A Brief History of Modern East Asia


East Asia had an eventful and turbulent history over the last century.  With two World Wars, the fallout of imperialism, the rise of communism, and a series of deadly civil wars her historical trajectory has been anything but stable.  Looking at nations such as Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea we see the impact of these various conflicts and factors, as well as contrasting roads to independence and modernity.  Japan was the first to modernize and became the dominant power in the region until her defeat and ruin in “World War 2” only to be rebuilt as an economic powerhouse in the second half of the 20th Century.  China suffered decades of civil war, western exploitation and Japanese imperialism, the evils of Maoism but then managed to reform economically to the point she is arguably America’s greatest rival.  Taiwan enjoyed a mixed existence under Japanese occupation for 50 years followed by martial law, and “Cold War” angst, but eventually emerged as a much freer and richer society than mainland China.  Korea and Vietnam were subjected to imperialism, civil war and superpower proxy contests yet otherwise suffered two significantly different fates.  However, while East Asia’s major wars seem long ago there is much unfinished business and current issues that make the region potentially volatile. 


Japan’s last century has been remarkable, impressive and controversial.  When Commodore Perry sailed his modern American warships into Tokyo bay in 1853 Japan was a feudal, technologically backwards state compared to the Western powers.  However, thanks to hard work and brilliant planning Japan’s Meiji leaders managed to more or less catch up to the West in a bit over a generation.  Modern industry, armed might, infrastructure and education quickly sprung up around Japan and eventually produced some unexpected developments.

Japan’s decisive defeat of China in the “First Sino-Japanese War” of 1894-95 surprised the Europeans and Chinese.  Meanwhile Japan’s eventual but still impressive defeat of Russia in the “Russo-Japanese War” of 1904-05 shocked everyone and given that an Asian power had decisively defeated a Western power at the height of European imperialism suggested to all that Japan had joined the club of great nations.  Japan’s annexations of Taiwan, Korea, and various Chinese and Pacific territories from 1895 to Manchuria in 1931 provided further impetus for Japanese expansion.  Meanwhile American and European worries about the Great Depression and German militarism meant Japan’s increasing aggression in the Far East went unchecked.

However, Japan’s continuing arrogant and heavy handed behaviour in China inevitably led to the break out of the “Second Sino-Japanese War” in July 1937.  Japan had not expected war but assumed she could defeat China quickly.  This optimism inevitably faded as Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese people refused to admit defeat despite the loss of countless soldiers, the Japanese occupation of the coastal and industrial heartland of China, and the limited prospect of foreign powers coming to China’s aid.  Yet as time went on Germany overran much of Europe, and with Japan doing the same to China, and committing unspeakable crimes like the “Rape of Nanking,” America woke up to the growing threat of Germany and Japan.

Eventually Japan went a nation too far by annexing French Indochina and this led to America’s oil embargo, Pearl Harbor and war.  Unfortunately for Japan her imaginary superior martial qualities and fanaticism did not defeat American industry, technology and nuclear weapons.  By mid-1945 Japan’s navy was sunk, her air force decimated, her people starving and her cities reduced to ash.  After Japan’s surrender American forces occupied Japan and a new saga for the island nation began.  What would become of Japan’s extensive empire which included much of China, Taiwan, all of Vietnam, Korea and great swaths of Asia and the Pacific would be determined by anti-colonialism, communism and super power rivalry.

Yet ironically Japan benefited more from the postwar era than her former imperial possessions.  American occupation brought money, stability, democracy and freedoms, open markets and the encouragement to concentrate on economic potential in lieu of samurai militarism.  This along with traditional Japanese work ethic, and economic booms from the Korean and Vietnamese wars, helped Japan along her path to near economic superpower status (only recently has China overlapped Japan to become the 2nd economic power of the world).

Versus the Meiji period until 1945 which saw the worst vestiges of Japanese militarism and imperialism the postwar period has benefited not only Japan but the region and world via Japanese culture, trade, and stability.  However, despite such success Japan’s role in modern Asia is not without controversy.  Japan’s halfhearted apologies and efforts to compensate for “World War 2” have not brought closure to the legacy of Japanese imperialism or brought harmony regarding relations with her East Asian neighbours.  Certainly the rise of right wing nationalists and educational curriculum that either downplay, or ignore, the horrific nature of Japanese imperialism and war crimes, or even portray Japan as the victim in “World War 2,” has done nothing to help Japan’s diplomatic position in East Asia.  This can be contrasted with Germany’s laudable efforts since 1945 which have done much to sooth Europe and bring her into the fold of the European community while Japan seems destined for some time to be at the periphery of East Asian affairs. 


