China Contemplates a Siberian Intervention

Last week’s post examined how the prospect of a separate peace, the spectre of Central Powers POWs becoming an organised fighting force, and the rise of domestic anti-bolshevik movements inspired Allied intervention in Russian politics. This initially took the form of moral and material aid to White forces. Increasingly, however, the  deployment of troops came up for debate: How and on what grounds should Allied soldiers fight in the nascent Russian Civil War?

Inter-Allied forces in Shkotovo, Maritime Province, in April 1919. The Chinese soldier is in the middle. Source.

Beijing was also deeply interested in the issue, as a document from a State Council meeting in late February 1918 showed.





According to telegrams from the ambassadors in Russia and Denmark, Russia’s Ukraine has signed an agreement with Germany and Austria. There is a rumour that Germany will assist Ukraine in breaking off from the Bolsheviks, and that German and Austrian POWs in Siberia are becoming extremely active. Our country neighbours Russia and will be affected by this; we cannot stand idle. Moreover, looking at the current situation on our frontiers alone, in Xinjiang, Military Governor Yang [Zengxin] has wired to say that the Turks are already inciting the Muslims to independence; in Outer Mongolia, Superintendant Zhang [Qingtong] wrote that Verkhne-Udinsk has been occupied by the Bolsheviks and an incident will happen sooner or later in Kiakhta. And from Jilin and Heilongjiang, multiple reports have stated that the Russians are continually planning to restore their interests [in policing the Chinese Eastern Railway]. Circumstances are already such that we cannot but draw up urgent plans for defence.

From Hunchun in Jilin in the east to Kashgar in Xinjiang in the west – passing through Outer Mongolia, the Four Leagues [of Inner Mongolia], Kobdo, Altai etc in between – our country neighbours Russia throughout, an unbroken chain of plains and moutains of no less than 10,000 li. Without reinforcing each critical point with strong troops, one cannot even begin to defend it. Now that forces are being employed in the southwest, it is not easy to redeploy them at a moment’s notice, making urgent preparations all the more imperative.

Furthermore, observing current diplomatic trends, the Japanese Revue diplomatique recently stated that if order were to be lost in North Manchuria, it would affect Japan’s interests in South Manchuria and Japan would send troops to uphold them. This is demonstrated also by recent telegrams from Tokyo, where the Japanese government has repeatedly asked China what approach it intends to take towards the Russians’ upheavals in Siberia. Indeed, both Japanese court and society wish to exploit this opportunity to expand their influence in North Manchuria, a scheme they have been harbouring for a long time. Were disorder to flare up in Russia, they will send troops to intervene: That much is evident. If we are unprepared when military intervention occurs, I fear that Japan will strike first and force us to give them passage [on the CER], whereupon North Manchuria cannot but follow in Qingdao’s fate and the resulting disaster would be unthinkable.

“Starting of the Head-Quarters of the Combined Army in Siberia”. The Illustration of the Siberian War, Shobido and Company, 1919. Source.

We must make thorough plans now: If the disorder in Russia were to spread, our troops alone will resist them, such that Japan will have no room to interfere. This is the best policy. If the Japanese use the protection of their interests as a pretext to force us into joint defence, we will find it difficult to refuse. We can only consult secretly with the Allies regarding joint intervention in Russia, as a means of restraining them. Since we share the same enemy as the Allies – and indeed, the same interests in Russia – one expects that they will be sympathetic and Japan will also have no grounds to object. Compared to allowing Japan to act alone, the benefits of this are obvious. This matter concerns our national defence strategy. As for how the General Staff, Army Ministry and War Participation Bureau should proceed with a plan of action, this should be brought up at the meeting to be voted on and implemented.

Just before this proposal was drafted, multiple telegrams were received over several days from Ambassador Zhang [Zongxiang] in Toyko regarding Russian matters. The Japanese embassy also repeatedly sent representatives to inquire about China’s attitude towards the critical state on the Russian border, and whether we wished to cooperate with Japan in a joint intervention. The details were presented to the President and Prime Minister. The President personally instructed that maintenance of order in China would be carried out by China alone. As for matters outside of China, we could act jointly with Japan, but the opinions of the Allies should be sought in confidence beforehand.

