23 JUNE 1939, Page 4


THE main difficulty that faces the Government in its handling of the Tientsin affair is that no one yet knows what we are confronting. The " incident " which served as excuse for the blockade of the British concession—the murder, not of a Japanese, but of a Chinese, by one or more other Chinese—is as relatively trivial in itself as the " incident " which served as excuse for the whole Chinese war ; and it may con- ceivably have consequences no less far-reaching. But that is not inevitable. The local Japanese forces, the War Office at Tokyo, and the Government as a whole are three distinct powers. The first is obviously subordi- nate to the second, the second not so obviously subordi- nate to the third. The local forces can be easily dis- owned and over-ruled, but if the Army has determined, as seems quite possible, to challenge the whole British position in China the Foreign Office may be in no posi- tion to veto such a policy. The Foreign Office, indeed, seems little disposed either to repudiate or to endorse action which in normal circumstances might lead to an ultimatum and, failing compliance with it, to war.

As things are, the circumstances are far from normal. We are living in an era in which the dividing-line between peace and war has disappeared, in which battles take place without declaration of hostilities, and the laws that have hitherto governed international relations are dissolved in anarchy. That has no doubt encouraged the Japanese General in Tientsin to take steps that ten years ago could never have been taken with impunity. The circumstances are in other respects abnormal. Ten years ago a challenge by Japan to Great Britain need have involved no other State. Today if it is pushed to the breaking-point it will inevit- ably plunge the world in the war the world has been dreading since the seizure of Austria fifteen months ago. How far Japan is acting in connivance with the Axis Powers can be surmised only ; but their gratification at what is happening in the east is unconcealed ; Signor Mussolini, in particular, exultant in the vehemence of his vicarious valour, is at pains to recall that not long ago he gave warning that the totalitarian States might strike in any part of the world, and now one of them is striking. The implication of concerted action is obvious, but it by no means necessarily corresponds with fact. To assume that it does means concluding that endorse- ment by the Japanese Government of the policy of the local commander at Tientsin is unqualified and un- reserved. And that is precisely the conclusion for which warrant is still lacking.

But to go to the other extreme, and take comfort in the belief that the blockade at Tientsin is no more than a local incident, would be more unwarrantable still. It is certain that at Tientsin and everywhere else within China's frontiers Japan will go as far as she safely can. She has chosen her ground well, for Tientsin is one of the treaty ports where there is no American concession, and American interests are relatively small. At Tientsin Britain; Japan's imagined rival in China and the chief object of German hatred in Europe, can be singled out for attack and humiliation, France being only associated in the blockade because without the inclusion of the French concession it could not be made effective. Else- where conditions are different. At Kulangsu, off Amoy, where also a Japanese blockade is in force, American interests are involved no less than British, and so they are, on a far larger scale, in the International Settlement at Shanghai, where similar conflict is entirely possible. But Japan will certainly do her utmost to avoid provocation of the United States. Trading on the strength of the isolationist movement in that country, she counts on America holding resolutely aloof from any conflict in which her own interests are not imme- diately prejudiced. In that the Japanese, with all their astuteness, may well be wrong. America is much less isolationist regarding Asia than regarding Europe, and regarding Asia she is less isolationist every day, as periodic polls of public opinion have demonstrated. After all it was an American Secretary of State, John Hay, who formulated the doctrine of the Open Door in China—a door which Japan is bent on closing—and it was the Washington Conference in 1922 that gave birth to the Nine-Power Treaty, which Japan has been tearing to shreds for the last eight years.

Japan therefore is suffering seriously from illusion if she counts on American indifference to her lawless- ness. But so should we be if we counted on American intervention before America is compelled by direct assault on her interests to intervene. President Roose- velt and Mr. Cordell Hull will come as far towards co- operation with this country as public opinion will let them, and public opinion is moving fast. But for the moment we have to handle the problem ourselves as best we can. Certain elements in the situation are clear. Japanese forces on the spot are far superior to the British, and if force on the spot were the only factor involved Japan could impose her will. Fortunately we have other weapons in our armoury. Japan's economic position is notoriously weak. The popular boycott of her wares in the United States has hit her hard, and that movement is growing steadily in strength. A ban on the importation of Japanese goods into Great Britain and her colonies would result in a rapid depreciation of the yen, a disaster which Japan is intent above all things on avoiding. The danger of such a step is that Japan might suddenly find herself in difficulties so great that the best way out of them would be open war ; and if we found ourselves involved in war in Asia no one can doubt that the opportunity would be seized by the Axis Powers for new strokes in Europe.

In view of such possibilities as these the hesitation of Ministers to take more drastic steps is intelligible. But they cannot hesitate indefinitely. The exultation of German and Italian propagandists at our difficulties in China matters little, but the damage to our prestige in India and other parts of Asia matters much. If Japan is bent on extorting from us " cooperation in the establishment of the new order," in other words, of Japanese domination in Asia, she is demanding some- thing that can never be conceded. It is the efforts of the new China, not the endeavours of Japan to subjugate China, that have all our sympathies. It has long been realised that the day to reconsider the whole institution of concessions and treaty ports and international settle- ments has fully come. China is as entitled to be rid of them as Turkey and Iran and Egypt were. But they can be abandoned only to give China freedom, never to enable Japan to tighten her grasp on China's throat. The clearer we make that to the world the stronger will our hold on world-opinion, and particularly on American opinion, be. And however and whenever America may decide to act, she has it in her power— particularly if anything like economic action is in ques- tion—to exercise decisive pressure. The protests she has already made regarding the attacks on American property in China generally will sober the Tokyo hot- heads. Given an agreement between Great Britain and Russia, which we clearly ought to make any reasonable concessions to obtain, and an unequivocal declaration of America's views on what is happening, Japan may be expected to find a way of retracting from a position that would be then untenable. But while we keep in the closest touch with Washington it is well to remember that America is readiest to help those who show that they are capable of doing some- thing more than wait on her assistance, even though the demonstration may involve some risk.