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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume III

Appendix I — Visit of Ministers from Dominions and of a Representative from India — APPRECIATION OF PROBABLE JAPANESE POLICY IN THE FAR EAST

page 531

Appendix I
Visit of Ministers from Dominions and of a Representative from India


Memorandum by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs

I circulate, herewith, for the use of the Ministers of the Dominions and the Representative of India now in London, an appreciation of probable Japanese policy in the Far East.

Foreign Office

, 15 November 1939

Appreciation of Probable Japanese Policy in the Far East

Prior to the signature of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact on 23 August, Japanese extremists were advocating the conversion of the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany and Italy into a military alliance. There was strong opposition to their views, and it is by no means certain that, in any case, they would have achieved their object, but the Russo-German Pact, which came as a severe shock to Japanese opinion, frustrated their efforts. The Japanese Government resigned as a direct result of the Pact, and, on the outbreak of war in Europe, the new Prime Minister, General Abe,1 issued a statement to the effect that Japan would not intervene in the European conflict, but would concentrate upon a settlement of the China incident.

2. Since then the Japanese Government have adopted a non-committal attitude in foreign relations. While the Anti-Comintern Pact is obviously a dead letter, Japan has not denounced it, and has professed continued friendship for Germany and Italy. On the other hand, there have been references to a desire to improve relations with Great Britain and the United States. At all times, however, emphasis has been laid upon the determination of the Government to bring the China incident to a successful conclusion.

3. Germany has in the meantime used her endeavours to obtain a Russian–German–Japanese understanding, and there is some reason to suspect that the extremists in Japan, who formerly advocated an Anti-Comintern alliance, may now be working for a rapprochement with Russia, with the object of eliminating British and other foreign influence from China. The conclusion of a truce on 16 September, which put an end to the fighting on the Outer Mongolian border, and negotiations for the demarcation of the frontier

1 General Nobuyuki Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, 28 Aug 1939 - 15 Jan 1940.

page 532 in that region, together with the release by both sides of fishing vessels which had been detained on charges of trespass and poaching, are not, however, sufficient in themselves to justify the belief that a far-reaching agreement of some kind may result between Japan and the USSR.

4. It must be remembered that Russian and Japanese aims in the Far East are fundamentally opposed to one another. Japan's fear of Communism and her distrust of the Soviet Government are deep-rooted and would not easily be overcome. Nor could any political agreement which would allow Japan a free hand in China and the removal of Soviet support for that country alter the fact, even if such an agreement were honoured, that Japan would extend, rather than reduce, the area in which her interests would be likely to come into conflict with those of the USSR. From the point of view of the latter, it is difficult to believe that it would be in her interest to contribute to the reduction of Japan's commitments or to the strengthening of a neighbour of whose predatory designs she has had abundant evidence.

5. While, therefore, it may well be in the interests of both parties to reduce the tension which has prevailed for many years and to avoid incidents which achieve no object, the conflict of interest, which is fundamental, and the profound distrust which each has of the other are calculated to prevent the conclusion of any agreement of a durable nature. Japan will continue to have her Russian problem and the USSR her Japanese problem, even though elements in both countries may not be averse from some limited course of concerted action (such as the supply of raw materials to Germany) which might serve to inconvenience or weaken Great Britain. In the meantime, China is satisfied that Russian support in her struggle against Japan will continue, though it is not clear what price she may have to pay for it.

6. Japan's main preoccupation today is the settlement of the China incident. This is probably due in part to the effect which its prolongation is bound to have upon her economy (already in a state scarcely to be described as sound), and in part to her desire to present the Powers with a fait accompli against the day when they will be free, on the termination of hostilities in Europe, to turn their attention once more to the Far East.

7. For the present, Japan pins her hopes upon the establishment, at an early date, of a Central Government under Wang Ching-wei,1 with which she will hope to make peace and to which she will accord early recognition. The success of this venture will depend upon the measure of support accorded to the new Government by influential Chinese in the various parts of occupied China. This, in its turn, will presumably depend upon the extent to which Japan is prepared to allow the exercise of real sovereignty by the new regime. Unfortunately for Japan, there is nothing in her history of expansion to show that she is capable of allowing any real measure of independence or self-government to the peoples of the territories she has subjugated.

8. Until the new regime has been established and in being for some little time, it will be difficult to determine the extent to which Japan is likely to succeed in her plan. Until then, she will be unable to rid herself of any of her commitments, and she must for some time remain in doubt as to the reactions of other Powers and, in particular, of the three democracies, to her new venture. The Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs indicated recently that his ruling idea was the attainment of Japan's aims in China

1 Head of the Japanese-sponsored puppet government set up at Nanking in April 1940.

page 533 in as friendly an international atmosphere as possible. This does not necessarily mean that Japan will be easily diverted from her aims, but it may well be taken to indicate a disinclination for further extended foreign adventures.

