The process of re-equipping the PLA Army continues, with a focus on the objectives of completing basic mechanisation and improving informatisation by 2020. Legacy equipment, such as the ZTZ-59 tank and PL-59 howitzer, is now being cycled out of frontline units, although it is unlikely that all of it will be replaced by the 2020 target date. Additional heavy combined-arms brigades in the Central and Northern theatre commands are now finally receiving the long-awaited ZTZ-99A main battle tank. However, the Eastern and Southern theatre commands will likely continue to operate lighter tank designs – primarily the ZTZ-96A and ZTQ-15 – because of the terrain in those areas. The Central Theatre Command’s 161st Air Assault Brigade has begun taking delivery of the Z-20 medium transport helicopter – an indigenous version of the US Black Hawk design.
China’s collection of over 6,000 tanks, while numerically impressive, is inflated by increasingly outdated iterations of 1950’s Soviet T-series tanks like the T-54.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has taken active measures over the past several decades to renew their aging lineup, culminating with the Type 99 that can give competing U.S. and Russian flagship tanks a run for their money.
But as the Type 99 evolved in the direction of greater firepower and expanded armaments suite with the recent Type 99A, the need became apparent for a lighter, mobile modern tank that can effectively operate in China’s plateaus, forests, and water-heavy regions.
Enter the Type 15. Sporadic sightings of the light tank were previously reported by Chinese citizens, but its existence is now formally confirmed by the Chinese Defense Ministry.
“We’re following the overall plan and focusing on key equipment – we have made major achievements in our equipment build-up. As for the Type 15 light tank, according to my information, it has been handed over to our troops,” The South China Morning Post (SCMP) quoted defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian as saying.
The Type 15 has a 1,000 horsepower engine, about twice that of the Type 62 tank it is replacing. It boasts a 105 mm gun capable of firing armor-piercing shells and guided missiles, as opposed to the 85 mm gun of its Type 62 predecessor.
Type 15 tank uses new autoloader and 105mm APFSDS. In a recent plateau exercise of China’s Tibet Military Region, pictures of Type 15 light tank tail cabin automatic loader loading armor-piercing projectiles were unveiled. This ammunition is China’s new generation of 105mm hull armor-piercing projectile. Its performance is very powerful, and it can pose a threat to all Indian tanks at conventional combat distances.
Due to the use of full-load ammunition, Type 15 light tank did not follow the turntable type loader on other Chinese battle tanks but instead used the tail cabin-type automatic loader to directly supply the bomb from the tail of the gun. This is the first time in the history of the development of tanks in China – all tanks previously developed, including the most advanced Type 99A2 main battle tanks, use a turntable automatic loader.
It can be clearly seen from the published pictures that the body of the new-generation 105 mm armor-piercing projectile used by Type 15 light tank is very long, indicating that the core of the projectile cannot be short. Everyone knows that the APFSDS uses a core to penetrate the armor, so the better the core material, the longer the length, and the stronger the armor-piercing ability.
The new generation of 105mm APFSDS that appeared this time should use tungsten alloy cores, which can pose a sufficient threat to all second-generation tanks and some third-generation tanks at regular combat distances. Even in the face of T-90S, it remains a considerable deterrent and can penetrate the front of its body. Although the T-90S turret is equipped with contact 5 explosion reaction armor, which has a certain degree of weakening of the shelling armor-piercing shell; however, since the new-generation 105 mm APFSDS has enough armor-piercing margin, the probability of the frontal breakdown of the T-90S turret is not small.
In general, Type 15 light tank not only has good plateau adaptability and powerful maneuverability, but also is equipped with a new generation of domestically produced 105 mm APFSDS with good armor-piercing ability, and is supplemented by a fast reloading tail cabin-type automatic loader, which has a comprehensive combat capability in the plateau area comparable to that of a heavy main battle tank, making it very suitable for rapid interpenetrating operations in the plateau area.
For Type 15 light tank, whether the previously equipped tail fin-stabilized armor-piercing projectile (APFSDS), or the new generation of 105mm APFSDS that appeared this time, it uses a full-body bomb, that is, the core is directly inserted in the cartridge Inside, it can maximize the length of the core and enhance the armor-piercing ability, according to Ordnance Technology.
Military expert Song Zhongping put the difference bluntly to the SCMP: “The Type 62 tank is lagging behind. The Type 15 tank has much better protection capability and manoeuvrability.”
The Type 15 is less powerful but also significantly lighter than the Type 99, at 35 tons versus the 58 tons of its larger cousin. Its lighter frame is accompanied by a hydro-pneumatic suspension system. Also found in Japan’s Type 10 tank, it dynamically adjusts ground clearance to maximize maneuverability and combat efficacy on uneven terrain.
Having established the Type 15’s design purpose and catalog of improvements, the pressing question becomes where and when the PLA plans to deploy it. The Type 15 was already making headlines in 2017, during the China-India border standoff in the Tibet region. A major political impetus for the Type 15 was the need for a tank that can operate in the high-altitude Tibetan hills, in preparation for a prospective resumption of Sino-Indian hostilities.
Being that the Type 15 is specifically adapted for navigating sea-based obstacles, we can also expect to see it in maritime theatres. In point of fact, China has been actively bolstering its military presence around the disputed zones off its southern coast. The Type 15 is a prime contender to modernize and consolidate the PLA Navy’s armour division by replacing the aging Type 59 and Type 63 tanks still in service.
An almost-identical iteration of the Type 15, the VT-5, will be making it to export markets. It will face stiff competition from Japan’s aforementioned Type 10, especially after the lifting of Tokyo’s self-imposed arms export ban. The Type 10 weighs a tad more at 40 tons, but boasts a slightly greater horsepower of 1,200. The Type 10 also offers an indigenously-produced gun compatible both with standard 120 mm NATO ammunition as well as proprietary armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) rounds.
Still, the two are close enough in performance that their appeal will be heavily shaped by prices and external diplomatic forces. While China has a track record of leveraging its remarkable economies of scale to edge out its arms competitors, it remains to be seen if the Type 15’s export variant will fall into this trend.
Comparative strength of belligerents and their war plans
In the decade of the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion, the Chinese army differed considerably from European-style forces. The differences were not so much in the armament or equipment, but mainly in the organisation and command system, adapted from the existing political system.
The Chinese army was essentially divided into separate formations and only some of those were under the control of the central government. The rest remained under the orders of provincial authorities, a fact which seriously hindered the ability of the force to be placed under a single command and sometimes even prevented it altogether. Thus, the optimal use of the country’s military potential was practically impossible. Dependence of particular units on provincial authorities was the result of the paternalistic structure of the army, where the officer corps was selected on the basis of personal loyalty. Consequently, in the Chinese armed forces, personal dependence on a specific commander was dominant, unlike modern European armies which could rely on strict subordination to orders. At the same time, command over larger military units was given to officials who had undergone little or no military training. This was the result of the low social status accorded to people devoted to military service, which had not previously been considered an honourable profession.
This all amounted to low combat effectiveness in the Chinese army, despite its considerable numerical strength and sometimes even good weaponry. Even the Chinese, who were convinced of their civilisational superiority, and generally despised any achievements of the ‘barbarian nations’, were compelled to acknowledge the fact. To remedy this, in 1861, the ‘Self-Strengthening Policy’ was introduced, which was mainly limited to providing the army with modern equipment purchased overseas or manufactured locally, organising new Western-style units, building a modern navy, and creating the necessary armament industry base and infrastructure for a modern armed force. The introduction of those reforms was intended to equalise the technological differences between the Chinese army and those of the European nations. That, according to their supporters, would allow for the possibility of defending the Middle Country against aggressive actions by the European powers. Chinese policy-makers saw their weakness only in the military aspect, completely ignoring those of the political, social and economic systems.
Implementation of the ‘Self-Strengthening Policy’ encountered serious difficulties from the very beginning. Interestingly, these problems were not financial. People were the problem – mainly imperial officials, a majority of whom were unable to break free from the previous cultural and behavioural norms. Consequently, the sums allocated to reforms were mostly wasted due to prevailing corruption, incompetence and lack of organisation. Paternalistic relations in the army were also often difficult to overcome. The new units were usually created by reforming the old ones, keeping their composition intact. As a result, despite new armament and regulations, the old personal connections and habits were retained, which seriously reduced the reform’s efficiency. However, it would not be true to state that the ‘Self-Strengthening Policy’ was without success. The combat effectiveness of the Chinese army was increased, but mainly because of the introduction of modern armament and Western-style training (and the extent of the latter was usually insufficient). Discipline, morale and logistics, on the other hand, still left much to be desired. In comparison to the effort required to implement it, the results of the ‘Self-Strengthening Policy’ can be considered unsatisfactory.
On the eve of the outbreak of the war with Japan the Chinese army was divided into four basic military units and irregular militia forces. Theoretically, its core was the Manchu Eight Banners Army which officially consisted of approximately 250,000 soldiers. In practice, however, there were no more than 100,000 troops. The Manchu Eight Banners Army was complemented by the exclusively Chinese Green Standard Army, which in theory had one million troops, though in practice its strength was no more than 600,000 soldiers (and may have been as low as 450–470,000). The troops of the Eight Banner Army were stationed mainly in the capital province of Chihli, Manchuria and Eastern Turkestan (in the latter there were no more than 15–16,000), while those of the Green Standard Army were stationed at various provinces where they mainly performed police duties. The banner units were traditionally reinforced by local militias performing vital duties in the defensive system of Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria, which were theoretically numerous, but in reality numbered no more than 300,000 troops. Contrary to appearances, these were not worthless units – some of them were quite well-armed and trained, exceeding even the banner units in combat effectiveness, though this was by no means true of all of the militias.
Based on experiences of the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion, new units, armed and trained in the Western style, were created. Thus, a new unit, named the Brave Army, composed of local volunteers, came into being. Since its elements were generally under the control of local authorities, the so-called Trained Army was founded to keep the balance, as it remained under the control of the central government. Both of these armies, along with some non-permanent, militia-style units undoubtedly constituted the most valuable component of the Chinese army, although as far as combat effectiveness was concerned, they were still not up to the standards of European-style forces. On the eve of the outbreak of the war with Japan, the numerical strength of the Brave Army was estimated at approximately 120,000, while that of the Trained Army numbered no more than 100,000 troops. Thus, the imperial armed forces had a total of about 1.2–1.3 million troops3. In the area where future military operations would take place (the territory of the capital province Chihli, Manchuria, Shantung province) the government had roughly 350–360,000 troops at its disposal, including approximately 125,000 serving in reformed units. However, at a later time, the figure could be increased by about 145,000 recruits called to arms (mainly to serve in the reformed units) shortly after the outbreak of war.
The basic tactical unit in the Chinese army was a detachment similar in size to the battalion of European armies. (In theory each detachment had 500 men, though on average it was generally 350 for infantry and 250 for cavalry). Up to a dozen of such ‘battalions’ formed an independent corps, which as far as numerical strength was concerned, was usually equal to a European-style brigade or a weak division. Only at that level of organisation were the Chinese troops equipped with artillery, the numerical strength of which (similarly to that of the corps) was not precisely specified. Chinese troops used a variety of firearms, which could differ even within the same unit. Infantry used mainly modern Mauser, Remington, Snider, Martini-Henry, Chassepot and Maxim rifles of various patterns. However, old flintlocks could also be found (especially the long chinkai rifles, operated by two soldiers). Apart from fire-arms, the banner armies still used traditional ‘cold steel’ weapons. The reformed cavalry units were generally armed with Mauser rifles and sabres, while the banner army units had cold steel weapons and bows.
Chinese artillery units were relatively numerous and armed with diverse range of equipment. The most modern guns in their arsenal were their 75mm Krupp field and mountain pieces and the 88mm guns of the same manufacturer. Moreover, the Chinese had a considerable number of various 67 to 76mm British pattern guns, both muzzle and breechloaders, as well as 88mm Krupp field mortars and 8cm mountain and field pieces with muzzles made of hardened bronze, manufactured at the Nankin armaments factory. That arsenal was supplemented by a number of mitrailleuses, Hotchkiss revolver guns and multi-barrel Nordenfelt naval machine-guns on field carriages. Also in use, mainly in forts, were a large number of obsolete smoothbore guns of various gauges. Despite the number of weapons, artillery was not a strong point of the Chinese army, which was unable to effectively use its advantages (which was generally the case with modern firearms of all kinds), mainly dispersing the guns along their positions.
Definitely the weakest point of the Chinese army was its training and the morale of its soldiers, which was considerably lower than in European-style armies. Admittedly, there were situations in which Chinese soldiers could attack or defend with the utmost dedication, displaying bravery and fortitude. However, more often they lacked perseverance in combat and broke down after initial failures, quickly panicking or becoming discouraged and losing faith in victory. In combat they preferred defence to attack in the belief that victory could only be achieved by defensive actions which would gradually exhaust enemy forces. Consequently, the Chinese army was usually rather passive in the field, lacking determination and quickly allowing the active enemy to seize the initiative. Combined with poor leadership and inefficient logistics, it was obvious that despite numerical strength, it could not be considered a dangerous enemy for modern European-style armed force of comparable size.
Defeats suffered by the Chinese during the Opium Wars led them to realise the need to possess a modern navy. The first attempt to create one, undertaken in 1861 (the so-called Lay-Osborne6 flotilla composed of eight steamers), misfired due to issues around jurisdiction. Consequently, creation of the navy became the responsibility of individual governors of coastal provinces and thus, in the 1860s, separate provincial fleets were created in Canton (Kwangtung province), Foochow (Fukien province and Taiwan) and Woosung near Shanghai (Chekiang province and Kiangsu). Although quite large, the navy thus created was not adapted for the military needs of the entire empire and mainly served the local feudal-military coteries.
Li Hung-chang, who since 1870 had been a Viceroy of the capital province Chihli and one of the leading Chinese politicians of that period, tried to change the situation. After the Taiwan crisis of 1874, he took advantage of his good relationship with the Court and called for reorganisation of the Chinese navy, and the creation of three fleets controlled by the central government, composed of six large and 10 smaller warships each at Tientsin, Woosung and Amoy. The idea was not realised, but a year later Chinese territory was divided into two military districts: northern Peiyang and southern Nanyang. Li Hung-chang and his Huai coterie took control over the former, while the latter (which was formally created later) fell under the control of the Hunan coterie. Simultaneously, a naval defence fund was legislated for, which would receive 40 percent of maritime customs tariffs, amounting to approximately four million taels annually.
The cruiser Chih Yuan. Along with her sister Ching Yuan, she was the fastest warship in the Peiyang Fleet.
Those actions led to creation of the uniform Peiyang Fleet subordinate to the central government (in practice to Li Hung-chang and his coterie). However, in the south, the force was still divided into three autonomous fleets: the Nanyang Fleet proper, based at Wusung near Shanghai and the provincial Fukien Fleet at Foochow, as well as the Kwangtung Fleet at Canton. Each of those operated in a different basin, was under separate command, and had distinctive structure and tasks.
The furthest south was the Kwangtung Fleet, subordinate to the governor general of ‘Two Kwangs’ (Kwangtung and Kwangsi provinces) and based at Hoanpu near Canton. It had a relatively large number of warships, but these were mainly small, often obsolete, units used mainly for customs service patrol or police duties such as protection of the mouth of the Sikiang River against pirates. Consequently, combat effectiveness of that fleet was low.
