Changes and challenges: The Royal Navy's China Station and Britain's East Asian empire during the 1920s
Date: 3 June 2019
University of Exeter
Doctor of Philosophy in Maritime History (PT DL)
Examining Britain’s position in 1920s East Asia at a point amid changes in the international balance of power, this thesis bridges the gap between the existing imperial and naval accounts of a key transition point in global history. In doing so, it focuses upon the foremost organisation involved in maintaining and supporting the ...
Examining Britain’s position in 1920s East Asia at a point amid changes in the international balance of power, this thesis bridges the gap between the existing imperial and naval accounts of a key transition point in global history. In doing so, it focuses upon the foremost organisation involved in maintaining and supporting the peripheral regions of imperial influence, the Royal Navy’s China Station. The thesis provides an important new segment to help in explaining the wider story of the slow decline of British imperial and naval dominance in the 1920s. Foremost among the findings is an emphasis on how heavily inter-related Britain’s strategies for China and Japan were during the decade. Indeed, China was expected by the Admiralty to play a pivotal role in any future relationship between the British Empire and the increasingly expansionist Japan, which adds a significant new angle to existing discussion of Britain’s far eastern defence strategy. Providing fresh insights into how those grand strategies were implemented in practice, the thesis shows how naval officers serving in the region willingly and repeatedly deviated from official policy on a day-to-day basis in order to assist their counterparts from friendly powers. Likewise, the evolving threats posed by state and sub-state actors in China are shown to have led to the deployment of vast Royal Navy task force to Shanghai in 1927, which is now generally overlooked and misunderstood. That event marked the last time Britain was able to confidently display its global naval dominance to the world. Among the more controversial findings, the thesis reveals how the Admiralty secretly circumvented the Washington Treaty by developing military aviation capabilities at Hong Kong under the guise of imperial policing. In doing so it provides the first clear evidence that alongside Germany and Japan, Britain was also actively contravening the post-1918 disarmament treaties it had only recently signed. Away from preparations for another major conflict, the thesis also provides a fresh examination of the contrasting accounts of two violent clashes involving Britain in 1920s China. In doing so, the thesis shows that it is possible to establish a more balanced understanding of events such as the Nanjing and Wanxian incidents, despite the highly polarised accounts of what happened. Finally, the human side of the story is explored, during which the thesis discusses changing attitudes towards and use of Victorian gunboat diplomacy. Moreover, the stresses of commanding gunboats in such isolated circumstances are shown to have pushed some young officers beyond breaking point, with disastrous consequences for themselves and others. Archival material that is entirely new to histories of the Royal Navy has been used throughout the thesis, adding crucial details such as the important role of Treaty Port volunteer corps in influencing warship deployments. Likewise, by delving deep into the naval archives, the thesis helps to move the imperial histories beyond the wall of steel and blue uniforms to consider the Royal Navy as a complex entity containing a diverse set of individuals. In combination the thesis provides the first detailed examination of the Royal Navy’s everyday work maintaining the British Empire in East Asia against the wider backdrop of the transformative changes in world geopolitics.
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