Ju Lang-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles

The PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] has begun replacing its small and aging fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, i. e., five Han-class nuclear-powered attack boats (SSN) and one Xia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile-carrying submarine (SSBN). The first in a new class of SSNs, the Type- 093 Shang-class was launched in 2002 and commissioned in 2006; one additional Type-093 has since also entered service, and some sources estimate that up to eight boats in this class could be built, though other analysts expect that the PLAN will field more advanced Type-095s instead. The PLAN has also launched two new SSBNs of the Type-094 Jin-class, each intended to carry 12 JL- 2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with a range of 7,000 kilometers (three times greater than that of the JL-1 SLBM carried by the Xia) once the JL-2 enters operational readiness.

The Type 094 “Jin” class, is expected to be much more capable overall platform. Similar to other nuclear submarines of Chinese design, this class also experienced reactor problems at first. Four boats are reportedly operational, but are expected to remain without ballistic missiles until the ongoing trials of the intercontinental-range JL-2 ballistic missile system are completed. This missile is predicted to have a range of 7,000-8,000 km and could reach targets in Alaska or India from positions in the Yellow or South China Seas. However, due to the missile’s unknown operational status as of October 2014, it is not entirely clear whether China already has a fully functioning sea-based nuclear deterrent capability in place. Given the Cold War era SSBN requirements listed above, providing the necessary technologies is obviously only a minor part of the conditions that need to be fulfilled to reach this goal. Rigorous crew training, regular exercises, and extended global patrols would need to be continuously demonstrated in order for China to match the criteria set by the U. S. Navy.

Compared to other types of warships, reliable information about technical performance data on Chinese nuclear submarines is even harder to come by through open sources. In order to arrive at plausible estimations regarding the maximum level of quieting reached by a submarine design, photographic evidence can be used at least to some degree. Bell describes a method of `visual qualitative analysis comparison’ for making noise level estimations of the Type 094 class: The proper approach involves breaking down the images into separate hydrodynamic design categories. By looking at obvious design factors, including shape, skin friction (sail/surface), flood openings, and propellers a better assessment can be made. […] In addition, utilizing estimated speed to complement these factors would help narrow the sound estimate. Overall, many design features found on acquired technologies from advanced submarine builders, such as the French and Russians, should be considered in use on the Type 094. When discussing these features separately, Bell concludes that “[t]he additional height needed for the JL-2 missile certainly imposes noise penalties.” The shape of the submarine is not optimal as a result of a need to accommodate the missile. All in all, Bell expects the Type 094 class to be markedly more noisy than e. g. the U. S. Ohio class SSBN:

Overall, based on visual qualitative analysis comparison, the Type 094 is likely much louder than the super quiet Ohio. It has a large sail, deviates from the ideal shape, and includes vents. An advanced propeller will mitigate, but not eradicate these problems. However, this is not to say that the Type 094 is going to be a loud platform overall; it is likely a small step ahead of the Delta III SSBN. It is important to consider that the average speed of an SSBN on station is less than five knots; comparisons made in terms of attack boats, which travel in excess of 15 knots have limited applicability. According to reports, the Delta III registered between 125-130 dB at 4-8 knots, the likely speed of an SSBN on patrol. Considering modern propeller design, this correlates with certain Chinese reports, which argue that the Type 094’s acoustic signature was 120 dB (Bell 2009: 34-35).

Regarding a classification of noise levels, Bell notes: “According to E.V. Miasnikov, Senior Research Scientist [. . .] at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, a very quiet submarine registers about 100 dB, a quiet submarine about 120 dB, and a loud submarine about 140 dB. If the Type 094 puts out 120 dB at sea, it will be very difficult to track. When the limitations of using one platform (SSNs) to track the Type 094 are considered, the United States Navy will have to make adjustments”

Given the practical difficulties of tracking SSBNs en route, the Type 094 class is thus likely to be a relatively capable and quiet submarine that will effectively provide China with a survivable sea-based nuclear deterrent if adequate training and mission competency can be achieved. Moreover, according to Bell, the submarine was “released at the opportune moment in United States anti-submarine warfare (ASW) decline”. After the end of the Cold War, ASW skills in many countries including the U. S. gradually deteriorated due to decreasing emphasis and practice. Citing Christopher McConnaughy, Chief of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile Quality Assurance at the United States Strategic Command, Bell notes that nuclear attack submarines are the only platforms capable of continuously tracking SSBN at sea. He further adds:

Once at sea there are a limited number of platforms capable of finding and tracking an SSBN on patrol. There is no guarantee that these platforms will actually find the SSBN, only a probability. The more assets and efforts used, the higher the probability of detection and tracking.

Effective tracking, moreover, requires the integrated use of cues from very diverse sources of information such as “satellite imagery, antisubmarine aircraft, and fixed, passive underwater acoustic arrays”.

Under these circumstances, it is easy to see why the Chinese leadership decided to build a submarine base at Hainan island that provides nuclear submarines with direct access to deeper waters from underwater tunnels drilled into the rock. It is also apparent why China did not publicly announce the building of that base before it was discovered in satellite images published by Jane’s in 2008 (cf. `Secret Sanya’ 2008). The strategic advantages of such a base for China’s nuclear submarines are obvious: “[I]f China bases the Type 094 from this Island, in port satellite imagery becomes impossible”

According to latest source, 094 SSBN armed with JL-2 missiles began deterrent patrol in 2015. The United States Department of Defense believes the missile will give the PLA Navy “its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.”

As of 2017, 48 JL-2 launchers are deployed on submarines. As of 2018, China is developing the JL-3 as a future replacement.

China continues to produce the JIN-class SSBN, with four commissioned and at least one other under construction. China’s JIN SSBNs, which are equipped to carry up to 12 CSS-N-14 (JL-2) SLBMs, are the country’s first viable sea-based nuclear deterrent.

The problems resulting from China’s narrow and shallow territorial waters are most relevant for submarine operations but also affect naval surface vessels, at least to some degree. The defining characteristic of the submarine as a naval weapon system is, after all, its ability to hide from enemy view. This ability is compromised in shallow waters, at least for transiting submarines, because “[t]he deeper the submarine can go the bigger the volume of sea it can hide in”. Shallow waters are also difficult terrain to navigate safely, especially for larger submarines such as China’s giant new Jin class SSBN. At over 130 m in length, its hull diameter must be large enough to accommodate the JL-2 missile, which is about 13 m long. Shallow waters therefore not only make such vessels vulnerable to detection, but also to accidental grounding.

China’s next-generation Type 096 SSBN, reportedly to be armed with the follow-on JL-3 SLBM, will likely begin construction in the early-2020s. Based on the 40-plus-year service life of China’s first-generation SSNs, China will operate its JIN and Type 096 SSBN fleets concurrently.




The Sand Pebbles is an American adventure epic/war film directed and produced by Robert Wise. Based on the 1962 novel of the same title by Richard McKenna, the film tells the story of a U.S. Navy machinist’s mate (played by Steve McQueen) aboard the fictional gunboat USS San Pablo in 1920s China: a country in the throes of anti-Western fervor and civil strife.


