De-escalating Manzhouli

As the Russian Civil War heated up, Chinese officials in Beijing and the localities were confronted with a thorny problem: discharging China’s obligations to the Allies while maintaining border security. The former meant tolerating White movements within Chinese territory, permitting them to recruit and re-arm in safety. Yet, if anything, this further destabilised the frontier and placed China in an awkward position with regard to the Bolsheviks – to say nothing of Japan’s desire to use the Civil War as a platform for Siberian expansion.

These tensions were especially marked in Manzhouli. As Semenov retreated into China in early March, border officials were obliged to grant him entry and allow him to be supplied with Allied weapons. Simultaneously, however, these “men on the spot” negotiated with the Reds to alleviate the conflict and restore communications.

Hotel Nikitin, in its incarnation as the Manzhouli headquarters of the Japanese Army’s 7th Division. Source.




Regarding the Maritime Customs report that trains are running between Irkutsk and Manzhouli, this is accurate. When the Bolsheviks took Matsievskaia, Manzhouli commander Zhang [Huanxiang] sent a representative to prevent them from invading Chinese territory. They consented, only demanding that Semenov be expelled or disarmed. Furthermore, they said that trains from Irkutsk to Manzhouli had been blocked for several days, and now more than 2,000 Chinese workers and the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors were held up en route with food running out. It was urgently necessary to run the trains. They requested that when the trains reached Manzhouli, Chinese troops should be responsible for protecting them to avoid harassment from Semenov’s forces. The commander then temporarily agreed to the trains’ passage, and stated that the trains would have to be inspected by Chinese troops. If there were any armed or suspicious people, they would be disarmed and apprehended. The circumstances surrounding these negotiations, as well as the arrival of the ambassadors and the return of the Chinese workers, have previously been reported on.

A report now arriving from the commander states:
“The representative has verbally agreed to the following terms with the Bolsheviks:
1. The previous demand that Semenov’s forces be disarmed and expelled will be temporarily dropped.
2. If Semenov is to leave Manzhouli to attack the Bolsheviks, could Chinese troops undertake to inform them one week in advance? The representative replied that this could only be decided on after one week. But it was allowed that Semenov would definitely not leave the border to attack them within three weeks.
3. The Bolsheviks will all decamp west of Dauria, with only ten soldiers in Sharasun and Matsievskaia.
4. From the 17th [of March], Chinese trains entering Russia may be inspected by the Bolsheviks at Dauria. Trains entering Manzhouli will be inspected by Chinese troops at 86th Station.”

An account of this was being prepared when the Army Ministry wired about it. The Trans-Siberian railway terminates at Manzhouli. That foreign trains are permitted to enter the border freely stems from a failure of former Qing diplomacy. Since no orders have been received from the Government on prohibiting this, Heilongjiang naturally cannot stop them from entering. However, the commander’s agreed inspection procedure is still sufficiently stringent. As for whether we may proceed with this or prohibit passage entirely, I defer to your instructions.

Telegram from Bao Guiqing, 22 March 1918 (sent 21 March). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919). Dongbei bianfang (1), pp. 116-117.
Zhang Huanxiang, commander of the Manzhouli HQ, later became a leading military figure in the Manchukuo regime. Source.

The agreement between Zhang and the Reds not only de-escalated the situation at Manzhouli for the moment, but also restored some order on the railway. It allowed the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors – who, like their Allied colleagues, had been evacuated from Petrograd following the German advance in February – to leave Russia. One of the few convoys of repatriated Chinese wartime labourers, trapped in Russia after the collapse of the Russian army, could return home. Equally satisfying was the arrangement allowing the Chinese to guard and inspect incoming trains, a sign that the Reds were willing to respect Chinese sovereignty.

Rumours regarding the negotiations soon reached Allied diplomats and the British press. When the Russian and British ambassadors protested, Foreign Minister Lu Zhengxiang denied all knowlege of the talks despite having received Bao’s reports. Later, in a 26 March meeting with British Ambassador Sir John Jordan, Lu admitted to the agreement but said that it had been concluded under duress. He claimed that the Bolsheviks had threatened to mistreat the returning Chinese workers if their demands went unmet. For his part, Jordan reiterated the British stance: China should not hold Semenov back.

With the Allies unshaken in their support for the ataman, Beijing could only extract a milquetoast promise from Ambassador Kudashev to restrain Semenov:


Zhu: I received instructions from the Minister to inform Your Excellency that the arms shipped to Semenov via Changchun the day before have all been received. However, Semenov’s strength is lacking and our country’s border defence forces have not yet been mustered. The Allies have also not made their attitude towards the Bolsheviks known, and our country has not declared war on the Bolsheviks either. This shipment of arms could not be disclosed to others in the first place. If Semenov were to arbitrarily do battle and lose the advantage, in China’s position it would be difficult to allow him to re-enter our country’s borders without disarming him. For, if he is allowed to enter freely when the time comes, it will be taken as proof of enmity towards the Bolsheviks. This may earn their hostility and they will lead their forces to the border. China sincerely wishes that the situation will not come to this. Hence, could Your Excellency bear this in mind and quickly inform Semenov not to start a conflict and keep all the weapons in the rear.
Kudashev: After meeting Prime Minister Duan this Tuesday, I wired Semenov instructing him to act conscientiously. The weapons are all at Horvath’s disposal.
Zhu: Could Your Excellency convey my country’s intentions to Horvath, that the weapons should be kept in the rear.
Kudashev: I will convey this to Horvath immediately.

Meeting between Foreign Ministry Secretary Zhu Hexiang and Kudashev, 30 March 1918. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 320-321.
Semenov (first row, third from left) with other members of the Siberian cossack host, including P.P. Ivanov-Rinov on his right. Source.

Kudashev had no intention of reining Semenov in. Indeed, the Chinese could hardly expect the freshly rearmed Whites to stay put in Manzhouli, and both the Army Ministry and Military Governor Bao took a dim view of such assurances. Given Allied pressure, however, little could be done except wait for the Bolshevik deadline to expire.

These early engagements shaped Chinese attitudes towards both factions in the Civil War. The Whites appeared to be frontier troublemakers, eroding China’s security and sovereignty while making disingenuous promises. On the other hand, the Reds abided by the Manzhouli agreement, keeping clear of the Chinese border and coming to a mutually acceptable arrangement on the railway checkpoint. Over the course of the Civil War, China’s experiences with both factions would further corroborate these impressions – that is, until the Reds were strong enough to dictate terms in the Far East.

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