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Response to Review no. 646

I am grateful to Dr Hevia for his, as always, thoughtful and interesting comments. Naturally, I am delighted to discover that he accepted the overall thrust of my analysis of the significance of the so-called ‘China Question’ for relations between the Great Powers in general and, more specifically, for British foreign policy.

Two points need to be made before addressing some of the issues raised by Dr Hevia. First, it is worthwhile reminding readers that this is a study of the British response to the emerging China Question. As I stated in the introduction: ‘This is not a study of Sino-British relations, nor is it an account of British policy in China, nor of China’s external relations … This book … deals with the Chinese empire as an object of Great Power rivalries and with the international impact of the China Question on British policy’ (p. 6). Its principal focus is on foreign policy and, more specifically, the internal debates about Britain’s foreign relations within the context of so-called ‘splendid isolation’. Its underlying objective is to free the study of British foreign policy in this period from some of the distortions produced by what I have called the ‘1914 teleology’ that is implicit in so much of the extant literature on the subject.

This leads me to my second point. The diplomatic focus of this study has a number of theoretical implications. The history of international relations as a sub-branch of political history, has specific methodological requirements. Some 40 years ago, Donald Cameron Watt advanced the concept of a foreign policy-making elite. This was based on the insight that an elite group of individuals was central to the formulation of British foreign policy. (1) Zara Steiner’s seminal study on the Foreign Office and its role in the foreign policy process before 1914 gave substance to Watt’s generalities. Her work demonstrated that policy-making was not the exclusive preserve of foreign secretaries and cabinet ministers, but that the officials in the Foreign Office and the separate diplomatic service exercised substantial influence. (2)

The emphasis on individuals and on the institutions in which they operated, has practical implications for the historian of foreign relations. It means anchoring the foreign policy-making process within a wider political context (both external and domestic); it also means acquiring a technical grasp of how this process functioned, what its constituent parts were, and how they interacted. Poking about in the interstices of Whitehall departments is not an end in itself, but key to a proper understanding of how foreign policy was formulated and executed. (3)

Let me now turn to the points raised by Dr Hevia.

First, Dr Hevia objects to the avowedly high politics approach that informs this book, with its focus on elite preoccupations. For the reasons that I indicated briefly above, the choice of subject matter dictates the methodological approach. There is little to be gained from placing foreign policy in the wrong context. At worst, it invests the past with present-day concerns. As for Dr Hevia’s suggestion of an ‘unreflexive use’ of sources, the notion of diplomatic and political historians deferentially tugging their collective forelock to the great men of the past, who so graciously have bequeathed to posterity a record of their deeds, and which they then treat with the utmost reverence as a literal expression of the truth, will have most of us chuckling with amusement. It is, after all, a particular conceit of those who subscribe to cultural approaches to the study of the past that they, and only they, have the right approach. Meanwhile, those of us with ‘unreflexive’ persuasions will find consolation in Butterfield’s reflections on the ‘intellectual toughness’, the neatness and precision of diplomatic history. (4)

Second, Dr Hevia suggests that I paid insufficient attention to a more broadly based imperial apparatus that supported British imperial policy. Frankly, this assertion has left me perplexed, especially in light of the comments by another recent reviewer: ‘Especially impressive is [Otte’s] capacity to assess the ways in which, for instance, the British political elite had any number of other human contacts with the world of business, the media, the military establishment – an extension, perhaps, of the potent theory of “gentlemanly capitalism”.’ (5) Readers may decide for themselves.

Third, Dr Hevia raises an interesting, though somewhat speculative, point about the transformation of knowledge and information in the 19th century. Building on the generalities developed by William H. McNeil a quarter-of-a-century ago, he argues that the exponential growth of data required a high degree of technical expertise, and that it transformed the relationship between formal and informal parts of the imperial apparatus. (6) I entirely agree with Dr Hevia on the general significance of information management in 19th-century international politics, but I differ on two points, both of which arise from a closer scrutiny of the extant source material. First, the Foreign Office was the officially recognised ‘nerve centre’ of Britain’s external relations, where political, military, commercial and other relevant data flows came together, to be processed and then archived; second, this process, although staffed by Foreign Office experts, was not as systemically coherent as Dr Hevia suggests. This was due to very mundane reasons: insufficient Treasury funding. (7)

