A Brief History of Modern East Asia

East Asia had an eventful and turbulent history the past century.  With two World Wars, the fallout of imperialism, the rise of communism, and deadly civil wars, its historical trajectory has not been stable.  Looking at nations like Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Korea we see the impact of these conflicts and factors, and contrasting path to independence and modernity. 

 Japan was the first to modernize and became the dominant power in the region until its defeat in World War 2, then was rebuilt as an economic powerhouse in the second half of the 20th Century.  China suffered decades of civil war, western exploitation and Japanese imperialism, and the evils of Maoism, but then reformed economically and is now America’s greatest rival.  Taiwan had a mixed existence under Japanese occupation for 50 years followed by martial law, Cold War angst, but emerged as a freer and richer society than China.  Korea and Vietnam were subjected to imperialism, civil war and superpower proxy contests but had different fates.  While East Asia’s major wars seem distant there is much unfinished business, and current issues, that make the region potentially volatile.


 Japanese modern history was remarkable, impressive and controversial.  When Commodore Perry sailed his American warships into Tokyo Bay in 1853 Japan was a feudal, technologically backward state compared to the Western powers.  However, due to hard work and brilliant planning, Japan’s Meiji leaders managed to mostly catch up to the West within decades.  Modern industry, armed might, infrastructure, and education quickly sprung up around Japan and produced unexpected developments.

Japan’s decisive defeat of China in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 surprised the Europeans and Chinese.  Japan’s defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 shocked the world, and confirmed Japan as a great power.  Japan’s annexations of Taiwan, Korea, and various Chinese and Pacific territories from 1895 to 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 continuous heavy-handed behavior in China led to the Second Sino-Japanese War in July 1937.  Japan had not expected war but assumed it would defeat China quickly.  This optimism faded as China refused to surrender despite losing countless soldiers, Japan occupying the coastal and industrial heartland of China, and limited prospect of foreign powers coming to China’s aid.  As Germany overran much of Europe, Japan doing the same in China, and committing warcrimes like the “Rape of Nanking,” America woke up to the threat of Germany and Japan.

Finally, Japan went a nation too far by annexing South French Indochina, leading to America’s oil embargo, Pearl Harbor, and war.  Unfortunately for Japan its imaginary superior martial qualities and fanaticism did not defeat American industry, technology, and nuclear weapons.  By mid-1945 Japan’s navy was sunk, its air force decimated, its people starving and, cities reduced to ash.  After Japan’s surrender America occupied Japan, and a new saga for the island nation began.  The fate of Japan’s empire including much of China, as well as Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea, would be determined by anti-colonialism, communism and superpower rivalry.

Ironically, Japan benefited more from the postwar era than its former imperial possessions.  American occupation brought money, stability, democracy, and encouragement to concentrate on economic potential in lieu of samurai militarism.  This with traditional Japanese work ethic, and economic booms from the Korean and Vietnam wars, propelled Japan to near economic superpowerdom.

Compared to the Meiji period until 1945, that saw the worst of Japanese militarism, the postwar era benefited not only Japan, but East Asia and the world via Japanese culture, trade, and stability.  However, despite this Japan’s place 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 harmonious relations with many neighbors.  The rise of right wing nationalists and school curriculum that downplay, or ignore, the horrific nature of Japanese imperialism and war crimes, or portray Japan as the victim in World War 2, has not helped Japan’s diplomatic position in East Asia.  This can be contrasted with Germany’s laudable efforts since 1945, which has soothed relations and brought it into the European community, as Japan struggles to integrate with East Asian affairs at times.


Korea was traditionally a tributary state of China.  But in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) Japan wrestled Chinese influence away, and then had to deal with Russian influence permeating there.  When Russia did not compromise with Japan over Korea and Manchuria, the two nations went to war, leading to Japan’s decisive victory in 1905.

With this, Japan replaced Russia as the most influential power of North East Asia for four decades.  In 1910 Japan annexed Korea which remained a Japanese colony until 1945.  Japanese rule was harsh, and unconcerned with Korean culture, freedoms, or livelihood.  Having secured Korea from Russian and Chinese influence, Japan exploited its position in Korea to eventually invade Manchuria and expand war into China in 1931 and 1937 respectively.