Another provincial unit was the Fukien Fleet with its main base in Foochow and auxiliary ones at Amoy and Swatou. Developed on the basis of its own shipyard and arsenal at Foochow, it was initially one of the stronger of the Chinese fleets. During the war with France in 1884–1885, the Fukien Fleet was almost completely annihilated (along with the shipyard and the arsenal) and consequently lost most of its importance. Even when rebuilt, it never regained its former relevance and its tasks were limited to coastal protection of the Fukien province and Taiwan.
Second in size on the eve of the outbreak of the war with Japan was the Nanyang Fleet, with its main base in Woosung and auxiliary bases at Ningpo and Hanchou. It was subordinate to the governor general of the Kiangsu and Chekiang provinces and its main task was coastal protection of the said provinces and navigation on the Yangtze River. Composed of rather outdated warships, it nevertheless had a military potential which could not be underestimated. The fleet remained under the direct command of Admiral Kuo Pao-ch’ang.
The Peiyang Fleet, which was created after 1875 as a result of Li Hung-chang’s reforms, was the youngest Chinese fleet but the most powerful on the eve of the outbreak of the war with Japan. Using a significant part of the naval de-fence fund (the Peiyang Fleet was entitled to half of the 40% of annual income from maritime custom tariffs, which in theory amounted to about two million taels) it was developed rapidly. Li Hung-chang, being aware of the weakness of the national shipbuilding industry, opted for the purchase of modern warships, including battleships, abroad. Initially, he wanted to order them from British and French shipyards, but following the recent war with the latter country, and problems the British raised due to the Sino-Russian border dispute over Turkestan, Li Hung-chang finally decided to place the majority of orders with German shipyards. At the turn of 1870s and 1880s, two modern battleships, three cruisers and a number of torpedo boats were ordered there. Another four cruisers, a number of gunboats and torpedo boats were ordered in Great Britain. Moreover, some warships, including one small battleship, were ordered in native Chinese shipyards. Consequently, by the end of 1880s, the Peiyang Fleet had become a serious force, capable of facing its likely main adversary, the Imperial Japanese Navy, in a struggle for the control over the Yellow Sea. However, further development was discontinued for several reasons. Firstly, maintaining so many modern and large warships required considerable resources, reaching approximately 1.8 million taels in 1888, which was almost all the amount allocated to the Peiyang Fleet by the naval defence fund. Further development could have been financed by other means. However, since 1889, a substantial amount of money from the naval defence fund had been semi-officially embezzled by the court and spent on the development of the Empress T’zu Hsi’s Summer Palace (in fact on the palace complex). This, to all intents and purposes, halted further development of the navy.
The main bases of the Peiyang Fleet were the strongly fortified harbours at Port Arthur (Lushun) and Weihaiwei. Moreover, the harbours at Talien, Chefoo and Yingk’ou and the mouth of the River Peiho near Taku had also been fortified. The growth of China’s shipbuilding base could not keep up with that of the Peiyang Fleet. Nevertheless, in 1894, it had suitable infrastructure at Port Arthur (with dry docks which could accommodate Chinese battleships) a small shipyard at Taku and repair shops at Weihaiwei.
The Peiyang Fleet itself was divided into seven squadrons, including three combat squadrons (centre, right and left wing), torpedo, training, transport and harbour (coastal de-fence). Supreme command was exercised by the chief of Naval Defence Department of the Tsungli Yamen, Viceroy of the capital province Chihli and Chief of the Peiyang armed forces, Li Hung-chang himself. He was undoubtly both an outstanding personality and a controversial figure whose characteristics were said to include greed, lust for power and hon-ours, and putting his own interest over those of the country. Direct control over the Peiyang Fleet was in the hands of Li Hung-chang’s supporter Admiral Ting Ju-chanag. He was a former Taiping Rebellion-period cavalry officer, distinguished by personal courage and energy, but without training to command the navy. Therefore, his decisions were largely based on the opinions of the foreign advisors he surrounded himself with.
Being in command of the largest fleet, Li Hung-chang made efforts to subordinate the remaining fleets to himself. He even managed to bring about joint naval manoeuvres under the command of the Peiyang Fleet (which took place in 1891 and 1894, shortly before the outbreak of war), although ultimately no fixed rules of cooperation among all four fleets were formulated, much less was there any chance for taking control over the remaining three. Consequently, only the Peiyang Fleet and the warships of the Nanyang (gunboat) and Kangtung (small cruiser and two torpedo gunboats) Fleets which had been stationed in the north faced the Japanese in 1894. The lack of backup from the merchant navy to provide transports and auxiliary vessels, was an additional problem for the Chinese. At the beginning of 1895, there were 35 steamers with a total tonnage of about 44,000 GRT, in the hands of Chinese shipowners, which was definitely not enough to satisfy the needs of the navy (all the more so, because most of those vessels were of no military use). Admittedly, the Peiyang Fleet owned some transports, but these were already obsolete, and during the war they had to charter foreign vessels which caused numerous complications.
Tactics of the Peiyang Fleet were based on European standards from the 1870s. Consequently, it was assumed that Chinese warships would go into battle in the line abreast formation and while in combat, the units abeam of the flagship would copy its manoeuvres. Leaving aside the fact that manoeuvring in line abreast formation in combat was extremely difficult, the signal books of the Peiyang Fleet were written in English, which was not spoken by all of its officers. Taking into consideration the different general and combat characteristics of the Chinese warships which were supposed to fight and manoeuvre in a similar fashion together, it all did not augur well for the Peiyang Fleet’s effectiveness in combat.
The outbreak of the war came as a surprise to the Chinese and therefore, they had no specific plan of action. A plan only began to crystallise after military operations had already been in progress and since the situation on the front was constantly changing, so were the plans. However, the actions of the Chinese high command were highly influenced by the classical Chinese philosophy of war, which had its roots in the teachings of Confucius. According to them, the Chinese saw war in a broader perspective. Ideological, psychological and propaganda warfare were as important as the actual combat and arguably a greater priority. In that situation, successes achieved in military operations were treated mainly as arguments, which could be presented during diplomatic bargaining.
Thus, the result of the military operations was not supposed to be physical annihilation of the enemy, but rather accomplishment of goals which could be used in negotiations that would lead to the termination of the conflict. Following these guidelines, the Chinese assumed that strategic victory could be achieved mainly by defensive actions designed to wear down the enemy, limiting offensive operations to local counter-attacks judged rather for their propaganda effects than military advantages.
Adopting such a strategy was favoured by the lumbering military bureaucratic system, which preferred schematic actions since they reduced risk.
The initial plan of operations was formulated at the beginning of August at the meeting of the Tsungli Yamen. It postulated sending the Peiyang Fleet to Korean waters, where it was supposed to cooperate with General Yeh Chih-chao’s corps at Asan and paralyse further operations of General Oshima’s brigade at Chemulpo, which would be unable to launch any serious operations without reinforcements and supplies delivered by sea. Simultaneously, the corps stationed at Phyongyang was to be reinforced. At the right time it would, according to the development of the situation, support General Yeh’s corps, deciding the outcome of the campaign or stop further Japanese northern-bound offensives.
Nevertheless, the Peiyang Fleet had significant fighting strength and was on paper an equal adversary for the Japanese navy – all the more so, because the training and morale of its crews was significantly better than those of the army.
The plan quickly came to nothing due to General Yeh’s corps’ defeat and Li Hung-chang’s resistance due to the fear that, while undertaking offensive actions in Korean waters, ‘his’ fleet would suffer significant loses. Consequently, Admiral Ting was ordered to take defensive action only and patrol the waters between Port Arthur and Weihaiwei. Any offensive operations beyond the line marked by the mouth of the Yalu River and Shantung Peninsula were forbidden. As a result, on land, the Chinese were to stop Japanese troops at Phyongyang, while at sea, the Peiyang Fleet was to prevent Japanese landing on Chinese soil and protect communication lines with troops stationed in Korea.
That plan was only in effect until mid-September and collapsed after Japanese victories at Phyongyang and Yalu. Later, the Chinese high command would try first to organise the land defence at the line of the River Liao (Liaoho) and then, when this failed, at the Shanhaikuan line, to block the access to the capital and wear out the Japanese troops through attrition. In fact, after the battle of Yalu, Admiral Ting’s only objective was to save the remains of the Peiyang Fleet, which would by its very existence serve as an argument in peace negotiations. Consequently, after 17 September 1894, the Chinese navy passively awaited further events.
Soldiers of the Japanese army. From the left: private, sergeant and captain.
Comparative strength of belligerents and their war plans
The modern Japanese army originated from the Imperial Guard, created in April 1871 in the strength of nine infantry battalions, two cavalry units and four artillery brigades. These were the first regular Japanese European-style units. Soon thereafter a draft of the military reform was prepared, which was approved by Imperial edict in January 1873. By its power, universal conscription was introduced and all men of a particular age were obliged to serve. Along with the abolition of class differences, this was a serious blow to the samurai class, for which military service had been an honourable distinction which decided their social and material situation. The reforms inevitably caused dissatisfaction in that group, which found its outlet in a few armed riots of the ‘unemployed’ samurai, including the famous Saigo Takamori’s rebellion of 1877. However, all these were swiftly put down and the samurai, convinced of the European-style troops’ effectiveness, were quick to join the ranks of the army, which allowed them to regain their former prestige. Consequently, in a relatively short time, Japan managed to create a valiant and well-trained army based on German standards. Its officer corps was mainly composed of former samurais, who introduced old military traditions. That blend of tradition, modern organisation and armament gave excellent results – an army that was equal to European armed forces in every respect.
On the eve of the outbreak of the war with China, all men between 17 and 40 years old were under conscription, but only those who turned 20 could be drafted (younger ones, who turned 17, could volunteer). Following the period of active military service (gen-eki), which lasted for three years, the soldiers became the 1st Reserve (yobi), than the 2nd Reserve (kobi). Young and able-bodied men, who did not have basic military training became 3rd Reserve (hoju) right away and so did those conscripts who had not fully met the physical requirements of the service. All soldiers who served their term joined the ranks of the territorial militia (kokumin). In case of war, the 1st Reserve (yobi) were to be enlisted in the first instance. They were intended to fill in the ranks of regular troops. Next to enlist were the kobi reserve, who were to further fill in the ranks of line units or to be formed into new ones. The hoju reserve members were to be enlisted only in exceptional circumstances. Territorial militia would only be called to arms in case of immediate danger of enemy invasion.
The country was divided into six military districts, each being a recruitment base for a two-brigade infantry division of approximately 18,600 troops (including 1/3 of rearguard units) and 36 artillery guns in times of war. There was also an Imperial Guard division with recruits from all districts. This was also composed of two brigades, but they were made of two, not three battalion regiments. Therefore, its numerical strength after mobilisation was 12,500 troops (including rear echelon units) and only 24 artillery guns. In addition, there were fortress troops (approximately six battalions), the so-called ‘Colonial Corps’ stationed on Hokkaido and the Ryukyu Islands (about 4,000 troops) and a battalion of military police in each of the districts. In peacetime these units had a total of fewer than 70,000 men, while after mobilisation the numbers rose to over 220,000. Moreover, the army still had a trained reserve. Following the mobilisation of first line divisions, those reserves were to be formed into reserve brigades (four battalions, a cavalry unit, a company of engineers, an artillery battery and rear echelon units each), which in the first instance were to serve as recruiting base for ‘their’ front divisions. They could also perform secondary combat operations. If necessary they could be developed into full divisions, i.e. a total of 24 territorial force regiments. However, formation of these units was hindered by the lack of sufficient volume of equipment, mainly uniforms.
The main weapon of a Japanese soldier was the 8mm Murata Type 18 breech-loading rifle. The improved five-shot Type 22 was just being introduced and in 1894, only the Imperial Guard and 4th Division were equipped with rifles of that pattern. The division artillery consisted of 75mm field guns and mountain pieces with muzzles made of hardened bronze manufactured at Osaka. That equipment, based on Krupp designs adapted by the Italians at the beginning of the 1880s, could hardly be described as modern in 1894, although in general, it still matched contemporary battlefield requirements.
Japanese troop training promoted offensive spirit and special attention was paid to forming resilience and strength in battle. In combination with systematic training and strict discipline it produced good results and consequently, the combat effectiveness of Japanese troops was high. The only weak point in the Japanese army was the logistics services, which were not very efficient. This could be observed especially during the Manchurian and Korean campaigns. Despite the fact that the armament of the Imperial troops was not as modern as some of latest patterns used by some of the Chinese units, their combat effectiveness was incomparably higher than that of the enemy, being equal to European armies.
The Japanese cruiser Itsukushima. Units of this class were built specifically to face the Chinese battleships – thus, they were armed with a huge single 320mm gun, whose projectiles were able to penetrate the armour of Chinese warships. Despite the fact that the design failed, cruisers of that class constituted the core of the Japanese navy during the war with China.
The Japanese navy came into being along with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The isolationist policy adopted at the beginning of the 17th century stopped the development of the Japanese naval tradition. Consequently, until the 1860s the naval forces were practically non-existent. Their rebirth started only after the ‘opening of Japan’ in the 1850s. However, there was no centralised naval policy and individual clan leaders (daimyos) had their own armed forces including navies. That situation came to an end in 1869 with the Meiji Restoration, which dismantled the bakufu system. As the result of those events, the imperial government also took over all the warships which belonged to the shogun and placed them under the control of the Ministry of War (Hoyobusho), which had been created in August 1869. However, over 85 per cent of all vessels were still under control of daimyos.
Such a weak and poorly organised navy could not be considered an effective force, which was clearly demonstrated during the Enomoto Rebellion. The rising was not successfully put down until mid 1869. Already in March of the same year, on the rising tide of patriotic elation, the most powerful daimyos of Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa and Hizen clans renounced their feudal right and offered to hand over their estates to the emperor. The court accepted their offer in June, thus starting the process known later as hansen-hokan (return of the registers). Within the following six weeks, rights were renounced by a further 118 daimyos and by the end of August 1869, only the last 17 (of a total of 276) had not done so. This event had a significant meaning for the future fate of the Japanese navy, since along with their rights, land and fixed property, daimyos also started to hand over their movables including the warships that had been under their control so far. Their takeover by central authorities was a gradual process which lasted until the beginning of 1871. Control over those warships was taken by the Ministry of War, which had an autonomous naval section since February 1871. In June 1871, the existing Ministry of War was divided into the Ministry of the Army (Rikugunsho; unofficially still known as the Ministry of War) and the Ministry of the Navy (Kaigunsho).
The new ministry took control over all warships, which were a mix of types and classes of different characteristics and in various state of repair. Guided, on one hand, by economic policy and on the other trying to eliminate units of dubious combat effectiveness, out of over 100 warships and transports, only 19 vessels, of a total of 14,610 tons and complements of almost 1,600 men, remained in service. Moreover, the shipyards Ishikawajima and the naval shipyard at Yokosuka (so far remaining under the control of the Ministry of Public Works) came under control of the Ministry of the Navy and so did the Tokyo Naval Academy, established in 1873.
