This map represents the situation in Asia in my alternate history scenario around 1937.
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Imperial Japan is the reigning power in Asia, its military and economic strength second to none. Ever since rapidly industrializing in the 1800s Japan has sought to retain its independence from the colonial empires and over time began to crave its own empire as well. By 1937 Japan’s territorial gains include the Korean peninsula, the Sandwich Islands, Taiwan, Shanghai and Manchuria, which was held by the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo.
Japan had made a name for itself when, in 1905 the Imperial Japanese Navy crushed the Imperial Russian Baltic fleet. The Japanese lost 117 sailors killed and no major ships lost while the Russians lost 4,380 men killed and 21 ships lost, including 7 battleships. This established Japan as more than just a regional power and was a clear sign of Japanese influence in Asia.
In the Great War Japan entered the war late on the side of the Central Powers and managed to invade Shanghai and the British held Sandwich Islands (also referred to as Hawaii). However, before Japan could invade French Indo-China or the rich Malaysian lands the war was ended, and Japan was left feeling as though it had been denied it’s due.
Japanese expansion then focused at the expense of the politically divided and militarily weak China, who had been the pawn of the European powers for decades. Japan saw China as a necessary step for building its own Empire.
China had, for the most part, been unified under the Kuomintang (KMT) in the late 1920s. Knowing that China needed to industrialize and westernize if it ever hoped to truly become independent Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the KMT, pursued an aggressive policy towards these goals. He also worked to expand on the Sino-German cooperation that had seen very impressive returns over the last half-century. In 1913 there were over 300 German firms in China, and this number only increased over time.
With Germany gaining control of French Indo-China on China’s southern border, Germany looked to its nominal ally to help protect its possessions in return for loans and aid in developing its economy and military. However in the period after the Great War China was wracked with civil wars and warlords fighting for control and Germany was worried that it would be unable to protect its new lands from the spreading conflict. The German army formed a permanent detachment, the Asian Corps (Asien Korps) to protect Indo-China, but the decade of civil war in Asia was still a concern to Germany.
When the KMT began to unify China Germany saw a chance to help unify and stabilize China, and donated large amounts of aid to the Nationalists during the late 20s and 30s. For Kai-shek, one of the most crucial aids came in military training for his army by German officers. The Nationalist’s army was often made up of different warlord’s personal soldiers, and the KMT knew it needed a body of well trained and loyal soldiers to accomplish this.
The 1930s saw great progress towards the “40 Division” goal, but political problems at home and the invasion by the Japanese in 1937 kept the program from reaching fruition. Germany, to the dismay of Kai-shek, remained neutral in the conflict although its firms in Indo-China and in China itself still continued to produce arms and armament for China.
Japan, like China, was also economically reliant on other nations. The most important trading partner for Japan was the United States of America, and as time progresses the diplomatic and economic ties between these two nations grew stronger. It was American steel that built Japanese ships and American oil that fueled them. America, without any significant interest in Asia beyond trading, was more than eager to sell arms and equipment to Japan during its war. In the popular mind Japan was viewed by American’s as being a “civilizing” influence on Asia and saw no problem in Japan expanding its influence over China.
Besides China and Germany, two other nations took a keen interest in the Japanese war. The first was Imperial Russia. It was understandably worried about Japanese intensions in the Far East, and had been for years. Beginning in the 1930s it had begun reinforcing its military strength along the Manchurian border to help dissuade Japan from attacking. Its own navy was to weak to contest the seas around Japan and as such the Russian leadership decided that it would need to win any war on the ground without the aid of reinforcements.
The other nation interested in Japan’s actions was Australia. With the United Kingdom falling to a fascist government the Commonwealth nations grew increasingly distant from the UK, making Australia and New Zealand both feel isolated and exposed. Australia, which was never a part of the wars against the United States and had few negative feelings about them, began purchasing arms and equipment from the USA, hoping to attract an Ally and increase their own military strength. The US was glad to serve Australia’s needs as it needed the extra employment during the Great Depression.
The most important of such sales to Australia included a series of three heavy cruisers for the Royal Australian Navy, a move that infuriated the UK government as they felt all the Commonwealth nations should purchase ships from their shipyards, not a nation they treated as a potential enemy.
Japan, however, was not interested in Australia or New Zealand. While it was engaged in a bitter war in China, Japan saw much to be gained from the Spanish Philippines, and Dutch East-Indies. However, for the time being Japan was content to finish the war with China as its close ties with the US ensured that many of its resource deficiencies were taken care of, including the all important oil.