to Mr. Frelinghuysen.
Peking, February 11, 1884. (Received April 11.)
Sir: * * * On the 10th of January I was informed by the British minister, Sir Harry Parkes, and the German chargé d’affaires, Count Tattenbach, that dispatches had been received from their consuls at Canton saying that the Chinese authorities were preparing to obstruct the water approaches to Canton, and that the effect of these obstructions would be to imperil, if not to prevent, navigation. The German consul reported that Whampoa would “be totally blocked.”
I telegraphed Mr. Consul Seymour for information, and his reply I inclose. Mr. Seymour, as you will observe, said that there would be “serious obstructions without equivalent benefits.”
Two questions arose which in the opinion of the legation required immediate attention.
The first was that by the terms of the treaty of Tien-Tsin, 1858, concluded between China and the United States, in Article XXVI, United States vessels, in the event of war between China and other powers, were to have free access and egress in the open ports. “It is further agreed,” says the treaty, “that in case, at any time hereafter, China shall be at war with any foreign nation whatever, and should for that cause exclude such nation from entering her ports, still the vessels of the United States shall not the less continue to pursue their commerce in freedom and security, and to transport goods to and from the ports of the belligerent powers,” &c.
The second was that the Chinese authorities, in a time of peace, were performing a belligerent act directed against the commerce of friendly powers, an act which if permitted at Canton would stand as a precedent for closing every port in China.
I was not disposed to lay much stress upon the first of these propositions, [Page 67] or even to make it a matter of serious debate with the Government without asking for your special instructions. To be sure, the stipulations of the treaty are plain. It was made, however, in 1858. Since then the methods of offensive and defensive warfare have been revolutionized. The United States, during the rebellion, saw fit to obstruct the channels in Charleston harbor by sinking ships laden with stone, to secure an effective blockade. Germany, during her latest war with France, protected her Baltic ports with torpedoes. I should have felt some embarrassment in seeking to persuade the yamên that what Germany and the United States regarded as honorable warfare could not be permitted to them.
At all events, I should have deemed it wise, before making any representation to the yamem, to have asked the Department for further instructions as to how far my Government was disposed to assert our rights under the article I have quoted.
As to the second proposition, I could see no doubt as to my immediate duty. The situation was this: The viceroy of two provinces, a local official, upon his own responsibility, without asking the orders of his Government and without any communication to the foreign powers of such a contemplated act, proposed to do what could only be regarded as an extreme and supreme measure of war, namely, to close a port open to us by the treaties. This was to be done when China was at peace, and before any declaration of war, or even an intention so to declare, had been published. If the obstruction of Canton, under these circumstances, was permitted, without a prompt and decisive protest, there would be no reason why this or a subsequent Government, the Canton viceroy, or the ruler of other provinces should not obstruct and close every port in China. And while it might be said that motives of self-interest and the natural desire of the Chinese to profit out of foreign commerce would render such apprehensions improbable, yet one can never cease to remember that in China there is a powerful and what some observers regard a dominant anti-foreign sentiment, which would regard such a measure as excluding all foreigners from the Empire as an act of the highest patriotism.
The question was one which under ordinary circumstances I should have submitted to the diplomatic body. But on account of the relations between China and France, I believed, on reflection, that separate action, and especially in my own capacity as the American representative, would be the most effective in securing the ends of peace. With this view I requested an interview with the ministers of the yamiên. The result was a long conversation, a report of which is inclosed.
It would be superfluous to repeat what is written with so much detail in this report.
* * * * * * *
There were two points which I especially urged upon the ministers in my conversation. The first was that I came in neither a complaining nor an unfriendly spirit, but to advise their excellencies as to the impropriety of the action taken by the Canton viceroy. And in making this statement I knew that I was expressing the feeling of Sir Harry Parkes and Count Tattenbach. We had no disposition to embarrass China, or even appear to censure an official for doing what he deemed best to defend his country. But, and this was the second point of my argument, we were doing China an office of courtesy. It was her interest, even should there be war, not to throw aside the benefits which international law secures to belligerent powers. Supposing events with France were to impose upon China a supreme contingency, the first duty [Page 68] of Chinese statesmanship would be to seek the good will of the powers which had no concern in the enterprises and adventures of France. The measure proposed at Canton was aimed at all nations holding commercial relations with China, and not merely France alone. It was, as Mr. Consul Seymour reported, a measure of doubtful utility; to quote his exact words, resulting in “serious obstructions without equivalent benefits.” It would only irritate friendly powers who were bound to protect their commerce and their people, and who could not under any circumstances consent to the abrogation of a treaty by a provincial official.