Traditionally Korea was a tributary state of China.  Yet after the “First Sino-Japanese War” Japan wrestled Chinese influence away but then had to deal with Tsarist Russian influence permeating there.  When Russia failed to compromise with Japan over Korea and Manchuria the two nations went to war which led to the decisive victory of Japan in 1905.

This knocked Russia out of major influence for East Asia for four decades and gave Japan the dominant role in the region.  A few years after the “Russo-Japanese War” Japan annexed Korea which remained a Japanese possession until 1945.  Japanese rule was harsh, exploitive and cared little about Korean culture, freedoms or livelihood.  Having secured Korea from Russian and Chinese influence Japan exploited her position in Korea to eventually invade Manchuria and then expand war into China in 1931 and 1937 respectively.

Korea’s postwar fate was decided at the Tehran conference when America essentially bribed the Soviet Union into entering the war against Japan a few months after the defeat of Germany by promising territory and perks in East Asia.  Russia’s brief role in the war in the Far East was to invade Manchuria, and Korea, to defeat the considerable Japanese forces stationed there.  This had the desired effects of weakening Japan, and along with the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, convinced Japan to surrender in August 1945.  

The division of Korea in 1945 was not made by statesmen or generals but junior American officials in the field.  On their own initiatives they suggested to the Soviets they should divide the occupation of Korea at the 38th parallel and remarkably the Soviets agreed and stopped there considering they could easily have proceeded south and conquered more of the peninsula before significant American forces arrived.  For the next 5 years abortive attempts were made to unify the nation but the northern communist part and the authoritarian southern one could not agree and thus Korea remained divided.

Within 5 years the Soviets had strongly rearmed North Korea while the Americans neglected the South’s armed forces.  With Stalin and Mao, who had just came to power in China, gambling that America would do nothing North Korea was encouraged to reunify the Korean peninsula by force.  Yet surprisingly, even to American officials and allies, Truman decided to make a stand for South Korea and so the “Korean War” started in June 1950 and lasted three years.

Despite being America’s forgotten war of the 20th Century the Korean conflict was actually more bloody and dirty than the “Vietnam War” and closer to starting superpower conflict and nuclear war once China intervened.  However, in the end, despite the see saw battles that went up and down the peninsula for the first year the war ended in stalemate near the 38th Parallel.  Both sides claimed victory; America for saving South Korea, China for saving North Korea, but at the time it was not really a win for anyone (especially the bombed out, suffering Koreans).

Yet in the long term the war obviously benefitted South Korea and America more than North Korea and China.  Within a few decades the South threw off the yoke of oppression and stagnation and moved towards democracy and economic prosperity while the supposed communist utopia continued onwards to the path of Stalinism, poverty and decline.  America gained credibility by coming to South Korea’s defense while Mao’s China was labelled a rogue state for a generation.

Looking at Korea today no objective person would conclude the Orwellian rogue state with nukes in the North is a better nation, or has a better way of life, than her democratic and prosperous neighbour to the south.  However, the unfinished business and legacy of the “Korean War” and the potential, if unlikely, prospect of nuclear war in East Asia are constant reminders that more than 100 years after the “Russo-Japanese War” Korea is still a major flashpoint for the world’s great powers.  On one hand North Korea with nukes is really no less dangerous than Stalinist Russia or Maoist China but certainly the North Korean armed forces could inflict widespread damage and death on South Korea.  However, the supposedly crazy leaders of North Korea have rarely been true believers of spreading communism and have no death wish to fight America to the death.  Rather they often use their only trump card, nuclear weapons, to gain economic and political concessions from other nations, and provoke the West and their allies to threaten the regime in Pyongyang just enough so that it can justify its cruel military dictatorship over its starving and oppressed people.  Frankly it is the same routine Arab despots and monarchs use rather than attempting democratizing and reform but unlike them North Korea has nukes and thus world opinion usually listens when in reality she is a paper tiger.

