W. Reginald Wheeler
China and the World War




In November 2, 1917, the Lansing-Ishii Agreement between America and Japan was signed at Washington. The agreement, embodied in an exchange of notes, defined the future attitude of these two countries toward China. Its important clauses were two in number: that the United States recognized Japan's "special interests" in China; and that both the United States and Japan repledged themselves to observe the principle of the "open door" and the territorial integrity of China. The agreement was the most important one which had been reached by America in relation to the Orient since the Hay proposal, in 1899, to uphold the principle of the "open door"; and its future bearing on international relations in the Orient will be large.

The general affirmation of the "open door" policy was the remedy proposed by America eighteen years before, to meet the dangerous situation fast developing in China.(16) At that time the prospect of national disintegration and partition by the world powers seemed imminent. The history of China's relations with the other nations, with the single exception of the United States, was a long story of defeat and losses of Chinese territory and sovereign rights. In 1842, as a result of the victorious "Opium War," Great Britain had taken the Island of Hongkong and, later, portions of the neighbouring mainland; in 1860, Russia acquired Manchurian territory east of the Ussuri River, including Vladivostok and the right to make the city a terminus of the trans-Siberian Railway; in 1864, France had taken Cochin China, and in 1885, proclaimed a protectorate over the nearby territory of Annam and Tongking. A year later, Great Britain conquered and annexed Burma. As a result of the Japanese-Chinese War in 1895, Japan took Formosa and the neighbouring Pescadores Islands; the independence of Korea was recognized, and the Liao-tung Peninsula, including Port Arthur, was ceded to the Japanese, though Russia, Germany and France at once compelled them to give up the latter territory. Following this war, the spirit of imperialism grew and a scramble for concessions began. As a result of the killing of two missionaries, Germany seized Kiaochow Bay, including the port of Tsingtao, demanding a ninety-nine year lease, and appropriated the mining and railway rights in Shantung; Russia then requested a similar lease of Port Arthur, and took over practical control of Manchuria; England leased the fortified port of Wei-hai-wei, in Shantung; France gained a port in South China; and Italy asked for, but was refused, territory in Central China along the coast.

Not content with leases, the powers began to stake out "spheres of interest" within which they desired special economic and commercial rights. England's "sphere" was in the Yangtze Valley; Russia's, in the territory north of the Great Wall; France's, in Southwest China; Germany's, in Shantung. If China should be partitioned, these sections would become definite possessions of these nations. The supervision of certain governmental functions of China had already been placed in the hands of citizens of the foreign powers, including the collection of the maritime customs, and later the postal administration and salt customs. In the earliest treaty relations, the principle of "exterritoriality" had been recognized, through which foreigners were tried by their own laws and not by the laws of China; later foreign "settlements" had grown up in various important cities, which were under complete alien jurisdiction. Following the marking out of "spheres of interest" came the first rush for railroad concessions. At this time and within a few succeeding years, a Franco-Belgian firm, backed by Russia, acquired the right to build the Peking-Hankow line; the British, the building of the railway which joined Shanghai to Nanking and Tientsin, dividing the Shantung rights of the road with the Germans; American capitalists secured the right of building the road from Hankow to Canton, but later sold it to the Chinese government.

This was the situation in China at the end of 1898. In that year it was to be affected by a policy suggested by the United States. Up to that time America's foreign policy in the Far East consisted chiefly in an insistence upon the general principle of non-interference and non-aggression. In 1844, preceding its first treaty with China, the United States had said: " We do not desire any portion of the territory of China, nor any terms and conditions whatever which shall be otherwise than just and honourable to China as well as to the United States," and it had lived up to that statement. But, in December, 1898, as a result of the Spanish-American War, the United States was put in possession of the Philippine Islands and there arose at once a need for a formation of a Far Eastern Policy. Great Britain, especially, had begun to look with concern on the situation developing in China and she greeted with cordiality the proposal of Secretary Hay, in 1899, that the principle of the "open door" should be henceforth formally recognized; signifying that thereafter no part of China should be reserved by any nation for its own particular economic or political advantage. This principle was again stated in 1900 in an agreement between Great Britain and Germany and was accepted later by all the Powers, Russia alone making certain reservations. Its important clauses were as follows: first, that no power would in any way "interfere with any treaty port or any vested interest within any so-called 'sphere of interest' or leased territory which it might have in China"; second, "the Chinese treaty tariff of the time being shall apply to all merchandise landed or shipped to all such ports as are within said 'sphere of interest' (unless they be 'free ports '), no matter to what nationality it may belong, and . . . duties so leviable shall be collected by the Chinese government "; and, third, "it will levy no higher harbour dues on vessels of another nationality frequenting any port in such 'sphere' than shall be levied on vessels of its own nationality, and no higher railroad charges over lines built, controlled, or operated within its 'sphere' on merchandise belonging to citizens or subjects of other nationalities transported through such 'sphere' than shall be levied on similar merchandise belonging to its own nationals transported over like distances."

