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Japan and Russia in the East: Stunted Seeds of a Second Russo-Japanese War

ISSUE:  Winter 1927

Those who have broken away from the American tendency, to focus inevitably upon Europe when searching the far horizons for international complications that affect us, are today watching events in the Orient with an ever deepening concern. To arrest attention through exaggeration is an old trick, yet no trickery is intended in the statement that there is no event of international significance taking place in the Far East today that does not directly and intimately affect America. Gone is the period when the great nations of the world were those that fringed the basin of the Mediterranean; gone also the time when the continental powers held central place, only giving way to the Atlantic group as the new world countries won their spurs. Today the first-class nations are those with interests in the Pacific.

Nations win and hold prime positions on the roster of states largely through their capacity to grow and expand. But in these so-called enlightened times expansion by international theft or military conquest is frowned upon to such a degree that practically only one method remains. That method—except by the new wreapon of propaganda which has been brought to such a high state of efficiency at the hands of Soviet Russia—is economic.

Asia today is a large unimpoverished economic field. It is an important outpost of commerce, a great unexhausted reservoir of raw materials and markets; and towards it, not unlike the miners of ‘49, the enterprising nations of the world are pressing. Having arrived, what do they find?— a country torn by disorganization and rendered impotent by civil strife, innoculated with the virus of bolshevism, and the casus belli of two early prospectors, Russia and Japan, who with large claims already staked, are quarreling over where to place the fences.

China is today a potpourri of causes and effects, of international moves and counter moves, worthy of intense study by every American.

American’s policy in China of “the open door” is no idle slogan. It is a far-visioned principle, rooted in the soil of provident forethought. It is a luxury of today, it will be a necessity of tomorrow. Since its first enunciation, it has frequently been challenged. By Japan and Russia, it is being challenged now.


Two modern Jasons—one wearing the sickle and hammer emblem of red Russia, the other the double sword of the Samurai—have been sowing dragons’ teeth across an ancient battle-field. Japan and Russia have manoeuvered and fought through the years in North China. Long before the end of the nineteenth century when the nations of the west awakened to the economic opportunities that lay open to them in China and the “battle of concessions” (1899) took place, these two nations had pointed the way.

To the north of China proper lies Manchuria; to the northwest, Mongolia; to the west, Turkestan and Tibet. The Russian Far East, or Siberia, rims these regions for three thousand miles; while extending along China’s coast from end to end, lie the islands of the Kingdom of the Rising Sun.

To go back to first principles, Manchuria belongs to China. No event has ever transpired rendering nugatory this time-honored status. But so vigorous and unremitting have been the efforts of Russia and Japan to dominate it that we are prone to fall into the error of considering the southern half as Japanese and the northern half Russian, without reminding ourselves that this unhappily placed portion of Chinese soil is simply the coveted middle-ground between two ancient foes.

Japan is in Manchuria because she believes her success as a first-class power depends upon it. That is the sole reason, not necessity. If a barrier could be erected about the Japanese Archipelago, entirely shutting it off from intercourse with the rest of the world, two commonly held facts concerning this island kingdom would quickly be disproved. Her people would not starve to death, neither would they fall off the edges of their island empire into the sea. General statements and common opinion notwithstanding, statistics show that for the last five years Japan has imported yearly less than five per cent of her food, and that, put to it, she could be entirely self-sustaining. Actual figures prove equally fallacious the theory of over-population. It is quite true that the areas in the Japanese Empire where the density is only sixty-five to the square mile are not in the most choice locations from a climatic viewpoint, a consideration to which the Japanese give considerable importance. But the regions across the Japan Sea to which Japan is constantly alluding as the place where she must send her alarming yearly surpluses—notably Manchuria— are equally unsuitable climatically to the physical peculiarities of her nationals.