Since the war ended in 1953 North Korea has done some missile launches, and made bombastic speeches, but besides shelling a few islands has never really come close to going to war with South Korea and America.  Whatever the cost for the latter, a war would hurt North Korea much more and the regime’s leadership would gain nothing in potential aid, and concessions, and arguably cease to exist at the end of hostilities.  Thus it makes sense for Pyongyang to sabre rattle once in a while to remind the world of her existence but pull back from the brink before warfare which would destroy her.  However, admittedly one poor miscalculation on either side, or the actions of a crazy warmonger in North Korea, could destroy this balance and ignite a devastating war in the Far East.


Perhaps Vietnam’s modern history is the most controversial regarding East Asia.  Vietnam was conquered by France and absorbed into French Indochina in the 19th Century.  Before this, Vietnam had traditionally been a tribute state of China and had often combatted Chinese attempts at dominating the Vietnamese peninsula.  Either way French colonial rule was typically exploitive, cruel and benefited few Vietnamese.  The exception were some Vietnamese that were cultivated to help the French rule and many of these were sent oversees to France for education.  This included Ho Chi Minh and ironically rather than cementing French rule the exposure to French education and the ideas of freedom, equality and liberalism, as well as the exposure to communist ideology, created a small cadres of Vietnamese committed to overthrowing French colonial rule.

Initially these forces had little success and had to operate underground until the Fall of France in 1940 and the subsequent Japanese penetration into, and ultimate annexation of, French Indochina.  Calling themselves the Viet Minh these communist forces used the decline of French power and Japanese oppression to expand their base and mobilize people to their causes.  Much like Mao’s Communists in China they did not do much fighting to hurt the Japanese in “World War 2” but they did gain enough strength to give them a position of strength by the time war ended in 1945.  After Japan surrendered Chinese Nationalist forces occupied the North part of Vietnam, while British forces occupied the South, as the Viet Minh tried to declare Vietnamese independence, and established their own government, before the French returned to reclaim their erstwhile colony.

However, the French returned in force and after futile negotiations war broke out between the French and the Vietminh in late 1946.  What could have remained a limited conflict became a proxy war in the “Cold War” for two reasons.  Firstly, the rise of the PRC in 1949 (a friendly communist neighbour to the north) benefited the Vietminh massively regarding aid, weapons and safe zones which allowed them to not only survive French armed force but eventually produce their own regular army to fight them head on.  Secondly, despite America’s initial wish to destroy colonialism after 1945 the Americans eventually backed the French efforts in Vietnam due to their increasing fears of communism.  Often this is viewed cynically but given that between 1945-1950 there were communist insurgencies in Greece, Malaya, the Philippines, that the CCP triumphed in China and that there was communist backed forces fighting in Korea and Vietnam suggests there were legitimate reasons for America to fear the growth of communism.

Thus Chinese aid allowed the Vietminh to survive and then build up their forces to successfully fight the French while American aid allowed the French to continue their doomed empire in Vietnam for another decade.  In the end the French killed more Vietnamese but never won over the populace or defeated the Vietminh politically, or militarily, and after the Vietminh won the unexpected victory at “Dien Bien Phu” France’s political will to continue the war collapsed and she sued for peace.

Yet rather than securing all of Vietnam due to their victory, the Viet Minh had to accept the division of the country (like Korea) between the communist dominated North and a more pro-west, American leaning, but still authoritarian southern regime.  In all the drama, and poison of the battle of history regarding the ensuing “Vietnam War” it is often forgotten that while North Vietnam being more rural, agrarian, and pro-communist the South was more urban, cosmopolitan and leaned towards the West.  Communist sympathizers and others suggest the South was just as pro-communist as the North, but numbers and events do not bear this out.

For instance, during the “French Indochina War” the vast majority of the Viet Minh bases, recruits and sympathy were in the North while few of these, and none of the main battles, were in the South.  Additionally, after the 1954 agreement at least a million inhabitants fled from the North versus perhaps a tenth of this number from the South who emigrated the other way.  Then there is the fact that when well led, equipped and motivated the South Vietnamese army did well and resisted the communist forces against her.  In 1968 it helped American forces fight off the “Tet Offensive,” in 1972 it fought off the Easter Offensive and even in 1975 it fought well despite America abandoning her.  After 1975 two million Southern Vietnamese refugees fled the country and many experts believe that near the end of the war less than 30% of the South’s population welcomed communism.  All of this illustrates that Vietnam was more than a proxy war between America on one hand and Russia with China on the other; it was also a bitter civil war.

