Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Lines in the Air

To Japanese occupiers, the Eurasian continent necessitated a new mode of vision from the cockpit of an airplane. As Shellen Wu shows in her module, the northern borderlands emerged as a contested site between Imperial Japan, Republican and Communist China, and the Soviet Union, after the breakdown of the Qing empire. On the ground, Mongol, Tungusic, and Muslim minorities negotiated these rivalries as they sought to stake out autonomy for their own communities. After the Invasion of Manchuria, the incoming Japanese administration struggled to manage what they saw as this immense area, sparsely populated with indigenes, settlers, and the people in between.

The Manchuria Aviation Company sought to become the predominant presence over Inner Mongolia in the 1930s and 40s. The ‘eye in the sky’ had initially developed as a technology of rule after the Great War. As Priya Satia argues, Britain had designed this system of policing, known as “air control” and implemented it in Iraq. There,
cultural ideas of restive nomads
and shifting sands served to justify
bombing the region into submission.

Assumptions regarding a similar geography lay at the heart of Japan’s drive to construct an aerial network in Manchukuo and extend it across Inner Mongolia, beyond the boundaries of its territorial regime. The Japanese airports that sprung up on the steppe would support an infrastructure that would challenge China’s sovereignty over the region. 

It was the Paris Convention in 1919 that determined that foreign
powers could circumvent the sovereignty of a state’s air space
by setting up joint ventures with the host country. This treaty
came about after considerable debate over aerial sovereignty
among jurists, divided into four main opinions:
1. Absolute freedom of air navigation

2. Absolute state sovereignty over air navigation

3. Vertical limits to state sovereignty, similar to maritime belts

4. Limitations on sovereignty by international law

As a result of the Paris Convention, four major corporations had staked out unofficial spheres of influence in the Republic of China: Japan in the northeast, Germany in the north and northwest, the United States in the central plain and southwest, and finally, a domestic carrier in the southeast.

The United States had partnered with China in 1930 to set up the China National Aviation Corporation. Germany followed in 1931 with Lufthansa propping up the Eurasia Aviation Company.  Lufthansa's plans seemed especially ambitious as it began testing a route from Berlin to Beijing via Baghdad and Urumchi soon after signing its contract.

Japan followed suite a year later by founding the Manchuria Aviation Company with 3.6 million yuan in capital to service its recently established client state of Manchukuo. Unlike other commercial airlines, however, Japanese firms did not maintain a strict division of civil and military functions. The Manchuria Aviation Company often transferred information, labor, or equipment for the Kwantung Army, and the sky remained militarized well after Japan secured Manchukuo. 

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