Caught Between Tradition and Modernity: East Asia at The Hague Peace Conferences

Author:Arthur Eyffinger
Position:Director JUDICAP The Hague. Ph.D. (Amsterdam).

I. Relevance and Purport -A. A Paradox -B. The Russian Conundrum -C. The Pertinence of the Far East -II. The Dawn of A New Era -A. China -B. Korea -C. Japan -D. Outcome -III. The First Hague Peace Conference -A. China -B. Japan -IV. The Interval -A. The Boxer Rebellion -B. A Diplomatic Revolution -C. The Russo-Japanese War -D. 'The Hague' Revived -V. Preliminary Skirmishes -A. The Russian... (see full summary)


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The 1907 Hague Conference was the single ever global summit before WW I to critically evaluate the interaction of the worlds of law and diplomacy. Pivotal to its debate was the Russo-Japanese War which suggested no less than eleven out of its thirteen Conventions. The crystallization of fifty years of Western interference in the Far East, the war heralded the end of an Era, sealing the fate of the legendary Chinese and Korean empires and putting Japan on its course to imperialism. This paper recapitulates the historical options available to China, Korea and Japan, reviews causes and consequences of their separate stands, and evaluates their critical relevance to the Hague debate.

I Relevance and Purport
A A Paradox

The paramount import of the two Hague Peace Conferences1 for the current status of their host city can never be contested. To that extent, it is well to remember that, at thePage 8 time, the option for The Hague was the outcome of a diplomatic deadlock in the ritual dance of the major Western powers and the result of a process of elimination rather than a deliberate choice, and an invitation not entirely welcomed by the host country. Even if the 1899 and 1907 summits of the then 'civilized' world overtly belied the widely shared illusions at the time that the Conferences would overturn geo-politics overnight, to the vacillating political centre of a backward country they lent a new lease on life and an undreamt-of role in world affairs. A full hundred years later, The Hague proudly presents itself to the world as its self-appointed judicial capital. Still, with all due respect, the Conferences themselves, in the final analysis, were more about Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul than ever they were about The Hague.

At face value, the above contention strikes as a paradox, to be belied by statistics to begin with. In 1899, out of the twenty-six delegations gathering in the legendary House in the Woods, only a handful were from outside that charmed circle of the Western World, the 'Concert' of nations which, by grace of race, religion and, more to the point, economic and military preponderance brazenly predicated itself as representing civilization.' The African world was never represented at all, neither in 1899 nor in 1907. It had been dealt with summarily in a previous venue, in Berlin in 1884-85, at a gathering which, without ever bothering to consult the voice of the Dark Continent, neatly wound up the European 'scramble' for that part of the globe. The Latin-American world, while proudly advertizing its European roots, a regional legal culture of its own and a process of unification which, in its endless ups and downs, only mirrored the European model, was blatantly underrepresented, with Mexico serving as its one and only advocate.

So what about Asia? Turkey, that 'dying man of Europe' with an ever shrinking foothold on both continents that had been hesitantly welcomed into the privileged elite at Paris in 1856, acted in The Hague as a kind of trait d union between West and East, the worlds of Cross and Crescent, rather than as a strictly Asian power. Persia' s presence had similar strategic reasons. Situated at the crossroads of rivalling European expansionism, it neatly obliged the power politics of the mighty.Page 9

Most depressing of all perhaps, at this pivotal moment of history, with mankind allegedly in quest for unity for the sake of peace and prosperity, the populous Indian subcontinent which, in historical perspective, stood out as perhaps the world s most inspiring role-model in attaining the ends at stake in The Hague was neither represented by delegation nor by ideology. Eminently representing a melting pot of cultures and the issue of an endless process of assimilation and digesting, a full three millennia earlier the sub-continent had given rise to the first ever sparks of truly global thinking in putting humanity first. Indian concepts had remoulded, indeed 'globalized Greek thought of the Alexandrinian age as epitomized by the universal outlook of Stoicism, hence to make their indelible imprint on the Roman world, inspire Christian doctrine itself and finally prompt the natural law doctrine in the Grotian tradition to which so ready lip-service was paid in The Hague. Self-conceit from unchallenged military and economic superiority had long since turned the Western world myopic.

