The war between the two countries was going to be one of the bloodiest, most destructive and longest in the 20th century. Whereas World War I had spared the far East from a direct military escalation, the far East was then going to be the second major theatre of war.
The Sino-Japanese war: opportunism
“In my declaration to the bourgeois press I said it is a duty of all workers organisations in China to participate actively and to be front fighters in the war against Japan, without renouncing in any way whatsoever from their program and their autonomy. But this is ‘social patriotism’ – the Eifellists [the Grupo de Trabajadores Marxistas/Comunismo] shout. This is capitulation before Chiang Kai-shek! This is abandoning the principle of class struggle! During imperialist war Bolshevism propagated revolutionary defeatism. In the case of the Spanish civil war and the Chinese-Japanese war we are faced with imperialist wars. (…) “On the Chinese war we take up the same position. The only salvation for the workers and peasants of China is to fight as an autonomous force against both armies, against the Chinese army as well as against the Japanese army”. Already these few lines from the documents of the Eiffelists [Grupo de Trabajadores Marxistas] of September 1, 1937 allow us to conclude: Either these are traitors or total idiots.... China is a semi-colonial country, which – in front of our eyes - is being transformed into a colonial country by Japan. In the case of Japan it is fighting an imperialist, reactionary war. In the case of China, it is fighting a progressive war of liberation... Japanese patriotism is the horrible face of international banditism. Chinese patriotism is legitimate and progressive” (letter to Diego de Rivera, in Trotsky on China, p, 547, Trotsky, Works, Hamburg, 1990)
In a first phase, between 1937-1941, the war was more or less “limited” to fighting between Japan and China, which was backed above all by Russia. The second phase began in 1941, when a new war front opened up between Japan and the USA. When Japan started the occupation of China the army was hoping to stage a blitzkrieg and have everything under control within a few months. The opposite was going to be the case. In August 1937 Japan entered into a massive military battle with more than half a million soldiers involved in the fight for the city of Shanghai. Other big battles followed around Wuhan and in December 1937 for Nanking. It is estimated that between August 1937 and November 1938 alone some 2 million Chinese and some 500,000 Japanese soldiers fell.
Yet, despite the heavy Chinese losses, the Japanese army was not able to force the Chinese troops onto their knees. Between October 1938 and the attack on Pearl Harbour (on the 7th December 1941) the China war “stagnated”. Japan only managed to control some enclaves which corresponded to 10% of the territory. In addition, the Japanese government lost financial control over expenditures (the share of arms in the budget rose from 31% in 1931-32 to 47% in 1936-37, at the end of the 1930s arms spending counted for 70% of the budget)..
The more desperate the Japanese military strategy became, the more terror it applied following the motto “kill, burn, loot everything you can”.
When Japanese troops entered the capital city of Nanking in 1937 they committed one of the most atrocious massacres; around 300,000 people were killed in a relentless carnage in Nanking alone. The Chinese troops in turn were making partisan attacks and practising a scorched earth policy.
During the war with Japan, the Chinese bourgeoisie managed to establish only a very fragile “united front”. Even if, following the Japanese attack on China in 1937, the Chinese bourgeoisie closed ranks, in January 1941 both KMT nationalist troops and the Maoist armies clashed again. As the war unfolded, Red Army forces – after many advances and retreats – became the dominant force, reversing the hierarchy which had existed at the beginning of the conflict.
Thus after 1941, after decades of repeated wars in China, after four years of more or less bilateral war between China and Japan, the conflict in Asia then escalated into an all-out confrontation in the whole of Asia. Between 1941 and 1945 the war engulfed all the countries in East Asia and also Australia.
Initially Japan made some quick gains – after its crushing victory at Pearl Harbour. Within a few months Japan conquered large areas of South-East Asia. Its troops occupied the British colony Hong Kong, large parts of the Philippines, landed in the Dutch Indies (later Indonesia), and penetrated into Burma. Within 100 days they reached the coast of Australia and India.1
Whereas World War I had largely spared the far East and South-East Asia from the war, these areas became now involved for the first time in such carnage.2
1 In most countries, Japan tried to draw local supporters of “national independence” from the colonial powers Britain and Holland into its orbit. Thus in India Japan gained the support of Indian nationalists who wanted to split from their colonial power Britain. The German Nazi regime had succeeded in recruiting nationalists in the Middle East for its offensive, Japanese imperialism presented itself as a force of “liberation” from British colonialism.
2 The carnage over the South East Asian Japanese war conquests left behind an extremely high blood toll. The battle over the Philippines was one of the bloodiest. For example in the fight for the island Leyte some 80,000 Japanese soldiers died, in the fight for Luzon 190,000 Japanese soldiers fell, the defence of Okinawa cost the lives of 110,000 Japanese soldiers, the US army lost some 50,000 soldiers in the conquest of Okinawa alone.