The beginnings of the Japanese navy were not easy since circumstances marginalised its role. Suffice it to say that in the years 1868 to 1872 there were about 160 peasant revolts or rebellions, which had to be put down mainly by land troops. Still later, there were at least three significant former samurai rebellions including the famous Saigo Takamori’s Rebellion in 1877. Again, the navy’s role in putting them down was insignificant. Thus, the development of the army became the priority of the Japanese government in the first half of the 1870s and that inevitably affected the condition of the navy. Thus, when in 1873, Minister of the Navy Katsu Kaishu put forward the first in Japanese history naval build-up programme which would provide for construction of 104 vessels (26 of metal, 14 large and 32 smaller ones of mixed construction plus 32 transports and auxiliary vessels) within 18 years for the sum of 24,170 thousand yen, the plan was rejected by the government for financial reasons.
The situation changed considerably following the Japanese intervention on Taiwan, lasting from May to October 1874, which made Japanese authorities realise the need for a strong navy. Consequently, still in 1874, a decision was made to order three modern warships (including one battleship) from Great Britain, which would significantly strengthen the imperial navy. All the warships, built for a total of three million yen, were delivered in 1878. Until the mid-1880s, a further six medium size units (in fact there were five warships and an imperial yacht) and two training sailing vessels were built by native shipyards. Additionally, four torpedo boats were purchased abroad. However, these were all short-term measures which did not ensure the appropriate development of the navy in the long run.
Meanwhile, the financial situation of the country began to improve. This was not so much due to increased income, but to settlement of some legal-financial and administrative issues. Moreover, the introduction of the cadastre brought regular revenues, although not high enough to cover every need. All that allowed for real planning of budgetary expenditures, including military ones. Consequently, in 1881, Minister of the Navy Kawamura Sumiyoshi (who had held the position since 1878), put forward another naval build-up programme which would provide for construction of a total of 60 vessels within 20 years (at three units a year) for 40 million yen. Although it was not endorsed by the government, the next year brought the approval of an eight-year programme which would provide for the construction of a total of 48 vessels and modern naval bases at Kure and Sasebo (apart from the already existing base at Yokosuka) for a total of 26,670,000 yen. Its purpose was the creation of a navy, which would provide effective protection of the Japanese islands and at the same time be capable of limited-scale offensive operations, especially against Japan’s largest potential enemy – China. Guided by its economy policy, the Ministry of the Navy adopted the French concept of the ‘Young School’ (Jeune École), which advocated the use of torpedo forces for coastal defence and cruisers for offensive operations against enemy communication lines. The adoption of such a solution was a result of a compromise between the need to guarantee the appropriate potential of the navy in case of the war with China and the ability to undertake effective operations in case of conflict with a European power.
To provide suitable funds for the programme (as well as other military spending), in 1882, the Japanese government introduced excise duty on sake (Japanese rice vodka), soya and tobacco, which annually generated income of approximately 7.5 million yen. An increase in the fiscal burden on society provided additional income, and therefore naval spending rose from 3.4 million yen in the financial year 1882/1883 (the first budget year of the implementation of the programme) to 9.5 million yen in the financial year 1891/1892. It enabled for full realisation of the 1882 programme, which after the introduction of some modifications, saw the completion of 22 large and medium size warships (nine cruisers, six small cruisers, two torpedo gunboats and five gunboats), two training vessels and 18 torpedo boats, as well as the aforementioned naval bases at Kure and Sasebo. These warships were to face the Peiyang Fleet in the coming war.
The emperor was the commander-in-chief of the Japanese armed forces, both the army and the navy. The Ministry of the Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff were also directly subordinate to him. The former body was responsible for all structural, technical and personnel matters, while the latter was responsible for those directly connected with the organisation of combat operations and maintaining of combat readiness. At the moment of the outbreak of the war with China, the post of the Minister of the Navy had been held since 1893, by Vice-Admiral Saigo Tsugumichi30. Vice-Admiral Kabayama Sukenori, an experienced officer, able and energetic, albeit sometimes thought a bit too impulsive, had been the Chief of General Staff since July 1894. Shortly after the commencement of military operations, a High Command was created in Tokyo, which, apart from the emperor, gathered the foremost officers of the army and the navy, and was responsible for important strategic decisions made during the war. Due to its unsatisfactory location, since most of the mobilised troops were concentrated at Hiroshima and dispatched to the front lines from the harbour of Ujina located nearby, the High Command was transferred to Hiroshima in mid-September.
The entire coast of Japan was divided into five naval districts based at Yokosuka (District I), Kure (District II), Sasebo (District III), Maizuru (District IV) and Muroran (District V). Since in 1894, the organisation of the fourth and fifth had not yet been finished, the territory of District IV was placed temporarily under the management of the Kure authorities and partially those at Yokosuka, while District V was only under the control of the latter authority.
In peacetime, warships of the Japanese navy were divided among three main naval bases at Yokosuka, Kure and Sasebo, interchangeably performing active, guard and training duties or remaining as a reserve. Following mobilisation, the navy would be composed of five divisions of seagoing warships and three flotillas of torpedo boats (a fourth was being formed). Obsolete units of little combat effectiveness were not mobilised. During peacetime, at the end of 1893, there were 14,850 officers and seamen in the service, but during the war the number increased to over 20,000 men.
A relatively large merchant navy, which at the beginning of 1894 had 288 steamers of a total of 174,000 GRT, was an excellent complement to the Japanese navy. Sixty-six of these vessels, of a total of 135,755 GRT, belonged to Nippon Yusen Kaisha, the shipowner which received national treasury subsidies to maintain the vessels which could be used by the navy in case of war. Thus, the navy could call on a sufficient number of auxiliaries and transports.
During the war with China, the naval base at Sasebo played the most important role. Apart from Sasebo, harbours at Hiroshima (Ujina), Yokohama, Kobe and Nagasaki – mainly for loading troop and supplies – would also be used. Muira Bay in the Tsushima Archipelago would be used as a temporary base and later also some Korean harbours and anchorages. Naval bases at Kure and Sasebo, as well as the entrance to the Tokyo Bay were heavily fortified and equipped with considerable numbers of 120mm to 280mm coastal artillery guns.
The Japanese Navy was under the immediate command of Admiral Ito Yuko, who was not a brilliant commander, but undoubtedly experienced and well-prepared for his duty. He was by nature cautious and not willing to take any unnecessary risks, but was at the same time a skillful tactician, persistent and not easily discouraged. Japanese crews were also well prepared for war – both officers and ordinary seamen were well-trained, and their morale was excellent. Only the rules of officer promotion and appointment to command posts could raise some objections. Although class divisions were abolished in 1871, samurai background could definitely make a career easier. Clan connections were also still important – following 1872, the Satsuma clan had a majority in the navy and its members constituted most (though not all) high ranking naval officers. Essentially, the aforementioned phenomenon did not violate internal discipline of the navy and with minimum essential requirements for a commanding post in effect, it did not have significant impact on the level of training of the officer corps, which could be considered good.
Japanese navy tactics were based on combat regulations of 1892. They assumed that Japanese warships would enter combat in line-ahead (in four-warship divisions) with the flag-ship in the lead. At times when signals could only be transmitted visually (by signal flags, light or semaphore signals), this formation was supposed to facilitate commanding and manoeuvring of the entire force in face of the enemy. The role of speed and manoeuvre was very important, as they would allow for optimal utilisation of the existing combat potential. As a matter of fact, the Japanese performed tactical experiments almost from the beginning of the war (mainly thanks to Rear Admiral Tsuboi), developing the rule of dividing forces in battle into the main force and a fast manoeuvring unit, which, while operating separately on the battlefield, would fight in concert, giving the advantage over a homogenous enemy force (advantages in speed of manoeuvring unit would allow the force to attack weak points of the enemy formation or absorb his attention to facilitate operations of the main force).
To sum up, the combat effectiveness of the Japanese navy was high, lowered only by the lack of modern battleships, which on the other hand, the Chinese were in possession of. Admittedly, a temporary naval build-up programme passed in 1892, which provided for the construction of two battleships, three cruisers and one small cruiser, constituted a clear departure from the ideas of the ‘Jeune École’ but it was not completed before the outbreak of the war with China. Consequently, in the coming war, the naval forces of China and Japan could have been balanced – better training and more modern armament on the Japanese side was counterbalanced by large and relatively modern battleships on the Chinese side.
Japan, on entering the war, had a clearly specified plan of action, whose main military objectives were the capture of Korea and driving the Chinese troops behind the Yalu River. It would be executed in three phases.
The first phase would be further divided into three stages: the Japanese navy would prevent the delivery of reinforcements for the Chinese corps under General Yeh at Asan. Then, General Oshima’s brigade would defeat Yeh’s force, and finally take Seoul. The second stage would comprise the prompt redeployment of the I Army forces to Korea, while the third stage would be defeating the Chinese troops concentrated at Phyongyang and driving them behind the Yalu River. Accomplishment of the third stage would end in the conquest of the entire Korean territory.
Japanese victory in Korea would be largely dependent on maintaining control of their sea communication lines in order to freely deliver supplies and reinforcements to their troops fighting on the mainland, the second phase of operations would be for the Japanese navy to secure the control of the sea. It was anticipated that this would be achieved in a decisive naval battle, but the timing of that phase was fluid. It depended on the actions of the enemy, but the fastest possible capture of Korea was a priority. Only then would energetic operations against enemy naval bases commence, in order to annihilate its navy (or any forces which survived the expected decisive naval battle). The second phase would end with achieving total control of the sea and annihilation of the enemy’s naval forces.
If, following the loss of Korea and control of the seas, the Chinese still possessed the will to fight, the Japanese anticipated a third phase of a series of offensive operations, both on land in Manchuria and, exercising full control of the sea, also against selected coastal targets, which had the potential to inflict heavy losses and force the authorities in Peking to sign a peace treaty on Japanese conditions.
Thus, the Japanese war plan was distinctly offensive in nature and largely based on the principles of the classic naval doctrines of Mahan and Colomb. Its characteristic feature was that redeployment of troops to Korea was not dependent on seizure of the absolute control of the sea. Logically speaking, taking control of Korea should have been dependent on control of the sea. Every other combination, even taking into consideration passivity and ineptitude within the Chinese high command, attracted a serious risk of a breach in the communication lines between the troops fighting in Korean and the homeland. Should this be fulfilled, the worst-case scenario would mean a catastrophe of unimaginable consequences, even after initial successes. However, the Japanese deliberately took that risk, taking into consideration the country’s economic potential. Japan simply had no means of waging a long-lasting war with wealthy China. War had to be swift and successful. Therefore, a more risky military plan was adopted to avoid lengthy military actions, which would be destructive for the Japanese economy. However, it should be emphasised that the risk taken was within acceptable limits and with certain discipline of operations and strategic initiative, the Japanese plan nevertheless had a good chance to grant a significant degree of success – especially if the overall advantages in the quality of Japan’s forces were taken into consideration.
Following the death of Sun Yat-sen in 1925 Chiang Kai-shek emerged as the Kuomintang’s new leader. In March 1926 he began his so-called Northern Expedition to consolidate his power and, at least nominally, unify China, aims which he had achieved to some extent by mid-1928. He had accomplished this with a relatively small “national” army that answered to his KMT government by entering into alliances with various provincial warlords that left each of them with varying levels of independence. Chiang may thus have been weak, but he was clearly working tirelessly to cement central power.
Each of the remaining semi-autonomous warlords had to be cajoled, bribed, and bullied into line, clearly a long-term effort, but this did not assuage Tokyo’s alarm. A weak China was part of Japan’s overall strategy in Asia. Zhang Zuolin, the warlord of Manchuria (to the Chinese the Three Eastern Provinces) had failed to stop Chiang’s drive and he was assassinated by the Japanese Kwantung Army in June 1928, to be replaced by his son. In September 1931 the Kwantung Army staged an explosion that they blamed on the locals and used as a pretext for aggression. Within six months the Japanese had pushed Zhang’s troops, who were under orders not to resist, out of their garrisons and finally south of the Great Wall. The Japanese then established the puppet state of Manchukuo in the region.
Escalating violence in Shanghai led to Japanese bombing on 28 January 1932 and 3,000 Japanese troops fanned out to take parts of the city. The 19th Route Army put up stout resistance. In mid-February the Japanese increased their strength to 90,000, while Chiang sent his German-trained 5th Army (87th and 88th Divisions) to Shanghai. In early March the 19th Route and 5th Armies pulled back, ending the fighting. The Japanese eventually largely withdrew, but insisted that Shanghai be demilitarized, including decommissioning of the arsenal facilities there.
In the meantime the Kwantung Army’s leaders had come to believe that they needed both a buffer zone between China and their new Manchurian holdings and the mineral resources of North China. In February 1933 they invaded Jehol province and routed Zhang’s troops there, with Chiang too concerned with the communists to send aid. In May the Kwantung Army pushed south on a broad front, forcing China to agree to a 13,000 square kilometer demilitarized zone that was, in fact, garrisoned by the Japanese. In mid-1935 bellicose posturing on the borders gave the Japanese the rest of Hebei province and forced the governor of Chahar, once again lacking support from Nanjing, to capitulate to the Kwantung Army.
In the meantime Chiang’s full attention had been focused on his internal enemies, primarily the communists. When the latter set up a soviet in the province of Jiangsu he launched five successive campaigns against them. The First Campaign ran from the fall of 1930 to April 1931; the Second Campaign, from February to May 1931; the Third Campaign, from July to September 1931; the Fourth Campaign, from January to April 1933; and the Fifth Campaign, from October 1933 to October 1934. The first four, commanded by generals of indifferent talent and questionable loyalty, all failed. Chiang took command of the Fifth Campaign himself and, by improving the training of the army units involved and emphasizing civil affairs, won the day, at least temporarily. The communists fled the field on the “Long March.”
If Chiang thought he would now have several years to finish off the communists, build up his army, and prepare for what most Chinese considered the inevitable Japanese aggression, he was mistaken. Public hostility to Japan had risen to new heights, spinning far our of his control. He was now a passenger rather than the pilot. In December 1936 he was kidnapped by senior generals and forced to form a coalition with the communists against the Japanese. The era of Chinese concessions to Japan had ended.
Ironically, this came about just as more moderate and realistic elements started to exert substantive influence over Japanese policy. Nevertheless, there were still hawks within the military, and they completely misread the new Chinese political environment. The opinion on the ground among Japanese forces in China was that they could continue to provoke minor clashes and use them as excuses to seize “bite-size” portions of China at a time or, failing that, they could launch a short, powerful, aggressive campaign that would thoroughly demoralize the Nanjing government.
Opening Drives South and West (July–December 1937)
One of the provocations used by the Japanese began with a clash near Beijing in July 1937. That the Japanese were prepared to act following this Marco Polo Bridge incident was clear; their troops poured into Tianjin (Tientsin), where they had treaty rights, and then fanned out unopposed into the Beijing Plain. Defending Beijing was the 29th Army under the warlord Song Zheyuan with its headquarters at Nanyuan 16km south of the great city. Its 38th Division was near Tianjin, the 132nd just south of Nanyuan, and the bulk of the 143rd Division at Zhangjiakou (Kalgan), 190km away. On 25 July the Japanese 20th Division moved northwest along the Tianjin–Beijing railroad and encountered Chinese troops at Langfang and defeated them after a pitched battle the next day. Meanwhile, two Japanese brigades moved south from Rehe (Jehol) province (which had been annexed into Manchukuo in 1933) and occupied the area northeast of Beijing. On the 28th the Japanese attacked Nanyuan, catching the 29th Army and its 132nd Division by surprise, scattering the headquarters. On 29 July the Japanese 5th Division, still in Tianjin, attacked and routed the 38th Division, driving it 80km south. At that same time Song took the remainder of his 29th Army on a retreat from Beijing, finally settling down at Baoding, about 110km south on the Beijing–Hankou railway and well out of harm’s way for the time being. On 3 August Japanese troops marched into an undefended Beijing.