 Korea’s fate after World War 2 was decided at the Yalta Conference (1945), when America bribed the Soviet Union into attacking Japan three months after the defeat of Germany by promising territory and perks in East Asia.  Russia’s brief role included invading Manchuria and Korea to defeat the strong Japanese forces stationed there.  This severely weakened Japan, and with the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, convinced Japan to surrender in August 1945. 

 The division of Korea in 1945 was not finalized by statesmen or generals, but junior American officials in the field.  On their own they suggested to Russia to divide the occupation of Korea at the 38th parallel, and the Russians agreed.  This is odd as Russia could have moved south to occupy most of the Korean peninsula before American forces arrived.  The next 5 years saw attempts to unify Korea, but the northern communist part and authoritarian southern one, could not agree so Korea remained divided.

By 1950 Russia had strongly rearmed North Korea, while America neglected South Korea’s military.  With Stalin and Mao, who only came to power in China in 1949, gambling America would do nothing, North Korea was encouraged to reunify the Korean peninsula by force.  Yet surprisingly, even to many American officials and allies, President Truman made a stand for South Korea, and the Korean War would last three years.

 Despite being America’s forgotten war of the 20th Century, the Korean conflict was more bloody and dirty than the Vietnam War, and closer to superpower conflict and nuclear war once China intervened.  Despite the many dramatic advances and retreats by both sides in the first year, the war ended in stalemate along the 38th Parallel.  Both sides claimed victory; America for saving South Korea, China for saving North Korea, but at the time it was not a win for anyone (especially the Korean people who lost over 3 million deaths).

But in the long term the war benefitted South Korea and America more than North Korea and China.  Within decades South Korea moved past authoritarianism to democracy and economic prosperity, while North Korea’ communist dystopia continued its journey to Stalinism, poverty, and decline.  America gained credibility coming to South Korea’s defense, while Maoist China was seen as rogue state for a generation.

Observing Korea today few would conclude North Korea is the more successful state.  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.  While North Korea with nukes is no less dangerous than Stalinist Russia or Maoist China was, but its armed forces and missiles could inflict widespread death and destruction on South Korea. 

However, the supposedly irrational leaders of North Korea are arguably not believers of communism, or have no death wish to fight America.  Rather they pragmatically combine fiery rhetoric and nuclear weapons (their only trump card), to gain economic and political concessions from its neighbors and the West.  Domestically they use sanctions and unfriendly acts from foreign powers to justify the cruel dictatorship over its starving, oppressed people.  It is a similar routine used by Arab despots and monarchs, to put off genuine democratization and reform, but unlike them North Korea has nukes, so the world usually listens despite it being a paper tiger.

Since the war ended in 1953 North Korea has launched some missiles, and made bombastic speeches, but besides shelling a few South Korean islands, has never come close to launching another war.  Whatever the cost would be for America and South Korea, a war would hurt North Korea more and its regime would gain little potential aid, or concessions, and perhaps cease to exist altogether.  It makes sense for Pyongyang to occasional saber rattle to remind the world of its existence, then pull back from the brink before hostilities which would destroy it.  However, one poor miscalculation on either side, or the actions of a warmonger in North Korea, could destroy this balance and ignite a devastating war.


 Perhaps Vietnam’s modern history is the most controversial in 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 to dominate it.  France’s colonial rule was typically exploitive, cruel, and benefited few Vietnamese.  The exception were some locals cultivated to help French rule, and many were sent overseas to France for education.  This included Ho Chi Minh and they were exposed to ideas of freedom, equality, liberalism, and of course communism.  Rather than cementing French rule this created a small cadre of Vietnamese communists, committed to liberating Vietnam.

These forces had little success until France fell in 1940, and Japan’s annexation of French Indochina afterwards.  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 cause.  Like the CCP in China they did not do much fighting against Japan in World War 2, but they did gain strength, and had a solid position when the 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 declaring Vietnamese independence, and establish its own government, the French sent forces to reclaim their colony.

After futile negotiations between France and the Viet Minh failed war broke out 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 China in 1949 helped the Vietminh via aid, weapons and safe zones.  This allowed them to survive strong French attacks, and later create conventional forces to fight France directly.  Secondly, despite America’s hope to end colonialism after 1945, it quickly backed French efforts in Vietnam due to increasing fears of communism.  Often this is viewed cynically but between 1945-1950 there were communist insurgencies in Greece, Malaya, the Philippines, and a new communist regime in China, so American fears regarding communist expansion were not unfounded.