Either way after the division of Vietnam in 1954 the promised elections and attempts to unify the nation (again like Korea) never happened and thus both sides inevitably drew closer towards war.  With France gone America continued to support South Vietnam and her corrupt, authoritarian regime, hoping it would improve while the North Vietnamese grew tired of waiting and eventually supported communist insurgents in Southern Vietnam (the Viet Cong).  Unfortunately, while the South Vietnamese generally did not support communism their government in Saigon was admittedly more corrupt, less motivated and not as determined to prosecute a do or die struggle compared to the Communist North.  

During the next decade the North would continue to support the Vietcong with arms, supplies, recruits and even NVA Army units (always violating Cambodian and Laotian neutrality) and by the mid-1960s the South was clearly losing the battle against communism.  Much ink had been spilt about American objectives, methods and failures in Vietnam but the war was not an aggressive war against Vietnam or even North Vietnam.  Rather, much like Korea and Taiwan, America was invited by a government with a mostly anti-communist population to save her from communist aggression.  Whatever rights and wrongs of the conflict, America’s objectives were strategically defensive to prop up an ally and never to rollback communism in North Vietnam.

Yet if American goals were mostly noble her execution of the war was less so.  While North Vietnamese excesses were generally worse than that of America (not to mention grossly forgotten by many histories of the conflict) there is no doubt that American reliance of firepower, strategic bombing, head counts and conventional military sweeps did result in disproportionate collateral damage, civilian losses and frankly war crimes.  It is a myth that America lost the military struggle in the war; America never lost a battle of any consequence.  However, by failing to cut off North Vietnamese aid to the Vietcong, the lack of focus on protecting the South Vietnamese population and increasing their standard of living, and the ultimate failure to support South Vietnam after America left in 1973 meant that all America’s efforts were vain in the end.  

The political, and therefore ultimate, goal of America’s war in Vietnam was to keep South Vietnam independent and non-communist.  Any way you look at it, America failed to accomplish this so she lost the war.

However, America’s loss has been overstated.  America suffered a political and diplomatic defeat by the “Vietnam War” but besides the “credibility gap” in America the effects were eventually limited.  In reality, the war hurt worldwide communism more.  During the conflict Russia and China competed more and more and even got into a brief border war which accelerated the Sino-Soviet split which Nixon used to get China into the Western camp (by far worth the loss of South Vietnam in a cold realpolitik sense).  More ironic was the war between Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1970s, and the war between Vietnam and China in 1979 (all between communist states who had supported each other during the war).  Thus the “Vietnam War” not only corrected relations between America and China but helped divide world communism.

The long term effects are harder to articulate but it is interesting that in modern times Vietnam is not growing closer to China but to America which again suggests that whatever the latter’s flaws she is often seen as more benign, or less intrusive, than strong powers in Asia like Russia, Japan, and China.  It should be remembered that while Vietnam’s conflict with America occurred over a few decades the Vietnamese determination to resist Chinese hegemony has been an ongoing theme for centuries.

As for Vietnam herself it has to be admitted that unlike Stalinism, Maoism, the killing fields of Cambodia and other Red unpleasantries that Vietnam’s form of communism has been less bloody and oppressive (in the long run at least) in comparison.  There are similarities to China like more openness to economic reforms and capitalism and while democracy is not seen on the horizon the people enjoy relative happiness and cohesion comparable to Tito’s former Communist Yugoslavia.  That said, the Vietnamese people do not benefit from the relative freedom, prosperity and standard of living compared to those in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan which begs the question of how South Vietnam would have turned out if America had not abandoned her but stood by her like these other nations.  


In a bit over a century China has gone from a divided, backwards and foreign dominated nation into perhaps the second strongest country in the world.  Meanwhile her economic growth rates and influence are growing while fears about American decline seem more and more credible given the vicissitudes of the Trump administration and the apparent moral, and cultural, decay of American society.  If the 20th Century was America’s the 21st Century may still belong to China.

With Japan’s unexpected victory in the “First Sino-Japanese War” China’s Qing Dynasty attempted some reforms to modernize its increasingly backwards nation.  However, these were often halfhearted, late in the day, and given the poor communications and divided state of China these had little positive effects by the time of the Chinese Revolution in 1911.  Ostensibly China became a republic under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen at this time but given that China was in reality divided into many small pieces controlled via warlords his power was limited and eventually he and his Kuomintang party (the Chinese Nationalists) were forced from power.  