In brief, this statement was a pledge by the Powers not to discriminate against each other's business interests in their respective "spheres"; and was a guaranty to maintain the status quo.

The various infringements of Chinese territory and rights, which preceded the formation of this agreement, had naturally had a disturbing effect upon the minds of the inhabitants and the government of China. This found expression in the Boxer outburst in 1900 in which a final attempt was made by force of arms to oust the dreaded foreigner. The attempt was futile and China emerged in 1901, saddled by an indemnity of over $300,000,000, the payment of which was secured by pledges of the customs revenues, the native customs, and a portion of the salt revenues; and with the loss of the liberty to import arms for a limited period, to maintain jurisdiction over the legation quarter in Peking, and certain other national rights. No more territory was given up, however; the "open door" principle was again affirmed; and with certain exceptions in Manchuria, due to the action of Russia, the status quo was maintained until the close of the Russo-Japanese War.

New changes took place at the conclusion of the war between Japan and Russia in 1905, and other alterations in the Far Eastern situation followed, with China again as the victim. By the terms of the Portsmouth Treaty all of Russia's privileges and powers in Southern Manchuria, including Port Arthur and the Russian railways section, were transferred to Japan; Japan's "paramount political, military and economic interests in Korea" were recognized by Russia. Chinese sovereignty in Manchuria was nominally recognized by Russia, but it soon became practically nonexistent. In 1910, Korea was formally annexed by Japan. Three years later, as a result of the disturbances of the Republican Revolution, Mongolia becoming temporarily independent, Russia attempted to gain a protectorate over Outer Mongolia, and China was forced to acknowledge Russia's extensive commercial and political privileges there in return for a nominal recognition of its own suzerainty over the region. Japan began to manoeuvre in Eastern Inner Mongolia and, in 1915, attempted to clinch its activities by the Twenty-one Demands, in which it affirmed that China had "always recognized its special position in South Manchuria and Eastern Inner Mongolia"; other ambitions were also put forth, as already discussed in another chapter. In Manchuria, further, according to consular reports, Japan had apparently not followed the "open door" agreement of 1899. Such was the changed situation in the China of 1915, as compared to that of 1899. The situation was summarized by Dr. Hornbeck, as follows:

"The settlement at the end of the Russo-Japanese War materially altered the political and geographical alignment. A new status was created. New pledges were made for the maintaining of the newly created status quo. Japan's activities in Manchuria during the next ten years further modified the alignments. In 1914 Japan's conquest of the German possessions in Shantung again abruptly altered the situation. And, finally, Japan's demands upon China in January, 1915, and the granting of the special privileges and concessions which China has been forced to make to Japan constitute a complete upsetting of the balance of power and suggest all the possibilities of a reversion, after the European War shall have been concluded, to speculation, apprehensions, competition, and consequent developments such as marked the years 1895-1898."(17)

This situation, as portrayed, aroused various suspicions of Japan's ultimate intentions toward China, and there seemed a need for some official statement to clear the air. This was made by the Japanese Government in the fall of 1917 in an exchange of notes signed in Washington by Viscount Ishii and Secretary Lansing.

There were three general reasons for the formulation of this agreement. The first was the apprehension of America and of the world in general concerning Japanese intentions in China. These apprehensions were mentioned in the notes exchanged and in a supplementary statement issued by Secretary Lansing. In the notes appears the clause, "In order to silence mischievous reports that have from time to time been circulated, it is believed by us that a public announcement once more of the desires and intentions shared by our two Governments with regard to China is advisable"; and in Secretary Lansing's statement, he said, "There had unquestionably been growing up between the peoples of the two countries a feeling of suspicion as to the motives inducing the activities of the other in the Far East, a feeling which, if unchecked, promised to develop a serious situation. Rumours and reports of improper intentions were increasing and were more and more believed." German propaganda was referred to as having a large part in increasing .this suspicion. This apprehension seemed general not only in America, but in other nations as well, and was one of the reasons for the drawing up of the new agreement.