From Beijing the Japanese planned a drive west into Inner Mongolia, cutting about 130km northwest to Zhangjiakou via the southern Juyong pass, thence southwest to Datong in Yan Xishan’s Shanxi province, defended by Yan’s troops (nominally part of the National army) plus the communist 115th Division. Holding Juyong was the 13th Army, which inexplicably chose to mount its defense around the city itself rather than the narrow pass to the west, while the 17th Army was stationed to the north of the city. On 8 August advance elements of the Japanese 5th Division and 11th Independent Mixed Brigade (IMB) ran into the Juyong garrison, halted briefly before the main force arrived, but then took the city on 11 August. Three Chinese divisions were rushed up and fought at the Juyongguan pass, but abandoned it when the Japanese 5th Division entered the parallel Chenpien pass to the south, opening the way to Zhangjiakou from the east. That was not the only concern, for three Japanese IMBs were marching south on that city from southern Chahar, brushing aside the 143rd Division on 18 August. The 17th Army was rushed up to meet the threat, then retreated just as quickly. On 3 September the Japanese entered Zhangjiakou, turned somewhat southward and continued their advance towards Datong.
The Japanese drive to the southwest into Inner Mongolia actually had two “arms.” The western arm, towards Datong, was formed from the force that had advanced from Chahar. The eastern arm, based on the IJA 5th Division, marched parallel but about 50km to the east. Yan’s 61st Army (one division and two brigades) from II War Zone conducted a widely spaced weak delaying action against the western arm, falling back about 30km at a time and on 13 September the Japanese occupied Datong. Chiang was bitterly disappointed, as this cut a main communication route with the Soviets, but there was little he could do. The eastern arm, headed by the 21st Brigade of the IJA 5th Division, moving down from Juyong Pass, was to meet an entirely different enemy.
At Pingxinguan Pass they met Yan’s 73rd Division, later reinforced by the 71st, that stopped them in a see-saw battle for the heights. Needing resupply, the Japanese called on their supply train of 70 carts and 80 trucks to move up the sunken road with ammunition, food, and winter clothing.
The 115th Division of the Communist 8th Route Army had marched 500km from Shaanxi Province, arriving at Mount Wutai in front of the 21st Brigade on 20 September. For a day the commander, Lin Biao, made his preparations. Near the village of Pingxinguan the soldiers of the 115th Division moved in on the head and tail of the Japanese resupply column on the morning of 21 September. Chinese soldiers went the length of the column, throwing grenades down into the road while the Japanese, largely unarmed and unable to scale the 5–10 meter walls of the sunken road, flailed helplessly about. Longer sections of the road were raked from the ends by machine-gun fire. Central Army troops continued to attack the 21st Brigade, now running low on supplies, and losses were heavy on both sides. Relief forces finally reached the Japanese on 28 September and the Chinese withdrew. There are considerable discrepancies in the casualty reports, but it is clear that the IJA should have learned not to take Chinese passivity for granted. Further, the battle was widely publicized and provided a much-needed morale boost to the Chinese forces and population.
The western arm of the Japanese advance, however, proceeded apace. Having taken Datong, the Japanese force of one division and nine Mongolian/Manchurian cavalry units turned west again, headed for Guisui, the Suiyuan capital. Chiang ordered the 35th Army and the 1st Cavalry Army south to avoid being cut off north of the Japanese drive, leaving four cavalry divisions and three brigades to hold back the Japanese advance. Their efforts were half-hearted at best and on 14 October the Japanese occupied Guisui unopposed.
With the exception of Pingxingguan and some of the smaller clashes with Yan’s troops, the Japanese had outmaneuvered and outfought the Chinese decisively in every engagement. Wei Li-huang’s 14th Army Group from the central government had performed fairly well, but with a few exceptions Yan’s troops had given way quite easily. On the other hand the Japanese had failed to engage the Chinese decisively, resulting in the conquest of huge swatches of land that their numbers were insufficient to garrison.
The Japanese were not only interested in driving west from Beijing. The provinces of Shandong, Hebei and Anhui to the south were tempting targets that were both rich and blessed with good transportation routes that would ease any invasion. To guard against this, the Chinese had deployed the 1st Army Group on the Tianjin–Nanjing railway, with the 3rd Route Army in Shandong as a reserve. Further west, defending the Beijing–Hankou railway was I War Zone, commanded directly by Chiang.
Bloodletting on the Central Coast
Meanwhile, far to the south and east, things were beginning to spiral out of control. The large foreign populations in their enclaves in Shanghai had not been known for their humility, usually treating the local Chinese as little more than a labor pool for servants. Even within this crowd, however, the Japanese stood out for their particular arrogance. The 5,000 Japanese troops stationed there under treaty rights had been a source of irritation for some time before 9 August, when a Japanese lieutenant, enraged that a Chinese sentry tried to stop him in his car, shot and killed the sentry before being killed himself by another sentry. It seems likely that the Japanese had not planned adventures in central China, at least not yet, but Chiang had decided this was the place to make his stand.
Chiang hoped to draw off Japanese troops from their depredations in north China that threatened supply routes from the USSR, but Shanghai was a strange place to chose for such an endeavor. True, it was the commercial center of China and putting on a good show there guaranteed favorable press coverage for China’s plight around the world due to the large foreign population, but it had serious tactical drawbacks. The Japanese owned the seas, and the city’s location on the sea at the mouth of a deep, navigable river gave the enemy flexibility and the availability of naval gunfire support over most of the front. The well-developed port facilities allowed them to reinforce and supply almost at will. The level ground, combined with the ability to bring engineering equipment in, would allow the Japanese to create landing fields for their vastly superior air force. Nevertheless, Shanghai it would be.
On 11 August the 36th Division and two German-trained elite divisions, the 87th and 88th, closed around the Japanese positions north of the city, while the 55th, 56th, and 57th Divisions began moving north along the east bank of the river. On 13 August the Japanese landed two more divisions at Shanghai to bolster their forces. On that same day fighting broke out between the 87th Division and the Japanese in the Zhabei (Chapei) district; Troops attacking near Shanghai, September 1937. The soldier on the left has just been shot. after five days the Japanese had been forced back but their lines remained unbroken. Both sides then began to pour reinforcements into the area. On 22 August the Japanese landed elements of their 3rd and 11th Divisions upriver from the city, where they met the Chinese 15th Army Group, leading to a bitter two-week battle that ended in a stalemate.
Over a month of heavy fighting followed all along the front line, with the Japanese force, now known as the Shanghai Expeditionary Force, attempting to break out of the area around the city, and the Chinese III War Zone (commanded by Chiang personally) attempting to hold them in, and counterattacking on a regular basis. By late September the Chinese had thrown over 500,000 troops into the battle formed into Left Wing, Center, and Right Wing commands, and the Japanese over 200,000, including six divisions, four IMBs, the Formosa Brigade, and tank and artillery units.
That the Chinese managed to hold the line, and indeed counterattack successfully on occasion, was unexpected, not only to the Western observers in Shanghai, but also to the Japanese. The Rising Sun planes flew unaccosted above the battlefield, strafing and bombing at will. The old Wusong (Woosung) Fort had been captured early in the battle from the land side, its antique coastal guns no longer able to prevent Japanese warships from sailing up and down the river and pounding the Chinese lines with gunfire. Japanese tanks and artillery outnumbered their Chinese counterparts by a wide margin, both dealing death and destruction to Chiang’s troops. By 20 October the Chinese had sustained over 120,000 casualties on the Shanghai front, and yet they hung on grimly, fighting, and dying in close combat for every meter they gave up. The next day the 21st Army Group of Guangxi troops, with a reputation as brave fighters, arrived and were thrown into battle.
Faced with such determined opposition and suffering horrendous losses themselves, the Japanese gave up on the idea of simply punching through Chinese lines. Instead, they landed their 10th Army of three divisions on the north shore of Hangzhou Bay, 50km south of Shanghai, on 5 November. This was something Chiang had not considered. The new army brushed aside light resistance and began marching north to Shanghai to attack the encircling Chinese from the outside. They quickly smashed through the Right Wing forces and joined up with the Shanghai Expeditionary Force. Emboldened, the Japanese in Shanghai began a massive assault along the whole line, heavily supported by air attacks and naval gunfire. This time, the Chinese line, already outflanked on the right, began to give. On 12 November the Japanese 16th Division made an amphibious landing about 70km upriver from Shanghai. This put them squarely behind the Chinese left flank, and the Chinese force began to crumble. Chiang issued an ambiguous order that could have been, and was, interpreted to mean retreat.
The Chinese troops had proven themselves brave, tough, and enduring soldiers. Western advisers, however, complained bitterly that staff work was abysmal, there was little coordination between adjacent units, the artillery fired most of its missions blind at maximum range, and that defensive positions usually consisted of a single trench line and gave way once that was breached.
If there was a retreat in the military sense, it lasted only one or two days. After three months of unremitting horror, pounded from the air and sea, of vicious hand-to-hand to fighting with no quarter given or asked, half-starved, lacking medical attention, their tactical leaders dead, the Chinese soldiers finally broke. And when they broke, it was total. Soldiers abandoned their weapons and the wounded, units mixed together in the flight to safety, and what had been a tenacious army a few days earlier turned into a panic-stricken rabble fleeing west as fast as they could. Chiang had gambled most of his best units in Shanghai and he had lost. It cost him at least 187,000 of his finest troops killed or wounded, a loss that would extract its toll over the next eight years.
The Japanese troops, as eventual victors, had the opposite reaction. Having lost 11,000 killed and 31,000 wounded, and filled with rage at the humiliation of having been kept in check by an enemy they held in contempt, they now gave vent to an orgy of blood lust. They followed closely behind the Chinese, slaughtering the wounded, sick, and simply exhausted that Chiang’s troops had left behind.
The Chinese attempted to make a stand at Suzhou, about 65km west of Shanghai, but were quickly outflanked and abandoned the city without a fight. Seeing the inevitable, the Chinese government was moved from Nanjing to Chongqing (Chungking) some 1,750km up the Yangtze on 20 November, although the Generalissimo moved to Hankou (Hankow), in between the two.
This was well timed, for now little stood between the rampaging Japanese Shanghai Expeditionary Force and Nanjing except disorganized, dispirited troops. The relatively intact 23rd Army Group moved up to stop them, but was hit from the flank and driven back. Chiang ordered Nanjing held “to the last man” and to that end two defense lines were formed in arcs in front of the city. The 36th and 88th Divisions, along with the Training Division were allocated to the outer line, 12–20km outside the walls of the city. They were shortly reinforced by the 74th Army and the 83rd Army, each of two divisions. The 41st, 48th, 87th, 103rd, 112th, 159th, and 160th Divisions manned the inner line, 2–5km outside the walls. The Japanese Shanghai Expeditionary Force and the 10th Army arrived in front of Nanjing on 6 December and immediately began their assaults, supported by artillery. On 8 December the outer line fell, followed by the inner line on 11 December. The next day the Japanese broke through the ancient city walls at the three main gates. Two days of heavy fighting was followed by a Chinese order to retreat. The only Chinese force to retain its coherence was the 66th Army (159th and 160th Divisions), which managed to fight its way out to the south and east. The rest of the soldiers trapped in Nanjing were hunted down and killed.
That, however, was the least of what would happen in Nanjing. For the next six weeks General Matsui’s Japanese troops went on an orgy of murder, rape, pillage, and mayhem that has rarely been equaled.
What did 1997 mean? On 1 July that year the People’s Republic of China resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong. China’s senior leadership and British government ministers and officials took part in a punctiliously choreographed midnight handover ceremony. Rain poured down, and tears were shed for all the reasons that tears might be shed: sadness, joy, fear, confusion, or relief. The departing Governor stepped aboard the British royal yacht Britannia just after midnight and sailed away. The Union Jack had been pulled down at midnight, the five stars of China’s flag raised in its stead, and the colony’s own standard was at the same time surmounted by that of the new Special Administrative Region. Other symbols of colonial rule were being removed as midnight passed, and many had already been superseded by 1997. In Beijing there were fireworks in Tiananmen Square. A digital clock that had been placed in front of the Museum of Revolutionary History, and which had been counting down the days and seconds since 1994, reached zero. Crowds chanted as the seconds ticked down. A century of humiliation had been ‘washed away’ as the rain fell in Hong Kong.
There had been other ways of looking forward to this moment than the clock. (This was one of several; there was one at the Hong Kong–Shenzhen border, and another in Beijing at the ruins of the Yuanming Yuan, the old Summer Palace looted and burned down by French and British troops in 1860.) One that had stuck with me was a music video that seemed to be endlessly repeated in 1994 on a satellite music channel – itself a phenomenon that was bewildering for a visitor to China – and that I had watched in a Shanghai hotel room. A young woman faced the camera, strumming a guitar. Her name was Ai Jing, and at the age of twenty-four she had a hit across and beyond the Chinese-speaking world with a catchy song, ‘My 1997’. It takes the form of a jaunty folk riff periodically interrupted by passages in a Chinese opera style, in which she narrates her journey from Shenyang in the far northeast, through Beijing, to Shanghai’s Bund and down south to the border with Hong Kong. Visually the film makes the same shifts from past to present. But the song is about the future: ‘when will I be able to visit Hong Kong?’ she asks from Guangzhou. It is a cheeky song, lamenting at once a Hong Kong lover, but Hong Kong itself as a lover, perhaps, certainly as a future for the Chinese. The song and video’s celebratory climax presents a sensual longing for urban freedom and modernity. On the cover of the CD itself Ai Jing was photographed in Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong bar district. ‘What is it like? What are Hong Kong people like?’ Ai asks. In the years before the handover of the last significantly sized British colony, the Chinese government was sponsoring academic research and film-makers. In these endeavours it was making Hong Kong the focus for a celebration of China’s new strength, and a reminder of past weakness and humiliation. Culture still mattered; it was no less a political sphere than it had been in the most hectic days of the Maoist era, or even during the more cosmopolitan republic. So Ai Jing’s song deftly struck the right political notes, and subverted them. Her 1997 was not about national humiliation, but about personal liberation.
Late colonial Hong Kong had boomed as a British imperial city was transformed into a global capitalist hub. The disputes between the British and the Chinese diplomats continued almost up to the last moment. Signs of that old treaty-port world remained in abundance after the formal symbols of British power were removed, but many of the new expatriates of the 1990s and after were looking north, waiting for China, diving in whenever opportunity was opened up, finding partners, and chasing ancient fantasies of unlimited China markets. For the Chinese government the question was how to manage it all, and how to bring the foreign back in without re-creating the past, and without surrendering sovereignty and dignity. Reclaiming Hong Kong was a grand affirmation of its triumph over history. The handover was a substantial exercise in political theatre, but it was also a landmark in the growing economic freedoms enjoyed by Chinese. After 1949 the city had inherited Shanghai’s modernity. High-rise Hong Kong provided an alternative vision of China’s present, and its soon-to-be-realized future. The return of Macao in 1999 was also accompanied by much fanfare, but the earlier return in 1997 was made significantly more important as a symbol, as its roots lay not in the Ming Dynasty but in the nineteenth-century British assault on China’s sovereignty.
