Failure of peace negotiations
After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, Japan, led by the Army General Staff, embarked on peace initiatives to prevent an escalation of the Sino-Japanese War. Such moves came amid growing concerns that preparations for a possible war against the Soviet Union would be neglected during a prolonged conflict in China.
One such peace initiative was the Trautman Operation, named after German Ambassador to China Oskar Trautman who Japan picked as a go-between. Germany was approached because of the strong anti-British feeling in the Army General Staff. In late October of 1937, the Army’s intentions were conveyed to Trautman through a military attach at the German Embassy in Japan. For Germany, the offer was welcome as it believed that an early peace settlement between Japan and China was desirable to stabilize the Chinese market and to restrain the Soviet Union.
On November 2, Foreign Minister Koki Hirota presented German Ambassador to Japan Herbert von Dirksen the terms for peace, which were in line with the government’s guidelines for handling the Sino-Japanese War. Trautman then visited Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of China’s Nationalist government, and conveyed Japan’s position. The terms included such conditions as autonomy in Inner Mongolia and the establishment of demilitarized zones in northern China under the precondition that China recognizes Manchukuo, the Manchurian nation Japan had established. But Chiang Kai-shek rejected the conditions since he had high hopes for the Nine-Power Treaty conference in Brussels, which discussed Japan’s military actions. The peace process was therefore suspended. But, as the Japanese forces appeared to have gathered the strength to capture Nanjing, Chiang Kai-shek needed to change tactics and he moved to become actively engaged in peace negotiations.
Shigeharu Matsumoto, who was the Shanghai Bureau Chief of the Domei national news agency and an aide to Konoe, recalled: At a meeting in early December, Trautman tried to persuade Chiang Kai-shek, saying, “Unless China complies with this offer, the war will continue, and future peace terms likely will be much less favorable than the current ones.” Chiang Kai-shek replied: “I can’t trust Japan. However, I believe Germany is mediating here, so I’d like to have negotiations based on the conditions already offered.” But Chiang Kai-shek still sought a ceasefire, saying he would be willing to have talks after a ceasefire and that talks could not be held while the fighting continued.
After the Japanese forces captured Nanjing in late December of 1937, Japan was in the mood to celebrate a victory. This made any peace terms much tougher.
At a liaison meeting of the Imperial Headquarters and the government on December 14, the day after the occupation, Hirota presented the same peace proposal that he showed to Dirksen. War Minister Hajime Sugiyama and Home Affairs Minister Nobumasa Suetsugu, among others, voiced strong opposition to the peace plan. Konoe remained silent throughout the meeting. The meeting ended with the conclusion that Japan would demand that China accept conditions including formal recognition of Manchukuo and the establishment of a special political organ in northern China. These were conditions that China was hardly likely to accept. As a result, the two nations lost a chance to make a peace deal.
Chiang Kai-shek refused to engaged in peace talks and opted for all-out resistance. In his diary dated January 2, 1938, he wrote: “The conditions that Japan presented were equivalent to allowing [Japan] to conquer and destroy our nation. It would be better for us to fight to the end rather than to surrender.”
Japan set a January 15 deadline for China’s reply. The Imperial Headquarters-Government Liaison Conference in Tokyo on that day was tense. According to a record written by Kazuo Horiba, who was in the war guidance unit of the Army General Staff, only one member of the meeting, Vice Chief of the Army General Staff Hayao Tada, called for continuation of the negotiations. Sugiyama, on the other hand, said, “If there is no reply by the deadline, it is proof that [China] lacks sincerity in pursuing the peace process.” Hirota concurred, “In light of my long experience as a diplomat, it is obvious, judging from its handling of the matter, that China lacks good faith for reaching a peaceful settlement.” Hirota pressed Tada hard, asking, “Vice Chief, don’t you trust the Foreign Minister?”
Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai also attempted to forestall Tada’s argument, saying: “Distrust in the Foreign Minister shown by [a member of] the high command is equivalent to having no confidence in the government. There is no choice for the government but to resign.” Tada was in tears as he resisted, saying, “How can you refer to the resignation of the government at such a critical time for the nation.” But he was forced out. The next day, January 16, a statement was issued, “The Imperial government from now on will not regard the Nationalist government [of China] as a negotiating partner.”
Hirota also formally notified Germany to end the Trautman Operation. Back in early November 1937, when the peace negotiations were suspended, Hirota had already said, “Even if Germany and Italy mediate, it will do no good at all.”
After the first Konoe peace initiative was issued, a number of others were attempted, such as one led by Foreign Minister Kazushige Ugaki, called the Ugaki-Kung Hsiang-hsi Operation, which started in June 1938, with Kung Hsiang-hsi (Kong Xiangxi), Vice Premier of the Kuomintang government. But the one given most attention was the Wang Chao-ming (Wang Zhaoming) Operation.
Army officers such as Sadaaki Kagesa and Takeo Imai approached Wang Chao-ming, a Kuomintang heavyweight. Wang Chao-ming left Chongqing, following the second Konoe statement, which called for a new order in East Asia. In March 1940, Wang Chao-ming launched a new regime in Nanjing, which was under control of the Japanese military. There were limitations, however, to peace negotiations without Chiang Kai-shek’s presence. Professor Liu Jie at Waseda University said: “If one of China’s periodic power struggles had taken place, a shift in power from Chiang Kai-shek to Wang Chao-ming could have occurred. But, following the outbreak of all-out war between Japan and China, it was inconceivable to oust Chiang Kai-shek, who was the driving force for anti-Japanese resistance in China.”
In China, Japan’s peace initiatives of this period were seen as a “plot” and expressed in two Chinese characters meaning “guidance for surrender.” Bu Ping, the director of the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, insisted: “[Japan] aimed at avoiding any large-scale military clash. The purpose was not to achieve real peace; it was merely a plot aimed to allow the occupation of China.”