Economic Imperialism Re-Visited: Some Observations

A.Best

As an historian of Anglo-Japanese diplomatic relations my comments mainly pertain to the challenge that the work on intra-Asian trade in the 1930s by Professors Akita and Kagotani poses for political historians. However, a few observations on the Cain/Hopkins thesis also arise from consideration of this topic.

 

Akita and Kagotani argue that the Ďcomplementarityí between Western financial and Asian industrial interests that they have identified as contributing to Japanese industrialization in the late nineteenth century continued into the 1930s. Moreover, they contend that it laid the basis for the development of a new international order in the region, which can be seen as a prototype of the trading regime that developed in the post-war era. Building upon this, they argue that the degree of economic interdependence that developed in the 1930s suggests that the wars that engulfed Asia from 1937 onwards cannot be seen as arising out of the commercial rivalry between the Japanese and Western empires. Rather they argue that the Pacific War should be seen as a conflict that developed out of the clash between Japan and Chinese nationalism.

This undoubtedly is an extremely provocative reinterpretation of East Asian history in the 1930s which presents a direct challenge to many of the existing orthodoxies. The problem, however, is that while the historians of intra-Asian trade have important points to make about the nature and development of the Asian economy during this decade, one has to raise questions about their analysis of the link between economics and politics. The most obvious criticism is that they are too emphatic in seeing the growth of intra-Asian trade as a peaceful integrative process that was able to transcend national boundaries. In doing so they ignore much evidence that suggests that the growth of intra-Asian trade had a more complex and sometimes confrontational relationship with the colonial empires, and that it could act as a dynamic force leading to conflict rather than cooperation.

 

In the case of Anglo-Japanese relations, it is possible to argue that while some degree of economic interdependence continued, Japanese exports into the Empire did create political difficulties.

 

In part the problem of interpretation arises from the intra-Asian trade historians relying too much on the Cain and Hopkins thesis that financial interests dominated British policy and thinking. In regard to Japanese exports this is only partly true. One can agree that Britain, India and the colonial admins recognized the importance of exports to and imports from Japan for revenue and debt-servicing purposes, but it is important to understand that Britain desired regulation of Japanese exports through the use of quotas. This largely due to pressure from Lancashire, which used its potential to veto Indian constitutional reforms to press the British government to defend its interests.

 

This helped to shape terms of Indo-Japanese trade treaty of 1934 and led to May 1934 introduction of quotas in the West Indies, West Africa, Malta, Cyprus, Somaliland, Mauritius, Ceylon, Malaya and Fiji. These quotas did have an effect. Japanese exports to these areas were hit.

 

Moreover, Japanese govt and commentators did complain vociferously about the trade restrictions, contributed to poisoning of Anglo-Japanese relations. Within Japan itself, it seems clear that the trade restrictions fed its sense of being the object of discrimination. As noted above, Japanese pronouncements on the international situation in the mid-1930s seemed invariably to refer to the trade issue as one of Japanís major grievances. What needs to be studied more, however, is the exact nature of the link between this belief and the IJAís activities and ambitions in China. For example, one might ask to what degree did the trade disputes reinforce the IJAís desire for autarky and whether this issue substantially added to Japanís sense of international isolation.

 

On the British side the business community and the Conservative Party were affected by the trade dispute. Many Conservative MPs had backed Japan over the Manchurian crisis. However, once the textile competition sharpened and the linked threat to British commercial interests in China arose, Conservative opinion changed and there was a growth of hostility towards the Japanese. The emergence of such attitudes was undoubtedly an important phenomenon, for the presence of an anti-Japanese lobby in the Conservative Party meant that the National Government could not afford to reach an agreement with Japan that included any major sacrifice of British commercial interests. As the trade issue was one of Japanís key interests this effectively precluded Britain from following any sustained policy of appeasement. Moreover, such was the level of hostility that when Japan found itself at war in China in 1937 very few Conservative sympathizers raised their voices in defence of Japanese actions.

 

The growth of intra-Asian trade was thus an important phenomenon in the 1930s but not necessarily in the way its historians have envisaged. While one might be able to argue that a new trading regime was emerging in Asia, there is little evidence to suggest that a new political order was arising out of this economic integration. Instead one had a dangerous situation in which these economic developments threatened European commercial interests in South and Southeast Asia and by doing so invariably led to serious tensions between the colonial powers and Japan. Thus while integrative at the economic level its political effect was to widen the growing disparity of interests between the West and Japan, and as such contributed to the regional instability that led first to the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and then to the Pacific War in 1941. It was, however, by no means the only force that had the potential to lead to confrontation, for the wider world economic crisis, the rise of Chinese nationalism, Japanís inherent tendency towards militarism, and the incipient clash between Japan and the Soviet Union in North-East Asia all played important parts. One should therefore not be drawn towards an economically deterministic explanation of the origins of the Pacific War based upon the consequences of intra-Asian trade, but that it did play a role seems undeniable. To elucidate its significance further is the task that lies before both economic and political historians alike.

 

What does this tell us more broadly?

 

To political historians the danger seems to be that the judgements made by economic historians, particularly when they relate to political matters, are too generalized. The Cain & Hopkins thesis is a very tidy and therefore alluring version of British imperial history, but in the end it shows a fairly superficial understanding of how British politics works. There is no place in it for parliamentary government. Similarly the intra-Asian trade historians have been too easUse of uninitialized value in concatenation (.) or string at E:\listplex\SYSTEM\SCRIPTS\filearea.cgi line 451, line 278. ily seduced by statistics, need to look at perceptions as well.

 

However, there are also lessons from Akita and Kagotaniís work for political historians. Their work demonstrates Anglo-Japanese relations are more complex than previously thought. Also their willingness to think in a broad and abstract manner is a lesson to political historians who can be too narrow in their thinking. For example, Akitaís adoption of a structural power approach makes one question whether that is the best way to approach the British role in East Asia rather than relying on the rather unsatisfactory idea of informal empire.