Over-population has for years been Japan’s excuse for expansion westward; economic control of raw materials has for as many years been the true reason. In order for Japan to hold her place among the great powers of the world, she must, like England, industrialize—an impossible accomplishment without free access to the coal and iron of North China which her own islands lack. Here, in a nutshell, is the underlying reason for Japan’s historic efforts to bring Manchuria under her economic control.

But with respect to Russia, it is generally accepted that her desire for control of Manchuria is not, like Japan’s, a need for economic resources; that her interest there has not Iain in the fact that Manchuria’s stones are iron or that from her mountains she can dig brass. Russia’s true interest in North China has always been held to be an outlet upon the Pacific for her one hundred and thirty-five millions occupying as they do the huge ice cap of the Eurasian Continent; and her actions have always been interpreted as supporting this theory.

As early as 1858 Russia, by the Treaty of Aigun, acquired Eastern Siberia from China. By 1901 a railway connected Siberia’s finest port, Vladivostok, with European capitals. Then followed a brief four years when Vladivostok enjoyed the position of an unrivaled port, for Da-iren (Port Arthur) to the south offered no resistance. But when by the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth, terminating the Russo-Japanese War, Dairen became Japanese and Japan began to devote it to her own ends, at once this situation changed. Dairen no longer served as a complementary harbor to Vladivostok. It opposed its very purposes and Russia found herself impelled to a great and ever greater effort in order to preserve to Vladivostok a fair share of the trade for which the now Japanese-controlled harbor of Dairen was the more convenient outlet. Concessions, railway feeder lines, and innumerable commercial projects were effected only to be countered by Japan. And to Russia at least, the fine balance of the struggle as it intensified year by year lent an importance to success disproportionate to the actual pressure of necessity.

Into this period of intense economic rivalry broke the World War; and while 1915 saw Japan making her amazing attempt, through the “Twenty-one Demands” upon China, forever to consolidate her position, first China’s in-transigeance, later the position she unalterably took at Versailles, and finally the influence brought to bear at the Washington Conference, proved a combination strong enough to forestall Japan’s complete reservation of North China to her exclusive purposes. Furthermore, by 1924, healing and energizing years having passed for Russia since her signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, she began to renew her former activities in Manchuria. For the first time in two decades, these traditional antagonists faced each other again without odds. Portsmouth, Tannenburg, and the Revolution had been counterbalanced by the Washington Conference and the great earthquake of 1923. Sadder but no wiser, they began the game again and with increasing intensity it has progressed ever since. Indeed we may find cause for grave concern in the situation in Manchuria which until very recently confronted us, for there was being enacted, with the same cast, an historical repetition of the events that immediately preceded and brought about the former Russo-Japanese conflagration. In Nippon swords were being rattled in their sheaths. On Siberia’s timbered hills the bear was sharpening his claws. War clouds definitely began to gather.


Then suddenly came a lull. The curtain was rung down on this war-like scene. A new set, amazingly pastoral, was presented.

Japan continues to project railways and to consolidate her position in Manchuria, but Russia, (although there are no appearances that she has definitely retreated from the field) seems to be offering now no opposition. Vladivostok is left to shift as best it can. The dream of a great Russian port on the Pacific appears to be fading. South of Dairen, however, on the Gulf of Chihli, the famous Chinese port of Tientsin, has been contended for by a Chinese military leader of known Russian sympathy, in whose staff are Russian officers and in whose guns are Russian shells. Here is a pretty how do you do; and Japan looks on apparently unmoved. Can mutual dislike of the occidental powers, Japan because of racial, Russia because of economic antagonisms, have joined these ancient enemies against a world that has turned upon them an unfriendly back? Can they, having accepted the fact that half a loaf is better than none, have agreed upon a modus vivendi whereby Japan is to be left to pursue, unhampered, her purposes in North China in exchange for permitting Russia a free hand in a new field to the South? Reasons are not fewr that would appear to make such an arrangement mutually desirable. First, the unsuccessful efforts of Japan and Russia completely to control the arteries of exportation of Northeastern Asia resulting as they have in a futile and vicious deadlock. Second, the obvious desirability of avoiding an appeal to arms, which a further thrust of the red bear’s paw into the Man-churian honeycomb seemed inevitably to presage. Third, and in support of the second, the present economic weakness of both Russia and Japan to wage a successful war, the former for reasons well known, the latter because of the 1923 earthquake and a depreciated currency.

