The advance of Russian imperialism and the world wide sharpening of imperialist tensions

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Russia’s drive for expansion pushed it towards central Asia and the far East. In the West its rivalries with Germany, France and GB were prevailing, around the Black Sea it clashed with the Ottoman Empire (in the Crimean war 1854-56 it had already confronted Britain and France), in central Asia it clashed with Britain, (Britain waged two wars over Afghanistan (1839-42, 1878-1880, in order to fend off Russian influence in Afghanistan). In the far East it had to come into conflict mainly with Japan and especially Britain – which was the dominant European imperialist force in the far East.

But the Russian expansion in the last quarter of the 19th century crystallised only a general drive of all capitalist nations for the conquest of new territories and markets on the whole globe.

In 1884 France occupied Annam (Vietnam) and blockaded Taiwan, Britain annexed Burma in 1885, the Berlin Conference settled the carve up of Africa in 1885.

As for the far East, with the appearance of Russia in this zone of conflicts, a new qualitative level was reached. With Russia as a European country directly challenging the increasing domination of Japan, this meant that any Russian move would automatically trigger off a whole chain of realignments amongst the European rivals, according to their rivalry or possible alliance with Russia.1

Following the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, and with the growing importance of the far East for the European imperialist rivals, Russia pushed ahead the construction of the Trans-Siberian railways in 1891. Unable to finance this gigantic project on its own, it had to borrow French capital. Japan, which aimed at expanding towards China and Korea, feared that any Russian advance towards the East might endanger its position.

Russia was advancing its pawns in the far East. Benefiting from Chinese weakening in its war with Japan in 1894, Russia signed a secret deal with China in 1896 claiming to act as a protecting force against Japan. In 1898 Russia conquered Port Arthur.

In order to counter the Russian advance and manoeuvres in the far East and central Asia, Britain proposed to Russia the division of China and the Ottoman Empire amongst themselves - Russia rejected this.

Since the rivalry between GB and Russia could not be settled, Russia had to try and "appease" Japan as long as it could. Following the failed arrangement between Russia and Britain, Russia tried to settle with Japan for respective zones of influence.

In 1902 negotiations started between Japan and Russia over their respective zones of influence in the far East. In essence Russia proposed to give Japan a free hand over Korea provided Japan would not use the peninsula as a staging base for military operations, Russia even proposed that territory north of the 39th parallel in Korea be declared a neutral zone which neither country would be permitted to station troops in, while Russia wanted control over Manchuria and other border zones to China (half a century later the country was divided at the same 38th parallel in the Korean war in 1953). Japan proposed to Russia that it take control over Korea and it would allow Russia to be in charge of the protection of railway lines (only!) in Manchuria, but not be given any territorial control.

But the negotiations showed that it had become impossible for Russia and Japan to try and divide their zones of interests without war.

Japan looked for allies. On January 30th 1902 Japan and Britain signed a treaty. They recognised the right of Japan and Britain to intervene in Chinese and Korean affairs, promised neutrality if one of the parties was at war over its zone of interest, and support in case of war against other countries. The treaty between Britain and Japan led Japan to believe that it could launch a war against Russia with the hope that no other country would support Russia since GB was threatening in the background. And the German government assured the Japanese government in case of a war between Russia and Japan, Germany would remain neutral. Germany was hoping if Russia started a war in the East, this would give Germany more room for manoeuvre against France – a Russian ally – and Britain.

By dealing at greater length with the complicated strategic details of these conflicts we wanted to show the development of extremely complex and strongly intertwined military rivalries, where it became clear that if one of the main antagonists moved, a whole chain reaction by other rivals was unleashed. All the countries were not only positioning themselves, but would also be involved in the unleashing of a lurking war.

1 During the first phase of Russian expansion towards the East, i.e. during the first half of the 19th century and even until the 1870’s the division of new territories could still sometimes be settled by the sale and purchase of new territories. For example, Russia sold Alaska to the USA at the price of 7.2 million US dollars in 1867. And even after Russia earlier on had occupied Xinjiang, the most western Chinese province, Russia sold this large area in 1881 to China.