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The Root Causes of the Russo-Japanese War

Anthony Siciliano

MILH411 Diplomacy and War II

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Professor Lawhorn
30 October 2009
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The Russo-Japanese War (1904 1905) was a significant event in world history. Many

historians consider this war to be one of the most important conflicts of the twentieth century

because of the international consequences resulting from the Japanese victory. Two of the major

consequences are that 1) it was the first victory of an Asian nation over a European power, and

2) this victory weakened European power in many colonies, leading to many independence

movements. In order to understand the reasons behind this war, one must analyze the motives of

each nation that suggested their foreign policies. For Russia, the motive was political, while for

Japan the motive was economic. The root causes of the Russo-Japanese War were Russias

aggressive expansion into Manchuria and Korea, and Japans need to retain these areas within its

sphere of influence.

Economic need drove Japans interest in expanding westerly into China. In the mid- to

late-nineteenth century, Japan was a country in transformation. In 1854, Japan and the United

States signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened Japan to trade.1 The result of this was an

increase in trade and industry and the eventual westernization of Japan. Additionally, Japans

population was growing at a rapid rate. The rapid growth in population led to a rapid decrease in

agricultural capacity. The Japanese government quickly realized that they needed new sources

of supply for its growing industrial sector, as well as colonial possessions to help alleviate

overcrowding. These needs initiated Japans interest in eastern China and, by default, Korea.

Initially, Japan only desired to maintain an open door policy with China hoping this would

ensure trade advantages. Inclusive of these reasons was the intent that Korea would remain

within Japans sphere of influence, as had been the case since the 1500s.2

Russia, on the other hand, was interested in political gain vice economic need. In the

mid- to late-1800s Russia was agriculturally self-sufficient.3 Russias primary desire during this
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period was to gain access to the worlds oceans in four areas: the Baltic, the Black and

Mediterranean Seas, the Persian Gulf, and the Pacific Ocean. Russia had access to the Baltic and

Black Seas, but England stymied Russias unfettered access to the Mediterranean and Persian

Gulf. Access to the Pacific was the path of least resistance.4 Russia was able to gain initial

access to warm-water ports in China by assisting the Chinese in negotiations with England and

France in 1860 after the Second Opium War. This led to the Convention of Peking (1860),

which was very favorable to Russia.5 This established Russias foothold in China Manchuria

in particular and laid a foundation for later influence on the Korean peninsula.

By 1891, Russia began constructing the Trans-Asiatic Railroad. A segment of this line

needed to run through Manchuria. China was willing to assist Russia in exchange for assistance

in securing a 400 million franc loan.6 (Requiring a nation to become financially dependent was a

common tactic of Russian diplomacy in the Far East). This collaboration resulted in the first of

many Russia-initiated treaties, in this case, the secret Cassini Convention. The convention

established many conditions that would affect politics in the region for years to come. The

Convention established that Russia could extend the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Manchuria

to Vladivostok. China would provide protection for Russian interests; however, Russian

demanded to place its own troops at various stations in the desolate regions of northern

Manchuria.7 Additionally, China would lease the port of Kiaochou to Russia, providing the latter

with its first warm-water port in the Far East.8 Finally, the two nations agreed that Russian

military officers would provide advisors if China were to ever modernize its military.9 Russia

now had a military presence (and a means to transport more as necessary) and warm-water port

in the Far East.

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In 1898, an anti-imperialist, anti-Christian uprising known as the Boxer Rebellion swept

across China. This forced Russia to stop work on the railroad in 1900 and insert more troops to

protect its investments in Manchuria. This incident established a permanent Russian military

presence (occupation) of roughly 12,000 troops in Manchuria.10 Upon the conclusion of the

uprising in 1901, Russia used the incident to focus on the pacification of Manchuria. This

pacification program allowed Russia to occupy new territory in and around Manchuria and

served to dissolve much of Chinas authority in that region.

The Chinese Emperor was concerned about Russias military build-up in Manchuria.

Again, Russia attempted to use diplomacy and treaties to calm the Chinese and gain further

advantage in the Far East. Using the Boxer Uprising as an excuse, Russia demanded:

that no Chinese troops could be stationed in Manchuria until the railroad was
that there would be no importation of arms into Manchuria,

that only Russian military advisors could train Chinese troops,

and that China could not extend economic or commercial privilege in Manchuria

to any foreign power without consulting with Russia.11

The Emperor refused to entertain Russias demands, and protested to Great Britain,

France and Japan. Even after the Boxer Protocol of 1901, which establish peace after the

Uprising, the Russia continued to pressure China and form treaties independently of the other

Powers. After significant pressure from the Powers, Russia formally accepted an April 1902

convention to evacuate Manchuria.12 By October 1902, Russia began to evacuate troops from

the Shen-king and Mukden provinces only to relocate them to Manchuria. In April 1903,
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Russia had not removed any troops from Manchuria. By October 1903, Russia began to spread

its influence into northern Korea and reoccupied Mukden.