Another reason, which was not so generally recognized, was Japan's apprehension concerning America's intentions in China. Japan had long cherished the hope of becoming the recognized leader of the Orient. Especially did it desire unquestioned supremacy in its leadership over China. During the past two years the United States had taken certain action which seemed to question its leadership. At the time of the Twenty-one Demands, as already stated, America was the only nation to protest against any infringement of China's rights. In the summer of 1917, during the turmoil which accompanied the attempt to overthrow the Republic and to restore the Manchus, the United States had sent definite advice to China concerning the situation. Statements were made by experienced Japanese journalists, such as, "In the Japanese-American relations, the powder-chest has ever been China --- not California "; and that the United States might "go to Japan and tell her that America had taken upon herself the rÙle of the guardian and guide of China, that she was to dictate the policy of the Chinese Republic according to what America thought to be just and righteous, and that Japan's policies and actions in the Far East, and, more especially in China, were to be subject to the approval of the United States."(18) The formation of the closest possible ties with China seemed vital to the future greatness of Japan, and any interference in such a program was looked upon with apprehension. Accordingly an assurance from America of a continuation of its present relations with China was much desired.

A third factor was the need of the Allies for closer co-operation as a result of the loss of Russia from their ranks. There was a decided need of unity of counsel and of effort, if the handicap of this loss were to be overcome. As has already been pointed out , there had not always been a clear unity of understanding and policy between Japan and the Allies; Japan had special aspirations in the Orient; and there seems reason for the belief that a certain amount of pressure was brought to bear on America to recognize the aspirations of Japan in China. This America apparently attempted to do with justice to China in the Lansing-Ishii Agreement.

After a series of conferences in Washington between Viscount Ishii and Secretary Lansing, the following statement was issued on November 2:

"WASHINGTON, Nov. 2, 1917


"I have the honour to communicate herein my understanding of the agreement reached by us in our recent conversations touching the questions of mutual interest to our Governments relating to the Republic of China.

"In order to silence mischievous reports that have from time to time been circulated, it is believed by us that a public announcement once more of the desires and intentions shared by our two Governments with regard to China is advisable.

"The Governments of the United States and Japan recognize that territorial propinquity creates special relations between countries, and, consequently, the Government of the United States recognizes that Japan has special interests in China, particularly in the parts to which her possessions are contiguous.

"The territorial sovereignty of China, nevertheless, remains unimpaired, and the Government of the United States has every confidence in the repeated assurances of the Imperial Japanese Government that, while geographical position gives Japan such special interests, they have no desire to discriminate against the trade of other nations or to disregard the commercial rights heretofore granted by China in treaties with other powers.

"The Governments of the United States and Japan deny that they have any purpose to infringe in any way the independence or territorial integrity of China, and they declare, furthermore, that they always adhere to the principle of the so-called 'open door,' or equal opportunity for commerce and industry in China.

"Moreover, they mutually declare that they are opposed to the acquisition by any government of any special right or privileges that would affect the independence or territorial integrity of China, or that would deny to the subjects or citizens of any country the full enjoyment of equal opportunity in the commerce and industry of China.

"I shall be glad to have your Excellency confirm this understanding of the agreement reached by us.

"Accept, Excellency, the renewed assurance of my highest consideration.


"His Excellency, Viscount Kikujiro Ishii,
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan,
on special mission."


"WASHINGTON, Nov. 2, 1917


"I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your note today, communicating to me your understanding of the agreement reached by us in our recent conversations touching the questions of mutual interest to our Governments relating to the Republic of China.

"I am happy to be able to confirm to you, under authorization of my Government, the understanding in questions set forth in the following terms:

(Here the Special Ambassador repeats the language of the agreement as given in Secretary Lansing's note.)


Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan,
on special mission.

Honourable Robert Lansing,
Secretary of State."

In addition to reaching an agreement on this matter, the Japanese representatives had also discussed with the representatives of the United States Government various other subjects, especially in relation to their joint participation in the conduct of the war. Secretary Lansing's statement concerning these negotiations was in part:

"The Japanese Commission accomplished a further purpose in expressing Japan's earnest desire to cooperate with this country in waging war against the German government. The discussions covered the military, naval and economic activities to be employed with due regard to relative resources and ability. . . . Complete and satisfactory understandings upon the matter of naval co-operation in the Pacific have been reached. . . . At the present time it is inexpedient to make public the details of these conversations."

The two most important statements in the published agreement were: that both the United States and Japan repledged themselves to the recognition of the principle of the "open door" and the territorial integrity of China; but that the United States also recognized that Japan had "special interests" in China, particularly in territory which adjoined its own possessions. It was, indeed, a happy result that China's rights were thus formally recognized and that an assurance was made that the policy of the "open door" was to continue. In this respect the agreement did much to clear away the clouds of suspicion which had been long gathering, and marked a new era in the good relations between the United States and Japan.

