The period leading up to 1700 saw East Asia emerge and establish itself as one of the superpowers of that time. Countries like Japan and China were at the center of firearms trade. At some point, they had almost had the monopoly of the manufacture and sale of gunpowder that revolutionized the art of war in the 1st-18th centuries. However, after 1700, East Asian countries and territories experienced a decline in their military might. For the next two centuries, the East Asian countries would be dominated by their European and American counterparts who seized the opportunity to advance own interests. This paper interrogates the apparent military decline of the East Asian countries witnessed after 1700. It explores the weakening of the Chinese and Japanese militaries as opposed to those of the European nations. The analysis indicates that the prioritization of communism and agrarian lifestyles over capitalism and mercantilism restricted the East Asian countries’ warfare tactics to medieval ones. The warfare improvements of Western countries, coupled with the transformation of the East Asian countries from military to civilian societies, significantly weakened and led to the ultimate military decline of the East Asian countries.
The Commercial Revolution in Europe
The commercial revolution in Europe and the rest of the Western world immensely contributed to the notion of an apparent decline of the Asian countries, specifically China and Japan, as military superpowers. The Commercial Revolution enabled the European countries to shift from the use of medieval warfare techniques to modern ones (Overfield 205). It prompted a rapid modernization of the war equipment and the revision of the mass attitudes toward war. All this while, however, the East Asian countries remained stagnated in outdated war technologies, making them gravely disadvantaged when fighting the Western adversary.
The apparent military decline of East Asia coincided with the Industrial Age. There was an explosion of developments in industrial techniques and production. The Western governments were driven by mercantilism and the belief that there were limited resources around the globe. They sought to enhance their military powers to advance their imperialist interests. Britain, France, and Holland, for instance, formed East India Companies that traded in East Asia and encouraged Western imperialism. The Industrial Age enabled technological breakthrough that, in turn, prompted the adoption of fashionable weaponry (Lockard 628). The European countries that participated in the commercial revolution significantly improved their war machinery. For instance, there was the use of portable canons, sophisticated bombs, and naval warfare with greater destructive capacities (Andrade 160).
The nature of war also changed dramatically. The Western countries ceased to be driven by logic and cost-benefit analysis. Instead, their decisions to engage in wars were informed by pride, arrogance, and allegiance. Consequently, the number of combatants increased rapidly. For instance, during the 1500s and 1600s, the King of France could only field about 20,000 people in his fight against Spain. However, by 1700, France had mobilized around 500,000 men to form the French army that fought in the War of the Spanish Succession (Bulliet, Crossley, and Headrick 450).
Moreover, European wars became more protracted and deadly than the ones experienced in East Asia. For instance, there was the Thirty Years’ War and the Eighty Years’ War that shed blood during a substantial part of the century. Despite all these military upheavals and progress made by the Western countries, the East Asian states largely refrained from interacting with the Westerners. As a result, they were left behind as the Western nations made significant strides toward augmenting their military might. When the United States, the Great Britain, Holland, and France, among others, visited East Asia, the natives had little capacity to rebuff their advances. Varied reasons contributed to the apparent decline in military might in different countries as demonstrated later on in the paper.
Before the deterioration of its military might, Japan used to be one of the superpowers of the world. It successfully fought in the Imjin War of the 1590s and annihilated its adversaries. The apparent military decline after 1700 was self-inflicted as it was instigated by the rulers at that time. Once the Japanese had unified various islands in the early 17th century, the focus of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate shifted from maintaining its military presence to the solidification of the power of the feudal samurai class (Bulliet, Crossley, and Headrick 456). The Tokugawa shogunate essentially shifted the political system to communism. It transformed the Japanese society from a military-oriented to a civil one. From the onset of their rule, the shogunate aspired to restrict capitalism (Lockard 645). It forbade the families from accumulating wealth for individual gain. Specifically, it advocated for the adoption of the ‘back to the soil’ policy where the farmer was recognized as the ultimate producer of goods. The ruling elite advanced the notion that the farmer is the ideal person in the society. Any form of individualistic tendency was frowned upon, yet this individualism promoted economic, social, and technological advancements in other parts of the world.
The prohibition of the manufacture and sale of firearms and other weapons greatly weakened the Japanese military system and proved to be its major undoing. Later on, when there was a need to repulse the Westerners advancements, the Japanese army would be overwhelmed. The ban on the sale of weaponry was a subtle tactic used to subvert the samurai, the warrior class, who, just like the merchants, were viewed as the unproductive members of the society (Lockard 650). While the shift to agriculture afforded the Japanese a wider variety and amounts of food materials, they increasingly became susceptible to attacks from their neighbors and the Western countries.