The Warlord period followed as Sun Yat-sen and his acolytes attempted to gain power via alliances, force, or machinations over the next 15 years to little avail.  However, they were aided by the new communist regime in Moscow and the Chinese Communist Party who both felt they could initially ally with Sun’s Nationalist Party to first gain power in China and then expend the Nationalists later.  With Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925 his loyal, stern, and incorruptible subordinate Chiang Kai-shek won the power struggle to be his successor.  He soon convinced the Nationalists, and their CCP allies, to expand across China to defeat the warlords and unify the nation against foreign and domestic enemies via the “Northern Expedition.”

In a few years the Nationalists advanced to Wuhan, Nanking, Shanghai, and Peking, defeated or co-opted warlord factions and unified China in principle.  However, despite becoming the strongest force in China the Nationalists were beset by many problems.  Many warlord forces refused to collaborate with them, the Japanese fought Chiang in Northern China, the country was still broke and backwards, and the united front with the CCP broke down.  Admittedly, Chiang Kai-shek initiated this break with the CCP with a bloody purge in Shanghai and elsewhere but the evidence is clear that the CCP, with Moscow’s backing, were planning to betray the Nationalists eventually.

For the next decade, the “Nanking Decade,” Chiang and the Nationalists fought warlords and the CCP, appeased and sometimes fought the Japanese, sought foreign aid and recognition, and attempted to initiate widespread reforms, modernization, and industrialization in a divided nation with little stability, money, and military power.  The surprise is not that they failed often, but that they survived at all!  There were some successes such as the near destruction of the CCP by 1936, the German aid that led to some Chinese rearmament, and trappings of modernization in Chinese urban areas, but given the many domestic and foreign enemies of the Nationalists, among other issues, the circumstances were hardly ideal to modernize China, build a strong state, or improve most Chinese lives.

Perhaps Chiang’s worst foes were the CCP and the Japanese.  However, while Japan’s army was by far the strongest threat Chiang was convinced the CCP was the main enemy.  As he once remarked “the Japanese are a disease of the skin, the Communists are a disease of the heart.”  This statement would appear to be as laughable in 1936 as it would be prophetic in 1949.  

The turning point for the Nationalists and CCP was the “Second Sino-Japanese War,” often seen as the beginning of “World War 2,” which began out of mistakes, miscalculations and overreactions.  The war was long, brutal, and ultimately hurt the Nationalists as much as it saved the CCP.  China’s coastal, industrial, and urban heartland were occupied by the Japanese, millions of Chinese were killed, maimed or became refugees, and the Japanese committed unspeakable war crimes which Japan often denies to this day.

Chiang and the Nationalists until recently have received generally poor treatment by history for their conduct of the war but much of this is unfair.  It is true that the Nationalists often made poor military decisions, that their officers and soldiers were of mixed quality, and that there was plenty of corruption, nepotism, and incompetence among their war effort.  However, considering China was a divided, backwards, and poor nation without the benefit of significant foreign aid, fighting a major power this should not be surprising.

What is not true are the accusations that the Nationalists usually refused to fight the Japanese, that the CCP fought the Japanese more than the Nationalists, that America and the allies gave sufficient aid to the Nationalists, and that Chiang was not a team player in the allied war effort.  In reality, the Nationalists fought hopeless battles all the way from Shanghai to Chungking, killed the majority of Japanese soldiers in China, suffered over 90% of all militarily casualties (while the CCP generally stayed on the defensive), and even conducted campaigns to help the allies in Burma despite the latter failing to honour their commitments to Chiang via weapons, lend lease, and promised military operations.  Many histories of the war mock Chiang Kai-Shek as a parasite for lend lease, but China got less of it than all major allied powers (even the Free French) and most of what it got was not to help the Chinese but to support American forces stationed in China.  

While admittedly it was the American advance across the pacific, along with her submarines, bombers, and nukes that defeated Japan the Chinese deserve credit for never surrendering, keeping the majority of Japanese divisions in China, and holding out for more than 8 years of war (China fought in “World War 2” two years longer than Britain and four more years than Russia and America).

With the Japanese surrender in 1945 Chiang Kai-Shek had survived, and China was recognized as a great power, but the Nationalists had been severely weakened by years of warfare.  Meanwhile the CCPs, although admittedly still behind the Nationalists regarding soldiers, population, and territory, had ended the war in a much stronger position than they had enjoyed in 1937.  In the postwar race between the Nationalists and CCP to retake China’s cities from Japanese occupation the Nationalists generally won thanks to major help from American ships and airlifts.  The exception was Manchuria which the Russians had occupied in the summer of 1945 and who collaborated with the communists to take over once the former’s forces left.  Indeed the fight over Manchuria between the CCP and Nationalists would determine the outcome of the final part of the “Chinese Civil War.”

