In previous posts, we looked at Japan’s escalating involvement in the Russian Civil War, culminating in the Sino-Japanese Joint Military Defence Agreement of May 1918 and the announcement of outright intervention in August. On both occasions, various Chinese actors – from Jilin military governor Meng Enyuan to civil society organisations in China and the diaspora community – voiced concerns over Japanese expansionism in the region. The deployment of Japanese troops in Manchuria and the Russian Far East seemed to prefigure a further erosion of Chinese sovereignty in the region. Even more galling, it threatened to roll back what China had gained so far out of Russia’s disorder: an expanded role on the Chinese Eastern Railway, including the newly formed Chinese garrison headquarters at Manzhouli.
Such fears did not take long to materialise. Already in late August, the Japanese troops that fanned out across the Railway came into conflict with the Manzhouli garrison.
This afternoon, at 12pm, an urgent telegram dated the 21st was received from the Manzhouli command, saying:
‘At 6pm today, Japanese staff officer Shinohara came to inform us that he was under orders from Division Commander Fujii to negotiate with us. First, he asked if the Chinese troops stationed in Manzhouli could join with Japanese forces in a common attack on the bolsheviks. We told him that without any orders from Beijing, we could not decide on this arbitrarily. He said that the Chinese troops stationed in Manzhouli were too weak and were not up to the task. Their posts should be immediately reassigned to the Japanese forces, with the Chinese soldiers moved to the rear, leaving only several dozen in Manzhouli sufficient to guard the railway. He stipulated that the barracks they are currently occupying should all be vacated for the housing of Japanese soldiers by 5am the next day. He had a letter from Semenov as proof. Semenov’s letter stated that all barracks north of the railway should be occupied by Japanese forces, and negotiations should be carried out to move the Chinese soldiers to the south barracks. Shinohara said that the barracks south of the railway should also be occupied by the Japanese, there could be no delay and we should vacate them immediately. After repeated negotiations, he finally specified that they should be vacated at 11am the next day. Faced with such forceful and dogmatic behaviour, it will be difficult to hold out for long. We ask for your instructions before 10am tomorrow. If not, stalling them with empty words will lose us precious time and we will have no choice but to temporarily withdraw the troops to the rear in order to prevent conflict.’
Since the above telegram was received only at 12pm today, after the deadline, one fears that the frontline troops have already been withdrawn but this has not been ascertained. Apart from urgently instructing the headquarters not to withdraw the troops lightly and wiring Fujii to negotiate, I will leave for Manzhouli immediately by special train to deal with the matter. The everyday affairs of the province – in keeping with the policy prescribed in the Military Governor’s three telegrams of the 17th – will be temporarily conducted by the administrative department, Circuit Intendant Wang and Department Chief Dong jointly. Staff officer Xing and Section Chief for Military Affairs Gu will assist. If important issues arise, the Military Governor will be consulted. Once I have arrived in Manzhouli and investigated the situation, I will report rapidly. However, this move by the Japanese is intended to create the opportunity to invade and occupy northern Manchuria. Their pretext, that our troops at Manzhouli are too weak, and their forcing us to withdraw were necessary steps. One fears that the troops stationed along the railway will also be eliminated in future. Even if they [the troops] are not removed outright, if the Japanese take charge of railway rights, transport will unavoidably fall under their control. Yesterday I heard a rumour that the Japanese are stationing troops in the provincial capital [Qiqihar] and Heihe. The situation is now critical and if we do not wish to start a fight, we can do nothing but tolerate them. As for how this situation should be managed, I ask that instructions be quickly sought from Beijing and that the Military Governor return soon to take matters in hand.Telegram from Zhang Huanxiang, 23 August 1918 (sent 22 August). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919): chubing Xiboliya, pp. 277-278.
The Sino-Russian border station of Manzhouli had been a flashpoint already in January 1918. After the Chinese had disarmed the pro-bolshevik Russian railway guard at Harbin and other stations on the CER in late-December 1917, troops from Heilongjiang were sent to oversee their expulsion at Manzhouli. In February 1918, the Manzhouli garrison headquarters was established just as Semenov’s forces were being pushed towards Chinese territory by the Reds. The Chinese then had to negotiate with the Reds to allow Semenov to escape pursuit. Now Japanese involvement destabilised the area yet again. By late August, more than 5,000 men from the Imperial Japanese Army’s 7th Division had arrived, emboldening Semenov and stoking tensions with the Chinese forces that had only just taken the place of the Russian guard. Further Japanese deployments took place during this time at Harbin, Fulaerji, Ang’angxi and Boketu, with similar disputes over barracks and policing responsibilities.
Nevertheless, China’s hands were tied by the Joint Defence Agreement and its own ongoing civil war. In response to the complaint from Zhang and his superiors in Manchuria, the Beijing government replied that Manzhouli was still within Chinese territory and, under the terms of the Agreement, Japan was allowed to station its troops there. Although local officials wanted Beijing to bolster their troops in the region, this was impossible given the fighting between northern and southern governments in Hunan. The situation was defused only by the arrival of Fujii Kotsuchi, the 7th Division’s commander. He acknowledged that the barracks issue had not been handled well and instructed that Japanese troops use the quarters originally allocated to them. Interestingly enough, Fujii was endorsed by Jilin military governor Meng, who had earlier expressed his objections to the Defence Agreement.
Fujii’s sojourn in Manzhouli was brief; he was passing through to lead his forces into Transbaikalia together with Semenov. The quarrel between Chinese and Japanese forces, however, was a taste of things to come. Torn between their interests in the Russian Civil War and the promise of Japanese support in their own internal conflicts, Manchurian militarists and the Beijing government struggled to find a coherent approach to Russia’s newfound weakness. In this, they mirrored their cossack warlord counterparts who had to balance their anti-bolshevik aspirations with the pitfalls of accepting Japanese aid. With the Siberian Intervention underway, however, Manchurian officials were eventually able to play off Allied and Japanese interests and maintain their prerogatives on the CER – a tactic that Semenov and other anti-bolsheviks could not exploit.