To these and correlative arguments which I pressed upon their excellencies again and again during a long conversation, they replied with a rude logic which was not without force. “If,” they said in substance, “the western powers are well disposed towards China, if your Government is, as you say, friendly, why do you not interfere and compel France to cease her assaults’? If America is China’s true friend, why docs she not show her friendship in this hour of emergency? Here comes the robber with torch and steel to invade our house. You are our guests. Why will you not assist us in keeping the robber out? China has made other nations rich with her trade. She longs to pursue that beneficent pursuit. Why should not those who share these benefits make some return?”
It was not difficult to see that other arguments animated the yamên, and in presenting this view of the case I think I am giving the principles underlying the present policy of China towards foreign powers. “Why,” they say, “should China, under any circumstances, make war? Why not compel the foreigner to do so? Great Britain, Germany, Russia, the United States, are dying for our trade. They know that it is an essential factor in their commercial greatness. Without our silk, our tea, and so on, they would be poor indeed. They are great powers, with guns and ships and torpedoes and other inventions. Why, therefore, is it not the highest wisdom to impress upon these nations the peril involved in the withdrawal of the Chinese trade, and thus compel them to save China from the invader?”
This theory, deeply rooted in the minds of the ministers and adverted to again and again, as the Department will note in my conversation with their excellencies, made it difficult to come to an understanding, or to divest any advice that could be given as to the impropriety of proceedings like those complained of at Canton of the suspicion of insincerity. If we were friends to China, we should show the efficiency of that friendship by controlling France. There was also the further proposition that China was justified in taking any step to protect her soil. This was the sovereign right of self-preservation. It was difficult to show how, as friendly powers, we should not aid China in opposing an enemy, or, failing in that, how we should contest her own right to do so. The only argument that seemed to make an impression upon the ministers was that China, by doing acts of war in time of peace, which affected the interests of friendly nations, was invoking an opposition from those who wished her well, and whose friendship might not be without its advantages should war ensue with France.
My conversation with the ministers was followed by interviews between them and the representatives of Great Britain and Germany. A memorandum of these conversations was given to me by Sir Harry Parkes and Count Tattenbach, and will be found as inclosures. The Department will observe that the position assumed by the legation in presenting our case was confirmed by my British and German colleagues.[Page 69]
Although we could not induce the yamên to give us a formal withdrawal of their policy, nor to make any promise that what had been done at Canton might not be repeated at Shanghai and Tien-Tsin, the practical effect of our joint action was to arrest the obstructions proposed in Canton, and to show the Government that we could not permit what had been attempted as a precedent. I did not feel myself at liberty to go beyond an earnest and at the same time a friendly protest.
The point at issue was so important, and the possible action of the yamên so uncertain, that I felt bound to submit it without delay to the Department. This was also done by the British legation. The dispatch of Sir Harry Parkes to Lord Granville, and his lordship’s answer, will be found as inclosures.
I also requested Admiral Davis, now at Shanghai, to have some skilled officer examine the nature of the proposed obstruction. Such a report would have a technical value, as that of a professional expert, apart from the judgment of the consular gentlemen upon whose information we act.
The correspondence is herewith submitted to the Department. I am persuaded that you will agree with me that, considering, on the one hand, our rights under the treaties, and, on the other, the practical embarrassments which confronted China, wishing under no circumstances to appear harsh and stern, the position taken by the yamên made our duty clear; that this duty was to protest against a grave violation of treaties and of international law. I endeavored to do so in a way that would show the ministers that no nation, under existing forms of civilized society, could venture upon deeds of this nature without doing herself in the end a grave injury; that treaties and international law were made for the common welfare of mankind, and that in their sanctity China had no small share.
To have overlooked the action of the Canton viceroy, to have permitted a precedent which at any time, under the reactionary influences possible in China, would have fatally wounded every foreign interest, would, in my opinion, have been a serious neglect of duty. I trust that the action of the legation will meet with your approval.
I have, &c.,