In lieu of Japan’s surrender Chiang invited Mao to Chungking for talks to potentially make peace and create a coalition government, but due to irreconcilable differences and deep rooted hostility, this failed and civil war quickly ensued.  Chiang’s forces had significant numerical and material advantages and at first his army routed the CCP and was seemingly on the brink of winning a decisive victory in Manchuria.  Unfortunately George Marshall had been sent by Truman to arrange a cease fire and American pressure halted the Nationalist’s offensive in mid-1946.  Whether or not Chiang could have beaten the CCP by solely military means is questionable but this was his best chance to do so with hindsight.

After this, the Nationalists committed themselves to occupying as much of Manchuria as possible and given the sheer distances, logistical issues, and the guerrilla tactics of the CCP, it slowly wore down Chiang’s forces until late 1948 the CCP was strong enough to begin routing the Nationalist forces and eventually overrun mainland China.  Committing to an all-out strategy to contest Manchuria would prove to be Chiang’s biggest mistake, would cost him mainland China, and is strange considering how in the past he had always known how to play a poor hand against strong opponents.  Although given the insurmountable postwar issues facing the Nationalists including rampant inflation and the cutting off of American aid in 1946, along with considerable Russian support enjoyed by the CCP, perhaps the Nationalists were doomed once war broke out anyways.

In October 1949, Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in Beijing and was committed to invading Taiwan (where the Nationalists had fled) the next year to finish the civil war comprehensively.  Unfortunately for Mao in the summer of 1950 Truman ordered American naval forces to defend Taiwan in lieu of the “Korean War” which saved the Nationalist regime and to this day Taiwan is independent from the mainland’s rule.

With the triumph of communism in China in 1949 Mao had fulfilled the Chinese dream that for decades hoped to unify the country and end foreign imperialism and humiliation of China.  The fact the KMT had accomplished most of this prior to their defeat in the civil war was conveniently forgotten.  Either way with indisputable power, backing from the Soviet Union, and a Chinese population eager to follow him Mao sought to modernize China, create a communist state, and reach utopia.

To his credit Mao improved infrastructure, healthcare and education, and initially enacted widespread land reform to redistribute land to China’s massive peasant population.  Had Mao been a more moderate and humane communist like Tito his legacy would probably be more positive.  However, being vindictive, zealous, and paranoid he inevitably turned what he hoped would be paradise into hell on earth.

In a series of anti-rightist campaigns Mao killed, or ruined, countless people.  The CCP’s occupation of Tibet and Xinjiang were also exceedingly bloody and repressive and to this day the Tibetans and Chinese Wiguars generally resent Beijing’s rule.  Worse of all, Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and establishments of communes (which took back the land the CCP had given to the masses) not only failed to increase agriculture and industry but resulted in the deaths of 10s of millions via famine and other causes.  Estimates are controversial but up to 70 million people died from the “Great Leap Forward” but even if the number was half, or a third, as much it is still ridiculously more than either the Nationalists or Japanese inflicted on China directly or indirectly.  

After this, Mao lost some power and credibility for a few years but in a bid to comeback he initiated the “Cultural Revolution” which destroyed much of the progress that had been remade since the end of the “Great Leap Forward.”  Using his Red Guards Mao persecuted teachers, parents, intellectuals, among others and brought progress and modernization in China to a halt once more.  While the death toll was not nearly as high as during the “Great Leap Forward” Mao’s campaign was clearly not a receipt for progress or the path to becoming a great power.

Most cynically of all Mao made a de facto alliance with America in the 1970s against the Soviet Union (her communist brother).  When Mao died in 1975 he was respected as a great politician and strategist, but given his butcher bill and policies that stagnated Chinese progress, economic growth, and industrialization for a generation, he cannot be considered a great man of history.  Certainly Taiwan did much better under Chiang than mainland China did under Mao.  Had Mao’s backwards and bloody-minded policies been continued after his death, instead of the necessary reforms by Deng Xiaoping, it is clear that China would have continued to decline instead of rising to near superpower status.