But reasons which appear to disprove the existence of a modus vivendi between Japan and Russia seem the more convincing. In the first place, though neither Japan nor Russia are in an economic position to fight each other, Japan is the better prepared, and the international political situation there today is so precarious that those in power might even welcome the counter-irritant of a foreign war. In the second place, because Japan is at present holding the winning hand in Manchuria, there is no vitally pressing reason for the nonce why she should be willing to compromise with Russia. And in the third place, because of the Chinese antagonism that such an arrangement would arouse, to enter into it would endanger Japan’s very future.

With respect to this third reason, which is undeniably the most important, Japan must see that China cannot forever remain in her present impotent state. Even in her momentary military and political weakness she has discovered a weapon that has proved more powerful than either military force or moral suasion. This is the economic boycott. Japan has already felt its results; she knows its strength, and greatly she fears it. Even sweeping aside the solemn duty which the Washington Arms Conference treaties placed upon Japan to refrain from covenanting in secret at the expense of any Pacific power, and the world censure that the discovery of such an agreement would rain down to the irreparable damage of Japanese prestige, Japan, with no more pressing reasons than those already outlined would be weaving her own hang-rope to enter into an understanding with Russia so completely damaging to the one country upon whose continued friendliness her very future depends,


We must seek deeper then for an explanation behind this apparent Russian-Japanese laissez-faire.

That General Feng Yu-Hsiang, one of China’s outstanding military leaders served in April, 1926, as the spearhead of a Russian thrust at Tientsin, is an undeniable fact, and for it consequently there must be a reason other than Russia’s desire for a port on the Pacific. Why should General Feng, frequently spoken of as the “Christian General,” have been singled out as the object of Russia’s wooing? Soviet wire pullers do not usually choose their accomplices without reason. There is little madness in Moscow’s methods. General Feng is the powerful Governor of all the Chinese provinces, Manchuria excepted, lying the nearest to Russian territory. Blocked by Japan in Manchuria, Feng’s domain offered an even better field of conquest looking to an eventual sovietization—working from the outside in—of as much of China as possible. Consequently, Feng was approached and proved easy prey, the price of his support being plainly visible. Revenge is sweet to a Chinese general. Feng’s vengeance, according to Feng, needed venting upon the alleged pro-Japanese General Chang Tso-lin of Manchuria. But Chang was well munitioned and equipped. Feng was neither. Thus it came about that the birthright of sovereignty in China’s northwestern provinces was sold for the mess of pottage of Russian military support.

In March of 1925, the Soviet Government on the one hand and General Feng on the other entered into the following agreement:

Article 1. Two railways shall be laid in Outer Mongolia.

Article 2. The North-western military division (Sin-kiang, Shensi, Kansu, Honan, Chahar and Suiyuan) shall be a neutral zone of a government on the confederated system. This shall not come into force for five years.

The North-western military division shall invite military instructors from Soviet Russia, and their number shall be sixty.

Article 3. The Soviet Government shall support the North-western military division with 100,000 gold rubles every month.

Article 4. The repayment of the principal of the loan for the Arms Agreement signed at Peking on February 13th, 1925, shall begin in 1930 and be liquidated in ten years. In default of which the refund shall be deducted from the subsidy.

Article 5. Soviet Russians retain propaganda and residential liberty in the North-western military division, but they shall not give public lectures.

Article 6. The Soviet propaganda committeemen shall neither criticize the government in the North-western military division nor oppose it.

Article 7. In the event of a war breaking out between an imperialistic country and the Soviet government, one-third of the troops of the North-western military division shall come to the aid of the latter. In case of hostility between an imperialistic country and China the Soviet Government shall support China with troops not exceeding 50,000 in number.