By late 1903, the diplomatic tides began to turn against Russia because of its aggressive

Far East policies. Russian diplomacy focused on seizing and retaining control of Manchuria, and

ensuring that China consulted with Russia exclusively. Throughout this period, Japan was weary

of Russias strategic intentions in China and monitored the activity closely. Japan might have

accepted Russias expansion into Manchuria, if not for Russias thinly veiled intentions to

expand into Korea as well.13

For hundreds of years, Japan has felt that the Korean peninsula was within its sphere of

influence. This relationship has been contentious, dating to the Japanese invasion of Korea by

Hideyoshi (1592 1598). This invasion served to fuel a hatred of the Japanese in Korea. In

1868, Japan attempted to reassert itself in Korea by offering them the opportunity to return to

vassalage. The Koreans adamantly declined this, and Japan decided to pursue influence through

peaceful means. In 1876, Japan agreed to recognize Korean independence in order to dissuade

any hostility from China or Russia.14 The region remained relatively peaceful until 1894, when

Russian intrusions helped spark instability in Korea.

Russian interest in Korea began in earnest in 1884 with a rumored secret agreement with

China to organize and train troops in northern Korea. In 1888, Russia overtly broke a negotiated

agreement not to occupy any territory in Korea by installing agents in northern Korea. In 1894,

Japan and China went to war over Korea in order to establish dominance over the peninsula

(First Sino-Japanese War). The war ended in 1895, marking a significant Japanese victory to
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include monetary and territorial gains in China.15 This also informally established Japanese

influence over Korea.

The next few years marked a period of increased Russian influence on the Korean

peninsula. In 1896, a pro-Russian uprising began in northern Korea. When the Korean

government dispatched an army to put down the insurrection, 127 Russian Marines landed on the

west coast and occupied Seoul.16 At this point, Korea essentially aligned itself with Russia and

removed anyone who supported Japan from the government. This angered Japan, who believed

they were losing the influence and economic advantages they earned in the war.

The six-year period from 1898 1904 marked a period of increasing diplomatic tension

between Japan and Russia over Korea, with Russia acting as the aggressor. Despite assurances

to the contrary, Russia attempted to enter into binding financial pacts with, and build railroads

into, Korea. By the end of 1903, three major concerns began to affect Japans diplomatic and

military posture in the region:

1) Russias unremitting demands on Peking,

2) Russias increased occupation of Manchuria, and

3) Russias continuous encroachment into northern Korea.

In October 1903, Japan and Russia entered into another pact. Japan agreed to recognize Russias

interests in Manchuria if Russia would reciprocate vis--vis Japans interests in Korea. In a

counterproposal, Russia asked Japan to concede that Manchuria was outside of its sphere of

influence a significant distinction. In response, Japan proposed the same regarding Russian
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influence in Korea.17 At this point, Russia unofficially broke off negotiations by ignoring any

further Japanese proposals.

During this period of diplomatic fencing between Russia and Japan, Russia continued to

increase its military presence in the Far East. By April 1903, there were 34 warships in the

region; by February 1904, Russian troop levels in Manchuria had reached over 40,000 in

Manchuria.18 Despite numerous concessions and overtures on the part of Japan, Russia

continued to pursue an all-or-nothing, aggressive, expansionist policy in China. Japan had

enough. On February 6, 1904, Japan severed diplomatic relations with Russia stating, In

adopting this course the Imperial Government (of Japan) reserve to themselves the right to

take such independent action as they may deem best to consolidate and defend their menaced

position, as well as to protect the acquired rights and legitimate interests of the Empire.19

The Japanese attacked Russian naval assets at Port Arthur two days later.20 The ensuing

war would last for last for approximately twenty months. The war resulted in a Japanese victory

over Russia, which marked the first time an Asian nation had defeated a European power. This

also marked the end of Russias aggressive expansion into the Far East. For nearly forty-five

years, Russia exerted diplomatic and military pressure in the region in order to realize its

political goals. Japan viewed this as an encroachment into its sphere of influence, and a

challenge to its economic well-being. The tensions created by these opposing motives eventually

led to the first major military conflict of the twentieth century.

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David Turkington, A Chronology of Japanese History.
Amos S. Hershey, International Law and Diplomacy of the Russo-Japanese War (New York: The
MacMillan Company, 1906), 2.
Ibid., 3.
Ibid., 4-5.
Ibid., 5.
Ibid., 9.
Ibid., 10 12.
John V. MacMurray, Treaties and Agreements with and Concerning China 1894-1919. Vol. 2. (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1921), 79.
Ibid., 80.
Hershey, 16-17.
Ibid., 21-22.
Ibid., 22.
Ibid., 36.
Ibid., 40.
Taiwan Documents Project. "Treaty of Shimonoseki."
Hershey, 44 45.
Ibid., 57.
Ibid., 59.
Ibid, 60.
R. R. Palmer, et al., A History of the Modern World, tenth ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill), 673.