Fortunately after Mao’s death, his wife and other Maoist acolytes, were expended as Deng Xiaoping came to power and sensibly opened up China’s markets and initiated economic and limited political reforms. The result being that after a generation of these changes, supported by succeeding rulers in Beijing, has not resulted in a liberal democratic, China but has at least made her the world’s second biggest economy, improved the lot of many Chinese, and made China into a great power. 

In modern times China’s economy continues to grow and the CCP still has a monopoly on power despite the Chinese being more willing to show dissent but the future remains an “undiscovered country.”  On one hand America, with a slowing economy, as well as political, social, and cultural malaise seems destined to decline unless some moral rejuvenation occurs.  On the other hand pollution, corruption, political upheaval, separatist sentiment, and demographic issues are much worse in China than America while the latter stills has advantages in immigration, innovation and freedom and it is not a given that China will eclipse America as the world’s strongest nation.  Certainly most of China’s neighbours generally still prefer American protection to Chinese hegemony and given the considerable contradictions of CCP rule it is hard to see a politically communist, but economically capitalist regime stealing the mantle of world leadership.

It is hard to predict the future but this author at least thinks China’s police state will implode before America’s very imperfect democracy.


Taiwan is an interesting case study.  Unlike Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and China her history has been relatively bloodless (with notable exceptions) during the past century.  Becoming a de facto Japanese possession after the “First Sino-Japanese War” Taiwan admittedly received some modernization and industrialization under their Japanese overlords (much like Manchuria after 1931).  Many Taiwanese after 1945 contrasted this with the initial heavy handed conduct of the Nationalists, especially given the “February 28th Incident,” and unsurprisingly were unhappy with the massive influx of Chinese from the mainland after Chiang’s loss in the civil war in 1949.

This, along with the Nationalists’ imposition of martial law which lasted for decades and the “White Terror” certainly warrants some pause regarding the praise of Chiang Kai-shek versus Mao.  However, it is beyond dispute that modernization, industrialization, standard of living and general freedoms were much better in Taiwan under Chiang than Maoist China.  The “White Terror,” though ultimately unforgivable, was peanuts compared to what Mao did to the mainland Chinese.

Fast forwarding to today it might be charitable to suggest that Chiang envisaged the sort of liberal prosperous democracy that is now Taiwan, but at the same time his actions paved the way towards this, especially given the later stewardship of his son, and unlike Mao there were few comparable terrible bloodbaths, famines, or pointless excesses in Taiwan versus China.

However, there is unfinished business over Taiwan due to the fact Beijing has never accepted Taiwan’s independence, the significant military and strategic boost Beijing would get via absorbing the island nation, the fact that Taiwan’s success provides an alternate model to Chinese Communism, and the American alliance with Taiwan which, real or imagined, restricts Chinese influence in East Asia.

There seems no reason given the freedom and prosperity of the Taiwanese people, along with the decline of the Nationalist party in Taiwan, to believe there will ever be a reunification with the mainland and it is just as unlikely that China will try to conquer Taiwan by force so the status quo will probably continue indefinitely.  However, mistakes, miscalculations, or the actions of a firebrand aggressive leader in Beijing could upset this and arguably result in a cross strait war that involves the United States.  


What were the ultimate results of imperialism, communism, “Cold War” rivalry, the attempts at modernization, and independence for these nations in East Asia?  

European and American imperialism initially created the colonial states of East Asia but also inadvertently pushed Japan onto her own path towards modernization and imperialism.  This, along with the rise of Soviet Russia helped create communist underground movements that gained in numbers, and power, in many Asian nations after Japan’s conquests from 1937-1942.  The costs of “World War 2” which weakened western colonial empires such as the British, French and Dutch, combined with the anti-colonial agenda of America after “World War 2,” resulted in the de facto fall of imperialism in East Asia between 1945-54.

With a power vacuum opened by the departing Europeans it became a contest between America and the Soviet Union to gain these nations for their side.  Unsurprisingly Russia, backed communist groups including Mao’s CCP in Northern China, the communist regime in North Korea, and with the fall of China to communism in 1949 the PRC and Stalin backed the Vietminh against the French and later North Vietnam against South Vietnam.  Meanwhile America effectively dominated Japan, backed the French and later indigenous regime in South Vietnam, gave mixed aid to Chiang Kai-Shek in China, but eventually saved him in Taiwan and came to South Korea’s aid after having failed to arm her effectively against her northern neighbour.  