Ai Jing’s video lingers in the mind, but there were orthodox cultural projects launched before 1997 that were intended to resonate widely as well. In one way the most mainstream of these was a big-budget film, The Opium War, which premiered with a showing for senior government leaders in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 9 June 1997, and which was described by its director, the veteran Chinese film-maker Xie Jin, as a ‘special gift for the motherland and the people … to ensure we and our descendants forever remember the humiliation the nation once suffered’. Hong Kong’s Shanghai-born incoming senior leaders – Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and Legislative Council President Rita Fan – attended the Hong Kong premiere three days later. The film had already been endorsed by no less a figure than Deng Xiaoping’s successor, the Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin, and patriotically minded backers had put up the funds. Group bookings by government and other official and party units produced a good deal of the receipts. Hong Kong’s origins in the conflict over the opium trade and in the British bid to seize ‘the entire East … the Nineteenth century’ mattered most in this retelling (and the ambition was put into the mouth of Queen Victoria). The film was by some measure the most expensive then yet made in China. Its script delivered a more nuanced understanding of the British position than might have been expected; however, the significant point is that ultimately the project was not rooted in Hong Kong’s present but in China’s past. Hong Kong was not what its people had made it by 1997, and what they might make it afterwards, but was to be remembered as an historical act of theft, with its origins in a squalid criminal enterprise and the weakness and chauvinism of the Qing.
It was not in fact the first time in modern Chinese history that a retrocession had been commemorated with a film about the Opium War. The earlier occasion had been the premiere of the 1943 Japanese-sponsored Chinese movie Wanshou liufang (Eternity), screened in Nanjing for the benefit of collaborationist president Wang Jingwei. That, too, had been an officially directed project, and it was released to mark the handover of the International Settlement to the quisling Shanghai Special Municipality on 1 August 1943. At the very least this coincidence of rituals demonstrates the centrality of nationalism and anti-imperialism to all twentieth-century political projects in China. The Chinese Communist Party and Wang Jingwei, once allies, later the bitterest of opponents, played tunes from the same narrow repertoire. This is not to suggest any equation between the CCP and Wang Jingwei’s regime, but to highlight the centrality of these issues of humiliation in understanding the competing forms of nationalism that have emerged in modern China.
Over the next thirty years the world that Ai Jing’s song laid claim to was brought to China. The state enterprises that her lyrics mention her father working in have folded, and have been broken up for scrap like those ships that were the fuel for the first foreign business established in China. These enterprises were swept aside by the massive programme of renewal and economic development that began with those contentious reforms in Guangdong province in 1979. Economic growth brought profound social and cultural transformation that is still unfolding, and there are now bar districts like Lan Kwai Fong all over China. Hong Kong is still very different, providing a distinctive modern Chinese culture with different values; but like Macao it is also partly irrelevant to the story of change in China itself. A quarter of a million foreign nationals live in Shanghai, for example, which has hungrily embraced all the trappings of its ambitions to be a world-class city, and all the greyer and darker ones too. Only the rickshaws are missing from the streets.
There are plenty of those in the museums, however, for the past is bigger business than ever in China. An estimated 10,000 ‘Red Tourism’ sites and half a billion visits to them in 2011 accounted for one-fifth of all Chinese domestic tourism. Heritage initiatives with little political flavouring have also made progress in the generally unequal battle with the bulldozer and property speculation. Some of this apparent political elision is striking: Tianjin’s former Italian concession was revamped as the ‘Italian-style scenic district’ after 2004. In this case an Italian colonial enterprise now serves as an example of cosmopolitan heritage style. The repackaging of the colonial as the cosmopolitan is now quite common. It serves the purpose too of stressing continuities over time despite China’s shutdown during the Maoist era. The iconic modern skyline in China is still Shanghai’s. Its high-rises were the stuff of the movies viewed across the nation in the 1930s and 1940s, and this persisted. But now the vista representing Shanghai in its room at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing is of the Pudong skyline, across the river from the Bund. To appreciate this, which thousands of tourists from all over China do every day, one needs to turn one’s back on the old Bund and its buildings, on the British Consulate, the headquarters of Jardine Matheson and Co., the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Sir Victor Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel, the North China Daily News Building, Yokohama Specie Bank and the Shanghai Club.
But even when backs are turned the memory is kept alive. On 1 October every year, China’s national day, city officials in Shanghai gather on the north end of the Bund at what is still called a park, although little trace of anything much like one remains. What dominates the site now is a ‘Monument to the People’s Heroes’ that was unveiled in 1993. Three granite pillars lean together at the top to form a three-sided obelisk reaching 60 metres into the air. They represent the ‘eternal glory’ of the ‘people’s heroes’ who died in the liberation war, in revolutionary movements more widely since the 1919 May Fourth Movement and since the Opium War. In a sunken area around its base are seven bas-relief friezes depicting key incidents in the revolutionary history of the city down to 1949, culminating with students dancing the yangge in Shanghai’s streets in May 1949. For some decades prior to 1943 another much less imposing obelisk stood close to this very same spot, a memorial erected in 1866 to the foreign officers of the Ever Victorious Army, the unit led by General Gordon that supported Qing forces in the battles around Shanghai against the Taiping. The city’s histories, like all of China’s, overlay and echo one another. And not far away you can read the twentieth century’s changes on what was formerly the China headquarters of the British company Imperial Chemical Industries. Shorn now of the allegorical reliefs with which it was adorned on its unveiling in 1923, its own name is just still visible, and so are huge sets of Cultural Revolution slogans running down the building, wishing long life to the Great Helmsman Chairman Mao. It now houses a securities firm.
The annual ceremony at the memorial on the Bund is of fresh vintage. Recently the event commenced early in the morning with the playing of the national anthem by a military band, while the participants stood in contemplative silence. Then, without a word, the Shanghai Party Secretary, the Mayor and representatives from other official organizations stepped forward to lay wreaths in front of the obelisk. So the ceremony itself echoes another, the one that took place annually from 1924 to 1941, and then again from 1945 to 1948, on 11 November, Remembrance Day for the Allied dead of the world wars. That took place at the other end of the former International Settlement Bund, in front of Shanghai’s tall war memorial. This is a powerful testament to the reach of imported practices and forms, and their acculturation – including the ceremonial silence, and the playing by a military band using European instruments, of a national anthem indebted to Western musical forms, and indeed to the very idea of a ‘national anthem’. The concrete forms of memorialization – those obelisks – are linked in a similar way. But none of these are any less authentic facets of modern China and modern Chinese culture. Most of Shanghai’s tourists do not pay any homage at the memorial, despite the fact that it is a ‘patriotic education base’. Most do not even really visit that end of the promenade: the blindingly neon-lit Pudong skyline at night is the draw instead. Such is the pervasiveness still of the humiliation narrative that they hardly need to, for the stories it tells remain at the heart of the nationwide system of patriotic education.
Reactions to bilateral and other disputes that unfold or erupt today are still nearly always addressed through the prism of the past, or they are about that past. There were violent street and online protests during the Chinese-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands in 2012, which were inflamed by its coincidental timing with the anniversary of the Japanese Kwantung Army’s attack on Manchuria on 18 September (usually simply ‘918’ in Chinese). The islands themselves are another legacy issue from the longer history of territorial disintegration in the nineteenth century: ‘No longer learn from Li Hongzhang,’ shouted demonstrators in Nanchang, echoing Deng Xiaoping’s curt rejoinder to Margaret Thatcher over Hong Kong. ‘Never forget National Humiliation; Remember 9.18; Recover the Diaoyu islands’, ran another slogan. Since 2000 controversy over demands for the repatriation of artefacts looted from the Yuanming Yuan in 1860 has also gathered tremendous momentum. And over forty years after Prime Minister Tanaka’s incompetent first apology, and the 1972 Sino-Japanese joint declaration, Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s official statement in 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Sino-Japanese War was closely read, and sharply criticized for its perceived inadequacies in Chinese and others’ eyes. The sullen and resentful language of the text was a mark not only of Abe’s own conservative politics and revisionist leanings, but also of a wider exasperation in Japan with the never-ending war. For China the past is becoming more important. And what’s clear in all of this is that the Chinese state is now often playing catch-up, struggling to keep abreast of the popular nationalism that it has nurtured and encouraged, and which runs riot in social media, on foreign university campuses and sometimes in Chinese streets. The state needs to be agile, for its perceived inadequacies in defending China’s honour have frequently diverted popular hostility towards it and away from Japan.
The story of the world outlined in this book is on the whole not well enough known. It certainly lives on in saga, romance or thriller, or through cinema – J. G. Ballard’s autobiographical Empire of the Sun, mediated through Hollywood, for example. As we have seen, it was portrayed as romance back in the 1920s and especially in the 1930s, and this persists. But it is still too easily thought of as a sideshow, far away and involving people with whom there is little connection. In most cases there was always a profound asymmetry in relations: the West was always far more important in China than China seemed to be at home. As we have seen, this was not always in fact actually true, although it generally holds good. What it does mean is that a significant imbalance in knowledge and understanding persists. In 2011 I was invited to give a talk about The Scramble for China at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. It seemed wise to signal in advance that I could not provide much by way of enlightenment on contemporary policy. I did not know what the then CCP leader Hu Jintao thought, or much about climate change or healthcare initiatives. I was not to worry, was the response, leave policy to us, but we really need to know more about the history. Our recruits have learned little of it before they join us, yet the Chinese still talk about it all the time. Given how profoundly modern China has been shaped by its relationship with the United Kingdom, this was a telling admission.
They know this well in China, of course. And in which other state does a new leadership team, on the day that it is unveiled, change into more sombre clothing, and make a pilgrimage to a history museum? (What other state has so many history museums?) This is what Xi Jinping and the members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo did on 29 November 2012. The most powerful leaders in the land paid homage to the past through this visit to the National Museum of China, and its permanent display ‘The Road to Rejuvenation’ (the official translation of the Chinese Fuxing zhi lu). The design aesthetic in the first galleries is darkness. Art works and artefacts illustrate a stridently captioned narrative of China’s story of humiliation and weakness from 1840 onwards. But then comes the light, and in the second set of galleries a different aesthetic decorates a record of events and triumphs since 1949 (and in a discreet and selective way some disasters). The exhibition concludes, or at least did on my own last visit – when it was thronged with school groups assiduously taking notes – by paying homage to China’s space programme, and then with a display of mobile phones. The promise of a project that generates intense national pride, and the history of China’s economic growth and individual prosperity, are both framed in a story of release from the shame of the past. The promise at the end of the black tunnel of history is a smartphone.
The story of the foreign presence in China in the twentieth century, as much as in the nineteenth century or in any part of China’s modern history, is too important today to be left in the hands of the Chinese party-state and this approved script. Its sanctioned narrative is partial, self-serving and ultimately incendiary. A new nationalism in which angry demonstrators have been heard many times clamouring for war and for killing Japanese is pregnant with the potential for calamity. But this is not a Japanese problem alone. No nation complicit in the degradation of China after the 1830s – which includes most European states as well as the United States – is ultimately secure. Being effectively equipped with the facts might help us understand the roots of that rage. In this book I have aimed to show that world in all its complexity and all its contexts – and that word ‘complexity’ is no coy cover for nostalgia or an apologetics. The foreign presence in China in the twentieth century had more than its fair share of bigotry, racism, violence, greed, or simple callous indifference. This is on display in profusion in the National Museum of China. In that world, too, you can find collaboration, cohabitation, alliance and coalition. Many other voices also spoke for China and stood up for it against its enemies and against ignorance and prejudice overseas, and on China’s streets. This is all but absent in the displays in Beijing. There was also self-delusion and self-conceit, as well as genuine humanitarian concern and disinterested technical interest. This was a world in which the imperatives or norms of a world in which colonial power was exercised overlapped with (and helped shape) new forms of globalization and the movement of people, goods and ideas. It was a world in which people in China incorporated into their lives all sorts of innovations that came from overseas, and equally made their own new culture, promiscuously mixing all sorts of foreign ingredients and indigenous ones too. Chinese of all political hues and none worked with and against the unequal and unjust exercise of foreign political power in China and the treatment of China in international forums and organizations. The Chinese Communist Party holds no monopoly of nationalistic virtue, and it was itself complicit in the continued degradation of Chinese sovereignty in the 1950s.
‘The Chinese nation has suffered unusual hardship and sacrifice in the world’s modern history,’ said Xi Jinping in November 2012 at the end of his museum visit. Its people ‘have never given in, have struggled ceaselessly, and have finally taken hold of their own destiny’. Xi’s rhetoric then and since has promised a ‘China dream’, the ‘great renewal of the Chinese nation’ and individual aspiration, subsuming along the way the hopes of Ai Jing’s song ‘My 1997’. The China dream is grounded in this story of an unrelenting Chinese nightmare. We need to acknowledge that, and understand it, but we do not need to believe it.
A map showing the route and destinations of the seven voyages of Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 CE, acting as an ambassador and explorer of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 CE).
Some products were traded over very long distances indeed. In the thirteenth century date honey was produced in Bahrain and was much in demand in China by Buddhist pilgrims travelling to India. The great Chinese admiral Zheng He brought back to Beijing several giraffes, including one from Malindi and one from Bengal, the latter having apparently been given to the ruler of Bengal, Saifu’d-Din, by the ruler of Malindi. Most extraordinary, and mysterious, was the discovery in 1944 by an Australian radar team of five Islamic copper coins from Kilwa on a beach in the remote Marchinbar Islands, part of the Wessell Islands off Australia’s Northern Territory coast. None have dates, but from the inscriptions two may be tenth century, and three early fourteenth. We have no idea how they managed to travel clear across the whole Indian Ocean.
Long-distance trade was governed by the monsoons. One example was a route from the Gulf region to China around 1000 on the longest voyage sailed by any one ship. The Arab geographers claimed that a passage from Oman to China took about three months and ten days, though one exceptional voyage was completed in 48 days. These sound extraordinarily rapid, but they are only sailing times. Several stops were necessary on the way, partly to trade, and partly to wait for the right monsoon, so that the actual time from leaving the Gulf to reaching Guangzhou (Canton) was at least six months. The dhows sailed down the Gulf before it became too rough, in September or October, and then went on to Malabar on the northeast monsoon, arriving in mid-December. They stayed there while they traded, and waited for the cyclone season in the Bay of Bengal to end. In January they sailed to Malaya, and used the last of the northeast monsoon to get around the straits of Melaka and so catch the southern monsoon in the South China Sea and reach Guangzhou in April or May. The return voyage began in October to December when the northeast monsoon took them back to Melaka and over the Bay of Bengal to the west coast of India. The last stage, back to the Gulf, was sailed using the beginning of the southwest monsoon, reaching home around midyear.
Another example comes from five hundred years later. Very early in the sixteenth century Barbosa left us a compelling description of one of the major long-distance trade routes of this period, that is from Malabar, specifically Calicut, to the Red Sea. He wrote that the Muslim traders in Calicut from the Red Sea and Egypt:
took on board goods for every place, and every monsoon ten or fifteen of these ships sailed for the Red Sea, Aden and Meca, where they sold their goods at a profit, some to the Merchants of Juda, who took them on thence in small vessels to Toro, and from Toro they would go to Cairo, and from Cairo to Alexandria, and thence to Venice, whence they came to our regions. These goods were pepper (great store), ginger, cinnamon, cardamons, myrobalans, tamarinds, canafistula, precious stones of every kind, seed pearls, musk, ambergris, rhubarb, aloes-wood, great store of cotton cloths, porcelains, and some of them took on at Juda copper, quicksilver, vermilion, coral, saffron, coloured velvets, rosewater, knives, coloured camlets, gold, silver, and many other things which they brought back for sale in Calecut. They started in February, and returned from the middle of August up to the middle of October of the same year. In this trade they became extremely wealthy. And on their return voyages they would bring with them other foreign merchants who settled in the city, beginning to build ships and to trade, on which the King received heavy duties.