In the context of information management, Dr Hevia further suggests that ‘the Committee of Imperial Defence, created by Arthur Balfour in 1904 [recte 1902]’, should have been given greater consideration than it has received. While Hevia is quite correct in asserting that the CID was part of this process of managing information, he is quite wrong to suggest that the committee played a significant role in formulating British Far Eastern policy. A brief quantitative survey will demonstrate the point. From its inception until the end of 1905, the CID produced 321 papers. Of these, 21 (or 6.54 per cent) dealt with the strategic problems of the Far East, mostly in the context of the Russo-Japanese War (including, for instance, the scenario of Russia forcing the Turkish Straits – I used a very liberal definition of Far East affairs here when compiling these figures). Between February 1906 and July 1914, the CID machinery produced a further eight papers (out of a total of 322, or 2.48 per cent). A break-down by subject shows that 13 of the 29 papers between 1902 and 1914 dealt with the 1904-5 war, eight with the defence requirements of Hong Kong, six with the second Anglo-Japanese alliance, and two with the status of Britain’s presence at the Weihaiwai (Weihai) naval base, which had been called into question after the fall of Port Arthur in 1905. Thus, the CID was not only marginal to British policy in the Far East; it also developed a deliberately continental European mindset, though this was not what Balfour had originally intended or anticipated. (8)

Fourth, connected to the preceding point is Dr Hevia’s assertion of the continued importance of the India-China connection in this period. At one level, he is quite right in making that assertion. Had it not been for Britain’s Indian possessions, much of Asia would have been of no interest to British policy-makers, as is illustrated by utterances of the Viceroys and India Office officials who people the pages of The China Question.

Here our agreement ends. I am puzzled by Dr Hevia’s assertion that Northern China had a strategic importance for defence planners in India; that the government of India paid for the consular service in China; or that it maintained military intelligence operations in the north of the country. Let me deal with the last two points first. Of the 29 consular posts in China in this period, only one was paid for by India, that at Kashgar (Kashi), in what was then known as Chinese Turkestan (Sinkiang/Xinjiang). Located in the westernmost province of the Chinese empire, it occupied a key strategic position on the northern approaches to India, athwart a trading route that connected the khanates around Afghanistan with China. This was the key, for the India Office paid for consular posts along India’s security glacis, in Persia and the Gulf region, as far west as Baghdad and south to Jeddah. It also subsidised the legation at Tehran. It did not pay for the consular service in China. (9) Nor did Indian army intelligence maintain a surveillance network of Chinese defences in Northern China. The Boxer Rising, which saw an Indian army presence in the area, and on which Dr Hevia has written so perceptively in the context of the ‘moral discourse of looting’, was an exception. (10) Indian forces were despatched to the crisis region because imperial forces were unavailable, as they were tied down in South Africa. Of course, Indian army officers engaged in intelligence work while there, but these operations were organised on an ad hoc basis and were not part of established practice. The people who mattered were the military attaché at Peking (Beijing), who reported to the Foreign Office, and the Director of Military Intelligence, who was under the War Office.

Let me now turn to Dr Hevia’s other point: the strategic significance of North China. He is quite correct in his assertion that the wars of 1858 and 1860 demonstrated that the seizure of the imperial capital made the Ch’ing (Qing) government extremely pliable to foreign pressure. This led to the intense debates within the Foreign Office and elsewhere about a potential Japanese threat to Peking in 1894/5 and the perceived Russian threat after 1898, which I examined in detail in the book. Dr Hevia contends that this linkage helps to explain the lease of Weihaiwei (Weihai) as a base in the Gulf of Pechili (Bo Hai) from which Indian forces could be deployed to the North China plain to deter Russia. Arthur Balfour and Unionist spokesmen in the House of Commons could not have made a better case for the acquisition of Weihaiwei in 1898. Unfortunately, all of this was ‘hot air’ – and Balfour knew it. Of course, the lease of the base was a signal that Britain would not relinquish her position in Northern China. But in reality the leased territory was of little value; Balfour did not really want it and neither naval nor military defence planners were in favour of acquiring it. Once it had been acquired, it was soon agreed that it was useful only ‘for the use of the Navy in times of peace or in consequence of events in China not involving war with Russia.’ (11) It was a white elephant, though one that enjoyed seasonal popularity as a summer sanatorium. It seems to me that here, as elsewhere, Dr Hevia has come to take too much at face value the geopolitical fantasies of the missionaries and other subalterns, whose activities he has examined in his recent, instructive monograph. (12)

Fifth, Dr Hevia suggests that there was a shift in British thinking about China from ‘the effective bulwark against Russian expansion imagined by Rosebury [sic]’, to a preference for closer ties with Japan. Dr Hevia himself has written on this as an imperial pedagogical project, largely from what one might call a subaltern perspective. Unlike him, I would suggest that the tipping point in British thinking came sometime after the Sino-Japanese War, but this is a minor point. More fundamental is his assertion that the closer ties with Japan signalled a ‘new approach’ to dealing with the affairs of East Asia. It seems to me that this reflects Dr Hevia’s generally Sinocentric perspective. In fact, limited and carefully defined co-operation with Japan was merely an extension of the older, now no longer viable strategy of using China against Russian expansionism. This can only be understood, however, when viewed within the wider context of Britain’s global interests and evolving diplomatic tradition, rather than within an exclusively regional setting.

