Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Alliance

The Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Alliance, the first between a European country and an Asiatic power against a Western rival, was signed on 30 January 1902.

Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of LansdowneThe 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, a high-minded aristocrat of legendary charm, was foreign secretary in the crucial years after 1900 which saw the British government abandon the policy of ‘splendid isolation’. The first product of this dubious change of direction was the treaty with Japan, negotiated in leisurely style during 1901 by Lansdowne and the Japanese ambassador in London, Hayashi Tadasu. Westernisation and industrialisation in Japan after the restoration of the Meiji emperor in 1868 had made Japan the major native power in the Far East and in Britain the Japanese were respected as a decent, orderly, efficient, reliable nation – in marked contrast to the Chinese.

In the background lay burgeoning Japanese imperialism, British commercial interests in China and the Russian occupation of Manchuria in 1900, which threatened both. Joseph Chamberlain considered that ‘our interests in China are so great, our proportion of the trade is so enormous and the potentialities of that trade are so gigantic that I feel no more vital question has ever been presented …’. The Japanese, meanwhile, were nervous of Russian ambitions in Korea, which they regarded as their own back yard, and Hayashi told Lord Lansdowne plainly that his country considered the protection of its interests in Korea ‘its first and last wish’.

The Japanese got what they wanted. It was agreed that if either of the high contracting parties became involved in war with another country, the other party would remain neutral. If either party were confronted by two or more opponents, however, the other party would come to its aid. Japan could now count on the British in a war with Russia if any other power (France and Germany were the ones in mind) were to ally with Russia. Japanese domination of Korea was tacitly accepted.

It might have been possible for the Japanese to go the other way and reach an agreement with Russia, giving the Russians a free hand in Manchuria in return for a free Japanese hand in Korea. This was the course recommended by the veteran Japanese politician Ito Hirobumi, the principal architect of the changes under the Meiji regime. Ito was against the alliance with Britain, whose imperial grasp he saw was weakening, but he was opposed by the army chief, the formidable Yamagata Aritomo, who argued that the Russians would not stop at Manchuria. Unless prevented, they would move to dominate the whole region and a struggle with them was bound to come. Ito went to St Petersburg in the last months of 1901 to sound out the Russians, but nothing came of it. He was lured to England and blandished at Bowood, Lord Lansdowne’s stately seat in Wiltshire.

The treaty was duly signed in London and was considered a triumph in Japan, where it had a powerful influence in boosting national pride. For the first time a European country had allied with an Asiatic power against a Western rival. In effect, the British sanctioned Japanese aggression in Korea and strengthened the Japanese to challenge the Russians successfully in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, which put Japan on course to dominate Manchuria. The treaty was renewed in 1911 and the Japanese joined the Allied side in the First World War, but the alliance with Britain lapsed in 1923.