Why Britain entered into an alliance with Japan in 1902
The long term context of this alliance is the failure of Salisbury attempt to create a concert of Europe to prevent a European war, which seemed to be brewing at the end of the nineteenth century. Since 1882 Salisbury had been trying to keep Britain out of the alliances which had been formed in Europe. The tensions over the Balkans and Alsace-Lorraine, and the scramble for Africa had resulted in Germany joining with Austria-Hungary and Italy, and France joining with Russia.
Until 1894 many countries had been sympathetic to the idea – Britain’s position would be better described as limited liability than ‘Splendid Isolation’ – but the assumption of control of foreign affairs by the Kaiser had completely thwarted this plan. To counter the expansionist ambitions of the Kaiser in Europe the French had tried to strengthen their position by building up an empire in Africa (they were particularly keen to add Morocco to Algeria) while the Russians had revived their ambitions in the south east Balkans whilst also seeking to break into their neighbour China.
In the short term this left Salisbury feeling that Britain was vulnerable. Her empire in India was in danger and her free trade policy with China was under threat. Yet he still did not want to enter into an alliance with Germany since he felt this might make the Kaiser confident enough to embark on expansion which would lead to war. In any case the Kaiser would not contemplate an alliance with Britain. The trigger to the alliance with Japan was Salisbury’s concern with the tension that was building up between Japan and Russian in the Far East over China.
Only Japan seemed to share British concerns over Russia’s ambitions. BY forming an alliance with Japan, Britain would be warning Russia that she could not expand without serious consequences. If Russia had defeated Japan the Entente might have felt strong enough to challenge the Central Powers if there was ever a clash. To make an alliance with Japan however could curb Russian ambition without upsetting the balance of power in Europe and involving Britain directly in the tensions.
In the short term this plan worked. Russia was, surprisingly, defeated (the war probably was not extended because the Russians were aware of Britain’s backing for Russia) – and Britain was not forced to make a choice or get involved. The reason that underlies Salisbury’s actions at all stages was his overwhelming desire to avoid a long, wasteful and costly war like the Boer War which had recently brought such distress to Britain.