Ultimately, it seems to me that at the root of our disagreement lies a philosophical difference. Pace Dr Hevia, analysing foreign relations on the basis of formal records does not occlude other background influences that might have affected the decision-making process. There quite clearly is a dimension beyond the written record. The ‘unspoken assumptions’, intellectual premises, cultural influences, national traditions or individual ‘cognitive maps’, which shaped the actions of elite decision-makers, require calibration; but this can only be done on the basis of the formal record and by acquiring technical expertise on the materials and processes under examination. (13)

I am not sure if this makes this pragmatic approach an anachronism, as Dr Hevia fears. If it is one, it seems to enjoy undiminished vitality, and I am in good company in a vibrant field of diplomatic history. It certainly is no cul-de-sac.

I am grateful to Dr Hevia for his comments. He has reminded me of the dangers of losing sight of essentials, and of the price to be paid for a softening up of foreign policy analyses.


  1. D. C. Watt, Personalities and Politics: Studies in the Formulation of British Foreign Policy in the 20th Century (London, 1965), pp. 1-15, What About the People?: Abstractions and Reality in History and the Social Sciences (London, 1983). Back to (1)
  2. Z. S. Steiner, The Foreign Office and Foreign Policy, 1898-1914 (Cambridge, 1969); also, ‘Elitism and Foreign Policy: The Foreign Office before the Great War’, in Shadow and Substance in British Foreign Policy, 1895-1939, ed. J. Moses and B. J. C. McKercher (Edmonton, 1985), pp. 19-55, and, ‘On Writing International History: Chaps, Maps and Much More’, International Affairs 73 (1997), 531-46. Back to (2)
  3. For some more methodological musings see my ‘Diplomacy and Decision-making’, in Palgrave Advances in International History, ed. P. Finney (London, 2005), pp. 36-57; for a more practical look at the problem see my ‘Old Diplomacy: Reflections on the Foreign Office before 1914’, in The Foreign Office and British Diplomacy in the 20th Century, ed. G. Johnson (London and New York, 2005), pp. 31-52. Back to (3)
  4. H. Butterfield, ‘In Defence of Diplomatic History’, undated MS, Butterfield Mss, Cambridge University Library, BUTT 426. Back to (4)
  5. D. Judd, ‘Sick man of Asia’, Times Literary Supplement, 5452 (2007), 29. Back to (5)
  6. W. H. McNeil, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society since A.D.1000 (Chicago, 1982), pp. 269-85. Back to (6)
  7. For further observations on the Foreign Office as a ‘knowledge-based organisation’ see my ‘Old Diplomacy’, pp. 35-6. Back to (7)
  8. For a list of CID papers see A. W. Mabbs, List of Papers of the Committee of Imperial Defence to 1914 (London, 1964). For a recent discussion of the transformation of the CID’s role see H. Strachan, ‘The British Army, its General Staff and the Continental Commitment’, in The British General Staff: Reform and Innovation, c. 1890-1939, ed. D. French and B. H. Reid (London, 2002), pp. 75-94. Back to (8)
  9. For a further discussion of the India Office-Foreign Office relationship see my ‘The Foreign Office and Defence of Empire, 1856-1914’, in Imperial Defence: The Old World Order, 1856-1956, ed. G. Kennedy (London and New York, 2008), pp. 16-18. Back to (9)
  10. J. L. Hevia, ‘Looting Beijing, 1860, 1900’, in Tokens of Exchange, ed. L. Liu (Durham, NC, 1999), pp. 192-213, and ‘Looting and Its Discontents: Moral Discourse and the Plunder of Beijing, 1900-1901’, in The Boxers, China, and the World, ed. R. Bickers and R. G. Tiedemann (New York, 2007), pp. 93-114. Back to (10)
  11. Memo. Brodrick, 19 Mar. 1901, G. W. Balfour Mss, TNA (PRO), PRO 30/60/36. For a detailed examination see my ‘”Wee-ah-Wee”?: Britain at Weihaiwei, 1898-1930’, in British Naval Strategy East of Suez, 1900-2000, ed. G. Kennedy (London and New York, 2005), pp. 4-34. The acquisition was also a sop to an enraged public at home, see my ‘”Avenge England’s Dishonour”: By-elections, Parliament, and the Politics of Foreign Policy in 1898’, English Historical Review, 491 (2005), 385-428. Back to (11)
  12. J. L. Hevia, English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in 19th-Century China (Durham, NC, 2003). Back to (12)
  13. J. Joll, ‘1914: The Unspoken Assumptions’, in The Origins of the First World War: Great Power Rivalries and German War Aims, ed. H. W. Koch (London, 1972), pp. 309-10; also T. G. Otte, ‘Eyre Crowe and British Foreign Policy: A Cognitive Map’, in The Origins of the First World War; and Personalities, War and Diplomacy: Essays in International History, ed. C. A. Pagedas (London, 1996), pp. 14-37. Back to (13)