V. K. Wellington Koo and the Emergence of Modern China

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V. K. Wellington Koo and the Emergence of Modern China, by Stephen G. Craft. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004. xii + 330 pp. US$40.00 (hardcover).

V. K. Wellington Koo (Gu Weijun, 1888-1985) was arguably the best-known diplomat in modern China. Educated first at the Shanghai International Settlement's St. John's College, an American missionary school, and then at Columbia University, where he earned a PhD in international law, Koo returned home to embark on a career in foreign affairs that lasted forty-three years. He first served as English secretary to President Yuan Shi-kai, was soon promoted to counsellor to the Foreign Ministry, and became China's minister to the United States in 1915. But it was his role at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, when, as chief delegate, he presented China's case for treaty revision and refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles, that shot him to fame. In 1920, he was appointed minister to Britain and the next year attended the Washington Conference. He was foreign minister in successive Beijing governments for the best part of the period 1922-28, during which he steadfastly pursued a policy aimed at revising the unequal treaties by gradual and peaceful means. Out of the political limelight for two years after the Nationalists came to power, he was back in 1931 as minister to France.

Concerned about the Manchurian crisis and questions of collective security, he helped form the League of Nations, which failed to check Japanese aggression. During the Sino-Japanese War that followed, Koo faced the spectre of a "sell-out" by Britain, which was anxious to appease the Japanese just as Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler, and by the United States, which did not want to provoke Japan either. As ambassador to Britain in 1941-44 and to the US in 1944-45, Koo experienced tensions between China and the two great powers. The US did not take up the cudgels for the Chinese until the outbreak of the Pacific War, when China instantly became one of the "Big Four" thanks to Washington. But China's new status did not strengthen its diplomatic position vis-à-vis the Big Three. Koo attempted in vain to form an anti-Japanese alliance. Instead, the Big Three "sold out" China at Yalta.

After the Second World War, Koo assisted in forming the United Nations. After the government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan, Koo remained in Washington as Chiang Kai-shek's man. Neither the Truman nor the Eisenhower Administration, for all their anti-Communism, was willing to support Chiang's attempt to recover the mainland. Koo had a difficult task trying to discourage Washington from adopting a "Two-China" policy and to counter the American image of the Chiang government on Taiwan as dictatorial. By the time he resigned as a diplomat in 1956, he had done all he could to enlist American support for his government. No one else in his position could have done better.

Linking Koo to the emergence of modern China, Stephen Craft portrays him as a Chinese patriot who engaged in the diplomacy of nationalism and played a major role in the development of his country. …


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