There was much for Manchurian officialdom to take stock of in the closing days of 1918. In January, the impact of the November Revolution in Harbin allowed Chinese troops to evict the Chinese Eastern Railway’s Russian guard and chip away at Horvath’s authority in the CER zone. As the Bolsheviks swept eastwards and Japanese interference seemed imminent, Beijing and Tokyo signed a fateful Joint Defence Agreement that granted the latter sweeping powers in wartime. Cossack warlord Semenov established himself at Manzhouli, provoking a border insurgency that lasted throughout the spring and summer. Finally, the revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion swiftly undermined Red power and touched off the large-scale, international Siberian Intervention. Anti-Bolshevik governments sprang up in China as well as Russia, although unity among these various regimes was by no means assured.
In late-December 1918, therefore, Heilongjiang military governor Bao Guiqing sent the Foreign Ministry a lengthy wire setting out his assessment of the far eastern situation, part of which is excerpted below. Weighing on his mind was the recent conflict between Semenov and Kolchak’s All-Russian government, but mostly because it was an avatar of the more longstanding rivalry between America and Japan.
The troops stationed at Boketu and Ang’angxi on the Chinese Eastern Railway have reported on the clash between Horvath and Semenov and their mutual confiscation of military trains. This was conveyed in the telegram of the 15th.
Semenov has long harboured the desire to establish an independent government in the eastern part of Siberia; this did not emerge only today. Japan is thus using this, secretly aiding his success in order to seize economic privileges in Siberia. America has also seen through this and wishes to support the Russians in establishing a unified government, to thwart this scheme and maintain the new balance of power in the far east. Since Semenov announced his opposition to the All-Russian government, its leader, Kolchak, contacted Horvath and appointed him governor-general of the four provinces of Baikal, Heilongzhou [sic, probably Amur], Amur and Primor’e, thus cutting back Semenov’s influence. Recently, according to intelligence reports, the All-Russian government plans to send General [V.I.] Volkov to lead troops eastwards and suppress Semenov’s forces. Horvath has accepted his post and is inclined towards that government, planning to send troops westwards to Manzhouli to attack Semenov’s rear. Such are the origins of the Horvath-Semenov conflict.
At this time, however, Japan has gained a foothold for its operations in Siberia. Without doing its outmost to protect Semenov, it cannot achieve its wider goals. It is said that their 3rd Division, originally stationed in Chita, will be moved to the Irkutsk area to head off Kolchak’s forces which are coming to punish Semenov. Similarly, the 7th Division stationed at Manzhouli will be distributed along the Chinese Eastern Railway line as a rearguard, such that Horvath will not have an opportunity to endanger Semenov. Its aim is none other than to give Semenov the space to consolidate his eastern fiefdom, whereupon it will be able to increase its economic privileges and realise its policy towards the far eastern mainland. But one hears that Kolchak’s pronouncements about suppressing Semenov are in fact secretly orchestrated by America. The fight between Kolchak, Horvath and Semenov is thus the forerunner of a conflict between Japan and America. After all, the undercurrents between America and Japan have been developing for a long time. If they grow even more acute, once an explosion occurs there will be a massive conflagration.
However, America’s prestige is very great. It will now preside over the Allied conference, leading the world’s diplomacy [Bao’s choice of words refers to a meeting of lords, dating back to the Spring and Autumn period, at which alliances are concluded]. Of course, Japan will not dare to risk the world’s opprobrium and pick a fight lightly, but at the same time it cannot bear to forfeit its extensive economic privileges. I predict that its current plan must be, superficially, not to openly clash with America, and to declare that it will not interfere in Russia’s internal conflict; that, out of neighbourly relations and goodwill, it wishes to as act a mediator. Hence today, there is indeed talk of mediating between Horvath and Semenov. On one level, although it wishes to support Semenov, it also knows that his reputation is relatively poor and insufficient to win the people’s confidence. Thus it must curry favour with Horvath at the same time and induce him to join forces with Semenov. Only then will it be able to carry out its plans. On another level, if it openly favours Semenov, not only will this be tantamount to starting a fight with America, it also cannot avoid blame from the Allies. Only by manoeuvring between Horvath and Semenov, and advising Semenov to come to terms with the All-Russian government, can it enable Semenov to preserve his position in the east, thereafter allowing it to completely realise its aim of seizing economic privileges.
Yet if Japan’s plan is seen through by America, and America incites the Kolchak government to resolutely carry out the punitive expedition, the final clash between Japan and America will be unavoidable. If they take military action against each other, then the Far East will see a repeat of the disaster of the 1914 [sic] Russo-Japanese War. This can almost be predicted. At this time, China can only use 1914 [sic] as a precedent and maintain strict neutrality. What is most worrying is that Japan may use the Joint Defence Agreement as a pretext to force us into this quagmire. We do not have the strength to comply, yet if we do not comply the disaster will be imminent. Indeed, at that life-or-death moment, this will be the most critical question for us. Hence, with these future trends in mind, we cannot but determine an approach in advance. Now, our country should first communicate with Britain and France, and align our attitudes. If we can obtain their tacit support, during a moment of crisis Britain and France will take the lead in recognising our neutrality. America must also recognise it and Japan cannot but follow suit. Further, with Allied support, detailed articles should be drawn up delimiting the areas of neutrality. Then may the situation as a whole be preserved, and the tragedy of war in Manchuria may hopefully be averted.Telegram from Bao Guiqing, 28 December 1918 (sent 22 December). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 612-613.
This was not the first time Bao had weighed in on the Russian Civil War. Although a member of Zhang Zuolin’s Fengtian clique and thus a reviled “warlord”, he has been considered one of Manchuria’s more able leaders, especially in terms of rolling back Russian influence. As early as February 1918, Bao had already drawn up a five-point defence plan to deal with a potential Bolshevik onslaught, and he continued to convey detailed reports and proposals to Beijing throughout the year. The telegram above showed his keen awareness of events, both historical and current; their import in the wider clash between the Great Powers; and the value of diplomatic and legal niceties, as in the discussion on neutrality.
Bao’s predictions were in fact fairly prescient, if somewhat premature. Allied pressure did indeed get Japan to adopt a more conciliatory approach towards Kolchak, accept joint control over the CER and scale back some of its forces. Semenov duly agreed to recognise Kolchak on a provisional basis, although he never contributed troops to Omsk and continued to disrupt railway traffic. What did not materialise was the showdown between America and Japan. When Bao sent his missive, the Japanese could still be persuaded by Allied arm-twisting. They had not yet been disappointed over the Racial Equality Proposal during the Paris Peace Conference, or snubbed with the tonnage ratios in the Washington Naval Treaty. It would take another two decades for Japanese militarism and disillusionment with the Western Powers to trigger the “explosion” that would lead to the “massive conflagration” of a new World War.