In 1953, following a 22-year career in the U.S. Navy as a chief machinist mate, Richard McKenna (1913–1964) undertook a second career as a writer. After dabbling in science fiction, McKenna wrote his only novel: The Sand Pebbles, a 597-page epic about the travails of an American gunboat on China’s Yangtze River in 1926 (McKenna had served on such a gunboat, but a decade later, in 1936). The book proved to be a huge hit: a condensed version was serialized in three issues of the Saturday Evening Post in November 1962; it won the $10,000 1963 Harper Prize Novel, was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and became a national bestseller. Furthermore, McKenna sold the movie rights to United Artists (UA) for $300,000 ($2.4 million in 2017 dollars). Shortly thereafter 20th Century Fox acquired the rights from UA and studio head Darryl F. Zanuck greenlit the project for producer-director Robert Wise in September 1962. The search for suitable filming locations in Asia, script writing, and other pre-production work would keep the project on hold for another three years. Paul Newman was tapped for the lead role of Jake Holman but turned it down. Teen crooner Pat Boone lobbied hard for it but it finally went to Steve McQueen (who was paid $650,000), after he achieved true stardom in John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963). A former Marine with a rebellious streak and lover of all things mechanical, McQueen was perfectly suited to play a feisty Navy machinist mate. When Julie Christie turned down the role of Shirley Eckert, it went to Candice Bergen (who was just 19). Richard Attenborough (an Englishman playing an American who had appeared with McQueen in The Great Escape), Mako (a Japanese American actor playing a Chinese man), and Richard Crenna (in his first major film role) filled out the rest of the main cast. Pre-production work on The Sand Pebbles included the construction of the movie’s most important and expensive prop: the San Pablo, a 150-foot, steel-hulled gunboat closely modeled on the USS Villalobos (PG-42), an 1898 gunboat captured from Spain during the Spanish-American War and used on Yangtze River patrol from 1903 to 1928. Built in Hong Kong by Vaughn & Yung Engineering Ltd. at a cost of $250,000, the San Pablo was powered by reliable Cummins diesel engines, not a period steam engine liable to break down and cause production delays. The San Pablo emitted black smoke from her smokestack that came from old tires and other rubbish burned in a special compartment on the boat. Jake Holman’s beloved engine—a working 20-ton, 1,000-horsepower, triple expansion steam engine built by Vickers in 1920 and salvaged from a Norwegian whaler in Vancouver, British Columbia—was actually located in an engine room set built on Stage 16 at 20th Century Fox studios in Burbank, not on the San Pablo.


Shooting in mainland China, where the novel was set, was out of the question, so much of The Sand Pebbles was filmed on the Keelung and Tam Sui Rivers at Taipei, on the island of Taiwan. The narrow, crowded streets of Taipei were used for street scenes supposedly taking place in Shanghai, San Pablo’s home port. In the Tamsui district of Taipei, 900 of the 5,000 locals were recruited as extras to storm across the “Changsha Bund” and hurl lighted torches at the San Pablo. Po-Han’s poignant death scene was also filmed in Tamsui. Filming on Taiwan lasted four and a half months (22 November 1965–21 March 1966). The company then moved on to Hong Kong to film the movie’s climactic fight between the San Pablo and 30 Chinese junks blockading it, supposedly on the Chien River in mainland China, but it was actually shot on a narrow inlet in Hong Kong’s Sai Kung district—the massive 1,000-foot bamboo rope that linked the junks together weighed 25 tons. Filming of the battle scene, which took two months, was completed 15 May 1966. The 135-person cast and crew then returned to California to shoot interior scenes at the studio in Burbank and some additional exteriors at Malibu Creek State Park in Calabasas in June and July. The grueling nine-month shoot was finally concluded on 2 August 1966 at the USS Texas, near Houston, where what was supposed to have been the film’s opening scene was shot (i.e., Jake’s departure from an American battleship in Shanghai harbor). Included in a test rough cut, that scene and some other scenes ended up on the cutting room floor in order to trim the film’s running time from 196 minutes down to 182 minutes. Due to production delays, mostly caused by inclement weather but also due to the language barrier in Taiwan, unpredictable tides, etc., the film greatly exceeded its $8 million budget, coming in at $12 million. Steve McQueen was so exhausted that he took a year off to rest.

Plot Summary

In 1926, Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) transfers to the Yangtze River Patrol gunboat USS San Pablo (nicknamed the “Sand Pebble” and its sailors are dubbed “Sand Pebbles”). The officers have hired coolies to do most of the routine work, leaving the sailors free for military drills or just lounging about. An industrious individualist and avid mechanic, Holman takes over the operation and maintenance of the ship’s engine—inadvertently insulting the chief engine room coolie, Chien (Tommy Lee) in the process. Holman also alienates most of his fellow sailors, who are lazy, but he does become close friends with a watertender named Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough). Holman discovers a serious problem with a crank bearing on the boat’s engine and informs the captain, Lt. Collins (Richard Crenna), but Collins refuses to have it repaired until his executive officer declares an emergency. Chien asks to complete the repair and is accidentally crushed to death when a jack slips. The chief coolie, Lop-eye Shing (Henry Wang), blames Holman, believing that a “ghost in the machine” killed Chien. Holman selects Po-Han (Mako) as a replacement for Chien, and the two men soon become friends. Po-Han is harassed by “Ski” Stawski (Simon Oakland), a brutish sailor, and the two box while the rest of the crew places bets on the outcome. Po-Han wins the fight, creating greater friction between Holman and the other crew members. Lt. Collins orders the crew to refrain from any hostilities with the Chinese, as they don’t want to add fuel to the propaganda fire. The boat embarks, but Po-Han is sent ashore to avenge Chien’s death. Po-Han is run down, taken captive, and tortured by Chinese peasants while the crew watches from the boat. The Chinese refuse to release Po-Han, and Collins shoots him to relieve his suffering. The San Pablo moors on the Xiang River due to low water levels, and Lt. Collins begins to fear a mutiny. Frenchy dies from pneumonia after too many swims ashore to visit his new wife Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan). Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) army soldiers locate Holman as he tries to comfort Maily, beat him, and drag the grieving woman away. The next day, the Chinese claim that Holman has “murdered” Maily and her unborn baby and demand that he is turned in as a criminal. The crew worries for their safety and asks Homan to surrender, but then Collins shocks the Chinese with a gunshot to their boat, and Holman is left alone. In the spring, Collins begins river patrols anew, but is then ordered back to the Yangtze River. Before heading to his new post, Collins steams upstream to rescue Jameson (Larry Gates), an idealistic missionary and his schoolteacher assistant, Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), from their remote China Light Mission. After a good deal of fighting between the sailors and the Chinese near Dongting Lake, Collins leads three sailors, including Holman, ashore. Jameson does not want to be rescued, claiming that Eckert and he have renounced their U.S. citizenship and are committed to their post. Collins orders Holman to evacuate Eckert and Jameson, but just as Holman declares that he is going to stay with them, Jameson is suddenly killed by Nationalist soldiers in a surprise attack. Collins is killed trying to provide cover for Holman, leaving him in command. He tearfully parts from Eckert and is then fatally wounded right as he goes to join the others on his boat. His last bewildered words are: “I was home [free] … what happened … what the hell happened?” as the San Pablo sails away.


Four years in the works, The Sand Pebbles finally premiered on 20 December 1966. Proving a hit at the box office, the film grossed $30 million ($226.4 million in 2017 dollars). It received seven Oscar nominations, eight Golden Globe nominations, and one win (a Golden Globe for Richard Attenborough as Best Supporting Actor). Reviews were, however, mixed. Philip K. Scheuer called it “a stirring movie … adventure on the grand scale” (Scheuer, 1966). Richard Schickel found The Sand Pebbles to be “a clumsy and lumbering film, but it has a way of haunting the corners of your mind, as historical footnotes are sometimes wont to do” (Schickel, 1967). Many reviewers complained about the film’s sheer length; at 3 hours it was judged too long to be consistently engaging.

