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Dutch fears of Japan in the Netherlands East Indies

Far East Contents

By Gareth Jones
(Visit April 1935)

The shipping war, which began this month (June 1935) between Japan and the Netherlands East Indies is symptomatic of the relations between the Dutch and the Japanese in Asia.  The Netherlands authorities are frankly worried.  No longer are their cares directed to the Nationalist movement among the Malays, for two years of rigorous repression and the dispatch of many boatloads of exiles to distant islands in the South have apparently stamped out the extremists among the native anti-Dutch politicians.  Nor do the Communists who caused the police authorities many sleepless nights in the last decade arouse much more than a flicker of anxiety today among the Dutch colonials.  The Dutch fears are along the one channel of foreign aggression and are expressed in one question: “Can Holland hold Borneo, Java, Sumatra, the Celebes and her other luxuriant treasure-troves of oil, rubber, sugar, coffee, tea, coconuts and minerals?”

  Since the Japanese entered Manchuria and continued their legion and ruthless path towards expansion, the Dutch are questioning the security of their Empire in the Far East in face of the rapid growth of Japanese naval and military forces and of the passionate flourishing of Japanese nationalism.  The denunciation of the Washington Naval Treaty, the vast budgets in Tokyo for war purposes, the increased grip the military over the political life of Japan and the dynamic Japanese penetration of world markets are factors which increase the Dutch perturbation. 

“We believe that Japan, having little oil herself, is anxious to seize Borneo, for without oil no Empire is secure.  Thus we have increased the fortifications of Tarakan and Balikpapan, our oil ports in Borneo.”   This opinion from a leading citizen in Java was repeated to me time and time again with sensational prophecies of war in the Pacific.  Indeed so great is the fear that one can say that the Dutch East Indies is going through a phase of “Japanese scare’ which is perhaps as unreasonable as many of the scares, such as the “Red Peril” of this century. 

It is not however, fears of an immediate attack which sends the Dutch to secret conversations about the need of increased fortifications and of buying more military aeroplanes.  Even the most panic-stricken scarcely envisages the Japanese swamping down like a wolf on the fold.  The general view is summed up in the following conversation with an authority in Batavia: “We know that Japan has plans to come in as soon as there is a war in Europe.  That is their policy, illustrated by the Manchurian episode, which occurred when Britain was in a grave financial crisis. As soon as Europe is preoccupied they will strike, try to capture North Borneo and perhaps attempt to seize Java.” 

In the eyes of the Dutch the danger will be especially great after ten years time when the United. States may have left the Philippines and when Japan’s position in the Far East already dominant, will be completely unchallenged and will enable her to advance almost with impunity towards the South.  The Dutch who have lived in Japan and come to Java impress upon their fellow countrymen that the Japanese are imbued with the idea of Empire and that there are few risks they would not take.  They point to the map of the world in Ishihara’s latest book, published in Japan, in which the Netherlands East Indies and Australia are coloured as colonies of Nippon. 

A few, but very few do not share the fear of Japan.  The distance and the difficulties of conquest are too great, they say the Japanese having had to choose between land and sea expansion, between the mainland of Asia and the islands to the South, have by the invasion of Manchuria definitely chosen the path of land expansion: they will be fully occupied in China for many decades and to interpret every small Japanese move as strategic is foolish.  

The anti-Japanese elements in Java, however, accuse Tokyo of carrying precisely the same policy as Moscow of arousing discontent among the colonial masses against the white powers end support their accusations they quote the following extract from this year’s Japanese War Office document. “The white powers are trying to make their colonial masses buy their own expensive goods but in this connection the Japanese Empire is one in interest with the masses of the world and it is not doubtful to whom the final victory will come.”   They state that the Japanese try to influence the Malay natives and that last year on heir arrival in Java for the Dutch-Japanese trade conference at Batavia the Japanese delegates issued a declaration over the heads of the Dutch authorities drawing the attention of the natives to the benefits which they derived from the cheapness of the Japanese goods. 

What has been the result of the growing fear or perhaps scare of Japan? 

It has led to a re-examination among the Dutch of their foreign policy, in view of the popular demand for a closer link with Great Britain.  To quote a British merchant in Batavia: “The Dutch are beginning to thank God for the British Empire.  They regard Singapore as a ‘very pleasant help in trouble’ and as the defence base of Batavia.  For that reason they have their naval and air base at Soerabaya at the further end of Java.”  The Dutch have even asked themselves: “Shall we abandon our traditional policy of neutrality and make an alliance with Great Britain in the Far East?”  Rumours spread throughout Asia that Holland had already undertaken that revolutionary step and that there was a secret Anglo-Dutch Alliance on account of the large number of reasons for a close understanding between the two countries:  their interests in Asia are inextricably linked, for Borneo is divided between them: the oil interests are under the control of both British and Dutch capital: much British money is invested in Netherlands East Indies plantations: the route from Asia to the Indian Ocean lies between British and Dutch territory: the sea and air route from Europe and India via Singapore lies for over two thousand miles near Dutch possessions.  Rumours that the Japanese were trying to buy Portuguese land in Timur, directly on the route to Australia, increased the need for co-operation. 

In spite of these many reasons for an alliance, it is doubtful whether the Dutch have abandoned their traditional policy and in Batavia the view is expressed generally: ”It is in the interest of Holland is maintain her neutrality, because, alliance or no alliance which might involve us in difficulties when we can have all the advantages of an alliance without moving a finger?”  It is accepted, however, that the talks between British and Dutch naval and military authorities last year were not without significance and that there is a close agreement between them, which the defence of the Netherlands East Indies becomes a British interest in the event of conflict in the Far East. 

The Dutch desire that economically as well as politically relations should become warmer with Great Britain.  They declare rather histrionically that they are the vanguard of the white race in Asia, “fighting in the front line trenches for European goods.”  They hope that an understanding with British sugar will be as important as battleships and the Government’s economic advisers in Batavia state to the British visitors: “We will do everything for the sale of Lancashire textiles, if you will buy Java sugar.  Your policy of protecting East Anglia sugar beet is, however, an obstacle.  If you will stop protecting uneconomic sugar beet production in England and buy cheap and good Java sugar, we will be able to buy more textiles from England.  In Java we clearly see how sugar. Beet protection is hitting Manchester.” 

In spite of this official view there will be opposition to European goods from Europeans themselves who as planters defend Japanese goods.  One British planter in Java said to me:  “Why should I support Manchester?  I have a shop on my plantations where almost all the goods sold to the natives are of Japanese manufacture.  The natives are able to buy so cheaply that we can lower wages and that enables us to compare in raw materials on the world market in spite of the high guilder.” 

Japanese economic aggression is thus a delicate problem for the Dutch authorities as is the fear of naval attack.  While the political fear of Japan may be chimerical, there is no doubt about the ever-pressing reality of Japan’s trade conquest of the Netherlands East Indies.


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