Fig. 6.
Viscout Ishii, Japanese Ambassador to America, and Reception Committee in New York, 1917. Viscout Ishii is in the centre; Albert H. Gary, Chairman of the United States Steel Corporation, is on hisleft; R.A.C> Smith, Dock Commissioner and Member of Reception Committee, is on his right.

On the other hand, there were four main lines of criticism directed against the agreement. In the first place, its terms seemed to be self-contradictory; secondly, the phrase "special interests" was decidedly vague; third, the principle upon which these "special interests" was built, that of territorial propinquity, did not seem to be wholly valid; finally, China was not included in the negotiations.

By reaffirming the principle of the "open door" and of China's territorial integrity, Japan and America seemed to guarantee equal opportunities to all nations in commerce, agreeing also to prohibit any country from acquiring political rights which would infringe China's sovereignty. No commercial or political privileges were to be given to any country. But on the other hand, "special interests" imply special privileges; these privileges must be either commercial or political; and at once a contradiction of meaning seems to arise. The same sort of contradiction had seemed to exist in the treaty between Great Britain and Japan, made in 1905, concerning Korea, when the alliance between the two nations was renewed. Article III of this treaty said, "Japan possessing paramount political, military and economic interests in Korea, Great Britain recognizes the right of Japan to take such measures . . . in Korea as she may deem proper . . . provided that such measures are not contrary to the principle of equal opportunities for the commerce and industry of all nations."(19) If the phrase "special interests" were substituted for the one "paramount interests," the two affirmations would be more or less similar. Three months after the treaty between Great Britain and Japan was signed, a Japanese protectorate was established over Korea; five years later Korea was formally annexed. After the publishing of the Lansing-Ishii treaty with these similar terms there was some fear, especially on the part of China, that history would repeat itself.

In the second place, the phrase "special interests" was obviously vague. In the agreement they were not defined and there have been various conjectures by the publicists of the three nations involved concerning their meaning. In a magazine published in Japan shortly after the concluding of the treaty appeared two articles which attempted to define these "special interests." The first article maintained that they were special commercial privileges in Japan's various spheres in China; the second insisted that political privileges were designated. In this vagueness of meaning there is possibility of future misunderstanding.

In the third place, the reason for the recognition of these "special interests" was found in Japan's territorial propinquity to China, the principle being stated in the agreement that "territorial propinquity creates special relations between countries" and that consequently Japan was entitled to the "special privileges" named. If China were willing to enter into these special relations with Japan, resulting from the territorial proximity of the two countries, the situation would be different. But any one who has lived in China, whatever his theoretical views may be of the subject, must admit the fact that the Chinese as a whole do not wish to enter into these closer relations with Japan. They are not afraid of loans in which the United States or the other Powers as a group are represented, but they do object to transactions of a commercial or political type with Japan alone. The matter then resolves itself into the question, "Is territorial propinquity a sufficient reason for acquiring special privileges against the will of the people concerned?" The answer in America and in some countries of Europe, in recent years at least, has always been in the negative. Territorial propinquity exists between the United States and Canada; the former desired special relations of reciprocity; but, when Canada did not wish to enter into these relations, there was no question of using force to accomplish them. Germany, on account of its territorial proximity to Belgium and Russia, desires its special commercial relations with them to be recognized, but there is no expectation of this being done. If this principle of self-determination as to special relations, whether commercial or political, applies in America and Europe, why should it not apply in Asia? Further, if territorial propinquity were generally recognized by the other powers as creating special relations, the results might be serious. Russia's boundaries are contiguous with those in China for hundreds of miles; Great Britain could logically claim "special interests" near its port at Hongkong; France could do the same with Cochin China; and America would have a claim in the proximity of the Philippines to the Chinese coast. The Chinese regions implied by reason of their proximity to Japanese possessions would seem to be Manchuria, Mongolia, Shantung, and Fukien; but, if special interests and privileges were to be conceded in these provinces and in the regions bordering the holdings of other nations as well, what of the future of the policy of the "open door" and of equal opportunity, which originally was formulated to check and control just such spheres of interest?

A fourth objection was that China was not included in the negotiations. Since the "special interests" mentioned in the treaty were to be granted to Japan in China, it would seem that the latter had a right to a voice in the matter; otherwise its sovereignty seemed to be ignored. The same action had been taken by Japan and Russia in the Portsmouth treaty when a part of the Chinese province of Manchuria was divided between them and China was not notified until after the decision concerning the disposal of this territory had been reached. Although later they ratified this settlement, the Chinese felt that at that time their rights as a sovereign nation had not been considered, and the repetition of this act continued the precedent which seemed harmful to their national interests and pride.