Reel History Versus Real History

Having served in the China River Patrol in 1936, novelist Richard McKenna brought a good deal of authenticity to The Sand Pebbles in his rendition of daily life on an American gunboat plying the waters of the Yangtze River in pre-revolutionary China. The novel is set between June 1925 and June 1926, whereas the film is set in 1926–1927, but both settings encompass a particularly volatile moment in China’s modern history: a time when the country was a powder keg, seething with anti-imperialist ardor and internecine political conflict. During the setting of the novel, the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party of China) was in the throes of a power vacuum following the death of its founder, Sun Yat-sen, in March 1925. On 5 June 1926 Chiang Kai-shek was named commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA). Five weeks later he finally launched Sun’s long-delayed Northern Expedition, aimed at conquering the northern warlords and uniting China under the KMT. Chiang disapproved of Sun Yat-sen’s alliance with the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of China (CPC) but he still needed Soviet aid, so he could not break up the alliance at that time. The film shifts the novel’s temporal framework forward about a year and distills and streamlines McKenna’s fictional saga, but still manages to capture the politically explosive political climate, an uneasy time for gunboats of foreign powers on the Yangtze, with their very presence stirring intense resentment among Chinese nationalists and communists sick and tired of “gunboat diplomacy,” that is, thinly disguised imperialist intervention. The culminating attack on the USS San Pablo may have been inspired by the so-called “USS Panay incident” (12 December 1937), when Japanese forces invading China bombed, strafed, and sank a U.S. gunboat on the Yangtze River, killing 3 and wounding 43, a sinking that caused a diplomatic rift between the United States and Japan and presaged Pearl Harbor. The plot element involving the killing of missionary Jameson at China Light Mission may have been inspired by the killing of American Christian missionaries John and Betty Stam (8 December 1934) by Chinese communists during the Chinese Civil War. Another possible antecedent: the “China Martyrs of 1900”: hundreds of American and European Christian missionaries and converts who were killed during the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901). One final note: a number of film critics erroneously assumed that The Sand Pebbles was meant to be an implicit critique of American intervention in Southeast Asia—the Vietnam War was in full swing when the film came out at the end of 1966—but that was never Richard McKenna’s intention when he published the book in 1962, or the intention of the filmmakers four years later.

The Naval Arms Race in the South China Sea

Chinese military assets in the South China Sea.

While it is difficult to discern China’s intentions regarding the use of force in the South China Sea, one thing can be stated with certainty: Beijing has systematically bolstered the capabilities of its navy, transforming a large but unimpressive coastal-defense fleet into a significant deep-water force. While the PLA navy (PLAN) still retains many small coastal vessels, it also boasts a growing flotilla of large, oceangoing warships equipped with modern Russian and Western missile systems. This, in turn, has helped spur other states in the region to build up their own naval capabilities. As a result, Southeast Asia now finds itself embroiled in a naval arms race that shows little sign of slowing down.

The transformation of the PLAN began in the mid-1980s, following a decision by the Central Military Committee to shift the emphasis of Chinese military planning from all-out war with the Soviet Union to regional conflict on China’s southern and eastern periphery. Under the leadership of Admiral Liu Huaqing, commander in chief of the PLAN from 1982 to 1987, the navy embraced a strategy of “offshore active defense,” which bolstered its capacity for sustained combat operations on the high seas.56 According to Liu, implementation of “offshore active defense” meant that “the Chinese Navy should exert effective control of the seas within the first island chain”—that is, the waters bounded on the east by the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo (and encompassing the East and South China Seas).

To exercise such control, Beijing has had to replace its older, Korean War—vintage vessels with modern warships capable of operating on the high seas for extended periods of time. Lacking many of the technologies to accomplish this, China has sought to acquire Western electronics and missiles for ships produced in its domestic shipyards while turning to Russia for transfers of ready-made warships. Since 1985, the PLAN has introduced two new classes of surface combatants: the Luhu-class destroyer and the Jiangwei-class missile frigate, both of which are furnished with advanced Western navigation gear and, in the case of the Luhu, the French-built Crotale surface-to-air missile. To further expand its high-seas combat power, Beijing has purchased two fully equipped Sovremenny-class destroyers from Russia and is considering the acquisition of two more.

The Chinese have also procured other systems intended for use in offshore power projection. These include several types of amphibious assault vessels plus a variety of naval support ships. To provide these vessels with adequate air cover, China has purchased several dozen Su-27 Flanker combat planes from Russia and plans to build another hundred or so in domestic factories. (Significantly, the first group of Su-27s were deployed on Hainan Island, on the edge of the South China Sea.) China has also sought air-refueling technology from Iran and Russia and is exploring the development (with Russia) of a modern aircraft carrier.

It is no doubt true that these moves are motivated, at least in part, by China’s determination to regain control over Taiwan—through force if necessary. Obviously, naval and amphibious forces of these types would be needed for any Chinese attempt to invade and occupy Taiwan. At the same time, it is evident from official government statements and from the actual deployment of Chinese forces that Beijing also intends to use them in southern waters, to enforce Chinese claims to the Spratlys and associated drilling areas. This is evident, for example, in the basing of Su-27s on Hainan Island and in the rotation of modern warships in and out of the area. Whatever China’s ultimate intentions, other states in the region have interpreted the Chinese naval buildup as a drive for military dominance in the South China Sea, and have built up their own forces accordingly.

As recently as fifteen years ago, the nations of Southeast Asia possessed few deep-sea warships. Since the late 1980s, however, these countries have engaged in costly efforts to equip their navies with modern vessels capable of operating on the high seas. Although intended for a variety of purposes, these ships are clearly designed to provide their owners with a capacity to protect vital sea-lanes and their extensive EEZs in the South China Sea.

Leading the way is Malaysia. An increasingly affluent nation of 24 million people, Malaysia has sought to develop the largest and most potent navy in Southeast Asia. In 1995, it purchased four fully equipped missile corvettes from Fincantieri of Italy; originally built for Iraq (but never delivered because of successive arms embargoes), these 750-ton vessels are armed with a 76mm gun and Otomat antiship missiles. Malaysia has also acquired two F-2000 frigates from Yarrow Shipbuilders of Glasgow and fitted them with a panoply of advanced European gun and missile systems. And, in its most ambitious project yet, Malaysia has contracted for the production, in domestic shipyards, of up to twenty-seven Meko-100 patrol ships, making this the largest multiship naval construction program now under way in Asia.

Thailand and Indonesia, in differing ways, have also endeavored to assemble a significant deep-sea navy. Thailand has sought prominence by acquiring the region’s first aircraft carrier, the Chakri Naruebet. Built by EN Bazán of Spain, the 11,500-ton, $360 million carrier is intended to carry up to twelve medium helicopters or fifteen vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) planes. The Thais have also purchased two Knox-class frigates from the United States and three 545-ton patrol boats from Australia. Indonesia, meanwhile, attempted to jump-start its naval expansion plans by buying the entire navy of the former East Germany. Included in this thirty-nine ship deal, concluded after German reunification in 1991, were sixteen corvettes, nine minesweepers, and a variety of support ships. On top of this, Indonesia has purchased six surplus frigates from the Netherlands and three from the United Kingdom.

