The Japanese invasion of Chinese Manchuria in 1931, and Japan’s subsequent withdrawal from the League of Nations, was a major contributing factor to the League’s ultimate irrelevance and demise. Yet, the infamous story of the militarism of the 1930s that undermined the organization designed to maintain world peace in the wake of the First World War often masks the League’s more technical work. Historians have been piecing together this history of the League for some time now, but often by examining the League’s role in Europe and its colonial possessions. In The League of Nations and the East Asian Imperial Order, 1920–1946, Harumi Goto-Shibata shifts the lens to a region where the League’s technical work has often been overlooked.
The League provided an important diplomatic space for Asian states to operate on the world stage. However, rather than a unified geographical grouping of states seeking to build cement their status in the face of a European world order, Asian states were highly heterogenous at the League. Japan and China sought to assert their autonomy from Western hegemony at the League, but both started and ended in very different positions. Japan, the only Asian state with a permanent seat on the League Council, held a preponderant position in Asia; however, by the 1930s, Japan would find itself a pariah and an outcast of the international system. Conversely, China during the 1920s, which struggled with its vast domestic upheavals, was unable to secure the same position as Japan in Geneva. Instead, the League treated it more as a sick patient in need of medicine and technical intervention instead of as a state holding a governing position at the League. Nevertheless, China would become one of the “Big Four” at the 1945 conference in Yalta and a permanent member of the League Council’s successor, the United Nations Security Council.
This remarkable role reversal was particularly evident in terms of the League’s technical agencies. Whereas Japan sought to be an Asian leader concerning much of the League’s technical work, China would be the subject on which the League would operate. The book examines three of the League’s most active areas of regulation: human trafficking; health and pandemic control; and the regulation of narcotics, particularly opium. Teetering on the verge of anarchy, the China of the 1920s was facing all three of these issues. From the late 1920s onwards, China entered a paternalistic relationship with the League, which applied technical measures to “modernize” and stabilize the country through Western loans.
Rather than Japan leading these development programmes in its Asian neighbour, these programmes were led by the West, thereby excluding Japan, and upsetting the imperial balance of power. Despite Japan’s position at the League, it was still secondary to Britain, France, and even non-League members, such as the United States. Not wanting to continue to play second fiddle to the West in China, together with its exclusion from Chinese financial markets, Japan pursued a course to prey on its weakened neighbour, culminating in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
With the League’s extensive works in China, the Manchuria crisis threw much of the work and the League’s neutrality in the matter into question. As the League took its time to examine the Japanese occupation, Japan criticized League officials working in China who they deemed to be Sinophiles. The Japanese government had been unprepared for the League’s denunciation of its occupation, and its withdrawal was more reluctant than many would have originally believed. Rather than a making clean break with internationalism, Japan, Goto-Shibata shows, intentionally maintained a foot in the door of the League’s technical bodies so as not to further lose influence internationally. Some League officials hoped that Japan could defer its withdrawal from the League. Others thought it could maintain a position formally outside of the League while still participating in the organization’s technical works, much like the United States. But detractors of the invasion thought Japan had no right to contribute after having broken the League’s Covenant.
Meanwhile, China hoped to fill the vacuum that Japan’s withdrawal left behind by securing a seat on the League Council. Nonetheless, its large unpaid debts to the League and its state of internal disorder, as well as the League Secretariat’s hope of leaving a door open for Japanese re-entry into the League, moved against it. The question of the empty Asian seat became almost like a question of appeasement, as France and Britain attempted to avoid insulting Japan by accepting China’s accession to the seat. As the question of a Chinese seat on the League Council became increasingly protracted, the League began to lose relevance as an increasing number of conflicts broke out across the world. By 1936, China had gained a provisional non-permanent seat on the League Council. This elevation of status did little to prevent a full-scale invasion by Japan the following year.
As the League increasingly lost prominence, Goto-Shibata reveals how its roles were gradually migrated and succeeded by institutions in the United States. With its economic power and military presence in Asia, the United States was able to enforce a policy of stamping out the consumption of opium more rapidly than the League. Ironically, the final chapters reveal the successes of the Chinese nationalists, who throughout the period of the League had been lax about opium enforcement, in stamping out the opium trade during the War. In contrast, British officials in India and Burma were reluctant to end opium consumption, particularly traditional habits of eating opium. The shifting of the League’s responsibilities to the United States shows the evolution of the League’s work and eventual establishment of the institutions of the United Nations.
Although there are few underlying arguments or questions posed by the book that Goto-Shibata seeks to answer, this is a meticulously researched work based largely on primary archival sources. The use of sources from the British National Archives as well as from the archives of the League and the Japanese Foreign Ministry Archives presents the perspective of governmental and League actors. In doing so, Goto-Shibata shows not only the immense influence that Western powers such as Britain and later the United States had on the League’s technical work in Asia but also the sympathy of League officials towards the countries they operated in. Chief among these actors was the head of the League’s Health Office, Ludwik Rajchman, who often defied the desire of the League Secretariat to administer its foreign aid in China and who was sympathetic of devolving most of the practical work to the Chinese government.
Despite the forensic archival work, the book does not evenly distribute the history of the League’s operations in East Asia. Those looking to learn more about the League’s work in Siam, French Indochina, or the Dutch East Indies may be disappointed. Nonetheless, the book is a valuable contribution to the knowledge of the League’s work, especially in China, which offers historians many valuable insights and starting points for further research. The book considers many themes, from how international organizations attempt to distinguish their political and technical work to how imperial powers utilized “technical” agencies to enforce their transnational policies. Moreover, the book outlines some of the origins of China’s operations in international organizations, evolving from a semicolonial recipient of international aid to one of the world’s most powerful states, aspiring to be a leader in global multilateral politics in the twenty-first century.