured into existence a truly deadly threat in the form of Communist China whilst greatly strengthening their most dangerous enemy of all, the Soviet Union.
Paine does his best to avoid taking sides. He is more interested in identifying the motivations of the various players than in deciding whether those motivations were just or not. He certainly doesn’t shrink from describing atrocities committed by the Japanese although he does point out that the single biggest atrocity of the Sino-Japanese War (the destruction of the Yellow River dykes which resulted in millions of deaths) was actually committed by Chiang Kai-Shek. Nor does he minimise the corruption of the Kuomintang, the self-destructive chaos of Japanese politics or the duplicity and cynicism of both Mao and Stalin.
We are still living with the consequences of these three nested wars and Paine manages to make some very complex events considerably more understandable. Highly recommended.