Therefore, Chinese aid helped the Vietminh survive and build up forces, while American aid allowed France to hold onto its doomed Vietnamese colony for another decade.  France would kill more Vietnamese but never won over the populace or defeated the Vietminh (politically or militarily).  After the Vietminh won the unexpected victory at Dien Bien Phu France’s political will to continue the war collapsed and it sued for peace.

Rather than securing all of Vietnam the Viet Minh had to accept the division of the country (like Korea) between a communist dominated north, and a American leaning, but authoritarian south.  Given the contentious battles of history regarding the ensuing Vietnam War it is often forgotten that while North Vietnam was more rural, agrarian, and pro-communist, the south was more urban, cosmopolitan and leaned towards the West.  Communist sympathizers suggest the south was as pro-communist as the north, but numbers and events do not support this.

During the French Indochina War, the majority of the Viet Minh’s bases, recruits and sympathy were in the north, while few of these, and no major battles, were in the south.  After the 1954 agreement ending the war, 1,000,000 people fled the north versus a tenth of this number from the South who went the other way.  South Vietnam’s army was also often more effective and motivated than usually portrayed.  In 1968 it helped America defeat the “Tet Offensive,” in 1972 it stopped the Easter Offensive, and even in 1975 it fought well despite America abandoning it. 

After 1975 2,000,000 South Vietnamese refugees fled the country, and many experts believe near the end of the war less than 30% of South Vietnam’s population welcomed communism.  This illustrates Vietnam was more than a proxy war pitting America versus Russia and China; it was also a bitter civil war.


 After Vietnam’s division in 1954 promised elections and attempts to unify the nation (like Korea), never occurred and both sides drew closer to war.  With France gone, America continued supporting South Vietnam, with its corrupt, authoritarian regime.  America hoped the government would improve, while North Vietnam grew tired of waiting and supported communist insurgents in the south (the Viet Cong).  Unfortunately, the South Vietnamese generally did not support communism but their government in Saigon was admittedly more corrupt, less motivated, and not as determined for a deadly struggle compared to the north. 

During the next decade North Vietnam supported the Vietcong with arms, supplies, recruits and even its regular army (violating Cambodian and Laotian neutrality) and by the mid-1960s the South was losing against communism.  Much has been written about American objectives, methods, and failures, but the conflict was not an aggressive American war against Vietnam or even North Vietnam.  Like in Korea and Taiwan, America was invited in by a sovereign government, with a mostly anti-communist population, to save it from communist aggression.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of America’s war in Vietnam, its objectives were strategically defensive to prop up an ally, and never to rollback communism in North Vietnam.

If American goals were arguably correct, its execution was often less so.  While North Vietnam’s (and Viet Cong) excesses were generally worse than America’s, there is no doubt American reliance of firepower, strategic bombing, head counts and conventional military sweeps, resulted in disproportionate collateral damage, civilian losses and many war crimes.  It is a myth 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, failures to protect the South Vietnamese population, and cutting off support to South Vietnam after America left in 1973, meant all the blood and treasure America committed was in vain.  North Vietnam conquered the south in 1975 with a strong conventional campaign, it was not liberated by discontented South Vietnamese.

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 it lost the war.

 However, America’s loss has been overstated.  America suffered a political and diplomatic defeat in Vietnam, but besides the credibility gap in America the affects were limited.  Arguably the war hurt worldwide communism more.  During the conflict Russia and China competed more and more, and got into a brief border war which accelerated the Sino-Soviet split.  Nixon used this to get China into the Western camp (more important than the loss of South Vietnam, in a cold realpolitik sense).  More ironic were the wars between Cambodia and Vietnam, and Vietnam and China in the late 1970s (between fellow communist states).  Thus, the Vietnam War not only improved relations between America and China, but divided world communism.

The long-term effects are harder to determine, but it is worth noting Vietnam is not growing closer to China but to America, especially in recent years.  This suggests whatever the latter’s flaws it is often seen as more benign, or less intrusive, than Asian powers like Russia and China.  It should be remembered Vietnam’s conflict with America occurred over one generation, but Vietnam’s resistance against Chinese hegemony has been ongoing for centuries.

As for Vietnam itself and unlike Stalinism, Maoism, the killing fields of Cambodia, and other Red unpleasantries, the Vietnamese form of communism has been less bloody and oppressive (in the long run at least).  There are similarities to China like more openness to economic reforms and capitalism, and while democracy is not near, Vietnamese people enjoy relative happiness and cohesion comparable to Tito’s Communist Yugoslavia.  However, the Vietnamese do not benefit from the relative freedom, prosperity, and standards of living as those in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.  The question remains how South Vietnam would have turned out if America had not abandoned it.


