Compromise and Defence: Great Britain and the Burma Road Crisis

In: China and Asia
Author: Jie Gao1
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China and Britain both found themselves in extremely precarious situations by the early summer of 1940, when Japan demanded that Britain close the Burma Road, a vital overland supply route for Chinese forces fighting against Japanese aggression. The British had just seen all of their continental European allies fall like dominoes to Hitler’s forces over the span of a few weeks, while China was fighting a losing defensive war against Japan with minimal outside support. China desperately needed to maintain its overland supply line to the British Empire, the Burma Road, but Britain feared that the very existence of this conduit of war materiel would provoke a Japanese attack on vulnerable British colonies in the Far East. American policy on Japanese aggression was ambiguous at this point and neither Britain nor China could realistically expect help from Washington in the short term. As a result, Britain signed a one-sided confidential memorandum to close the Burma Road to buy time and shore up its East Asian position to the extent that it was able. This deal, a lesser-studied counterpart to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy in Europe, compromised the Chinese war effort against Japan, paved the way for the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia, and ultimately failed to prevent Britain’s defeat in East Asia. Recognizing that this temporary concession would not moderate Japanese behavior, Britain reopened the Burma Road three months later. This paper examines the vital role of the Burma Road in the Chinese war effort in 1940 and why Japan demanded that London close it, then explores the factors that led to Britain’s unavoidable capitulation on the issue and subsequent reversal three months later, along with the consequences for the Allied war effort in the Far East.

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