Even the smaller states of the region have invested in new naval capabilities. Singapore, with a population of only three million, has acquired six Victory-class missile corvettes from Germany and is building a fleet of twelve Fearless-class offshore patrol vessels; the Philippines has acquired two ex—Royal Navy patrol boats from the former British naval base at Hong Kong; and Brunei has ordered three missile-armed corvettes from Yarrow Shipbuilders in Scotland.

While it may be some years before all of these efforts reach fruition, the various naval acquisition programs now under way in China and Southeast Asia will add as many as one hundred new surface combatants to the rosters of regional powers over the next ten to fifteen years—a buildup unmatched in any other area of the world. The escalation of the naval arms race is accompanied, moreover, by significant additions to the region’s air forces: all of these countries have acquired long-range patrol planes, as well as fighter craft equipped with sophisticated antiair and antiship missile systems. These and other initiatives have substantially enhanced the ability of these states to conduct sustained military operations on and above the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is not the only area in East and Southeast Asia where armed conflict could erupt over the possession or flow of vital oil and gas supplies. For example, tension between China and Japan may increase over possession of the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku in Japanese), a group of uninhabited reefs and islets in the East China Sea that have been the site of low-key air and naval clashes over the past few years. (Like the Spratlys, these islands are of interest only insofar as they establish ownership over a large stretch of water that is believed to sit on top of valuable oil and gas deposits.) Conflict could also erupt between Indonesia and its neighbors over the contested Natuna Island area, which sits astride a vast pool of natural gas.

Nevertheless, the South China Sea is the area most likely to witness large-scale warfare, because all of the factors associated with resource conflict are concentrated here. There is the evidence of untapped reserves of oil and natural gas, along with a complex mosaic of overlapping territorial claims. All of the states involved in these disputes seek to maximize their exploitation of maritime resource zones, and all have demonstrated a willingness to employ force in the protection of offshore interests. All, moreover, have beefed up the capabilities of their air and naval forces. On top of this, three of the world’s leading military powers—the United States, China, and Japan—possess vital interests in the area and are prepared to defend these interests with military means if necessary. As with the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, therefore, the South China Sea harbors all of the ingredients for a major military confrontation.

Any such confrontation is likely to commence as a naval incident sparked by competing claims to one of the Spratly Islands. In one such scenario, Chinese warships might sink a Philippine vessel seeking to gain access to Mischief Reef or one of the other Philippine-claimed islands occupied by China. In retaliation, the Philippines would bomb Chinese positions on the islands, provoking Chinese air and missile strikes against military installations in the Philippines. The United States would respond to this crisis by sending an aircraft carrier battle group into the area, intending to intimidate China and preserve the “freedom of the seas.” If China refused to back down under these circumstances and attempted to block the American fleet, a Sino-U.S. conflict might erupt, entailing strikes against each other’s naval forces. From there, one can imagine a wide variety of escalatory steps leading to a much larger regional conflict.

This is by no means the only scenario that would entail a significant risk of escalation in the South China Sea. Increased friction between China and Japan, for example, could lead to the interdiction of Japanese oil tankers by Chinese warships in the area. Such a move might provoke the use of Japanese and, eventually, American warships to repel (or sink) any Chinese vessels engaged in the operation. Fighting between local powers in the Strait of Malacca—the main oil transit route between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea—could also provoke intervention by the United States and/or Japan. In all of these cases, and many others, it is the conspicuous convergence of vital energy, economic, and strategic interests that contributes to the high risk of armed conflict.

The Dutch Attempt to Seize Portuguese Macau

Dutch ships firing their cannons in the waters of Macau, drawn in 1665.

Map of Macau Peninsula in 1639, the city now reinforced with walls and forts

The First Fortifications

At first there were no fortifications in Macau. As mentioned previously, the Chinese were suspicious of Portuguese intentions and were careful to prevent them becoming too strong, and a part of this was their objection to the building of forts. The Portuguese controlled the seas and, whether or not they had colonising intentions, they came to realise that direct conflict with the Chinese was not feasible. They therefore accepted the Chinese demands and appeared to coexist peacefully with them.

Dr. Francisco de Sande reported in 1582 that:

The Portuguese of Macao are still nowadays without any weapons, or form of justice, having a Chinese Mandarin who searches their houses to see if they have any arms and munitions. And because it is a regular town with about 500 houses and there is a Portuguese governor and a bishop therein, they pay every three years to the incoming viceroy of Canton about 100,000 ducats to avoid being expelled from the land, which he divides with the grandees of the household of the king [emperor] of China. However, it is constantly affirmed by everyone that the king has no idea that there are any such Portuguese in his land.

As late as 1598 when Dom Paulo de Portugal protested about the Spanish trading at Pinhal,2 he did not feel able to be too forceful, as Macau was an open unprotected place. However, others were a greater threat to Macau.

Portugal’s geographical proximity to Spain became political after the death of Dom Sebastião in 1576. There was no male heir and, after a short period of uncertainty, the claim of the Habsburg King Philip II of Spain was endorsed by the Cortes which in 1581 proclaimed him king. Thus Spain and Portugal shared the same monarch, although the Portuguese fiercely clung to the notion of the countries remaining separate. One negative effect for Portugal was that Spain’s enemies became Portugal’s. These included the Dutch and English who were both naval powers. They were soon attacking Portuguese vessels and between 1623 and 1636 some five hundred Portuguese ships were lost.

Ships were not their only aim but the colonial territories as well. The Dutch first appeared at Macau in 1601 when a fleet under Admiral van Neck approached. They sent a party to take soundings of the harbour but the Portuguese attacked them and eighteen were hanged and two sent to Goa. That did not stop the Dutch, and they returned two years later when two of their ships opened fire on Macau and plundered and burnt a carrack. The next year a Dutch envoy tried to establish trade with China but the Portuguese influence stopped that, at which the Dutch Admiral van Waerwijk set sail to take Macau. He was halted by a typhoon and then driven off by a fleet of war junks. A report by Captain Matelieff in 1607 to the Dutch government confirmed that there was still a lack of forts and walls.

The Dutch were not the only threat as some of the British adventurers also cast their eyes on Macau, but the Dutch were in greater numbers. The Dutch made plans for taking control of Macau and they estimated this to be an easy task. In the instructions to the Dutch admiral, it was stated that:

Macao was always an open place without a garrison, which, despite of its being provided with a few munitions and some shallow entrenchments, could easily be taken by a force of a thousand or fifteen hundred men and converted into a stronghold which we could defend against the entire world.

However, elsewhere in the same document it is noted that some steps had been taken to fortify the city, albeit that the Chinese were still against such works.

Ever since we and the English have traded with Japan with many ships, the population has been greatly alarmed. The place was therefore strengthened with some bulwarks, and they brought twelve cannon from Manila, whence another five guns are expected. They would gladly fortify the city but the Chinese will not allow it, saying that there will be time enough to do so when the enemy actually appear in sight.