Article 8. The North-western Army shall not invade the borders of the Urga Soviet Republic.

Anticle 9. Regarding the political penetration of Japan and Britain in Sinkiang, Mongolia, etc., China, Mongolia and Russia shall mutually control it and jointly strive to hold it in check for the complete retention of sovereignty.

(Signed) Feng Ytj-Hsiang, Borodin,

Peking, March 11th, 1925.*  Katayama Sen.

Supplementary to this treaty was a military map of the northwestern area and a list of arms to be supplied which specified 100,000 rifles and carbines, large quantities of machine rifles, field guns, mountain guns, high elevation guns, aeroplanes, tanks, hand grenades, and gun powder, an unsecured loan of $3,000,000 for military expenses, and in General Feng’s Army the commissioning without pay of a large number of Soviet officers.

Thus we find that under the very nose of either an uninformed or indifferent world, Russia successfully has been bargaining with a Chinese military general for what amounts to practical control of one million square miles of Chinese territory stretching from Manchuria in the east to the reaches of India in the West—an all-enveloping buffer, which lies adjacent to Mongolia, between China proper and the U. S. S. R. Mongolia itself, furthermore, has suffered an even more sorry fate. By all the rights of both treaty and conquest Mongolia is Chinese soil. The spring of 1924 saw Russia and China renewing relations severed at the time of the revolution. In this treaty Mongolia was referred to specifically. “Outer Mongolia as an integral part of the Republic of China” was guaranteed. “Chinese sovereignty therein” was recognized. During 1920, however, on the pretext that counter-revolutionary movements were

♦Published in “Far Eastern Times” December 7, 1925.

forming there, Russia had occupied Mongolia. Consequently, a withdrawal of these Russian troops was provided for in the treaty. This was promptly effected. But although Russia carried it out with all the aspects of seriousness, actually it was a piece of comedy that would do justice in finesse to a Pinero and in cool audacity to a Villon. For long before Russia, like “The King of France with twenty thousand men, marched up the hill and then marched down again;” she had drilled and trained a Mongolian Army, and had armed it; had set up an autonomous Mongolian Government which defied the authority of Peking; and had established a political and economical control over Mongolia amounting to nothing short of a protectorate.

Russia’s military occupation of Mongolia was not usufructuary. Mongolia was Russia’s oyster just as surely as was Shantung Japan’s—an oyster, furthermore, that would have made the most mammoth of Alice’s “carpenter’s” seem very small indeed, although, as we remember, he “sorted out those of the largest size.” And most significant of all was the wording of the Mongolian Constitution by which independence from China was proclaimed. Mongolia is a country of no industries, no capital, no labor. On steppes and deserts, a nomadic population of two to the square mile roam at will. Yet the new Magna Carta of this State, apparently in all seriousness, makes careful and repeated provision for the protection of the proletariat against the capitalists, and forbids private ownership, exhorting the nonexistent working classes, and proclaiming them the rulers of the land!


Mongolia wholly sovietized; China’s “northwestern” provinces semi-sovietized; a powerful Chinese military leader having acted as the battering ram for a further spread of Russian control towards Peking and the sea; and all over China Proper wherever fertile ground has existed, embryonic communism—what does this mean? It means that a careful review of the history of Russia’s activities in and towards China both in the past and in the immediate present reveals a policy much broader than the superficial acquisition of a Pacific port, desirable as Russia has always realized this to be. It means that Russia has looked far into the future in laying the foundation of her policy towards China and that in so laying it she has remembered the words of Napoleon when he said, “When China awakens she will move the world; China with her four hundred millions.”

Persistently, consistently, in all her actions affecting China, both in China Proper, and in any of the provinces that separate it from Russia—Manchuria, Mongolia, Turkestan, Tibet—one underlying motive has dominated alike the policy of Czar and Comintern. That policy has been— looking towards the day when China awakens—to keep China as weak as possible while she creates between China and Russia a Russian-controlled ring against the eventual “upward thrust” of the now sleeping giant.