These were some of the objections made against the terms of the treaty. Its meaning and influence were shown more clearly by its reception in each of the three nations concerned.

As soon as the Chinese government was informed of the agreement at issue, an official statement "in order to avoid misunderstanding," addressed to both the Japanese and American Governments, was issued. It stated that "the Chinese government had in its relations with foreign governments always followed the principles of justice and equality; that the rights extended to friendly nations by treaty had been consistently respected; that the special relations created by territorial contiguity were provided for in the treaties; and that henceforth as formerly, the Chinese Government would adhere to these principles, but that it could not allow itself to be bound by any agreement entered into by other nations." In other words, China recognized special interests only in so far as they existed by virtue of treaties and agreements to which she was a party.

The Chinese as a whole seemed to appreciate the promises of America and Japan concerning the protection of their territorial rights; but they were in doubt as to the exact meaning of the agreement, due to the double interpretation of the various "special interests." An American authority has characterized it as "a harmless recognition of a simple fact, or a cargo of diplomatic dynamite, according to interpretation and application." He went on to say:(20) "There is no question but that for a long time the people of the United States and the people of Japan did not understand the term 'open door' in the same sense. Do they now? Have the American and the Japanese governments achieved a meeting of the minds as to the connotation of the term 'special interests'? In case of disagreement as to whether a given measure does or does not infringe China's independence or the principle of equal opportunity, who is to decide? . . . In 1915 the Japanese Government insisted that its demands upon China did not infringe treaty rights; China insisted that they did. When China, under pressure of an ultimatum, agreed to some fifteen of the things demanded, the United States, without committing itself as to whether they did or did not do so, merely went on record to the effect that it would not recognize any agreement impairing the rights of the United States, the integrity of China, or the principle of the 'open door.'"

Some of the less well-informed Chinese viewed the agreement as a sign of America's tacit approval of Japan's recent action in China. The general attitude seemed to be one of anxiety as to the eventual meaning and implications of the agreement.

Concerning Japan's pledge not to allow any attack upon Chinese territorial integrity, or independence, the China Press, as quoted in Millard's Review of Oct. 6th, said:

"Baron Ishii announces that Japan is 'prepared to defend the independence of China against any aggression. This is all to the good. There is only one nation that threatens China, and if Japan will defend China against the aggression of that nation, China will survive. If Japan, to put it plainly, will defend China against Japanese aggressions, all will be well."

A final comment was that "no two powers could guarantee between themselves a continuation of China's independence as a sovereign state, or could make certain a preservation of its national territorial integrity. The only way in which these aims could be accomplished seemed to be in a growth of power on China's own part, which would enable it to defend its domains from any aggressions by a foreign power."(21)

The Japanese, although there were some who criticized the agreement because it did not seem definite enough as to their desired powers in China, were generally satisfied with the agreement. The best indication of their approval was the immediate selection of Viscount Ishii as Ambassador to America. They believed that the way was open for their recognized leadership in the Orient. One of their publicists, writing in an American magazine, said:

"The new understanding between the United States and Japan will be held in Japan as the greatest piece of constructive achievement of the diplomatic history of the Far East for many a generation. To Japan it is a double triumph. . . . Japan has been the ally of the British Empire for years. That the greatest power in the two Americas now recognizes her leadership of the Far Eastern states must mean a good deal . . . to my countrymen. Besides laying a pretty solid foundation stone of the future peace of Japan, the achievement of the Ishii Mission crowns high the cup of Japan's political aspirations."(22)

The view of the treaty taken in the United States followed a middle course, as compared with these two estimates. The chief criticism was along the lines already indicated, but America was hopeful that it had solved a difficult situation with satisfaction to both China and Japan. This attitude was expressed in a statement by Secretary Lansing, accompanying the publication of the treaty. He said:

"By openly proclaiming that the policy of Japan is not one of aggression, and by declaring that there is no intention to take advantage commercially or industrially of the special relations to China created by geographical position, the representatives of Japan have cleared the diplomatic atmosphere of suspicion. . . . The principal result of the negotiations was the mutual understanding which was reached as to the principles governing the policies of the two governments in relation to China. This understanding is formally set forth in the notes exchanged, and now made public. The statements in the notes require no explanation. They not only contain a reaffirmation of the ' open door' policy, but introduce a principle of non-interference with the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, which, generally applied, is essential to perpetual international peace, as clearly declared by President Wilson, and which is the very foundation, also, of Pan-Americanism, as interpreted by this government."

True friends of China and Japan warmly hope that this estimate of the outcome of the agreement will be borne out by future events.

Chapter Seven

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