Matthew W. Mosca
China’s relations with the Asian world between 1500 and 1900 were shaped by a variety of political, economic, and cultural factors. A common denominator in these international relationships was a loose framework of ideological principles and administrative procedures later dubbed by scholars the “tributary system.” This “system,” first posited in the early 1940s, has remained the single most influential concept for interpreting the interactions of Ming and Qing China with Asian countries. However, in recent decades it has been critiqued from various perspectives, narrowed in the scope of its application, and modified by a greater focus on the actual course of specific cases rather than ideological principles. That is, historians have increasingly come to understand China’s relations with the Asian world as influenced by pragmatic considerations and changing local dynamics, so that each relationship and the factors shaping it are best understood on their own terms. One approach to the study of Ming and Qing relations with the Asian world is to consider it within the framework of three regional groupings. China’s interactions with its neighbors in Northeast Asia were shaped by its largely stable relations with Korea and the Ryukyu Kingdom, and its radically fluctuating relations with Japan, sometimes marked by conflict and sometimes by the deliberate avoidance of political contact. Early Ming political relations with maritime Southeast Asia atrophied as the role of European and private Chinese merchant intermediaries increased. Those with continental Southeast Asia (particularly Burma, Siam, and Vietnam), more enduring, were influenced by intense regional rivalries that occasionally impinged on the borderlands of China’s southern provinces. In these two regions, the Ming–Qing transition, although particularly resented in Korea where it involved two invasions, did not radically alter existing patterns of international relations. By contrast, the vast territorial expansion of the Qing Empire did greatly change China’s foreign relations to the north and west, where it encountered states that had not had relations with the Ming. In these regions the Qing government drew principles and practices from its foreign relations in the south and east, but modified them to fit new conditions. After 1800, and more intensively after 1850, European and later Japanese imperial power began to penetrate Central, South, Southeast, and ultimately East Asia, in each region undermining existing Qing relationships with Asian neighbors. By 1900, virtually all former Qing tributaries were under the direct or indirect control of the British, Russian, French, or Japanese empires.
The All-India Muslim League first voiced the demand for a Muslim homeland based on India’s northwestern and northeastern provinces in March 1940. Seven years later at the moment of British decolonization in the subcontinent, Pakistan emerged on the map of the world, an anomaly in the international community of nations with its two wings separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory. Over a million people died in the violence that accompanied partition while another 14½ million moved both ways across frontiers demarcated along ostensibly religious lines for the first time in India’s six millennia history. Commonly attributed to the age-old religious divide between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, the causes of Pakistan’s creation are better traced to the federal problems created in India under British colonial rule. Despite sharing a common identity based on religious affiliation, Indian Muslims were divided along regional, linguistic, class, sectarian, and ideological lines. More Muslims live in India and Bangladesh than in Pakistan today, highlighting the clear disjunction between religiously informed identities and territorial sovereignty.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the All-India Muslim League, tried resolving the problem by claiming in 1940 that Indian Muslims were not a minority but a nation, entitled to the principle of self-determination. He envisaged a “Pakistan” based on undivided Punjab and Bengal. Since this left Muslims in the Hindu-majority provinces out of the reckoning, Jinnah left it an open question whether “Pakistan” and Hindustan would form a confederation covering the whole of India or make treaty arrangements as two separate sovereign states. In the end Jinnah was unable to achieve his larger aims and had to settle for a Pakistan based on the Muslim-majority districts of Punjab and Bengal, something he had rejected out of hand in 1944 and then again in 1946.
China’s three northeastern provinces (Fengtian, Heilongjiang, and Jilin) were transfigured by Japanese imperialism in the opening decades of the 20th century. South Manchuria and the Kwantung Leasehold on the Liaodong Peninsula in particular became the site of a railway imperialism that would, beginning in 1905, allow Japan to claim a sphere of influence in the northeast and profit from the export of soybeans, coal, lumber, and other raw materials from the region. The South Manchuria Railway Company (or “Mantetsu”), which held the dual mantle of joint stock-owning company and governmental national-policy company, was the central organ in Japan’s so-called management of Manchuria. The expansion of Mantetsu’s rail network (originally built by Czarist Russia in the late 1890s) in the post–World War I years allowed for greater extraction of resources and greater wealth for company stockholders, while giving rise to an upswell of protest from a burgeoning nationalist movement in mainland China as well as in the northeast itself. Throughout the preconquest period (pre-September 1931), bureaucrats, Mantetsu employees, doctors, teachers, and economic sojourners of every stripe made a home for themselves in Japanese Manchuria, parts of which were transformed to replicate the modern conveniences and amenities of the metropole’s urban centers.
The Manchurian Incident, which began on September 18, 1931, with a plot by renegade officers from the Kwantung Army (a division of the Japanese Imperial Army) to destroy Mantetsu track and blame it on Chinese brigands, led to the military takeover of the three northeastern provinces by January 1932. The establishment of the army-led state of Manchukuo in March 1932 gave way to a new kind of Japanese power and influence on the continent—one that operated independently from Tokyo and at the pleasure of the Kwantung Army. Despite repeated proclamations of pan-Asian unity and the harmony of the five races by the state’s propaganda agents, Manchukuo existed for the purpose of strengthening Japan’s war machine, as well as for planning a total renovation of the domestic Japanese state in line with army objectives.