This basic policy Russia is faithfully pursuing today. In China Proper she is bending every effort to sovietize the people and to keep the nation in a weakened and disorganized state, while around China, in Manchuria, in Mongolia, in Turkestan, in Tibet, in India, she is attempting to create a cordon of friendly buffer states. On the one hand she is retarding with China the final day of reckoning and on the other sandbagging her citadel against its advent; while through anti-foreign propaganda both in China and in the countries that border her, she is furthering a secondary purpose—that of destroying the political and economical control enjoyed by the three first class powers she most hates and fears—Japan, Great Britain and the United States.

India is today a seething caldron of discontent, due primarily to Russian instigation. The Tibetans now sing the Internationale in their own tongue. Northern Manchuria is far from hostile to Russia. Mongolia and the domains of General Feng are, figuratively speaking, eating out of Moscow’s hand. Russia has not yet met defeat in the Orient. Between the Siberian wastes and the Chihli Gulf a soviet background is slowly filling in. The day could yet dawn when a red tide would sweep through Central China to the Yellow Sea.

Furthermore, recent developments in south China, where the Canton or Kuomintang Government has been engaging in successful military efforts to extend northwards the borders of its area of control, would seem to be yet another feather in the Soviet cap. For the Canton troops, under the leadership of General Chiang Kai-shek, have received both money and munitions from Russia. And like General Feng in northwestern China, General Chiang finds in Russia’s anti-foreign attitude an echo of his own feelings.

Not, however, to see in the present apparent support of Soviet policies in China both on the part of Generals Feng and Chiang the unmistakable earmarks of expediency would be failing to look as deeply as one should into the whole fascinating and complex situation. Also, it is a far cry from red Moscow’s present undeniable successes in certain areas of China, especially her outlying districts, to the bolshevizing of China Proper. Here Russia has not had so great a success— a fact which possibly explains Japan’s inaction, except in the railway race in Manchuria, against Russian activities in China, thus outwardly lending credence to the belief that a modus vivendi had been arranged between them.

Eight hundred years ago China endured for half a century a communist regime. Commerce, industry, and agriculture were nationalized, all the tenets of modern bolshe-vism were embraced. The effort was a complete fiasco. Possibly those who sit in the Tokyo foreign office have longer heads than we suspect. While she has carefully watched the successes of Russia in other portions of China, standing ready to take a hand if her own interests became threatened, it appears that Japan has been waiting with oriental calm for China herself successfully to combat the Russian menace. No nation has ever really conquei 2d China. Immense, enigmatic, zenophobic, by her very inactivity and wholesale disregard of their futile strivings, she has always baffled those who contended against her. Japan believes that China Proper will deal effectually with the Soviet menace. In oriental matters Japan is usually right.


But meanwhile America does not look upon these ambitious soviet schemes with disinterest; nor view with disregard the intense Russo-Japanese struggle for economic superiority in Manchuria, which though quiescent for the moment, is still susceptible of development into a war which might eventually involve the participation of all the so-called Pacific powers.

The United States has had few definite foreign policies. They can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand-no entangling alliances, hands off South America, the open door in China. But what few foreign policies Washington holds as basic have stood the test of years. They have been wrought out of decades of single events which have consistently pointed the same road.

China is already an important market for American goods and the source for many American imports. Future years will see it becoming increasingly, indeed vitally important to our trade. While today the efforts of Japan, of Russia, of any other power to violate the principle of “the open door” are perhaps viewed with only a half-hearted antagonism; tomorrow they will be looked upon with alarm.

As a writer on Far Eastern subjects has said: “The Pacific Ocean era so vividly foreseen by William H. Seward, later visualized so accurately by John Hay and then declared to have begun by Theodore Roosevelt, is taking form.”

It was no haphazard reason that prompted Secretary Hay to formulate a policy towards China which has now become traditional. It was the vision of a great man looking far into the future.


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