 In less than a century China transformed from a divided, backwards, and foreign dominated nation, into the second strongest country in the world.  Its economic growth and influence continue to grow, as fears about American’s decline mount given the deep polarization of American society, and growing mistrust of its political institutions.  If the 20th Century was America’s, the 21st Century may still belong to China.

After Japan’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War, China’s Qing Dynasty attempted reforms to modernize its backwards nation.  However, these were halfhearted, too late, and given poor communications and divisions inside China, did not prevent the Xinhai Revolution in 1911.  In the aftermath China ostensibly became a republic under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen.  In reality, China became divided into many enclaves controlled by warlords, and Sun Yat-sen and his Kuomintang party (the Chinese Nationalists or KMT) soon lost power. 

The Warlord Era followed with Sun Yat-sen attempting to regain influence via alliances, force, and machinations over the next 15 years to little avail.  However, they were helped by the new communist regime in Moscow and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who believed they could ally with the KMT to seize power in China, and then expend the Nationalists afterwards.  Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 and his loyal, stern, and incorruptible subordinate Chiang Kai-shek won the power struggle to succeed him.  He soon convinced the KMT and CCP to move against the warlords and unify China against foreign and domestic enemies via the Northern Expedition.

Between 1926-1938 they took Changsha, Wuhan, Nanking, Shanghai, Peking, and other major cities, defeated or co-opted warlord factions, and unified China in theory.  However, despite becoming the strongest political force in China the KMT had many problems.  Many warlords refused to co-operate with them, Japan fought them in Northern China, the country was bankrupt and backwards, and the united front with the CCP ended.  Chiang Kai-shek started the break with a bloody purge in Shanghai when it became clear the CCP, with Moscow’s backing, were planning to betray the Nationalists.

For the next decade, the Nanking Decade, the KMT fought warlords and the CCP, appeased and sometimes fought the Japanese, sought foreign aid and recognition, attempted to initiate widespread reforms, modernization, and industrialization in a divided nation with little stability.  The surprise is not that they often failed, but that they survived at all!  There were successes, such as almost crushing the CCP by 1936, German military aid, and trappings of modernization in urban areas.  But given their many enemies and issues, circumstances were not ideal for the KMT to modernize China, build a strong state, or improve the living standards of most Chinese.

Chiang’s Kai-shek’s worst foes were the CCP and Japan.  However, while Japan’s army was the stronger threat Chiang was convinced the CCP was his mortal enemy.  He once said “the Japanese are a disease of the skin, the Communists are a disease of the heart.”  This viewpoint appeared laughable in 1936 but proved prophetic in 1949. 

 The turning point between the KMT and CCP was the Second Sino-Japanese War, the beginning of World War 2 in Asia, which started from mistakes, miscalculations, and overreactions.  The conflict was long, brutal, and hurt the KMT as much as it saved the CCP.  China’s coastal, industrial, and urban heartland was occupied by Japan, millions of Chinese were killed, maimed, or became refugees, while Japan committed unspeakable war crimes it often denies to this day.

Until recently Chiang Kai-shek has received harsh historical treatment for his conduct during the war, but much of this is unfair.  It is true the KMT made many poor decisions, their forces were of mixed quality, and that corruption, nepotism, and incompetence permeated their war effort.  But considering China was a divided, backwards, and poor nation, without the benefit of significant foreign aid, and fighting a major military power, this is hardly surprising.

What is not true are accusations the KMT refused to fight, while the CCP fought the lion-share of Japanese forces.  Or that America gave sufficient lend-lease to China, and Chiang Kai-shek was not a team player in the allied war effort.  In reality the KMT fought the main battles from Shanghai to Operation Ichi-Go, suffered over 90% of all military casualties, and conducted campaigns helping the Allies in Burma, despite the latter failing to honor commitments to China.  Many accounts of the war mock Chiang Kai-Shek as a parasite for lend-lease, but China got less of it than most allied powers (even the Free French), and most of it was not to help the Chinese but support American forces stationed in China. 

While it was America’s advance across the Pacific, and its submarines, bombers, and nukes that defeated Japan, the Chinese deserve credit for keeping most Japanese divisions in China, and holding out for 8 terrible years.  In World War 2 China fought two years longer than Britain, and four more years than Russia and America. 