Richard Cocks, writing to his employers, the East India Company in London, on 30 September 1621, confirmed the Dutch assessment, stating that:

It is very certen that with little danger our fleet of defence may take and sack Amacon in China, which is inhabeted by Portingales. For the towne is not fortefied with walls; neither will the King of China suffer them to doe it, nor to make any fortifications, nor mount noe ordinance upon any platforme; and ¾ partes of the inhabetantes are Chinas. And we are credably informed that, these last two yeares, when they did see but two or three of our shipp within sight of the place, they were all ready to runn out of the towne, as I have advized the Precedent and Councell of Defence at Jaccatra; and, had but 2 small shipps, as the Bull and Pepercorne, entred this yeare, they might easily have burnt and taken 17 sale of galliotas which weare at anchor, amongst which weare the 6 galliotas which came into Japan, being then full laden; and, had they taken this fleet, the Portingales trade in these parts of the world is quite spoiled, both for Manillas, Malacca, Goa, and else wheare. And the King of China would gladly be ridd of their neighbourhood; as our frendes which procure our entry for trade into China tell me, and doe say that he wished that we could drive them from thence.

Clearly the Portuguese needed to prepare for an attack and, in spite of the Chinese objections, they took steps to improve their security. The first defensive works were probably in the form of simple bulwarks, using guns that could be spared from the ships. As noted above, cannon were also brought in from Manila and some progress had been made in building proper defensive works to house them. Fei Chengkang notes that between 1608 and 1615 the batteries of São Francisco and Bom Parto had been built to protect the Praya Grande and that there was a battery at the entrance to the Inner Harbour. He also notes that a city wall had been started as early as 1605 in the area north of the Jesuit seminary, although this may have been their boundary wall, albeit built with defence in mind.

The continuing Dutch incursions so alarmed the citizens that in 1612 representatives from Macau went to Canton to argue that fortifications were required to defend the territory against the Dutch. There is no record of the Chinese having given any approval, but in the face of the Dutch menace a decision to fortify Macau was made in 1615. By then, in addition to the batteries noted above, the construction of the fort at the Monte was also well advanced. Francisco Lopes Carrasco was the officer charged with building the extended fortifications. He arrived in 1616 and established his headquarters at the Monte Fort, apparently as a guest of the Jesuits, as at that time it was part of their seminary complex. It is not known what plans he drew up or how much work was completed in the early years. However, there were fortunately some effective batteries in place by 1622.

The 1622 Attack by the Dutch

The early preparations were well justified as in June 1622 a Dutch fleet, under Admiral Cornelis Reijersen, was on its way to take Macau. The preparations for the attack were very thorough. Two hundred and one soldiers on board the fleet were formed into three companies and drilled daily under the command of two captains and an ensign. The sailors were divided into six companies of fifty men each, a total of three hundred. These nine companies of European soldiers and sailors were organised into three detachments —advance-guard, main-guard and rear-guard— each composed of one company of soldiers and two of sailors. The detachments were distinguished by red, green and blue flags and each was provided with six hundred pounds of small shot, six barrels of gunpowder and a surgeon. There were also sixty scaling-ladders, a thousand sandbags and three cannon. In addition to the five hundred Europeans there was a Japanese contingent and some Bandanese and Malays, the whole landing force amounting to about six hundred men.

The fleet arrived in sight of Macau on the 21 June where it was joined by the four ships (two Dutch and two English) of Janszoon’s blockading squadron. Reijersen now found himself at the head of a force of thirteen Dutch ships (Zierickzee, Groeningen, Delft, Gallias, Engelsche Beer, Enchuysen, Palliacatta, Haan, Tiger, Victoria, Santa Cruz, Trouw and Hoop) carrying a force of 1,300 men, so that he was able to reinforce the landing detachment by another hundred Europeans. The two English ships — the Palsgrave and Bull — decided not to participate in the attack, because Reijersen, in accordance with his instructions, refused to allow their crews any share in the expected booty.

On 23 June, to distract attention from the intended landing-place, three of the ships — Groeningen, Gallias and Engelsche Beer, anchored off the São Francisco bulwark, which they heavily bombarded during the afternoon. Apart from some material damage the Portuguese did not suffer any losses. The next day the Dutch ships Groeningen and Gallias resumed and intensified their bombardment of the São Francisco bulwark. The Portuguese gunners replied with equal determination and better success, as the Gallias was so badly crippled that she had to be abandoned and scuttled a few weeks later.

Meantime, about two hours after sunrise, the landing force of eight hundred men embarked in thirty-two launches (equipped with a swivel-gun in the prow) and five barges. They steered for Cacilhas beach to the northeast of the town, protected by fire from the guns of two of the ships. Further protection was provided by the smoke from a barrel of damp gunpowder that had been ignited and placed to windward; one of the earliest recorded instances of the tactical use of a smoke screen. About 150 Portuguese and Eurasian musketeers under the command of Antonio Rodriguez Cavalinho opposed the landing from a shallow trench dug on the beach.

From the start luck favoured the defenders. A musket-shot fired at random into the smoke screen struck the Dutch admiral in the belly, so that he had to be taken back to his flagship at the beginning of the action. This did not deter the Dutch and they were able to establish a beachhead. They disembarked their three field-pieces and the rest of their men without serious opposition. The senior military officer Captain Hans Ruffijn then organised two rear-guard companies to stay on Cacilhas Beach, with a view to covering the withdrawal of the main body if the attack on the town should prove unsuccessful. This done, he resumed the advance with six hundred men.

Ljungstedt quotes from an account of the events in the Senates archives as follows:

The Tocsin was rung: our people flew to assist us. The enemy had nearly passed the hermitage of Guia, when a heavy gun and some of less size were fired at them from the Monte. This salute made them stop and finding that a great number of men were in front, the commander apprehensive of being surrounded, sought some strong hold on the declivity of the mountain at the foot of Guia. Of this movement the Portuguese availed themselves, they attacked the enemy in the rear with so much resolution, that the Dutch threw away standards, arms, everything that they might get quickly back to the bay. The two companies stationed at Casilhas, endeavoured to rally the fugitives, when the Portuguese fell upon them so furiously with fire and sword that the enemy were compelled to seek for safety on board the ships. Many tried to reach the boats by swimming; of them 90 were drowned, and almost as many were slain in the field. The Dutch lost five standards, five drums and a field piece, that had just been landed, and more than a thousand arms. Four Captains were slain, and one taken with seven prisoners. Four Portuguese and two Spaniards, with a few slaves were killed. Some Portuguese slaves, who had behaved bravely and faithfully during the action were emancipated by their masters: the Tsung-tuh of Canton, sent them two hundred piculs of rice.

Surprisingly he does not mention that a lucky cannon-ball from a large bombard in the half-finished citadel of Sao Paulo do Monte, which was served by the Italian Jesuit and mathematician Padre Jeronimo Rho, struck a barrel of gunpowder which exploded in the midst of the Dutch formation with devastating results. Nor does it describe the vital part played by the commander of the garrison of the Fort of Sao Tiago at the Barra. He, realising that the main attack was coming from the landward side and that the naval bombardment of Sao Francisco was a feint, sent a party of fifty men under Captain Joao Soares Vivas to help. These reinforcements swung the balance and resulted in the rout of the Dutch.

It is perhaps ironic that Richard Cocks, who a year earlier had written to say how easily Macau could be taken, had to write a report of the battle on 7 September 1622 stating that three to five hundred men had been killed and four ships burnt. It was a great victory but it was not until 1871 that a monument to it was erected in the Jardim da Vitória.

