Photo of Feng Guozhang, acting president of the Republic of China, and his staff, taken in Peking on 10 Oct 1917.
The Lansing-Ishii Agreement of 1917 temporarily guaranteed commercial relations for Americans in China at a time when Japan was challenging U.S. interests with its advances onto the Asian mainland. The agreement symbolized Washington’s and Tokyo’s cooperation during World War I, but was quickly replaced by renewed rivalry when the United States pursued the Open Door policy in opposition to Japan’s quest for empire.
The Lansing-Ishii Agreement (2 November 1917), signed by United States secretary of state Robert Lansing (1864–1928) and Japan’s special envoy Ishii Kikujiro (1865–1945), was the culmination of two months of talks on the American–Japanese rivalry in China and temporarily settled the two nations’ conflict over competing commercial interests. The agreement made several major points: (1) the government of the United States recognized that Japan had special interests in China; (2) the governments of the United States and Japan denied that they planned to infringe in any way on the independence or territorial integrity of China; and (3) both governments would always adhere to the principle of the so-called Open Door or equal opportunity for commerce and industry in China.
The talks which led up to the Lansing-Ishii Agreement took place during World War I (1914–1918), a time when China was in a state of political disintegration. China’s capital, Beijing, was under the control of warlord Duan Jirui, and the remainder of the country was in the hands of either warlords or foreign interests. Although China was an ally of the United States and Japan during the war, it remained weak and subject to imperialist exploitation in the years immediately following the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Japanese actions in China during World War I, in particular the presentation of the Twenty-One Demands in January 1915 that pushed the Chinese to submit to widespread economic and political concessions, caused the administration of Woodrow Wilson to seek ways to curb Japanese ambitions in China. Despite the public show of cooperation that the Lansing-Ishii agreement represented, relations between the Washington and Tokyo continued to be tense. Statesmen from both nations acknowledged that their interests in China were in conflict.
The origins of the Lansing-Ishii Agreement lie in the U.S. government’s desire to secure access to trade in China after other great powers, such as Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan had already carved out spheres of influence there. From 1899 to 1900, U.S. secretary of state John Hay implemented an “Open Door” concept in China through a series of notes addressed to leaders of the powers involved, which asked them to respect the integrity of China’s government and guarantee access to China’s markets. The Open Door policy would, in theory, provide equal trading opportunities in China for all nationalities. These diplomatic notes were neither binding nor effective, but served as the beginning of a principle adhered to by subsequent U.S. presidents.
By 1908 tensions between the United States and Japan had so deteriorated that rumors of war between the two nations were heard at the highest levels of the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Americans feared that Japanese expansion had eclipsed concerns about American competition with European powers in Asia. Additionally, the U.S. government was working to curtail Asian immigration to the United States and, in an ironic contradiction of the Open Door policy, to restrict access to American markets by Chinese and Japanese merchants. The Root-Takahira Agreement of 1908, the terms of which served as a preamble to the Lansing-Ishii Agreement, resolved the conflict temporarily. Both nations pledged to maintain the status quo in Asia, to recognize China’s independence, and to adhere to the Open Door policy. With the Root-Takahira Agreement, the United States also recognized Japan’s annexation of Korea and its movement into Manchuria, while the Japanese agreed to slow emigration to the United States.
World War I brought the U.S.-Japanese rivalry to the forefront once again despite the reality that both nations had become allies in the fight against Germany. Consequently, Viscount Ishii traveled to the United States on a two-month goodwill tour that culminated with an “Exchange of Notes” that formalized the Lansing-Ishii Agreement and outlined the two nations’ commitments to their policies in China. Despite the cordial reception Ishii enjoyed in the United States, tensions between Washington and Tokyo soon resurfaced. In 1923 the Lansing-Ishii Agreement was nullified when the administration of Warren Harding moved to emphasize the Open Door policy. The Lansing-Ishii Agreement postponed a conflict that would continue to intensify until reaching its climax with World War II.
Clarke, J. I. C., Ishii, K., & Iyenaga, T. (1918). The imperial Japanese mission, 1917: A record of the reception of the specials mission headed by Viscount Ishii throughout the United States. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Source: Grasso, June. (2009). Lansing-Ishii Agreement. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1265–1267. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Center: Viscount Ishii, Japanese ambassador to the United States, with reception committee in New York, 1917. Left, Albert H. Gary, Chairman of the United States Steel Corporation; right, R. A. C. Smith, dock commissioner and member of reception committee.
Lansing-Ishii Agreement (Lánx?n Shíj?ng xiéding ??????)|Lánx?n Shíj?ng xiéding ?????? (Lansing-Ishii Agreement)