With Japan’s surrender in 1945 Chiang’s Kai-shek’s regime had survived, China was recognized as a great power, but the KMT was severely weakened by years of warfare.  Meanwhile the CCP, while still lagging behind the Nationalists regarding soldiers, population, and territory, ended the war in a much stronger position than in 1937.  In the postwar race between the KMT and CCP to retake China’s cities the Nationalists generally won thanks to help from American ships and airlifts.  The exception was Manchuria which Russia had occupied in the summer of 1945, and collaborated with the CCP to take over once its forces withdrew.  The fight over Manchuria between the CCP and KMT would determine the outcome of the Chinese Civil War.

With Japan’s surrender Chiang Kai-shek invited Mao to Chungking for talks to make peace and create a coalition government.  However, due to irreconcilable differences and deep-rooted hostility, this failed, and civil war broke out.  KMT forces had significant numerical and material advantages, and at first it routed the CCP and was on the brink of winning a major victory in Manchuria.  Unfortunately, General George Marshall had been sent by Truman to arrange a cease fire and pressured Chiang to halt the offensive in mid-1946.  Whether the Nationalists could have beaten the CCP by military means is questionable, but with hindsight this was the last chance to do so.

Afterwards the KMT committed themselves to occupy as much of Manchuria as possible, but given the sheer distances, logistical issues, and CCP guerrilla tactics, this was a flawed strategy.  KMT forces were slowly worn down until late 1948 when the CCP was strong enough to begin routing the Nationalists, and eventually overran mainland China.  Committing to an all-out struggle over Manchuria was arguably Chiang’s biggest mistake, would cost him mainland China, and surprising as he always knew how to play a poor hand throughout his career.  On the other hand, given postwar issues including rampant inflation, the end of American aid in 1946, and Russian support for the CCP, the Nationalists might have been doomed anyway.

In October 1949, Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in Beijing and committed to invading Taiwan (where the KMT fled) to finish the civil war decisively.  Unfortunately for Mao in 1950 Truman ordered American naval forces to defend Taiwan after the Korean War began,  which saved the KMT and Taiwan remains independent from CCP rule.

With the victory of communism in China in 1949 Mao fulfilled the Chinese dream of unifying the country, and ending foreign imperialism and the humiliation of China.  The fact Chiang Kai-shek accomplished most of this prior to his defeat in the civil war was conveniently forgotten.  Either way, with indisputable power, backing from Russia, 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 give land to China’s massive peasant population.  Had Mao been a more moderate communist like Tito his legacy would probably be more positive.  However, being vindictive, zealous, and paranoid he turned what was hoped to 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 bloody and repressive, and the Chinese state is currently committing a cultural genocide against its Uyghur population.  Worse of all Mao’s Great Leap Forward and establishments of communes 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.  Even if the number was half, or a third, as much it is more than either the Nationalists or Japanese inflicted on China. 

 After this, Mao lost some power for a few years but in an effort to regain it he initiated the Cultural Revolution, which destroyed much of the progress rebuilt 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, the Cultural Revolution was not a recipe to make China a great power.

Most cynical of all, Mao made a de facto alliance with America in the 1970s against the Soviet Union (its 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 Kai-shek than mainland China under Mao.  Had Mao’s backwards and chaotic policies continued after his death, instead of the necessary reforms by Deng Xiaoping, it is clear China would have continued to decline instead of rising to near superpower status.

Fortunately, after Mao’s death his wife and other acolytes were arrested, then Deng Xiaoping sensibly opened up China’s markets and initiated economic and limited political reforms.  A generation of these changes has not resulted in a liberal democratic China but has made it the world’s second biggest economy and improved the lot of many Chinese.

 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.  On one hand America, with a slowing economy, and political, social, and cultural malaise, could decline unless moral rejuvenation occurs.  On the other hand, pollution, corruption, political upheaval, separatist sentiment, and demographic issues are far worse in China than America.  America still has advantages in immigration, innovation, and freedom, and it is far from certain China can eclipse America as the world’s strongest nation.  Most of China’s neighbors 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 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 its 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 received some modernization and industrialization under Japanese rule (much like Manchuria after 1931).  Many Taiwanese after 1945 contrasted this with the initial heavy-handed conduct of the KMT, especially given the February 28th Incident that killed over 20,000 people.  Unsurprisingly, they were unhappy with the massive influx of Chinese refugees from the mainland after the KMT lost the Chinese Civil War.

