The Russian revolutions of 1917 had to contend not only with domestic issues, but also the overlapping, cross-border interests of Russia’s neighbours. In the Far East, Japan had already established itself as a force to be reckoned with after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905; Japanese fishing, trade and railway administration often came into direct conflict with Russian interests. China had itself been on the receiving end of Japanese imperial expansion in Northeast Asia, especially after Japan cemented its influence over Korea following the First Sino-Japanese War. All parties in this three-cornered fight were alive to the possibilities created by the upheavals in Russia. As the following intelligence report from Jilin governor Meng Enyuan shows, there was an awareness that the Japanese could take advantage of the revolution to make gains at Russian expense.
According to a confidential intelligence report:
‘The outbreak of the current revolution in Russia was largely dependent on the power of the soldiers. Hence, the soldiers of that country are loudly proclaiming their freedom and are utterly unrestrained. In the past two months, cases of Chinese and Japanese merchants in Vladivostok, Harbin and elsewhere being robbed and harrassed by Russian troops have been heard of daily. It is said that the Japanese consuls in the two ports of Vladivostok and Harbin have negotiated with the Russian consuls in order to rein in the Russian soldiers, but to no effect. The Japanese have therefore used this as a pretext to make demands of the Russians. There are four of them: First, the Russian troops stationed in Vladivostok must be limited by the Japanese government. Second, the Japanese must be able to establish a police force in Vladivostok. Third, Vladivostok taxation is to come under Japanese government supervision. Fourth, half of the territory of Vladivostok is to be partitioned off and managed by the Japanese government and Japanese military craft must be allowed to berth in the harbour. Moreover, it was heard that the Japanese are now despatching a great many troops from Tokyo to Vladivostok, and 16 Japanese warships have arrived in Vladivostok at the same time. Within a few days more than 3,000 Japanese troops also arrived in Harbin from Fengtian in mufti, all carrying concealed handguns, coming to Harbin in succession to secretly take up residence in the concession zone.’ These matters have been reported to the governor’s office.
If the statements in this report are true, the impact on our country will be immense. Hence, on the 29th, Binjiang daoyin Li Hongmo was instructed to make a detailed inquiry. His reply stated that the confidential telegram of the 29th had been received, and he had heard that more than ten Japanese military craft had sailed to the Pos’et Bay area near Vladivostok. Russian officials questioned them as to their reason for coming and negotiations were still under way. Furthermore, around 800 Japanese soldiers, all in mufti, have landed in Vladivostok on the pretext of loading and unloading grain and soybeans from Japanese ships. Russian troops were unable to stop them. The Japanese troops in civilian clothes carrying guns and secretly residing in Harbin mentioned in the intelligence report may be referring to these soldiers. As for whether the Japanese have made any demands of the Russians, he would make further inquiries and report separately.
In this regard, apart from instructing our agents to carry out confidential investigations and report at any time, this message is conveyed for the Council’s reference.Letter from the State Council conveying a message from the Jilin governor, 2 July 1917. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 120-121.
The report of Japanese intervention in Vladivostok and Harbin turned out to be somewhat exaggerated. As Li Hongmo’s telegram clarified, there was certainly no immediate impetus or justification for the Japanese to station large numbers of troops in Vladivostok. Like the other wartime Allies, Japan had recognised the Provisional Government. Japanese concerns largely centred around the fear that the post-March regime would be unable to pursue the war effectively. More critical was the perceived growth in American influence in summer 1917, with the arrival of the Root Commission – in charge of arranging financial and technical assistance for the Provisional Government – and the establishment of the Russian Railway Service Corps, which would help to manage the Trans-Siberian and Chinese Eastern railways. At this early stage, however, it was certainly unlikely that demands would have been made to the Vladivostok authorities outright, or that any show of force from Japanese soldiers and warships would develop into outright intervention.
Chinese hypervigilance aside, several key issues emerge from this report. Diaspora protection – especially in an environment where Russian troops ran riot – could be used as a convenient pretext for intervention. Both Chinese and Japanese authorities maintained this tool in their diplomatic arsenal; subsequent events in the Russian Civil War showed that they did not shy away from using it when the possibility arose. Similarly, Chinese authorities were not averse to using the same tactics they so decried in the Japanese. After the November Revolution, a Japanese warship was indeed stationed in Vladivostok, but the Chinese also joined in with their own vessel. And as the pressure for intervention mounted after the Bolsheviks’ peace talks, the Chinese and Japanese governments concluded a secret military pact in May 1918 enabling Japanese troops to be transported freely along the CER into Russian territory.
It is important also not to make too much of the anti-Japanese rhetoric in Chinese documents. The Anhui Clique, which dominated the Beijing government during this period, was not averse to doing deals with the Japanese where it might suit the Clique’s aims of reunifying China. In January 1917, just a few months before this report, Prime Minister Duan Qirui had concluded the first of the Nishihara Loans with Japan, granting the Japanese greater influence in Shandong and Manchuria in return.
In sum, the post-revolutionary dynamic between Russian disorder and neighbourly opportunism was not confined to the Japanese, as this Chinese intelligence report might suggest. Rather, both Chinese and Japanese players were eager to make use of events in Russia to further their own interests. Neither felt that it could afford to “fall behind” in the regional power struggle and both countries often made use of the same playbooks in their post-revolutionary activities. The primary difference, perhaps, was that Japan was able to act on a larger scale than the Chinese were – to the latter’s chagrin.