These two accounts point to a major change in the structure of long-distance sea trade in our period. Barbosa was describing a trade divided at south India, while the first account sketched a direct passage from the Gulf to China. What happened is that around the eleventh century the trade became segmented, with one merchant and ship doing the Arabian Sea part to south India, where the goods were exchanged, and then taken on by other ships and merchants to southeast Asia, where there was another exchange, and so to China. South India was always a place where there was a halt, and exchange, but the difference is that in the earlier time the same merchant and ship kept going beyond there, while later they did not.
In the earlier period, from say the eighth century, the very long-distance trade from the Gulf to China was handled by Persian merchants. In the Gulf Siraf, on the east bank, was the main centre, where were to be found goods from all over the Indian Ocean, including East Africa. Later Julfar, on the west coast up from Hurmuz, was important, and later still Hurmuz. Another old centre was Daybul, in present day Pakistan. Arabs also took part in this trade, and soon became more important than the Persians. Later some Chinese ships also, from the twelfth century and particularly in the fourteenth, traded into the Arabian Sea. However, from around the eleventh century the direct passage from Baghdad to Guangzhou declined, and we see the rise of emporia, that is shorter routes connecting the major port cities of Baghdad, Hurmuz, Cambay, Calicut, Melaka and Guangzhou, with many minor routes from, say, the Bay of Bengal feeding into this network. What evolved then was a basic change in the orientation of long-distance trade, which in the earlier period was on an east–west axis, from Baghdad to Guangzhou, and later was more north–south, that is Baghdad down to India, then an east–west segment to southeast Asia, and then north–south again up to China. We can even see here an early version of today’s divide between north and south, for the north, India and China, provided manufactures like cloths and porcelain, and the south unprocessed tropical products such as ivory, slaves, gold and spices.
From the twelfth century or slightly later we have three segments: the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the South China Sea. Chinese and Indians went to Melaka, Persians and Arabs only to India. It is significant that the account by Wang Dayuan, who travelled extensively in the 1330s, finds a western ocean and an eastern one, with the division at the Straits of Singapore. This important move towards segmentation may have been a result of traders realising that the direct passage in the same ship was inefficient, given that they had to wait for monsoons at several places, but it was probably also a result of the rise of important Indian trading communities in south India associated with the powerful Cola dynasty. We will turn to the influence of politics on trade presently, but we can remember here that the wealth and stability of the Abbasid empire from 750 CE, and of T’ang China, 618–907, certainly fostered this long-distance and quite perilous trade. The effects of the rise of the Cola empire in South India from the late ninth century has been less investigated, but it may be that the Colas, and the powerful merchant organisations, akin to guilds and associated intricately with state power, had two results. First, the stability provided by this state had the same effect as the equivalent in Baghdad and Guangzhou, that is a wealthy and stable state which had a large demand for foreign luxuries, and second merchants based in this state could trade both east and west, and especially to the east, to southeast Asia, where they met up with the powerful Sumatran-based trading empire of Srivijaya, which benefited from controlling the Melaka Straits up to the thirteenth century. South India seems to act as a fulcrum in this very long-distance connection. Later in our period other Indians joined in, this time Muslims based in the many emporia on the west coast, and in the major Islamic state of Gujarat from the thirteenth century. Increasingly the trade beyond India was controlled by Indian Muslims, while Arabs, and a few Persians, were restricted to the Arabian Sea.
We can start our survey of routes, trade and ports in the east, in China. We have noticed that Chinese products, especially porcelain, were traded all around the Indian Ocean from very early times. We have already quoted Ibn Battuta’s valuable description of the ships he saw in Calicut. His account dates from the early fourteenth century, but Chinese products have been found in the Arabian Sea from much earlier. Chinese pottery has been found on the Swahili coast from at least the eighth century, and a little later in Mauritius also. These goods were transshipped many times in a relay fashion, and some no doubt came overland to the Gulf and then were sent on by sea. An actual Chinese trading presence seems to date only from the twelfth century.
Many of the vast Chinese ships had both economic and political functions. We refer to the famous tribute system. Ostensibly this was a matter of foreign rulers accepting the superiority of the Chinese emperor, and sending tribute to signify this. However, much of the tribute was actually trade items, and the system then was a method of fostering exchange as much as a matter of political dominance. In the later thirteenth century the new Mongol dynasty, the Yuan, was keen to expand trade. In 1286 either the sons or younger brothers of the rulers of ten kingdoms ranging from Malabar to Sumatra came to pay tribute.88 Marco Polo got part of the way back home accompanying one of these politico-trade missions. Around 1290 a Mongol princess was sent by sea to Persia to become the consort of the local ruler, Arghun Khan, and the Polos went with her. She travelled with 600 sailors and officials, in a fleet of fourteen ships. They left from Zaiton, of which more in a minute, and touched at Champa and the Malay peninsula. Reaching Sumatra, they were forced to wait for five months to avoid monsoon storms. They then travelled near the Nicobar Islands to Sri Lanka, the west coast of India, and so to Hurmuz. However, Arghun had died by this time, and the princess was handed over to his son, Mahmud Ghazan, instead. This sort of voyage has been described in Chinese sources also. They said that it took forty days to get from China to Sumatra. One spent the ‘winter’ there and then took thirty days to get to the Malabar coast. This information again points to the good sense of the rise of the emporia trade, which meant that ships travelled shorter distances and did not have to wait for a change in the monsoon. Rather they could sell their goods and return home.
Kulke claims that in the thirteenth century there was a large Indian settlement, complete with temple, in south China, and Chinese settlements in Cola south India. Chinese traded to India, but it seems that many more Indians traded to China. Indeed Polo makes clear that Indian traders had by his time replaced Arabs and were an important community at the main Chinese port, which now seems to be Zaiton, that is modern Quanzhou, rather than Guangzhou (Canton). In a famous passage he wrote that Quanzhou is
frequented by all the ships of India, which bring thither spicery and all other kinds of costly wares. It is the port also that is frequented by all the merchants of Manzi [the surrounding province], for hither is imported the most astonishing quantity of goods and of precious stones and pearls, and from this they are distributed all over Manzi.
Much later, when he got to Malabar, he again wrote, ‘Ships come hither from many quarters, but especially from the great province of Manzi. Coarse spices are exported hence both to Manzi and to the west’.
Quanzhou was located north of the modern port of Amoy, or Xiamen, opposite Taiwan. Muslims had traded there very early on, even from the seventh century, and in 1350 there were six or seven mosques in the town. Among the products they imported was rhinocerous horn, which establishes a connection between East Africa and China. Fujian merchants began to venture out only from the late tenth century. Indian merchants had been in Guangzhou by at least the early sixth century.93 From the twelfth century the Kling merchants from south India began to concentrate on Quanzhou, where in the mid fourteenth century they built a large Siva temple modelled on that back home in Madurai. By this time however Chinese traders were taking over the trade between China and Melaka from both Hindus and Muslims. This trade may have been fostered by the awe-inspiring state-directed expeditions of the eunuch Zheng He, to whom we must now turn.
Zheng He erected a tablet which gives a flavour of his pride and sense of superiority. He had inscribed:
We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li of immense waterspaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly as] a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare….
This chauvinism is reflected even more in another inscription, where he claims that during his voyages ‘those among the foreigners who were resisting the transforming influence of Chinese culture and were disrespectful, we captured alive, and brigands who indulged in violence and plunder, we exterminated. Consequently the sea-route was purified and tranquillised and the natives were enabled to pursue their avocations.’ So also with many modern authors: Mills claims in his introduction to Ma Huan’s account of Zheng He’s 1433 expedition that the representatives of sixty-seven foreign states, including seven kings, came to China to pay tribute and render homage. At this time, at the height of Ming power in the 1420s, Yong Le’s fleet had 400 warships of the fleet, 2,700 coastal warships, 400 armed transports, and the pride of the Ming fleet, 250 treasure ships, each carrying 500 men. Throwing caution to the wind, Mills enthusiastically claims that ‘China enjoyed a hegemony over a vast arc of land which extended from Japan to the east coast of Africa.’
Comparisons have often been made with Portuguese activities at the same time in the early fifteenth century. When the Chinese were travelling all over the Indian Ocean, say in 1422, the Portuguese had not even got to Cape Bojador, 26° N. Zheng He’s greatest ships were 400 feet long, while Vasco da Gama’s were between 85 and 100 feet. Many senior historians have speculated that Zheng He’s fleets had the ability to round the Cape of Good Hope (indeed maybe they did) and proceed north to discover western Europe. World history would have been stood on its head.
The reality is a little less exciting than this. There were a total of six expeditions between 1403 and 1433, sponsored by the Yong Le emperor of the Ming dynasty. These vast fleets travelled all around the littoral of the Indian Ocean, going as far as Jiddah, and far down the Swahili coast. Each had between 100 and 200 ships, and forty to sixty of these were the famed huge treasure ships, which could be 150 metres long. There were maybe 27,000 men in each fleet. However, most of the ships were much smaller, some for example being water carriers. Barker tentatively claims that even the size of the great treasure ships has been enthusiastically overestimated: they may have been only about 230 feet long (though this is still very large for the time). They are to be seen as a continuation of the tribute system, with its characteristic mixture of tribute and trade. However, the fleets also engaged in essentially pedling trade in the Indian Ocean, that is, they took goods from one place to another quite apart from any association with tribute. They took southeast Asian sandalwood and Indian pepper to Aden and Dhofar, Indian pepper to Hurmuz, sandalwood and rice to Mogadishu, and rice, probably from Bengal, to the Maldives.
Perhaps the most important point is that Zheng He (perhaps understandably) has bewitched historians, and led to their ignoring three important matters that place his voyages in context. First, his activities were really a continuation of a long tradition, albeit writ large. Second, the tribute system, so-called, hardly meant Chinese suzerainty all over the Indian Ocean. Third, for much of the time the expeditions engaged in humble Indian Ocean trade alongside many other merchants. We described Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo travelling in private, and very large, Chinese ships, and generally Chinese merchants, often ignoring official prohibitions on overseas trade, dominated the trade from their coast to southeast Asia, and at least up to the middle of the fifteenth century, well after the end of major state expeditions, participated fully in trade from Melaka to the west coast of India but not beyond.
Overall then Chinese merchants, and state expeditions, played a rather small and transient role in the Indian Ocean proper.
In military strategy as in geoeconomics, geography is not fate. But it does mold fate. Chinese strategists are acutely conscious of this. When they take stock of China’s oceanic future, strategists glimpse everlasting struggle amid claustrophobic surroundings. To Chinese eyes the string of islands just offshore—the “first island chain” enclosing Eurasia’s eastern crest—resembles a Great Wall in reverse where Americans and their allies occupy the sentinel towers. The island chain imprisons China’s freedom of oceangoing movement. This preoccupation with geography is integral to Chinese discourses about sea power—and thus about China’s dream of national vigor and majesty.
We contend that the archipelagic concept casts a long shadow over Chinese strategic thought. It shapes how Chinese leaders perceive threats and in turn informs how they think about strategic and operational requirements for maritime defense. To them the island chain constitutes not just a physical barrier but also a metaphor for the resistance they expect from the occupants of the first island chain, including such potent maritime competitors as Japan and the United States. Consequently, the most fitting metaphor for the island chain is a barricade—a line of physical obstacles occupied by active defenders to ward off an opposing force. Beijing’s effort to ameliorate its island-chain quandary thus helps outsiders probe the nexus of marine geography, sea power, and great-power politics in Asia.
The First Island Chain: A Line at Sea?
The term “first island chain” refers to the offshore archipelago that envelops Eurasia’s eastern seaboard in its entirety. While Western commentators differ over which features constitute the island chain, most concur that it centers primarily on the Japanese home islands, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and the Philippine Islands. The first island chain is a geographic construct peculiar to China’s worldview, which situates the Chinese mainland at the epicenter of maritime Asia. And indeed, a seaward-looking China cannot avoid facing the islands. The island chain roughly parallels the nation’s long coastline, and no Chinese harbor outflanks it. Worse, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines constitute the “first” island chain only because a more distant, looser island group centered on Guam—the “second island chain”—forms an additional concentric ring around China. In short, China’s unique vantage point infuses the island-chain concept with tangible geospatial meaning.
Analysts outside China began to detect this Sinocentric perspective in Chinese official discourse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Among the first to report on the phrase in Western scholarship were You Ji and You Xu of the Australian National University. In 1991 they claimed that the first island chain comprises Japan, the Ryukyus, and the Philippines. Three years later Alexander Huang defined the island chain more concretely, maintaining that it encompasses “the Aleutians, the Kuriles, the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippine archipelago, and the Greater Sunda Islands.” In 2001 historian and retired U.S. Navy captain Bernard Cole asserted that the island chain runs southward from the Kurile Islands and terminates at Borneo and Natuna Besar. The phrase has seeped into the mainstream Western academic lexicon over the past two decades, aided by analyses such as these.
In recent years this geographic concept has diffused beyond the small circle of China and defense specialists in the West. Official U.S. reports about China’s military and naval modernization use it to describe Chinese geospatial thinking. The Pentagon’s 2006 annual report on Chinese military power delineated the geographic makeup of the first island chain for the first time.4 In a 2009 study of the Chinese navy, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) produced a map that traces the first island chain. The phrase, moreover, now surfaces regularly in the popular press. Robert D. Kaplan, who has done more than any other journalist to draw attention to China’s maritime ambitions, explicitly referred to it in a 2010 opinion column. It is remarkable that an obscure term coined in the recesses of China’s massive military bureaucracy more than thirty years ago has found its way into common parlance in Western newspapers, on websites, and in official documents.
Despite wider usage and acceptance, analysts disagree over the conceptual value of the first island chain. Some naval experts hold that China’s apparent obsession with the archipelagic construct might degrade the quality of Chinese strategic thought and operational planning. Bernard Cole, to name one, argues that the first island chain demarcates a belt of offshore waters that the PLA Navy seeks to command. As the PLAN grows more powerful, it means to expand its reach progressively beyond the first island chain toward the second island chain.
Cole thus postulates that the island chains are geographic features that define the operational scope of Chinese naval activities and “the PLAN is intending to draw lines at sea.” He pronounces such geospatial yardsticks for measuring sea power unhelpful and perhaps even counterproductive. “Ironically,” he contends, “defining ‘phases’ of maritime theaters by fixed geographic boundaries reveals a strong continentalist perspective…. It violates the central tenet of classic maritime strategy that while the soldier thinks of terrain and theaters, the sailor of necessity thinks in wider terms outside immediate physical limits—there is no ‘terrain’ at sea.”
China, in short, is projecting terrestrial defense concepts out to sea. Cole ascribes this habit of mind to China’s strategic traditions, steeped as they are in land warfare, and to Soviet intellectual influence on China’s navy during the Cold War. By implication, the Chinese are indulging in retrograde thinking about sea warfare. He thus concludes that “if the Chinese navy is training and planning to operate within fixed areas and along fixed lines at sea, then it is demonstrating its lack of understanding of naval warfare and exposing itself to failure.”