This, along with the KMT’s imposition of martial law, which lasted for decades, and the White Terror 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 unforgivable, was statistically mild compared to what Mao did to the mainland Chinese.

Today it might be overly charitable to suggest Chiang Kai-shek envisaged the liberal, prosperous democracy that is now Taiwan.  However, his actions created the conditions to let this happen, especially under the later stewardship of his son, and unlike Maoist China there were few comparable terrible bloodbaths, famines, or pointless excesses in Taiwan.

However, there is unfinished business over Taiwan as Beijing never accepted Taiwan’s de facto independence, and the significant military and strategic benefits Beijing would get via absorbing the island nation.  The fact Taiwanese liberal democracy provides an alternate model to Chinese Communism, and Taiwan’s alliance with America limits Chinese power projection into the Pacific, suggests China is unlikely to change its policy of “reunification” with the island.

 There seems no reason given the freedom and prosperity of the Taiwanese, and relative decline of the KMT in Taiwan, to believe there will ever be reunification with the mainland.  It is debatable how serious China is regarding a potential invasion of Taiwan, given the numerous obstacles it faces.  However, mistakes, miscalculations, or decisions of an aggressive leader in Beijing could upset this, and arguably result in a cross strait war involving the United States. 


What were the main results of imperialism, communism, Cold War rivalry, attempts at modernization, and independence for these East Asian nations?

European imperialism created colonial states in East Asia, but also inadvertently pushed Japan towards its own imperialism.  This, along with the rise of Soviet Russia, helped create communist movements that gained strong influence in many Asian nations after Japan’s conquests of 1937-1942.  World War 2 weakened western empires such as the British, French, and Dutch, and combined with America’s anti-colonial agenda after World War 2, resulted in the collapse of imperialism in East Asia between 1945-54.

In this power vacuum emerged a contest between liberal America and communist Russia to influence East Asia’s development.  Russia supported communist groups including Mao’s CCP in China, the communist regime in North Korea, and the Vietminh against France (and later America).  America allied with Japan, backed France and later the local regime in South Vietnam, gave mixed aid to Chiang Kai-Shek in China, saved him in Taiwan, and defended South Korea in the Korean War.

 In the long-term South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan became prosperous, democratic, and relatively pro-American.  Meanwhile North Vietnam defeated France and America, North Korea became an Orwellian nightmare protected by nuclear weapons, and China became rich, the second strongest nation in the world, but ultimately kept communist repression.  A case could be made the American backed nations did better regarding freedom, economic progress, and most indicators of good governance like healthcare, happiness, and accountability.  Communism has failed compared to democracy, even capitalism, everywhere else in the world but can it dominate in East Asia?  The life expectancy, standards of living, pollution, corruption, and repressive nature of communist states compared to their legitimacy democratic counterparts, does not suggest good odds of a communist (even China’s model) triumph.

Against this there was the collapse of American allies like the Nationalists in China and 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.  Foreign aid is often a game changer in such conflicts, and American support helped save Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.  Notably, American decisions to cut off aid to South Vietnam after 1973 and giving Chiang Kai-Shek little of it in the last years of the Chinese Civil War, obviously made a difference on the battlefield.  In these cases, the communist powers did not hold back aid for their allies. 

The usual criticisms regarding corruption, poor motivation, and incompetence have not only been directed against South Vietnam, and the KMT in China, but also the former authoritarian regimes in South Korea and Taiwan.  However, long term American aid, and the chance to rebuild and reform, allowed these nations to become democratic and economical models.  It is futile to debate what could have been, but South Vietnam and Nationalist China never got the chance to go down this road because America cut off their aid and abandoned them.

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 longstanding issues with Taiwan, North Korean nukes and issues with South Korea, and Vietnam’s uneasy relationship with China, remain stumbling points towards peace and collaboration in the region.  Meanwhile America’s polarization and domestic issues make it increasingly possible (if not likely) it will turn  isolationist again, severely undermining the liberal rules based order.  On one hand modern East Asia is more peaceful, and politically and economically stable, since before the Opium Wars.  Yet it could take only one crisis along with miscalculations (such as the summer of 1914 in Europe), or a 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 East Asia.  But it happened in 1914, as well as 1939, and it could happen again.


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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.

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