GUNBOATS, EMPIRE AND THE CHINA STATION: THE ROYAL NAVY IN 1920S EAST ASIA

Reviewed by: DR JAMES BOSBOTINIS

With a deep interest in the geopolitics and history of East Asia, Gunboats, Empire and the China Station immediately appealed to this reviewer. The 1920s were a period of flux in East Asia, and more broadly, as Matthew Heaslip sets out in his Introduction: “British economic dominance was usurped by America’s rise. The British Empire hit its peak in size and influence, after which it began a slow decline that led to increasingly desperate attempts at maintaining the status quo, often using Britain’s key global power asset: the Royal Navy”. This has a contemporary resonance as China’s growing national power challenges the US. Moreover, whilst the 1920s did not see a major power war, for the China Station, the Royal Navy’s third-largest fleet, instability in China and an increasingly complex geopolitical environment in East Asia, highlighted by the growing concern over Japanese intentions, resulted in the decade being less than peaceful.

Matthew Heaslip is well-placed to provide an examination of this period, with his research focusing on the 20th century Royal Navy and its role within the wider British imperial system, as well as the application of naval power in the littoral environment. The author is also a member of The Naval Review. Across five chapters, covering ‘Joining the China Station’, ‘Between China and Japan, the China Station’s Strategic Balance’, ‘Adapting to a New China in a Violent Peace’, ‘Technological Development and Imperial Policing’, and ‘Changing Attitudes, Ideas and Approaches’, Heaslip provides a highly detailed examination of the evolution of the China Station and its circumstances through the 1920s. Heaslip’s analysis encompasses the grand strategic through to the tactical, and human factors, providing a highly detailed treatment of the subject. The key themes of the book are ably addressed in his Conclusion, with two appendices detailing the key ships deployed to the China Station, and a timeline of senior officers. The depth of Heaslip’s research is evident throughout the text and includes full endnotes for each chapter. This is supported with a detailed bibliography covering the archival sources, and wide range of literature used. Notably, Heaslip undertook research in China, including accessing the Shanghai Municipal Archives.

Gunboats, Empire and the China Station will be a particularly valuable resource to those undertaking research on the development of British maritime strategy in the 20th century, the evolving naval balance in East Asia in the 1920s, and with relevance to the contemporary environment, China’s relations with the major powers during what was a tumultuous period in Chinese history. Although the book is written principally for an academic audience, it will be accessible to the interested lay reader. Heaslip writes in an engaging and informative manner. Whilst the hardback edition costs £90, a paperback version is available for £28.99. Gunboats, Empire and the China Station is an excellent book and strongly recommended.