Admiral Yoji Koda, the former fleet commander of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, likewise objects to the island-chain concept, declaring that it has “no significance” from a “practical military strategy and planning point of view.” First, Koda concurs with Cole that “real naval operations” unfold independent of “lines drawn on charts or maps.” Such lines unduly fetter an oceangoing navy’s “maneuverability, flexibility, and agility.” Second, if Chinese planners treat the island chain as a sort of Maginot Line at sea, then the demands on the PLAN to defend a perimeter undulating across thousands of kilometers would quickly overwhelm China’s finite resources and manpower. No force can be strong at every point along a distended defense perimeter. And third, the archipelago is not neutral territory. It would be presumptuous if not nonsensical for Chinese strategists to draw an offshore defense perimeter incorporating the soil of potentially hostile nations such as Japan and Taiwan. It would be tough to mount a defense from the islands short of invading them.
While these critiques from two sea-service veterans carry analytical weight, they are far too narrowly conceived. Most of their objections are operational in nature. They wonder, for instance, how far offshore Chinese sea power will extend and how the PLA Navy will go about defending the homeland. Construing Chinese maritime strategic thought so literally oversimplifies the island-chain concept. The Chinese are not just drawing lines on a map in a classroom, estranged from strategic and operational reality.
Nor do Chinese thinkers consider the island chain a defensive perimeter shielding China from attack, as Admiral Koda seems to think. It would indeed be nonsensical to designate a prospective foe’s homeland as part of a defensive line. If anything Chinese strategists see it as an American defense perimeter meant to channel, constrict, and perhaps even block Chinese sea and air movement along the Asian seaboard and from the China seas into the western Pacific. If so, it is a hostile fortification to be punctured, not a friendly fortification to be defended.
China’s is an accurate appraisal of the first island chain, and it comports with U.S. strategy dating to the 1950s. It will remain accurate so long as the islands remain in hands friendly to the United States. Cole and Koda err by transposing concepts from open-ocean combat to the congested realm of maritime East Asia. Sea fights far from shore obey the laws of vector mechanics in that they unfold on what amounts to a vast, featureless plain. But no Chinese seafarer worth the name would disregard geography when doing battle. Terrain does matter when fighting close to land. It matters, in other words, at likely scenes of action in maritime Asia.
But in any event, a close reading of open-source literature from the mainland suggests strongly that larger strategic motives, including the range of geopolitical and geoeconomic imperatives, animate Chinese assessments of the first island chain. The discourse in China over the island-chain concept opens a window onto three distinct aspects of Chinese strategic thought. First, it reconfirms China’s perennial belief that the United States harbors malign intent toward China and has done so since the early days of the Cold War.
Second, the U.S. forward bases located along the first and second island chains impress upon Chinese observers the structure of American military power in the western Pacific. Beijing knows it must contend directly with the occupants of the first island chain, and especially with the combined military power of the U.S.-Japan alliance. At the same time the island-chain dilemma underscores the competing geopolitical priorities confronting Beijing on land and at sea. Finally, China’s growing dependence on seaborne commerce—on mercantile traffic that must pass through the narrow seas piercing the first island chain—exacerbates the nation’s offshore economic vulnerability.
It is a central contention of this study that the island-chain concept is not the strictly naval concept Cole and Koda envision. Rather, it is a geographic construct that engages Chinese grand strategy across a range of national security concerns. Discourses about the first island chain reflect Chinese analysts’ understanding of Mahan’s logic and grammar of sea power. Without a broader understanding of what the island chain means to Chinese strategists and policy makers, Western capitals risk understating the analytical value of the first island chain to Beijing while misreading China’s intentions and designs in maritime Asia.
Origins of Island-Chain Thinking
Chinese commentators trace the origins of the island-chain concept to U.S. strategic thought during the early years of the Cold War. These analysts blame American architects of the Cold War for fortifying the island chain to erect a geographic bulwark against Chinese and Soviet communism. To them American hostility toward the newly founded People’s Republic manifested itself most concretely in the alliance relations among the United States, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines—relations that emplaced U.S. forces all along the island chain. This constituted the infrastructure of containment.
Memories of containment run long in China. Shi Chunlin and Li Xiuying, scholars from Dalian Maritime University and Dalian University of Technology, recall the words of Dean Acheson, President Harry Truman’s secretary of state. In January 1950, speaking before the National Press Club, Acheson sketched a U.S. “defense perimeter of the Pacific” running along the Aleutians down through Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines. Liu Hong cites General Douglas MacArthur, who in April 1951 told a joint session of Congress that control of “a chain of islands extending in an arc from the Aleutians to the Marianas” would enable the United States “to dominate with sea and air power every Asiatic port from Vladivostok to Singapore and prevent any hostile movement into the Pacific.”
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, President Dwight Eisenhower’s chief diplomat, is another villain in this storyline. Sang Hong quotes testimony from Dulles to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that described Taiwan as an “important link in the so-called ‘island chain’ that bounds the western rim of the Pacific.” Chen Chungen and Jiang Sihai fault Eisenhower as well for cautioning Americans that losing Taiwan to China would open “a breach in the island chain of the western Pacific that constitutes, for the United States and other free nations, the geographical backbone of their security structure in that ocean.”
Some Chinese analysts see today’s architecture of American military power in the Pacific as a direct descendant of U.S. containment. Huang Yingxu of the AMS contends that “the U.S. assembled a C-shaped strategic formation” incorporating “the first and second island chains formed in the 1950s.” In Huang’s view, the United States has transposed its Cold War containment strategy to the post–Cold War era, inscribing a “C-shaped encirclement, or encirclement arc” on the map of Eurasia. While this strategy “may not be entirely aimed at China,” he concludes, “it surely has the intention to curb and contain China.” Bad memories die hard.
This Chinese version of events reveals a great deal about Beijing’s worldview and habits of thought. By insisting that the United States remains captive to a Cold War mentality, the Chinese relate a politically correct story about Beijing’s maritime environment and corresponding strategic choices. According to this line of reasoning, China’s nautical ambitions represent a mere reaction to the American menace in Asia. A selective reading of history supplies a convenient vehicle for setting the terms of debate about Chinese maritime strategy. No matter how aggressive Chinese strategy becomes, Beijing has the luxury of depicting it as defensive, throwing the United States and its allies on the defensive in future controversies.
While it remains unclear exactly when the phrase “first island chain” entered China’s lexicon, chances are it did so during the 1980s, when Admiral Liu Huaqing was supreme commander of China’s navy. Deng Xiaoping appointed Liu to the top navy post in 1982 with a mandate to reform the service following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. In a speech at a 1987 symposium on PLA naval development, Admiral Liu stated: “The first island chain refers to the Aleutian islands, the Kurile islands, the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu islands, Taiwan island, the Philippine archipelago, and the Greater Sunda island in the western Pacific that form an arc-shaped arrangement of islands akin to a metal chain.” Liu thus construed the island chain in expansive terms, seeing it stretch across vast waters from the North Pacific into the heart of the South China Sea.
The year before his “metal chain” speech, Admiral Liu issued a NDU report that for the first time laid the basis for a coherent Chinese naval strategy. His masterful analysis explicitly depicts the first island chain as one marker delineating the geographic scope of China’s naval operations. It encompasses “the wide sea areas west of the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, and the Philippine islands,” not to mention China’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and Chinese-claimed territories in the South China Sea. To Liu, then, the island chain not only set operational parameters for the PLA Navy but also defined where China’s uppermost economic and security interests lay in the maritime realm. Like Mahan, Liu clearly thought in grand-strategic terms about the sea.
Islands, Islands Everywhere
The debate over the island chain has moved on since the days of Liu Huaqing. In a comprehensive survey of China’s maritime geography titled Island Chain Surrounding China, Liu Baoyin and Yang Xiaomei formally define the first island chain as an “island belt” connecting the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippine archipelago, and the Greater Sunda Islands. This “crescent-shaped island chain is interlocked along our nation’s coastal areas,” the two authors note, adding that “this geographic conformation whereby an island chain separates a continent from an ocean is the only one of its kind in the world.” These islands in turn border a series of straits and channels through which Chinese mariners must pass to reach the world’s oceans. Liu and Yang list twenty-two straits and channels—from the Soya Strait to the north to the Palawan Strait to the south—that they consider critical to China’s national security and economic development.
Yu Kaijin, Li Guangsuo, and Cao Yongheng, naval combat-systems engineers from the Marine Design and Research Institute, view the island chain as aggravating the threat to China. First, the major straits and channels along the first island chain are under the control of other states. China’s seaborne trade is susceptible to blockade at critical choke points as a consequence. The commercial access that constitutes the purpose of sea power and propels maritime strategy is in peril close to home. Second, the island chain demarcates China’s claims to territory and natural resources. The continental shelf and the waters above contain natural resources China and other claimants covet. Maritime territorial disputes with neighboring countries, moreover, simmer within or near the island chain. Third, the mainland’s proximity to the island chain exposes China’s coastal cities to long-range, precision-strike weapons emplaced along the archipelago. The authors conclude, “Our maritime frontiers lack strategic depth, permitting our nation’s economically advanced regions along the coast to directly face enemy threats.”
It should come as little surprise, then, that geopolitically minded Chinese strategists see an island barricade obstructing access to the ocean when they gaze seaward. In their eyes, the first island chain compromises the mainland’s long coastline and bountiful harbors by restricting China’s nautical endeavors. Writing in China Military Science, Senior Captain Feng Liang and Commander Duan Tingzhi of the Naval Command College depict the apparent island encirclement of China in graphic terms. They proclaim that “these islands obstruct China’s reach to the sea.… The partially sealed-off nature of China’s maritime region has clearly brought about negative effects in China’s maritime security…. Because of geography’s nature, China can be easily blockaded and cut off from the sea, and Chinese coastal defense forces are difficult to concentrate.”
Major General Peng Guangqian of the AMS agrees, lamenting that “even though our nation is a great littoral power, the sea areas surrounding our nation are either sealed off or semi–sealed off…. This has further added strategic pressure from the seas upon China while increasing the difficulty and complexity of China’s maritime defense.” Interestingly, Senior Colonel Wang Chuanyou likens China’s geostrategic position to Germany’s during the two world wars. Wang maintains that the British Isles, Orkney Islands, and Shetland Islands constitute a mini-island chain across the North Sea. If fortified by a hostile power, they block German egress into the Atlantic.
Like many Chinese strategists, Wang sifts through history for insight into China’s maritime geography. Lin Hongyu, a scholar at the China University of International Relations, offers an even more pessimistic—if not fatalistic—assessment of the nation’s plight:
From the perspective of the geostrategic environment, China today suffers from the harshest global geopolitical security situation among the great powers. In particular, China’s eastward oceanic geostrategic structure is abnormally complex and unfavorable. With a long coastline facing eastward to the sea, China is an oceanic great power. Yet, it is also a weak sea power that “has access to the seas but not the oceans.” This is because countries and regions with different political systems and ideologies obstruct the strategic corridors to the oceans. The very narrow strategic sea lanes can easily be controlled by others. To overcome this dilemma, China must develop a strategic plan to shatter the first island chain.
Lin sees the first island chain as depriving China of its full maritime potential. The author’s reference to ideology, furthermore, reflects deep discomfort that democracies control the first island chain. Lin may also be obliquely referring to allied and semiallied ties joining Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines to the United States, a democratic great power intent on advancing its values in Asia. Lin and like-minded strategists long to break out of this nautical cordon.
Hu Bo of Peking University presents a sophisticated interpretation of the islands’ strategic significance to China. He believes China must amass the capacity to dictate events in the bodies of water bounded by the first island chain, namely the Bohai, Yellow, East, and South China Seas—expanses Chinese dub the “near seas.” To him, Chinese control over the near seas would bolster China’s strategic superiority in sovereignty disputes over Taiwan, the Senkakus, and the Spratlys. It would ease China’s psychology of insecurity about its maritime periphery, extend China’s buffer zone, and embolden Beijing to stand up to hostile powers. Hu shares the concern of others documented here that the occupants of the first island chain could threaten China: “The United States, Japan, and other countries control virtually all the islands in the western Pacific. Moreover, they have used these islands as forward bases to construct a three-dimensional superior land-sea-air-space power to deter and contain China. Strategically, China is on the defensive. And because China’s economic, political, and cultural centers are located along the eastern coastal regions, China lacks the necessary strategic depth to cope with maritime threats.”
Hu takes a geoeconomic view, portraying the configuration of power along the first island chain as a hazard to China’s economic security. To the island powers, the near seas are a highway leading to China’s seaboard. To China, these same waters constitute a critical intermediate zone where approaching threats can be met and defeated. For these reasons Hu considers the security of the near seas a “core oceanic interest” for China. He defines core interests as those that impinge on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, on the CCP’s survival, or on the nation’s development and social stability. Alternatively, some interests command great strategic or global importance. Either way, concludes Hu, China must use force to defend core interests should the leadership deem it necessary.
Shi Chunlin and Li Xiuying view the first island chain as part of a far larger strategic architecture overseen by the United States. To them, the first island chain meanders southward from the Aleutians through Japan, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Indonesian archipelago, running roughly parallel to the Chinese shoreline. A second island chain stretches southward from Japan through the Ogasawara, Volcano, Mariana, Yap, and Palau Islands, terminating at Indonesia’s Maluku Islands. A third island chain, maintain Shi and Li, starts from the Aleutians in the north and extends south through Hawaii. It ends somewhere in the southwest Pacific, perhaps as far south as New Zealand.
The first, second, and third island chains pass through concentrations of U.S. military power in Northeast Asia, on Guam, and on Oahu, respectively. Collectively they manifest American forward presence, alliance commitments, operational command of forces, and power-projection capabilities—in other words, the military power at Washington’s disposal to manage events in Asia and beyond. Shi and Li perceive U.S. bases and access agreements with host nations as existing in mutually supporting clusters. They see installations in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and Guam as a single unit, while facilities in Australia, Hawaii, and Alaska constitute the strategic rear area for U.S. forces.
This interpretation of the American military posture in the Asia-Pacific conveys the image of concentric rings of bases rippling out from North America toward China. Accordingly, Chinese government mouthpieces routinely insist that U.S. leaders remain prisoners of a Cold War mentality. Obsolescent thinking or simple malice biases the United States to contain China. In other words, the island-chain concept expresses deep Chinese misgivings toward the United States and its alliance system in Asia. And because Beijing conceives of the island chains as siege lines obstructing China’s access to the common, their existence pits rival great powers against each other in a geostrategic struggle.
While the policy community in the United States remains divided over the geostrategic importance of Taiwan, the notion that the island is imbued with strategic and military value is uncontroversial on the mainland. Indeed, the intersection of geography and strategy is central to many Chinese narratives about the first island chain and Taiwan’s place in it. The Science of Military Strategy, a book China watchers widely hail as authoritative, captures the essence of this geostrategic line of reasoning. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, coeditors of the 2005 edition, warn:
If Taiwan should be alienated from the mainland, not only our natural maritime defense system would lose its depth, opening a sea gateway to the outside forces, but also a large area of water territory and rich reserves of ocean resources will fall into the hands of others. What’s more, our line of foreign trade and transportation which is vital to China’s opening up and economic development will be exposed to the surveillance and threats of separatist and enemy forces, and China will forever be locked to the west side of the first chain of islands in the West Pacific. As a result, China’s national security will be confronted with serious threat and the essential strategic space for China’s rejuvenation will be lost.