The Battle of Sheipoo

Soon after Vice Admiral Courbet’s proclamation of the blockade of Taiwan, the Imperial Court in Peking demanded action to be taken in order to relieve it. Thus, orders were given to the commanders of the Peiyang and Nanyang districts – Li Hung-chang and Tseng Kuo-ch’uan. After the annihilation of the Fukien Fleet, the Nanyang Fleet was most suitable to lift the blockade of Taiwan, but Tsen Kuo-ch’uan was unwilling to risk ‘his’ warships in the coming operation without participation of the Peiyang Fleet ships. After long-lasting arguments, both Li and Tseng decided to detach five warships from their respective fleets, and send the squadron thus created to the coast of Taiwan.

Tseng Kuo-ch’uan detached the cruisers K’ai Chi, Nan Ch’en, Nan Shui and Yu Yuan as well as the small cruiser Teng Ch’ing for the planned operation. Li Hung-chang ultimately sent only two small cruisers, Chao Yung and Yang Wei, instead of the promised five warships. The two cruisers arrived at Shanghai at the beginning of December 1884. For Li, the situation in Korea was a priority, compared to which the conflict with France was less important. Meanwhile, in December 1884 a pro-Japanese coup d’état was attempted in Seoul. It was suppressed with help of Chinese troops, but the situation was exacerbated to such an extent, that on December 10, Li Hung-chang requested the Tsungli Yamen to relieve both cruisers from the planned mission.

The arguments made for the withdrawal of the two ships were not without grounds. Chao Yung and Yang Wei were, despite their relatively small displacement, very modern warships of substantial fighting strength, so the Tsungli Yamen suggested sending to Korean waters the older vessels Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing. However, Li, not waiting for the Tsungli Yamen’s reply, ordered ‘his’ warships to leave Shanghai, which they immediately did, returning to Port Arthur. Consequently, only the aforementioned five vessels of the Nanyang Fleet took part in the operation against the French squadron blockading Taiwan. Admiral Wu An-k’ang assumed command of the squadron, while Vice Admiral Ting Ju-chang, Li Hung-chang’s ‘man’, detached from the Peiyang Fleet became the second in command.

In preparation for the operation, at the end of December 1884, Wu’s squadron departed Shanghai for Wusung to perform gunnery drill. Soon thereafter, the Chinese warships sailed to Chusan. After two weeks spent on further gun nery practice, at the end of January 1885 they headed south. Admiral Wu was not in a hurry, as a result, the Chinese squadron arrived at Nankou only on January 25. The next day it reached Yuehnan, 200 NM north of Foochow. Admiral Wu next made for Wenchow, which he intended to use as a base for further operations. However, instead of taking decisive action, the Chinese commander began to cruise, unproductively, along the coast of the Chekiang province, clearly in fear of an encounter with the French warships.

At the end of January Vice Admiral Courbet received the first piece of intelligence concerning the dispatching of the Chinese squadron to relieve Taiwan. It was transmitted by Captain Baux, the commander of the armoured cruiser Triomphante, then stationed in Hong Kong. The notification was soon confirmed by news reports, on February 3, so Courbet sent orders to the commanders of Triomphante and Nielly that the French naval forces should be concentrated at Matsu, at the mouth of the Min River, where he arrived himself with Bayard, Ėclaireur, Aspic and Saône three days later. Soon thereafter, that force was joined by the cruiser Duguay- Trouin. Blockade duty at Taiwan was carried on by Rear Admiral Lespès’ squadron composed of La Galissonnière, Atalante, D’Estaing and Volta in the north as well as Villars and Champlain in the south.

Initially the French admiral thought that Admiral Wu’s squadron’s destination was Foochow, hence an order on February 6 for the ships to blockade the mouth of the Min River. On the same day, Courbet acquired additional information about the movements of the enemy squadron that revealed its commander’s passivity. In view of that intelligence, on February 7 the French commander seized the initiative and headed north. On the fourth day of the journey the French reached Chusan.

Since the enemy was not present in the harbour, Vice Admiral Courbet decided to turn back towards the mouth of the Yangtze River. His squadron reached his destination the next day (except Duguay-Trouin, which was running short of coal and had to be sent to Keelung) and dropped anchors at Gutzlaff Island. After contacting the local telegraph station, Courbet received new information concerning Admiral Wu’s squadron (his warships had been seen in Sanmoon Bay a day before) and on February 12 the squadron headed south. This time, the French admiral was almost certain to encounter the enemy. Therefore for the entire night the warships of his squadron were in a state of advanced combat readiness. Indeed, at dawn, on February 13, the cruiser Ėclaireur, steaming at the head of the French squadron, spotted five Chinese vessels on the horizon.

Admiral Wu spent the night of February 12/13 at anchor in Sanmoon Bay at Montagu Island. At about 05:00 his warships weighed anchor and steamed into the open seas, circling the island from the south at which point they were spotted by the French, who were approaching from the north. At that time the Chinese squadron was steaming in two line-ahead columns: K’ai Chi (flagship), Nan Shui and Nan Ch’en formed the starboard column, and Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing, the port.

Although Admiral Wu initially intended to accept battle, upon spotting the approaching enemy, he apparently suddenly changed his mind and ordered the slow Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing to turn back to nearby Sheipoo (Sheip’u). Wu then attempted to escape with the three remaining cruisers. It was 07:00 and both squadrons were no more than 10 NM apart.

After spotting the enemy, the entire French squadron began to chase the Chinese warships. Reaching 13 knots, the French warships were steaming in the following order: Bayard (flagship), Nielly, Ėclaireur and Triomphante (the last cruiser was initially behind the flagship, but was unable to maintain the speed of over 12 knots and gradually fell behind), while the slower Aspic and Saône finished the formation. Meanwhile, K’ai Chi, Nan Shui and Nan Ch’en, capable of reaching 14-15 knots, broke away from the two remaining Chinese warships and headed south-east, while Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing, following Wu’s orders, headed for Sheipoo.

Confronted with that situation, Vice Admiral Courbet ordered the slower Triomphante, Saône and Aspic to deal with the vessels fleeing towards Sheipoo, while he, along with Bayard, Nielly and Ėclaireur continued the pursuit of Admiral Wu’s cruisers. It soon became apparent that the French cruisers were not capable of catching the fleeing Chinese vessels. The situation was exacerbated when the weather soon broke and visibility was considerably reduced. Consequently, Vice Admiral Courbet abandoned the pursuit and, at about 13:00, joined his three remaining warships guarding Sheipoo.

The harbour of Sheipoo was located within a labyrinth of islands, islets and shallows. Four waterways leading to it were unknown to the French. For that reason, although the harbour was not guarded by any fortifications, Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing were relatively safe at Sheipoo, since Vice Admiral Courbet did not dare to venture with his warships into the treacherous, unknown waters. The only thing that he could do was to guard the entrances of the three waterways and that of the nearby Sanmoon Bay in case the Chinese ships attempted to slip away.

During the night and in the morning of the following day, three French steam launches covered by the gunboat Aspic, reconnoitred the waterways and located both Chinese warships anchored between Sheipoo and Tungnun Island. Since it was still dangerous for the French cruisers to close on the enemy, Vice Admiral Courbet decided to send in the steam launches armed with spar torpedoes.

Commanders of the launches which sunk the Chinese cruisers at Sheipoo: Commander Palma Gourdon (right) and Lieutenant Émile Duboc (left).