Furthermore, a letter from the Presidential Secretary-General arrived yesterday saying that Lieutenant-General Aoki [Nobuzumi] had visited with some queries about the disorder in Russia, German POWs etc. The Secretary-General told him that China alone would deal with matters within Chinese borders, but outside of Chinese territory it could act jointly with Japan. The Lieutenant-General asked if Ambassador Zhang could be told to convey this unofficially to the Japanese government, whereupon the military authorities of both countries would draft the plans. Instructions were received for the Foreign Ministry to inform Ambassador Zhang accordingly. The matter involves military and national strategy. As for whether we should proceed to solicit the opinions of the Allied ambassadors in secret, and how we should prepare our forces in advance, this should be discussed together at the meeting.

(Presented by Foreign Minister Lu Zhengxiang to the State Council meeting)

Proposal for a State Council meeting, 27 February 1918. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 264-265.
Review of Chinese troops among the interventionary forces in Siberia. Source.

Lu’s memorandum summarised some of China’s main interests in the Russian Civil War: To protect contested territories in Manchuria, Mongolia and Xinjiang; restore Chinese sovereignty over Russian concessions, especially the CER; and head off Japan’s expanding influence. None of these precluded armed intervention in Siberia as long as the Allies could keep Japan in check. Hence even before the State Council meeting, the Foreign Ministry instructed its ambassadors to canvas Allied opinion.

Answers came soon after the meeting. Ambassador Alfred Sze in Britain wrote that the Allies were keen for Japan to act. China should move quickly to minimise the Japanese threat and “eliminate Russia’s influence in North Manchuria and Outer Mongolia”. From Paris, Hu Weide went one step further, calling on China to intervene before Japan. Wang Guangqi in Italy urged intervention to consolidate China’s position in Mongolia and Xinjiang. Only Wellington Koo in America sounded a note of caution, reporting that Washington was against Japanese involvement. And on 25 March, Russian Ambassador Kudashev met with Lu to protest Chinese and Japanese interference.

American and Russian reservations aside, Lu’s proposal heralded the negotiations that resulted in the controversial Sino-Japanese Joint Defence Agreement of May 1918. The Pact granted Japanese forces unprecedented freedom of action in Manchuria and played into the hands of Japanese statesmen – including Yamagata Aritomo and Prime Minister Terauchi Masatake – who advocated an aggressive China policy. It provoked an immense backlash among the Chinese public, who saw it as finishing off what Japan’s blistering Twenty-One Demands of 1915 had failed to accomplish.

“Now to see perhaps how the idea works out”. American cartoon satirising Japan’s Twenty-One Demands, 1915. Source.

The limitations on Chinese policy are hinted at in Lu’s document, for China was itself embroiled in civil war. In July 1917, Premier Duan Qirui had used Zhang Xun’s abortive restoration attempt to bypass the Chinese constitution, prompting a backlash from the southern provinces. His strong-arm tactics in securing China’s declaration of war on Germany in August 1917 also alienated southern constitutionalists. That same month a rival government under Sun Yat-sen convened in Guangzhou, and the conflict came to a head in September when Hunan joined the secession. Duan and the northern warlords in Beijing now wished to unify the country through military force if necessary.

Whatever interests China may have had in securing its frontier again Russia and Japan, therefore, these were balanced against Duan’s reunification campaign. Duan financed his armies through a series of Japanese loans arranged by Nishihara Kamezo, himself a proponent of intervention in Siberia. By the time Lu’s proposal was delivered, some 150,000 northern troops were massing for an attack on Hunan, the “forces being employed in the southwest”. But these loans and the ensuing North-South War compromised Beijing’s resistance to Japan and divided its attention. Despite Lu’s warnings, China ultimately failed to curb Japanese power in the Siberian affair.

5 thoughts on “China Contemplates a Siberian Intervention

  1. Pingback: De-escalating Manzhouli – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  2. Pingback: Premier Duan Qirui and the Harbin Whites – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  3. Pingback: The Sino-Japanese Joint Defence Agreement – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  4. Pingback: Japanese Troops on the Move – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  5. Pingback: Semenov vs. Kolchak – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s