By the beginning of 1919, the Allied intervention in Siberia faced a new set of possibilities and problems. The anti-Bolshevik movement had begun to coalesce around Kolchak’s government in Omsk, which busied itself with mustering an army to take on the Reds. But the success of the war effort – to say nothing of the Allied forces themselves – was highly dependent on the Trans-Siberian and Chinese Eastern railways. Transport on these railways had long been in a chaotic state. In September 1917, Kerensky had requested American assistance to put the Trans-Siberian in order. America’s Russian Railway Service Corps, led by John F. Stevens, arrived too late to assist the Provisional Government. Thereafter the November Revolution, Civil War, and infighting between Kolchak and Semenov only rendered the situation worse.
The situation on the Chinese Eastern Railway was somewhat different. Unable to work on the Trans-Siberian at first, the Russian Railway Service Corps shifted its focus to the CER in March 1918, where it promptly set about attempting to improve transport. Besides dealing with anti-Bolshevik intrigues in the CER zone, however, the Corps had to contend with the ongoing rivalry between China, Russia and Japan over the Railway. With the advent of the Siberian Intervention, Japanese troops were deployed along the CER zone in accordance with the Sino-Japanese Joint Defence Agreement and had begun interfering in railway affairs. For its part, China considered Russian domination of the zone to be an erosion of its territorial sovereignty. It had succeeded in expelling the Russian railway guard in the winter of 1917-1918 and in appointing a Chinese president to the CER administration. Both Beijing and the Manchurian authorities alike were keen to preserve this hard-won victory. Yet continued mismanagement of the CER put Chinese and Japanese interests on a collison course with America’s desire to reform the railways.
The Americans had already begun to draw up a rescue plan for the CER in August 1918. At the time, they approached Chinese ambassador Wellington Koo and Foreign Minister Lu Zhengxiang to sound out Beijing’s attitude to Allied supervision of the Railway. Beijing rejected this as an infringement of its rights on the CER, and it seems that no further information was received until a telegram suddenly arrived from Vladivostok three months later.
I have just received information that Japan, America, Britain and France – due to the Russian railway administration’s lack of reform and blockages in transport – propose to jointly supervise the Siberian, Amur and Ussuri railways. The diplomats in Tokyo are to reach an agreement. America wishes to exercise managerial authority, while Japan wishes to serve as the chairman and has requested to send Japanese technicians alongside American ones. Both sides are holding to their own opinions. France approves of the American proposal. The British are also inclined to agree, but they are hindered by the Japanese proposal and find it inexpedient to assert themselves. They are all at odds and after repeated discussions, there is still no result. One fears that the Chinese Eastern Railway is also included in the talks. However, at times when this Railway cannot be maintained by Russia, it should be managed by China. Although other countries cannot be permitted to usurp this position, if there is no choice and joint supervision is discussed again, China should also be the leader, in order to prevent competition and preserve sovereignty. As for whether this is appropriate, I seek your counsel. Regarding the Tokyo talks, Ambassador Zhang [Zongxiang] should be asked to make discreet enquiries.Telegram from Liu Jingren, 12 January 1919 (sent 11 January), in Li Guoqi, Guo Tingyi and Hu Qiuyuan (eds.), Zhong-E guanxi shiliao: Zhongdong tielu (1), Minguo liunian zhi banian (Taipei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan jindaishi yanjiusuo, 1983), p. 255.
Liu was the former ambassador to Russia and now served as China’s envoy to the Allied interventionary headquarters in Vladivostok. His telegram mirrored other news coming from Harbin and the Chinese embassies in Washington and Tokyo. It sent shockwaves through Beijing and Manchuria, especially since Chinese enquiries about inter-Allied supervision had been denied in December. Why was China not informed of the Tokyo negotiations, given that the CER was in Chinese territory and the Chinese government was a co-owner? How would an inter-Allied agreement safeguard Chinese sovereignty? Exactly what would Japan’s role be, especially in the critical area of guarding the Railway? The Beijing Foreign Ministry instructed its diplomats to inform the Americans and Japanese that the CER was a joint Sino-Russian enterprise and could not be lumped in with other Russian railways. China should have a leading role in deciding how it should be managed. CER president Guo Zongxi went one step further, suggesting that China lodge a protest at the Paris Peace Conference.
America’s response to Chinese protests was firm. The proposal of inter-Allied supervision was made in order to limit Japanese influence on the CER, precisely with China’s interests in mind. If China were to take over sole management of the Railway, it would only facilitate further Japanese expansion. Besides, Britain and France had not been part of the negotiations in Tokyo, so China could not claim to have been snubbed. This struck the necessary chord: Chinese officialdom was well aware of the tensions between America and Japan in the Far East, and understood that one could be played off the other. A desire to preserve the balance of power in Manchuria eventually informed China’s decision to support inter-Allied supervision of the CER in mid-February.
Yet the Chinese continued to be suspicious. Despite America’s professions of goodwill, its exclusion of China from the initial, decisive railway negotiations continued to rankle. Four days after Liu sent his telegram, Japan and America officially reached an agreement on inter-Allied supervision in Tokyo, with the details to be worked out in a subsequent meeting in Vladivostok. But this capped off months of discussions between both countries, of which Chinese officials were only dimly aware. The text of the 15 January agreement, moreover, was only conveyed by the Japanese government to ambassador Zhang Zongxiang two weeks later; Liu also managed to obtain a copy then, although he did not specify how in his correspondence with the Foreign Ministry. Official notice of the substance of the Tokyo agreement was only given on 17 February, when the American and Japanese ambassadors presented it to Beijing. Finally, as Liu’s wire pointed out, the Chinese could hardly believe that the British and French had been kept in the dark. It seemed that China alone had been singled out as a junior partner among the Allies.
The Inter-Allied Railway Commission for the Supervision of the Siberian and Chinese Eastern Railways was inaugurated in March 1919. Liu became the Commission’s Chinese member, together with representatives from America, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, Italy and Czechoslovakia. Yale-educated engineer Zhan Tianyou, the “Father of China’s Railroads”, joined the Technical Board headed by Stevens. Throughout the three years of its existence, the Commission allowed the Chinese to continue guarding the CER and maintained a policy of non-interference in local politics. It also served to keep the Japanese in check, just as both China and America had hoped. Nevertheless, the commission was rather less successful in reining in the excesses of White warlords, who proved immune to diplomatic pressure or political suasion. Their depredations would last beyond the fall of the Omsk regime – and until the Chinese takeover of the CER zone in 1920.