Two launches from Bayard commanded respectively by Commander Palma Gourdon and Lieutenant Émile Duboc were designated for the action, each armed with one, 1878-pattern spar torpedo with a charge containing 12 kg of pyroxylin. The preparations had been completed by 22:00 and at 23:00 (February 14) both launches, guided by another two launches under the command of the hydrographer Lieutenant Ravel, set off for their mission. The night was very dark, which on the one hand favoured the attackers but also increased the danger of their launches grounding, getting separated or getting lost in the labyrinth of islands. Fortunately for the French, all the launches managed to avoid these dangers. Finally, at 03.00 both torpedo launches, struggling with the strong current, reached the inner roads of Sheipoo, where they began to search for the enemy warships.

As it turned out, finding the Chinese ships was not as easy as had been supposed. The French steam launches performing the reconnaissance of the waterways had been spotted during their sortie. Therefore, before 10:00 the previous day, Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing shifted their position and anchored closer to the town. After some time searching, the launch commanded by Gourdon was the first to locate the enemy, namely the Yu Yuan. The French launch managed to approach undetected within 200 metres of the enemy, and at 03:45 they extended the spar torpedo into its combat position and began their attack. They were at that moment spotted from the cruiser’s deck, but it was too late to open fire with the ship’s battery (particularly because the Chinese crews had not maintained full combat readiness) and the launch was instead chaotically fired on with small arms and mitrailleuses. This could not stop the French vessel, which successfully detonated her spar torpedo on the Yu Yuan’s starboard stern quarter and retreated, although not without suffering losses. One sailor was killed and the launch’s boiler was slightly damaged.

The attack of the launch commanded by Gourdon on the cruiser Yu Yuan.

In the meantime, taking advantage of the ensuing confusion, the second French launch commanded by Duboc began her own attack. Practically unnoticed, she approached the Yu Yuan’s port side, but her spar torpedo failed to explode. It seems Lt. Duboc maintained his composure and since there was no time to once again detonate the torpedo at the Yu Yuan’s side (the launch had to keep moving and could not stop or go back), he apparently headed for Teng Ch’ing, anchored slightly further away, and repeated the attack. That time, the torpedo exploded at the side of the enemy vessel and Duboc’s launch retreated suffering no casualties.

Soon after the attack, both French launch es rendezvoused and together (Gourdon’s faster launch towed Duboc’s) set out for the rest of the French squadron. Their return journey was not without adventures – at about 05:00 Gourdon’s launch grounded, but was refloated with help from her consort. At 10:00, after steaming through the channel between the Islands of Kintan and Niumio (Niumiu), the launches reached the transport Saône. At the same time, Lt. Ravel was waiting for both launches’ return at the entrance north-west of Niumio Island. Only at dawn did he gave up further waiting and returned to the armoured cruiser Bayard.

On February 16 it was confirmed that both Chinese vessels had sunk. On hearing the news, the French warships weighed anchor and departed Sheipoo. Triomphante, Nielly and Saône headed for Keelung, while Bayard, Ėclaireur and Aspic steamed to Matsu.

As far as the crews of the Chinese warships were concerned, their losses during the attack were small and were apparently limited to only one man killed on board Yu Yuan8. Following the evacuation to the shore, the Chinese sea men set out for Shanghai. After four days they reached Chenhai, where they encountered the remainder of Admiral Wu’s squadron which had been reinforced with the small cruisers Chao Wu and Yuan K’ai as well as the gunboats Lung Hsing and Hu Wei. Since the French blockaded Chenhai soon thereafter, the Chinese squadron remained trapped until the end of the war.


Banner System (1601-1912)

The banner system was the military, political, and social organization created by the Manchus led by Nurhaci (1559-1626) in the early seventeenth century. It later incorporated the Mongols and the Chinese, acting as the military tool for the Manchu conquest of China and serving as a backbone of the Qing Empire for centuries.

As the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) waned, the Jurchens (Manchus) led by Nurhaci started to consolidate power in northeastern China. Although Nurhaci monopolized the trade in the region, he recognized the importance of creating an effective and powerful military apparatus in order to unify the Jurchens and to realize the goal of empire building.

In 1601, Nurhaci created the banner system by organizing the Jurchens into four banners with four basic colors as identifications: yellow, white, red, and blue. As he recruited more warriors, he created another four banners in 1615: banners with flags embroidered with the four original colors. Historically, this system is called the Eight Banner System.

The banner system was administered through three levels: banner (gusa), regiment (jalan), and company (niru). The whole system functioned as a military force as the banners served as a tool in wars, and a membership in a given banner symbolized the status as a warrior. The stratification of the banner into three levels facilitated effective commandership as all banner men were required to be loyal to Nurhaci. To strengthen fighting capability, Nurhaci’s descendants added eight Mongol and eight Chinese banners in 1634 and 1642.

The banner system was also a political polity as well as a social organization. Principally, all Manchus, Mongols, and the Chinese who surrendered early were banner men. The distinction between soldier and civilian was vague, and they were identical in many cases. At peace, banner men engaged in farming and Banner System I 19 receiving military training; they were dispatched to the front once a war broke out.

When the Manchus conquered China in 1644, the total number of soldiers in the banner system reached 168,900. After 1644, the banner system became a hereditary military caste. By the end of the seventeenth century, the number of banner men totaled a quarter million, a stable figure until 1912. Roughly half of all banner men and their families were stationed in Beijing (Peking) as defenders of the capital. Over 100 banner garrisons were established in major cities or strategic locations throughout the Qing dynasty (1644- 1912), such as those along the Grand Canal and the Yellow River (Huanghe) and Yangzi (Yangtze) Rivers, in the coastal regions, and in the northeast and northwest. A garrison inside a major city was called the “Manchu City” separated from Chinese civilians to avoid direct confrontation. Being in those isolated colonies, the garrisons remained one of the prominent institutions of the Qing dynasty.

Although the banner troops originally were fierce fighters, their life in a new environment in vast Chinese land eventually debilitated their militant spirit. The emperors often issued edicts to remind them of preserving tradition, but the banner system was gradually eroded by banner men’s indulgence in an enjoyable life. In 1735, barely a century after the Manchu conquest, Emperor Qianlong (Ch’ienlung) (reigned 1736-1795) started to rely on the Chinese Green Standard Army to suppress bandits and uprisings. Even though banner men continued to be a state-sponsored military force, they were no longer a regular army.

The banner system proved to be ineffective during the First Opium War (1840-1842) and the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864). As a result, Hunan (Xiang) Army and Anhui Army replaced it. By the end of the nineteenth century, the rise of the New Army (Beiyang Anny or Xinjun) disfranchised the banner system as a military force.

As imperial decay continued, the banner system became a burden to the Qing government, as the state funding diminished. Consequently, banner men lived in poverty and were encouraged to seek self-support. Banner men in urban areas such as Beijing were absorbed into the urban labor force, while those who lived in frontier regions such as Heilongjiang (Heilungkiang) Province became farmers. The Chinese Revolution of 1911 and the abdication of the last Qing Emperor Xuantong (Puyi) (1909-1911) declared the demise of the banner system.

References Crossley, Pamela Kyle. Orphan Warriors: Three Manchu Generations and the End of the Qing World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990. Di Cosmo, Nicola, ed. Military Culture in Imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. Elliott, Mark C. The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. Powell, Ralph L. The Rise of Chinese Military Power, 1895-1912. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955. Rowe, William T. China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999


Bai Chongxi (1893–1966)

Guomindang (GMD, Kouomintang, Nationalist) Chinese general. Born in Guilin (Kweilin), Guangxi (Kwangsi) Province, on March 18, 1893, Bai Chongxi (Pai Ch’ung-hsi) was a Muslim of Hui ethnicity. He entered the Guangxi military cadre training school in Guilin but on his parents’ request withdrew for a time to study at the Guangxi Schools of Law and Political Science. When the Xinhai Revolution began in 1911, Bai fought in the Students Dare to Die Corps.