Reunifying with Taiwan, then, involves far more than sovereignty and national dignity, the motives Westerners commonly impute to China. Taiwan’s return to mainland rule would buttress China’s strategic position, broaden access to resources and trade, and brighten prospects for restoring China’s rightful standing in Asia. Other Chinese analysts have elaborated in detail on Taiwan’s geostrategic qualities listed above. Many view Taiwan as an organic and indispensable component of China’s maritime frontier that overlaps with the first island chain.
This is neither a novel nor a peculiarly communist way of thinking about Taiwan. In 1947 the supreme leader of China’s Nationalist Party, Chiang Kai-shek, bewailed the Chinese heartland’s poverty of natural defenses. Because of this, outlying territories, including Formosa, were “strategic regions for safeguarding the nation’s existence; to lop off any one of them from China is to destroy her national defense.” Frontier defenses were indivisible for Chiang. Compromising any section of the ramparts brought down the whole edifice.
The 2013 edition of Science of Military Strategy is less explicit than its predecessor about Taiwan’s geographical significance. Perhaps the coauthors, a team from the AMS’ Military Strategy Department, regard the island’s standing in China’s maritime strategy as self-evident and feel no need to restate the obvious. Whatever the case, they are no less explicit about Taiwan’s strategic significance to China. They opine that the “U.S. strategy of ‘containing China with Taiwan’” remains unchanged, and that the protracted Taiwan controversy has become a “major factor that ties down and consumes China’s strategic resources in politics, the economy, and the military.” They depict the unresolved quarrel as “a long-term hidden danger obstructing the Chinese nation from realizing its great revival.”32 Taiwan, then, represents both an implement of latter-day American containment and a barrier blocking China from fulfilling its dream of national revival.
Some commentators employ geometry to elucidate Taiwan’s strategic geography. In a study sponsored by the China Institute for International Strategic Studies, for instance, Wang Wei depicts Taiwan in precise geometric terms. Along China’s 18,000-kilometer coastline, the Shandong Peninsula, Taiwan, and Hainan Island constitute the maximum seaward extensions of Chinese territory. The distance from Taiwan’s Kaohsiung to the tip of the Shandong Peninsula and to Yulin in Hainan is roughly the same, about 1,400 kilometers. Wang views the three “protruding points” as aligning to form China’s maritime defense perimeter in the shape of an isosceles triangle. Taiwan is at the apex of this triangle, positioned astride China’s north-south line of communications.
In theory, military assets based on Shandong, Taiwan, and Hainan could render one another mutual support, expanding coverage throughout the China seas or beyond. Should Beijing abandon efforts to regain Taiwan, two analysts at the PLA University of Foreign Languages warn, “China’s maritime defenses would be cut into two pieces while our navy would be forced to operate separately in the two seas, unable to provide mutual support.” Zhang Shirong of the Central Party School concurs: “Once Hainan Island loses mutual support from Taiwan Island, the defense of the Spratly Islands would erode, making the protection of sea rights in the Spratlys far more difficult.” A triangular arrangement bereft of its apex accomplishes little in martial terms.
As a geographic marker, the Taiwan Strait also exposes the asymmetric structure of China’s seaborne commerce. If Quanzhou, near the Taiwan Strait’s midpoint, is used to divide China’s coastline along its north–south axis, then ten of the mainland’s sixteen major ports lie to the north. But while China’s ports lie mainly to the north, three of the four main international trading routes—bound for markets in Southeast Asia and Oceania, Europe, and South America, respectively—generally head southward from these northern harbors. By implication, Taiwan’s return to mainland rule would restore balance to China’s economic access points and the flow of seaborne trade.
Other commentators speculate that retaking the island would grant China a commanding position over the near seas while guaranteeing direct military access to the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, possession of Taiwan would open the way for Chinese forces to look and operate beyond the first island chain. If the island chain looks like a Great Wall in reverse, then regaining Taiwan would open a breach in the wall while lodging the PLA firmly at its midpoint, thus opening a secure sally port into the Pacific. According to Senior Captain Li Jie: “Possessing Taiwan would enable one to effectively control the strategic choke points between the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Possessing Taiwan opens an advantageous waterway to the interior seas of the second island chain while opening a convenient path to the high seas. As such, Taiwan Island serves an important function as the central pivot of the first island chain.”
Zhu Tingchang of the PLA’s Institute of International Relations vividly describes the geostrategic value of Taiwan: “For China to develop in the Pacific, it must charge out of the first island chain. And the key to charging out of the first island chain is Taiwan. Taiwan is China’s front gate to the Pacific. If the Taiwan question is not resolved, then it is akin to a lock around the neck of a great dragon.” Hyperbole aside, Zhu’s view of Taiwan as China’s portal to the Pacific is widely shared.
But more than just access to the oceans is at stake. Many strategists consider Taiwan the lynchpin of U.S. containment strategy in Asia. Returning it to China’s sovereignty would undo that malign strategy, wresting away the strategic advantages Taiwan bestows on the United States while helping defeat Western efforts at containment. Shi Chunlin and Li Xiuying, in fact, believe that restoring the renegade province to China’s rule would dismember the postwar architecture of American power in Asia: “Solving the Taiwan problem and fulfilling China’s reunification is the most central strategic choice for breaking the three main island chains, especially the first island chain binding China. Because Taiwan is located at the center of the first island chain, it is the important strategic base point for guarding the South China and East China Seas. At the same time, the island is the chain link located closest to our mainland shore and plays an important role as an intermediate hub along the entire stretch of the first island chain.”
Shi and Li predict the various strategic effects that unification would produce in maritime Asia in evocative language: “Taiwan’s unification with the Chinese mainland would snap the central waist of the first island chain that the United States and its allies have so carefully constructed. It would also substantially reduce the strategic value of the Ryukyu Islands, which are strategically interdependent with Taiwan. This would mean that the first island chain would completely collapse as an American and allied instrument for blockading China. The United States would have no choice but to retreat to the second island chain.”
In other words, the two authors maintain that China can render Japan’s southern flank untenable by taking Taiwan and severing the first island chain in half. Doing so would subject the southwestern islands and the Senkakus to withering Chinese pressure. Shi and Li also prophesy a breakdown in the U.S. forward presence in Asia following unification, including withdrawals from South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. They leave unsaid why losing Taiwan would compel the United States to fall back to Guam, but they clearly see cross-strait unification as the trigger for a cascading failure of the U.S.-led alliance system.
Carl von Clausewitz distinguishes between “negative aim” campaigns and “positive aim” campaigns. The first denies an enemy its strategic goals; the second strives for positive strategic gain. Union with Taiwan would accomplish the negative aim of nullifying American containment while advancing the positive aims of ensuring access to the Pacific Ocean and applying pressure on U.S. allies. This adds up to a compelling brief on behalf of retaking the island.
Japan: The Northern Anchor
The lengthy Japanese archipelago north of Taiwan bestrides the strategic intersection between the maritime interests of rival great powers. As Zhang Songfeng of the PLA’s Institute of International Relations observes, “The maritime lifeline that Japan depends upon for its imports and exports is also the only passageway for China’s eastward entry into the Pacific, the United States’ westward entry into East Asia, and Russia’s southward movement.”
Liu Baoyin and Yang Xiaomei call on the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 to explain how Japanese geography molds great-power struggles in Northeast Asia. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) exploited Japan’s advantageous geographic position to keep Russia’s Asiatic squadrons divided and confined to Port Arthur and Vladivostok. St. Petersburg’s inability to concentrate its fleet, they argue, supplied a key ingredient in Tokyo’s victory.
Describing the Japanese islands as an “impassable maritime great wall,” Liu and Yang further contend that the archipelago’s proximity to eastern Eurasia enables Japan-based forces to project power throughout the Yellow Sea or East China Sea or deep into the Asian continent. They observe that “the combat radius of advanced fighters launched from bases on the Japanese home islands could reach the interior of East Asia. Warships that sortie from Japanese ports could conduct operations along the East Asian littoral without refueling en route.”
Japan, then, forms a segment of a wall that commands offensive—not just defensive—potential for its holders. That being the case, the Japanese archipelago, home to the combined military power of the U.S.-Japan alliance, figures prominently in Chinese assessments of the American forward presence in Asia. Feng Liang and Duan Tingzhi argue that “from a comparative perspective of maritime power in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan’s current oceanic security strategy relies on an oceanic alliance based on Japan-U.S. sea power cooperation as its backstop. Whether it is measured by oceanic comprehensive national power or by naval capabilities, both countries are superior to China. Moreover, both possess favorable geographic advantages arising from island chain encirclement, a posture that can easily pressure China from the oceanic direction.” Feng and Duan clearly see a strategic bloc possessed of the resolve, capability, and geographic position to frustrate China’s maritime ambitions. Small wonder that they hope to eliminate the first island chain as a geostrategic weapon of the democracies.
Geopolitically minded commentators pay special attention to the Ryukyu Islands, which arc insolently from the Japanese home islands toward Taiwan. From an economic perspective, Chinese shipping depends heavily on the Osumi and Miyako Straits. The vast majority of seaborne traffic connecting Shanghai, Ningbo, and Hong Kong to markets in the United States and Canada passes through Osumi, a narrow sea located just south of Kyushu. It offers the most direct path to the great circle route, cutting transit distances by more than one thousand kilometers. Approximately a quarter of U.S.-China trade goes by this route. Indeed, Osumi is a preferred gateway even for southern Chinese ports. By contrast, merchant shipping bearing Chinese goods to Oceania and Central and South America frequently transits the Miyako Strait. For China, then, the Ryukyus are central both to coastwise trade within Asia and to trade across the Pacific Ocean.
From a military perspective, some fret that this crescent-shaped archipelago essentially closes off China from the Pacific. As Zhang Xiaowen notes, “The seas surrounding Japan’s so-called ‘Southwest Islands’ (referring to the large and small islands of Miyakojima, Ishigakijima, and the Senkakus southwest of Okinawa) constitute an important passageway constrained by the island chain that the Chinese navy must break through to enter the oceans.” Notably, Guo Yadong of the PLAN’s Naval Studies Institute justified the April 2010 transit of a ten-ship PLAN flotilla through the Ryukyus on concrete military grounds. Rapid advances in precision-guided weaponry, the need to train realistically under complex meteorological and electromagnetic conditions, and the requirement to bolster logistics on the open ocean all demand access to the high seas. For these reasons, exclaims Guo, “the Chinese navy’s march to the deep blue must shatter the bottleneck of the first island chain.”
Furthermore, the Ryukyu island chain constitutes a major staging area for American military power in the western Pacific. Professor Shen Weilie of the PLA’s NDU regards Okinawa as the “forward position” of a U.S. “westward strategy” in Asia. He notes that cities such as Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Xiamen lie within striking distance of the island, while U.S. forces could monitor or blockade the Osumi and Miyako Straits from there. Chinese strategists are also frank about the operational importance of this island perimeter to Japan during a cross-strait conflict. Aviation units forward-deployed along the Ryukyu chain, contends Li Zhi, would play a critical part in contesting PLA control of air and sea. Chinese analysts thus carefully track the military disposition of the Japan Self-Defense Force along the Ryukyus.
Japan, in short, constitutes a fortified barrier to China’s access to the western Pacific, and thence to the national greatness underlying the Chinese Dream. Puncturing that barrier through the narrow seas is pivotal as China strives toward lasting prosperity and influence.
The Korean Peninsula: The “Half Island”
Chinese definitions of the first island chain typically leave out the Korean Peninsula, much as Dean Acheson left the peninsula outside his American defense perimeter of the Pacific. After all, it is not an island. Korea nevertheless qualifies as a “half island,” surrounded as it is on three sides by the Yellow Sea, the Korea Strait, and the Sea of Japan. Though appended to eastern Eurasia, Korea inhabits an intensely nautical environment where local great powers converge and sometimes collide. Koreans refer to their homeland ruefully as “a shrimp among whales.” Its west coast bounds the Yellow Sea, while just 193 kilometers of water separate North Korea from the Shandong Peninsula. The east coast faces the Sea of Japan, home to the Russian Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok and Japan’s escort flotilla in Maizuru. One of Japan’s main islands, Kyushu, lies roughly 161 kilometers off South Korea’s southeastern coast. These are cramped quarters for sure.
None of this is lost on Chinese commentators. The Korea Strait, which divides South Korea and Kyushu, stands out for its economic and strategic importance to China. The strait not only facilitates communications between the east and west coasts of Korea, but also connects the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, and the East China Sea. Seagoing Chinese trade must pass through the Korea Strait to reach Pusan and Vladivostok as well as Fukuoka and other Japanese coastal cities fronting on the Sea of Japan. Some freighters bound for North American seaports also pass through the strait to reach the great circle route. And if climate change opens new Arctic routes to Chinese shipping, cutting voyage distances and therefore costs, the Korea Strait could witness a substantial increase in mercantile traffic.
Strategically, Korea’s Jeju Island guards the strait’s western end while Japan’s Tsushima, Fukue, and Iki Islands form a menacing arc along the waterway’s eastern approaches. Major U.S. naval bases in Japan and South Korea surround the strait, including the bases at Sasebo, Pusan, and Chinhae. In 1986, during the late stages of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy identified the Korea Strait as one of sixteen invaluable choke points in the world. That it represents Northeast Asia’s only strategically crucial passageway has not escaped notice in Chinese circles.
Unsurprisingly, then, Chinese commentators see the Korea Strait as another location where the United States and its allies could bring pressure to bear against China. In an oblique reference to the United States, Guo Rui and Li Qiaoqian of Jilin University vouchsafe that “the Korean Peninsula’s current importance to China lies in its role as the strategic frontier of the hostile maritime power. Preventing the Korean Peninsula from falling completely into the adversary’s hands or becoming the hostile power’s strategic maritime passageway is very important to effectively protecting China’s national security.” Shi Chunlin and Li Xiuying, cited previously, are even more explicit about American power and intentions: “Thus far, the United States and its allies command the seas of the Korea Strait. In times of armed confrontation or war in Northeast Asia, they will very likely engage in blockade, cutting off navigation routes. As such, China must quickly build up its navy and strengthen its maritime deterrent power to safeguard the passage of Chinese shipping through the Korea Strait.”
Beyond the Korea Strait, the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea could also shackle China’s options in the Yellow Sea. Liu Feiguo and Zheng Fang, two scholars at the Naval University of Engineering, warn:
The United States, through the U.S.-Korea-Japan alliance, has engaged in continuous infiltration of China’s Yellow Sea and surrounding waters as an offensive tactic for defensive purposes. The intent is to hold back China’s maritime power behind the first island chain and to check Chinese actions in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. China’s main combatant fleet would face severe challenges as it would lose the maritime communications for operations in the Pacific.
Here again, geography colors how Chinese strategists appraise threats. The Korean half-island and the Japanese archipelago converge on key bodies of water while forming straits near China’s political and economic centers. Whether the U.S.–Japan–South Korea alignment can ever become a coherent strategic unit is dubious at best in light of the two Asian allies’ turbulent past. Nevertheless, Chinese observers find it unsettling that two U.S. allies boasting advanced economies and modern armed forces stand athwart sealanes essential to China’s security and economic health. Sowing disunion among the allies would partly ameliorate this dilemma—and thus represents a strategic imperative for Beijing.