Opinion: US Meddling In Asia an Old Story

This is a remarkable history lesson with a sting in the tail. In 1879 Ulysses S. Grant, the former American President (1868-76) and hero of the victory over the South, wound up a two-and-a-half-year world tour by visiting Asia, with China and Japan his last two stopovers.

In China Grant was greeted with due deference by the Regent, Prince Kung, and the Empire’s virtual head of government, Li Hung-chang, (The Kuang Hsu Emperor was only seven at that time.) Later Japan, influenced by the enthusiasm of its former Ambassador to Washington, Yoshida Kiyonari, accorded Grant the status of a visiting prince. A whip-round among leading Japanese businessmen ensured a lavish reception and gifts wherever Grant went, and he not only met the Meiji Emperor Mitsuhito but became the first person ever to shake his hand.

In China, Grant had sympathized with the Chinese over the way rapacious Western traders generally cheated and mistreated the Chinese, and also agreed with China’s arguments in its current dispute with Japan over sovereignty of what the Chinese called the Loochoo Islands. In Japan, however, Grant indicated his belief that Japan had a strong case for retaining possession of what they called the Ryukyus, a chain of 55 mostly small islands between southern-most Japan and northern Taiwan, the largest being Okinawa.

Grant emphasized to both parties that he now held no official position in the US. He did not mention that the extravagant reception he had received everywhere on his tour did not reflect his image in his homeland, where his two terms as Republican president had been characterized by shameless corruption. He has been described as “possibly the most ill-fitted person ever to become the nation’s President.” Nevertheless both China and Japan requested that he act as adjudicator, each side being confident of a favorable decision because of his flowery remarks.

Grant realized he had talked himself into an invidious position and tried to squirm out of giving a decision by saying that somebody more intimately knowledgeable about the issue should make the ruling. Furthermore, that third party should not be a European, because his decision might be swayed by future trading opportunities with the nominated “winner.”

But both sides persisted that he must adjudicate, and to China’s dismay he ruled in favor of Japan, softening the blow to the Chinese by adding that several of the smallest (and totally inconsequential) islands should be given to them. The Chinese court refused to accept his decision but the Japanese seized the moment – and all of the islands.

Today the United States consistently accords a sort of “favored nation” treatment to Japan while slamming the door in the face of China. Is its national amnesia so acute that it has forgotten about the treacherous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941? And the subsequent Pacific War that lasted more than three and a half years and cost so many American lives?

Bearing in mind America’s negative attitude to China, it was no surprise when Washington recently reaffirmed its commitment to Japan regarding another group of disputed islands that China calls the Diaoyus. In a masterpiece of diplomatic gobbledygook America said that while it “takes no position” on their ultimate sovereignty, it “acknowledges the administration of Japan over what it calls the Senkaku Islands, adding that “unilateral actions of a third party” would not affect its position.

This insulting effrontery was, by a vote in the US Senate, attached as a rider to America’s National Defense Authorization Bill.

What!

By what process of logic, reality or plain commonsense could this dispute between China and Japan be “attached” to legislation about American defense?

Let’s get down to cases. America has nursed a huge grudge against Beijing because in 1942 Washington, through President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, backed the wrong horse in China between the People’s Liberation Army of Chairman Mao Zedong and the grossly corrupt and incompetent Nationalist government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

It is interesting to note in retrospect that the Delano side of the President’s family made its fortune as a senior partner in the biggest American importers of opium into China, Russell and Company, of Canton. Roosevelt portrayed himself as knowledgeable about China and its affairs, and fell under the spell of Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Ensnared by her wily charms and cute Georgia accent, the former Soong Mei-ling beguiled FDR into backing Chiang’s Nationalists and snubbing Mao and his PLA forces in Ya’nan.

Mao repaid America’s rebuff by siding with North Korea in the Korean war of 1950-53, supporting Kim Il-sung against General Douglas MacArthur’s Allied forces in South Korea.

As usual, America had stuck its nose into a purely Asian dispute. Next came...ahem...its Vietnam catastrophe.

(Geoffrey Somers draws on his knowledge of Asian affairs based on 45 years' experience in Hong Kong as a newspaper and magazine editor, and Chief Information Officer for various Hong Kong Government departments.)