In 1914 Bai graduated from the Second Military Preparatory School at Wuchang. Following precadet training, he entered the third class of the Baoding (Paoting) Military Academy in June 1915. Upon graduation in 1916, he returned to Guangxi and served in his native provincial forces. In 1924 Bai cooperated with fellow Guangxi officers Li Zongren (Li Tsung-jen) and Guang Shaohong to create the Guangxi Pacification Army and gain control of Guangxi.

Bai supported the GMD, joining it in 1925 and taking part in the Northern Expedition of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) between 1926 and 1928 while at the same time maintaining his power base in Guangxi. Bai was chief of staff of the GMD army during the expedition and was credited with using speed and maneuver to surprise and defeat larger warlord forces. He also commanded the forces that took Hangzhou and Shanghai in 1927. Bai took part in the purge of communist forces and other leftist elements in Shanghai. He also commanded the advance GMD elements that captured Beijing in June 1928.

In 1929, Bai, Li, and Guang, known as the Guangxi Clique, rebelled against Jiang for having concentrated too much power in his own hands. Although Bai waged a brilliant campaign, the resulting struggle ended in stalemate, as national unity seemed more important with the threat posed by the Japanese following the September 1931 Mukden (Shenyang) Incident. Bai also played a key role in the reconstruction of Guangxi, which boasted a progressive administration. In late 1931 Bai and Li rejoined the GMD, working to create a reformist provincial government and resolving their differences with Jiang. In mid-1936 their forces were reorganized as the GMD government’s Fifth Route Army, with Bai as deputy commander.

In the 1937–1945 Sino-Japanese War, Bai was both deputy chief of staff of the Military Affairs Commission and a member of the National Aeronautical Council, responsible for devising military strategy for the Nanjing (Nanking)–Shanghai area in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) Province. Given the heavy losses sustained by GMD forces during October and November 1937, Bai opposed the stand at Nanjing and argued for keeping Chinese forces intact. Jiang accepted Bai’s strategy, known as “trading space for time,” and moved the GMD government to Chongqing (Chungking), Sichuan (Szechwan) Province.

In Chongqing, Bai continued to participate in strategic planning that led to the first Chinese victory in the Tai’erzhuang (T’ai-erh-chuang) Campaign of March–April 1938 in Jiangsu. That July, Bai commanded the Fifth War Zone, covering Shandong (Shantung) and part of Jiangsu north of the Changjiang (Yangtze) River. In December, Bai personally commanded Chinese forces that were to halt the Japanese drive on Guangxi. Failing to accomplish that, he was recalled in January 1939.

Bai remained in Chongqing until the end of the war as deputy joint chief of staff, director of the Military Training Board, and chairman of the Military Inspection Commission. Despite his growing opposition to the Chinese communists, he strongly supported the protracted war strategy developed by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) in 1940 to fight the Japanese. Bai’s Quangxi soldiers were regarded as some of the most effective Chinese troops in the war against Japan. Jihad against the Japanese was declared a religious duty for Chinese Muslims.

During the 1946–1949 Chinese Civil War, Bai, first as defense minister and then as director of the Strategic Advisory Commission, grew frustrated by Jiang’s refusal to yield any authority and by his military policy. Bai resigned in 1948. He returned later that year to command an army group of four armies in central China but again disagreed with Jiang’s military policies that led to the disastrous defeat of the GMD. Bai joined other Chinese leaders in demanding that Jiang step down in order to allow a peace agreement with the communists.

When World War II ended, the United States was anxious to avoid a renewed civil war in China between the Communists and the Nationalists. General George Marshall, one of America’s most respected generals, went to China to try to negotiate a peaceful compromise between the two sides, but his efforts were doomed by the deep suspicions on both sides based on their long history of lethal conflict and feigned “cooperation.” Having suffered through an eight-year war that left twenty million Chinese dead and millions more wounded, sick or starving, the Chinese people desperately wanted peace. But Chiang Kai-shek was not about to tolerate an independent Communist army in China, and Mao would never again agree to lay down arms and trust the goodwill of Chiang.

On paper, the Nationalists had about a four-to-one advantage in numbers of armed troops (four million to one million); overwhelming technical superiority in terms of tanks, aircraft, and weapons; and the clear and strong support of the United States, which provided Chiang’s forces with about $2 billion in military aid from 1946 to 1949. But Chiang was overconfident in thinking the United States could not and would not let him lose a shooting war with his Communist rivals. Against American advice, Chiang used U.S. air transport to fly his best forces into northeast China and Manchuria in 1946–1947 in order to try to prevent the Communists from taking the Japanese surrender and establishing Communist power in those areas. When full-scale civil war broke out in early 1947, the Communists abandoned their wartime capital of Yan’an, scattered into the countryside in classic guerrilla fashion, and renamed their forces the People’s Liberation Army.

Chinese Communist forces had moved into Manchuria with some tactical help from the Soviet Union (which had also sent troops into China on the request of the United States when the overwhelming concern was to force Japan’s quick surrender). In mid-1947, the Communists seized the initiative in Manchuria, surrounded the Nationalist forces in the cities, and cut railway and communication lines. Chiang refused to recognize the looming defeat of his troops there and sent in reinforcements. In late 1948, the Communist general Lin Biao led a final massive assault in Manchuria, capturing in two months’ time 230,000 rifles and 400,000 of Chiang’s best soldiers.

Even then, the Nationalists still enjoyed numerical superiority in men and a virtual monopoly on tanks and planes. That changed in the central Yangzi valley battle of Hwaihai (Xuzhou) from November 1948 through January 1949. When the Nationalist general at Hwaihai found himself encircled and cut off by Communist forces, he heard that Chiang Kai-shek was preparing to bomb his troops to keep them and their equipment from falling to the Communists. He quickly surrendered his force of 460,000 troops to the People’s Liberation Army. The Nationalist effort was further undermined by rampant inflation that swept through Nationalist-controlled territory with the force of a hurricane. From January 1946 to August 1948, prices multiplied sixty-seven times. In late 1948, all confidence in the Nationalist government collapsed. Prices multiplied 85,000 times in six months, and the Nationalist currency became as meaningless as a Qing dynasty copper coin. Chiang Kai-shek fled first to Sichuan Province in the far west and then to Taiwan, along with nearly two million Nationalist troops and officials and their families. (Taiwan, a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, had been returned to the Republic of China upon the surrender of Japan in August 1945.) On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the center of Beijing and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

At the end of 1949 Bai fled to Taiwan (then known as Formosa), where he became vice chairman of the Strategic Advisory Committee and a member of the Central Executive Committee of the GMD until his death in Taipei on December 2, 1966. Bai was one of the finest generals on either side during the Chinese Civil War and was also a highly effective military strategist whose excellent advice was often ignored.

Further Reading

Chassin, Lionel Max. The Communist Conquest of China: A History of the Civil War, 1945–1949. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Cheng, Siyuan. Bai Chongxi Chuan [The Biography of Bai Chongxi]. Hong Kong: South China Press, 1989.

Melby, John F. The Mandate of Heaven: Record of a Civil War, 1945–1949. London: Chatto and Windus, 1989.