The Asia and Pacific theater of the Great War consisted of a series of naval battles and the Entente conquest of German colonies in the Pacific and China. The most significant land battle was the Entente siege of Tsingtao in China and the battles of Bita Paka and Toma in German New Guinea. The campaign is notable for Japanese intervention, on the Entente side. At the end of the war all German and Austrian possessions were lost.
The Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 was designed by the British to deal with the balance of power in the Far East. It had never been intended as a weapon against Germany. However, in August 1914 the Admiralty’s anxiety about the defense of British trade in the Pacific caused it to change tack. The Japanese navy included fourteen battleships. The British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, asked the Japanese for limited naval assistance in hunting down German armed merchantmen.
The navy's building standards were set by the United States. Its leading strategic theorist, Sato Tetsutaro, argued that Japan's maritime security was contingent on its ability to strike a decisive blow against the enemy in the latter's home waters. He concluded that the Japanese navy therefore required a capability equivalent to 70 percent of that of the United States.
The United States did not figure on the Japanese Army's list of potential enemies. Its focus was not maritime but continentalist; its expansionism was directed not into the Pacific but to the mainland of Asia. Thus, the rivalry between the two Japanese services had a strategic spine. The navy saw the army's continentalism as risky and expensive. Japan in Asia should emulate Britain in Europe: it should seek an ally, in this case China, in order to create a protective buffer against Russia.
Japan declared war on Germany. It had every intention of keeping its involvement limited: it never seriously entertained the idea of sending troops to Europe, although it did deploy a squadron of ships to the Mediterranean in 1917. But, equally, it was not going to conform to the constraints on its actions suggested by the British. It immediately set about the capture of Tsingtao by means of an amphibious assault. Japan occupied the Marianas, Marshalls and Carolines during October 1914. Transferred to her by mandate after 1918, they were to form the outer perimeter of her island stronghold in the war against the United States twenty-five years later.
The biggest of the German overseas naval bases was Tsingtao on the Shantung peninsula in China. The East Asiatic Squadron, which was based there, consisted of two armored cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and three light cruisers, all under the command of Graf von Spee. It was numerically comparable and qualitatively superior to the British ships based on Hong Kong. The main danger, however, came not from the sea but from inland. Japanese and British troops landed in China and attacked the city. The German garrison surrendered.
Japanese troops were home by Christmas, and their total losses in the First World War were less than 2,000. The Tsingtao campaign was sufficiently short and decisive to ensure that Kato retained the initiative in policy. He presented China with the so-called 21 Demands, divided into five groups. The first four groups sought to extend direct Japanese control over Shantung, southern Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia, and to buttress its trading position elsewhere; those in the fifth group were dubbed ‘wishes’ rather than ‘demands’, and aimed to secure for Japan the sort of privileges already accorded to the other great powers.
If Kato failed it was not as a diplomat but as a domestic politician. The nationalists, led on by the inclusion of their aspirations in group five, were frustrated by the length of the negotiations and their final outcome. The genro were annoyed at their exclusion from the processes of diplomacy. By sidelining the genro Kato ran the risk of empowering the army, which the genro had hitherto held in check, and which saw force as a solution to the crisis. The government became weakened, and Kato was removed, ultimately to be replaced as foreign minister by Ishii Kikujiro.
Germany’s loss of Tsingtao left the East Asiatic Squadron without a base. But Spee had never intended to contribute directly to its defense. The basic presumption of cruiser warfare was that cruisers should retain their freedom of maneuver as long as possible. Spee’s ships should therefore have dispersed. By scattering he would force a superior enemy to follow suit. He would be free to direct his attacks against vulnerable targets, such as merchant ships and harbors, and he would avoid a battle in which the enemy could concentrate strength against weakness.
Spee’s squadron set a course for the Marshall Islands. The swift destruction of the German wireless stations in the Pacific forced Spee to observe radio silence, and so helped him hide in the vastness of the ocean. As he left Samoa he doubled back towards Tahiti as darkness fell. At Tahiti his good fortune deserted him. He bombarded Papeete. Papeete had no wireless of its own, but a French steamer was able to report the attack, and so confirmed what some of his pursuers were beginning to realize: that Spee was aiming for South America. His pursuer, Sir Christopher Cradock, caught up with him but suffered a crushing defeat.
The British responded to the news of Coronel by detaching two battle cruisers, Inflexible and Invincible, from the Battle Cruiser Squadron in the North Sea. Commanded by Sir Doveton Sturdee, they reached the Falkland Islands. What followed was a disaster for the Germans: the almost complete destruction of their forces, with Spee himself dying when his flagship SMS Scharnhorst was sunk. By the end of 1914 the German cruiser threat to Britain’s maritime trade was all but eliminated. So large was Britain’s merchant fleet that the achievements of Spee, Muller and others were in statistical terms insignificant.
China was already in chaos, following the fall of the Manchu dynasty in 1912. The president of the Chinese republic, Yuan Shih-kai, claimed the credit for moderating the humiliation of the 21 Demands and suggested that he become emperor, seeking the backing of the Entente for his bid. Internal division within China created Japan’s opportunity to advance its indirect control over the remainder of the country. China declared war on Germany, but the real danger came from Japan. Its purpose was not to fight the war but to attend the peace conference in order to regain Shantung and reassert its sovereignty.
After the battle of the Falkland Islands, Grey suggested to Kato that the occupation of the German Pacific territories should be temporary pending the final peace settlement. If Germany was then still in a dominant position on the continent of Europe, the islands would be bargaining chips for the restoration of Belgium. Kato accepted the principle, but concluded that 'the Japanese nation would naturally insist on the permanent retention of all German Islands north of the equator'. Thus, the removal of the German threat in the Pacific had been achieved by the activation of that from Japan.