9. Occupied with the difficult problems which lie ahead of her in the solution of the China incident, it seems highly unlikely that Japan could venture upon any scheme of southward expansion, in particular. In the words of His Majesty's Ambassador at Tokyo: ‘Japan has her hands far too full in China and is too apprehensive of the United States in its present mood to think seriously of any move involving danger to Australia and New Zealand, or to territories in which those Dominions are interested.’ The hardening of American opinion has been evidenced in recent months by the denunciation of the trade treaty and the recent outspoken speech of the American Ambassador to Japan. The treaty expires on 26 January 1940, and Japan is left in uncertainty whether the United States will negotiate a new agreement or whether, if her complaints are not met, she will institute some kind of embargo. Although it is impossible to forecast the attitude of the United States Government in any given circumstance, Japan cannot assume that their reaction to any act of aggression in the Pacific would not be hostile. As long as Japan remains uncertain of the attitude of the United States, this uncertainty affords a certain measure of security to interests which she might otherwise be tempted to assail. This view is strongly supported by His Majesty's Ambassador at Washington in the attached telegram No. 747 of 10 November.

10. There are also other reasons why the Japanese, who are essentially cautious by nature, will hesitate to extend their attack on foreign interests. Our Naval dispositions are different from those in the last war, when, owing to the threat of a strong German Fleet, we were forced to hold the great bulk of our capital ship strength in home waters. Moreover, there is no war in the Mediterranean. The increased mobility of the Fleet is a factor which must have an important influence on the minds of any who contemplate threatening British interests in any quarter of the globe.

11. In the event of a German occupation of Holland, there is always the possibility that Japan might be tempted, either at the instigation of Germany or of her own extremists, to make a descent upon the Netherlands East Indies. This possibility, however, is conditioned by the same factors outlined above, which govern Japan's attitude towards an attack on British possessions in the Far East.

12. British policy towards Japan has been to endeavour to restore friendly relations and to compose the differences arising out of Japanese action in China, provided that this can be done without injury to China's vital interests in her struggle with Japan. By looking for ways of settling the Tientsin quarrel, and by endeavouring to allay Japan's anxiety over her supplies of essential raw materials, which has been aroused by our war effort, progressive improvement in our relations may reasonably be expected. Such readjustments as we may be able to effect must, however, be seen in perspective against the main Japanese preoccupation in China.

13. The conclusion is that Japan will continue to concentrate all her efforts on the solution of the China incident. She will sit on the fence as far as the war in Europe is concerned, keeping her hands free to pick up whatever trade advantages it may offer.

Foreign Office, 13 November 1939.

page 534


The Marquess of Lothian1 to Viscount Halifax
(No. 747)
Washington, 10 November 1939

Your telegram No. 716.2

There is not, I think, any particularly strong feeling in the United States for Australia and New Zealand, though they are popular as young democracies. The action that would be taken by the United States in the Pacific would be governed in the main by its attitude to Japan and the consequences to America of Japanese expansion in the Pacific. The United States has long made up its mind against interference on the mainland in Asia, but there is widespread popular resentment against Japan's war on China and the brutal manner in which it has been conducted, often at the expense of American missions. Three or four years ago public opinion in the United States supported the evacuation of the Philippines as diminishing their strategic commitments in the Far East and therefore lessening the risk of war. The upsurge of pacifist public opinion during the recent neutrality debates has been fundamentally a determination not to be drawn into another war in Europe, to which last time they sent two million men. But feeling against Japan is quite likely to demand intensification of economic pressure against Japan when the question of a reversal of the recent denunciation of the trade treaty comes before Congress next January, especially as the United States can bring very strong economic pressure against Japan owing to the effect of the war on Japan's trade with the British Commonwealth and Europe; if Japan began to expand outside the China Sea zone, in which her supremacy was recognised by the Washington treaties, I think there would be a powerful movement to stop her. I do not believe that public opinion would now stand aside if the independence of the Philippines were challenged.

If Japanese action left the Philippines alone and concentrated on British possessions and the Dutch Islands, other than Australia and New Zealand, the reaction of American public opinion would be far slower. But partly because the Central Pacific is now regarded as a kind of American reserve, partly because the expansion of Japan overseas would eventually threaten the Monroe Doctrine, and partly because a war with Japan would probably not involve sending abroad vast armies of conscripts, I think that long before Japanese action threatened Australia or New Zealand, America would be at war. This probability is probably enhanced by the fact that the Army and Navy and a great many publicists, though not yet public opinion, recognise clearly that the present form of American security and the Monroe Doctrine is, in the long run, just as dependent upon the British as on the American Navy. If the United States is to rely upon Great Britain to prevent totalitarian Europe from entering the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar and the exits from the North Sea, the United States must themselves underwrite the security of the British Empire in the Pacific because they cannot afford the weakening of Great Britain itself which would follow the collapse of her dominions in the Pacific.

1 British Ambassador at Washington.

2 Not published.