To that extent, the Far East seemed much nearer at home and, from the practical perspective of power politics, of more acute relevance to keen Western observers. In 1899, in The Hague, the region was represented by Japan, China and Siam, the only three East Asian nations so far to comply with the criterion for invitation of being represented on a permanent basis at the St. Petersburg court. Their status differed greatly, yet to the commoner in The Hague they indiscriminately presented the 'exotic' element, a mostly symbolic, folkloristic token of world coverage. Whereas, on the one hand, the Huis ten Bosch, in line with fashion of the period, boasted Chinese and Japanese salons, it was not so much their delegations that impressed media and Hague citizenry as rather the striking oriental beauty of the Chinese first delegate s family. For wieks on end, Yang Yü’ s pretty young wife,2her make up, coiffures and oriental robes,3and their three darling children4were the talk of the town.Page 10

B The Russian Conundrum

However, appearances can be deceptive. Whereas the role of the Far Eastern delegations on this occasion was still mostly a passive one, and their participation in the debate fairly limited, already by then their presence can be shown to have been of acute pertinence. To illustrate this, we turn to the raison d ’être of the Conference itself. The idea of a 'world conference' of the kind was first launched in London in 1887, when Lord Salisbury proposed the formidable 'head of Christianity' Czar Alexander III to invite the nations to a conference and discuss vexed issues of world affairs. Cut short by the Czar' s premature death, the idea was abandoned, then to be resumed nearly two decades later by Czar Nicholas II of his own accord. For all the lofty notions encapsulated in the famous 'Rescript' of 1898, and for all its ready acclaim by pacifists, it was a quest for peace from self-interest, and few were the ministries to be fooled.

The Rescript' s immediate cause was a financial dilemma, triggered by yet another round in the pokerplay of that seemingly unstoppable armaments race in Europe with the introduction of a new machine gun by the French and Austrian armies. Still, the Rescript' s ultimate rationale lurked deeper. In proposing a Conference to negotiate a five to ten years moratorium Russia, on the brink of bankruptcy and with social unrest brewing, wished to reserve all its assets to improve on the vast empire' s notorious Achilles heel, its pathetic infrastructure. This, however, was never an end in itself. It merely served as premisse to Russia' s military and economic expansion.

Cartoons of the period, reflecting overall impression in Europe, depict Russia as an octopus spreading its tentacles in all directions. In fact, St. Petersburg aspirations, far from being pell-mell, were well-targeted. Their ends were threefold, and aimed, firstly, at securing all-year-through open water harbours for Russia s navy and merchant fleet; secondly, at satisfying its massive need of raw materials for the Empire' s industrialization; and, thirdly, at opening up vast new export markets. Foremost targets to attain its first objective, warm water ports, were the Dardanelles and the Liaotung Peninsula. The rich Korean minerals featured high to satisfy the second objective, while Manchuria and China were pertinent towards the third.

The above explains Russia s rationale in meddling with the Balkans under the guise of Pan-Slavism so as to disintegrate the multi-national Austrian-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire. Its huge investments in a range of canals to link Baltic to Bosporus anticipated on this. This policy likewise accounts for its bid for Persian oil which it secured by itsPage 11 1907 Entente with England. Finally, and most pertinent to our present purposes, it was expansion towards the Far East that inspired, indeed justified in finance minister Witte s eyes, the overcostly Trans-Siberian Railway programme which, tentativily launched in 1891, aspired at linking St. Petersburg all the way to Vladivostok.

The above may serve to illustrate the pertinency of the Far East to The Hague Debate of 1899. By 1907 this perspective had only intensified. The eight years in-between had changed the world dramatically and bereft even the most steadfast champion of the European 'Concert' model of all illusions. To the puzzlement of the world, the previous century' s two major boasts, the Nation-State and the Industrial Revolution had conspired into a deadly threat to civilization itself. Fratricides as between British and Boers or Northern Americans and their Latin counterparts, skirmishes in China and Venezuela and...

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