Churchill Archive Platform - The Royal Navy and East Asia

Between the late 19th century and the middle of the Second World War, Britain’s Royal Navy had the capacity to project sea power around the world to an extent largely unmatched by the other major powers. The core of its fleet was concentrated around the British Isles and the Mediterranean Sea, but the Royal Navy’s China Station in East Asia was Britain’s third largest fleet. It was tasked with guarding the furthermost reaches of Britain’s imperial chain and was based out of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Weihaiwei. For most of Winston Churchill’s adult life, the China Station was therefore a key cog in Britain’s imperial machinery, defining its relationship with East Asia, and attempting to hold together its overstretched Empire. Moreover, it was a period in which Churchill and the China Station witnessed the rise of Japan and the Imperial Japanese Navy as potential rivals.

During Churchill’s first period of political prominence under the Asquith government, culminating in his becoming First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, Britain’s policy in East Asia was defined by an alliance with Japan that had been signed in 1902. Much of Churchill’s early work looking at East Asia was therefore framed by that relationship. Japan’s participation in the First World War against the Central Powers helped secure the Asia-Pacific region with the capture of Tsingtao, which forced Germany’s East Asia Squadron to attempt its ill-fated voyage back to Europe. Success at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914 saw British warships eliminate that German squadron under the command of Admiral von Spee, but the German cruiser SMS Dresden escaped and caused much anxiety over the following three months. This can be seen through Churchill’s correspondence with the Commander in Chief of the China Station, who was working with his Japanese counterparts to search for the Dresden amidst the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The ultimate success of those operations helped secure Allied dominance against surface threats on the world’s main waterways.

The two-week delay in Japan’s declaration of war in August 1914, however, had caused considerable anxiety in Whitehall and was one of the cracks that marked the start of a decline in Anglo-Japanese relations over the following two decades. That strain in the Anglo-Japanese alliance reappears in Churchill’s correspondence at the end of the First World War, as Britain re-assessed the world around it, including its policies towards former friends and foes. With a growing belief that Britain could not remain friends with both Japan and the United States of America, given the growing hostility between the two, there was the view that Britain needed to weigh the threats posed by the two nations. As a result of this re-evaluation, Britain chose not to extend the alliance with Japan, which led to its termination in 1923. Coming long before anything that resembled the ‘Special Relationship’ of recent decades even Churchill, whose mother Jennie Spencer-Churchill was American, agonised over which nation posed the lesser threat to British interests.

Returning to political prominence in the late 1920s, Churchill’s role as Chancellor of the Exchequer came during a difficult period for the Royal Navy in East Asia. The on-going civil conflict in China led to several clashes with British forces tasked with guarding extra-territorial rights, all while the British government sought to maintain trade and financial flows with China. As tensions grew into a full crisis by early 1927, a major naval and military task force was sent from Britain and India to Shanghai. Given his role, one of Churchill’s main official concerns about the crisis was the cost of maintaining such a large force during what was meant to be peacetime. This linked to on-going debates about funding Britain’s planned Singapore Naval Base, which the Royal Navy hoped to turn into a major fortress. Weighing that delicate balance between the growing demands for civil expenditure at home, against what the Royal Navy felt it needed to protect the extremities of the British Empire remained a major cause of debate in Whitehall until the geopolitical scene changed after the Manchurian Crisis in 1931.

While the opening violent salvo from the growing geopolitical tension in the 1930s came in Asia, much of Churchill’s attention and that of other commentators during the mid-1930s was focused upon the rise of Nazi Germany and the growing belligerence of Fascist Italy. Nonetheless, the withdrawal of Japan from negotiations for the Second London Naval Treaty in 1936 brought East Asia back to the fore. In particular, warship construction in both Japan and Germany opened the debate about whether Britain should also abandon its disarmament obligations and launch a full process of naval rearmament. The signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact in November 1936, while nominally intended to build a coalition against the Soviet Union, brought together Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and expanded the Axis power coalition that would define the future alliance structure of the Second World War. While aimed at the Soviet Union, the pact also solidified fears in Britain and France that they might have to face simultaneous threats in Europe and Asia. That global backdrop and the well-known series of events between 1937 and September 1939, defined a period where Churchill’s regular newspaper articles and speeches in favour of confronting the threat helped set the scene for his later return to power and subsequent wartime leadership. Much of Churchill’s attention on naval affairs east of Suez in wartime, particularly after the Force Z disaster and loss of Singapore, then related to the balance of responsibility between the Royal Navy and the United States Navy, and what the growth of US power in Asia would mean for the British Empire after the war. By the end of the war, even the arrival of the formidable British Pacific Fleet could not mask that transition to American dominance and heralded the beginning of the end of British imperial influence in East Asia.

Where to find documents in the Churchill Archives

The below overview is arranged thematically, focusing on a few highlighted documents and archives. The list is by no means exhaustive but intended as a starting point for research and reading. Advanced search facilities can provide more targeted results. Please note that, within the Churchill collection of papers, the prefix CHAR refers to documents produced before 27th July 1945, while the prefix CHUR refers to documents produced after.

Anglo-Japanese Alliance:

  • CHAR 13/29/147 – A brief note discussing offers made by the Imperial Japanese Navy to assist in the hunt for Germany’s East Asia Squadron.
  • CHAR 13/41/25-26 – Includes a telegram from the Governor of Hong Kong to Churchill, outlining unease over the implications of Japanese naval assistance to British prestige in China.
  • CHAR 25/2 – Includes a memo by Churchill discussing the question of whether to renew the Anglo-Japanese alliance or not.


  • CHAR 18/77/2-4 – Letter from Churchill to Stanley Baldwin discussing the financial implications of the 1927 Shanghai Crisis and associated budgetary challenges for the Royal Navy.
  • CHAR 8/574 – Annotated proofs and press cuttings of article by Churchill about Japanese priorities in China, likelihood of war, and implications for British naval priorities across the Asia-Pacific region.

Singapore Naval Base

  • CHAR 8/338 – Various proofs and cuttings of articles by Churchill including one entitled ‘Singapore and the Empire’ assessing the role and value of the proposed Singapore Naval Base.
  • CHAR 22/68/A – Includes correspondence with Sir Roger Keyes and Sir Maurice Hankey about the threat from Japan and ability of the Royal Navy to defend Singapore.
  • CHAR 18/2/62-71 - Letter from Churchill to Stanley Baldwin in December 1924 that no war was likely with Japan in their lifetimes, describing what he felt were the only plausible scenarios.
  • CHAR 22/68A-B - A variety of memoranda by Churchill outlining some of his thoughts about the global balance of naval power between Britain, Japan, and the USA in the interwar period.

Second World War

  • CHAR 20/71B/136 – Telegram from Field Marshal Jan Smuts discussing the naval situation in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
  • CHAR 20/188A – Planning documents relating to the choice of bases and logistics capabilities to support the deployment of the British Pacific Fleet to East Asia.