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The seeming decline of Japanese military power encouraged foreign intrusions and subversion of the Japanese. The disunity between the Japanese leaders intensified, which presented an opportune moment for foreign powers to implement their divide and rule tactics. For instance, the chairperson of the senior councilors Abe Masahiro and the emperor had a disagreement whether the foreigners should be allowed to trade on the Japanese coast. The emperor thought it would corrupt and weaken the Japanese, making them vulnerable to colonization. Chief Abe was of the opinion that the adoption of Western ways would strengthen Japan and restore them to their superpower status they had enjoyed for centuries. The untimely arrival of the USS Commodore Perry in 1853 proved the last straw that threw Japan into leadership turmoil (Magagna). Soon Japanese military powers waned and gave the right of way to the U.S. Army and traders. They had to make concessions after concessions in what later came to be known as unequal treaties. Soon after, other Western powers followed suit, demanding similar treaties. By the end of the 19th century, Japan had no military might; foreigners had subverted the locals and their leaders. The leaders’ insistence that the Japanese should focus on agriculture and other aspects of civilization instead of military powers was detrimental to their well-being as it stagnated their progress whereas the rest of the world was fast modernizing their war equipment and techniques.
The resultant peasant unrest also contributed immensely to the drastic decline of the Japanese military prowess. Due to the leadership wrangles and the perceived unfair social and economic policies, some sections of the society began to show their dissatisfaction. Mass protests over unmerited taxes and food shortages became common, and so were the attacks against the ruling class. The samurai warrior class that was tasked with protecting the country had hard times; the farmers were now being given preferential treatment instead of them (Lockard 657). With little to survive on, most samurais shifted to handicraft work and wage jobs, consequently weakening Japan’s defense system. Consequently, the pattern of armed forces development in Japan was different from that in Europe. Whereas other countries were keenly developing their military strength, Japan, just like the rest of the East Asian countries, was neglecting its military, being seemingly comfortable with the progress they had made by 1700.
Just like Japan, the Chinese military decline was self-inflicted. The change of state policies from militaristic to civil-oriented and unwarranted excessive control caused internal strife that destabilized the country and made it susceptible to foreign intrusion and attacks. At the beginning of the 18th century, China was a commercial center of the world (Andrade 12). The famous Silk Road facilitated the trade of numerous items between the European and the Asian countries. The whole world, including Britain and the United States, sought to trade with the Chinese for their superior goods. These included glass, silk, cotton, coffee, and tea, among many others. The Chinese state flourished under the Qing Dynasty (Magagna). However, when the state laws started changing in the mid-1700s, the unity that had galvanized the Chinese into a reputable military force started to deteriorate. The masses were unhappy with the excessive control of the central government and the communist tendencies espoused by the Manchu Dynasty leaders (Andrea and Overfield 205). The internal strains eventually prompted rebellions that weakened the central government. The Taiping Rebellion, for instance, lasted for 14 years, from 1850 to 1864. It had spread to the major part of China before it was suppressed. By the time the rebellion was repressed, the Chinese army had lost vast amounts of resources, both in infrastructure and human capital. It made them gravely disadvantaged in the face of Western competition.
The apparent decline further encouraged foreign intrusion into China. The Western powers, including Britain and France, arrived in China to explore their colonial rights, forcing the country to open its ports to international trade. The Europeans arrived with warships, ready to fight the Chinese if they declined their request. Due to their perceived inferior military strength, the Chinese obliged (Andrade 92). The Western nations started to trade in China. Before the Chinese realized it, they had taken over the Chinese ports and the Chinese were barred from trading at their coastal ports. To further compound the situation, the Western powers started selling opium to the Chinese people. The Chinese viewed this as an act of subversion and tried to ban the sale of opium, leading to the Opium War of 1839 (Andrade 238). The Chinese declining military power was no match to the superior British armaments. When they conceded defeat, China signed the first of the many unequal treaties that it would sign with foreigners. China did not recover until the start of the 20th century (Magagna). Before it recovered, China sank to their lowest points. By the end of the 1800s, the Chinese military was barely in existence (Lockard 630). The foreigners controlled all the business operations in the Chinese coastal cities and even imposed foreign legal jurisdiction. By the 1890s, the foreign powers effectively colonized China because its military was on a steep decline; they were competing for spheres of influence on Chinese soil.
The Chinese military would ultimately recover and grow to be one of the best in the world again. The May 4th Movement introduced reforms that helped to rebuild its military strength (Lockard 635). The revolution inspired a real political unification of the Chinese people. From the 1920s to the 1940s, the Chinese discarded the Confucian system that was apparently holding them back socially and economically (Andrade 170). Instead, the Chinese underwent significant cultural reforms, adopting Western science and democracy. Some leaders argued that the adoption of these western elements would enable China to meet the challenge of the West (Lockard 633). Soon after the solidification, China’s status and image in the world started improving and it has been on an upward trajectory since then.
It is evident that East Asian countries experienced a sharp decline of their military powers for the major part of the 18th and 19th centuries. Before 1700, China and Japan had strong armies that were acknowledged as competitive all over the world. They were the epicenter of world commerce and produced some of the best weaponry at that time. However, the fundamental shift of focus to communism and agricultural production at the expense of commercial and military development had an adverse impact on the Asian countries. For instance, the Japanese under the Tokugawa shogunate neglected the samurai class and even banned the manufacture and sale of warfare equipment. The Chinese under the Qing dynasty plummeted from the status of the leaders of civilization to a war-torn country due to internal strife and consequent rebellions. Soon after the apparent decline of their military prowess, the Western countries took advantage to advance their imperial interests. For the next two centuries, East Asia was subdued by the West, in the own turf. It is only after they reformed their policies and adopted the global worldview did their militaries become competitive again.