Eventually the result were prosperous, democratic and pro-American nations in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan on one hand, and an united Communist Vietnam, Orwellian nightmare in North Korea, and politically repressive but increasing prosperous China.  At the risk of sounding ethnocentric, and western biased, a case could be made that the American backed nations have done better in terms of freedom, economic progress, and most other indicators of good governance like healthcare, happiness, and accountability.  Communism has already shown itself to be a failure compared to democracy, or even capitalism, everywhere else in the world so why would it be better in East Asia?  The life expectancy, standard of living, pollution, corruption and police state nature of the communist states compared to their democratic counterparts does not exactly promise a long term recipe for winning the battle of history. 

Against this can be mentioned the collapse of American allies like the Nationalists in China as well as South Vietnam.  The charge that the communists were more efficient, less corrupt, and more dedicated in China and Vietnam than their enemies is ultimately correct.  However, foreign aid is often a crucial difference and while American aid at least saved Taiwan, South Korea and Japan it is notable that America prematurely (or perhaps foolishly) cut all significant aid to South Vietnam after 1973 and gave little to Chiang Kai-Shek in the last years of the “Chinese Civil War.”  It goes without saying that in these cases Mao and Stalin did not hold back crucial aid for their allies.   Additionally, the usual diatribes against corruption, motivation, and supposed incompetence has not only been directed against South Vietnam, and the Nationalists in China, but also regarding the formerly authoritarian regimes in South Korea and Taiwan.  Yet with long term American backing, and the chance to rebuild and reform, these latter nations are now democratic and economical models.  It is futile to debate what could have been, but South Vietnam and Nationalist China never got the best chance to go down this road because American policy makers, along with an American public tired of war, decided to cut off aid and abandon them.

As of 2018 there are no shortages of problems plaguing East Asia:  Japan’s refusal to come clean about “World War 2,” China’s rivalry with America and her longstanding issue regarding potential Taiwanese independence, North Korean nukes and the lack of peace with South Korea, and Vietnam’s uneasy relationship with China, remain stumbling points towards more peace and collaboration in the region.  Meanwhile the unpredictable, unreasonable, and maladjusted Trump administration in America throws another complication into this potentially volatile mix.  On one hand East Asia, in modern times at least, is more peaceful and better off politically and economically since before the “Opium Wars.”  On the other hand, it could take only one crisis along with miscalculations (such as the summer of 1914 in Europe), or one firebrand and crazy leader (like Hitler in 1939), to upset the balance of power or plunge the region into war.  None of this is likely, nor would it benefit any of East Asia’s nations.  But it happened in 1914, as well as 1945, and it could happen again.


Beckett, Ian.  Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies.  New York:  Routledge, 2003.

Boot, Max.  Invisible Armies:  An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.  New York:  Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013.

Cowley, Robert.  What If?:  The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been.  New York:  Berkley Books, 2000.

Cumings, Bruce.  The Korean War:  A History.  New York:  Modern Library, 2010.

Freedman, Lawrence, The Cold War.  London:  Cassell, 2001.

Hane, Mikiso and Louis Perez.  Modern Japan:  A Historical Survey, 5th Edition.  Boulder:  Westview Press, 2013.

Isaacs, Jeremy and Taylor Downing.  Cold War.  London:  Abacus, 2008.

Joes, Anthony.  Resisting Rebellion:  The History and Politics of Counterinsurgency.  Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Jowett, Philip and Stephen Walsh.  The Chinese Army 1937-49:  World War 2 and Civil War.  Oxford:  Osprey Publishing, 2005.

Kerr, Gordon.  A Short History of the Vietnam War.  Harpenden:  Pocket Essentials, 2015.  

Lynch, Michael.  Modern China.  London:  Teach Yourself, 2006.

Mitter, Rana.  Forgotten Ally:  China’s World War 2 1937-1945.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2013.

Moran, Daniel.  Wars of National Liberation.  London:  Cassell, 2002.

Murphey, Rhoads.  East Asia:  A New History 5th edition.  Upper Saddle River:  Longman, 2010.

Pipes, Richard.  Communism.  Toronto:  Modern Library, 2003.

Summers, Harry.  American Strategy in Vietnam:  A Critical Analysis.  Mineola:  Dover Publications, 2007.

Taylor, Jay.  The Generalissimo:  Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China.  Cambridge:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

Wiest, Andrew.  Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land.  Oxford:  Osprey, 2006.

Windrow, Martin.  The French Indochina War.  Oxford:  Osprey, 1998.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *