Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
THE clash between China and Japan in Manchuria leads naturally to an investigation and estimate of the strategic situation there, of the military forces on the spot, and of the total military strengths of the two nations involved.
The total number of men under arms in military formations in China today is estimated roughly at 2,500,000. This huge figure gives no real indication, however, of the numbers that could actually be concentrated against a Japanese attack on China proper. Because of rivalries, jealousies and local commitments, it is extremely unlikely that a force of more than 300,000 men could be assembled anywhere in China to make head against Japan. Observers believe that it would not be possible to supply a larger force continuously with the munitions necessary to modern war, and they doubt that the current Chinese military leadership could rise to the tactical and strategic handling of such a mass.
The individual Chinese soldier is remarkably hardy and enduring. He absorbs discipline and training readily. He is capable of undergoing great privations. The simplicity of his wants makes maintaining him in the field an easy matter, and tends to give troop units great mobility. On occasions it has been possible for understanding leaders to animate him with a headlong courage; but these occasions have been sporadic. Usually he is possessed with no all-consuming will to victory. Chinese military equipment is heterogeneous. Special weapons, such as tanks and airplanes, have never been knit effectively into the Chinese military fabric; and the handling in combination of even the traditional arms -- infantry, cavalry and artillery -- has generally been clumsy.
Japan, on the other hand, is a first-class military Power, thoroughly abreast of the times and with a General Staff that has given years of intensive study to possible operations in China. She has an active army of 230,000 and in case of need could summon at least 2,000,000 reservists to the colors. The Japanese infantryman is one of the world's deadliest fighting machines. Perhaps the Chinese soldier has an even greater passive endurance, especially on the frost-locked plains of Manchuria; but behind the Japanese stands a competent and efficient supply organization that banishes most of the hardships which the Chinese must suffer. In automatic weapons, artillery, combat vehicles and aircraft the Japanese armies attain modern standards and completely outclass the Chinese. This material superiority is enhanced by careful training in teamwork of all units from the infantry squad to the field army. In consequence, the tactical disparity between Japanese and Chinese troops increases steadily with the size and combination of the organizations involved. Furthermore, the Japanese navy holds undisputed command of Oriental waters; and her army is experienced in handling oversea expeditions. To sum up, there can be no doubt of Japan's ability to land and sustain forces capable of shattering any Chinese opposition at any harbor on the China coast and up the Yangtze as far as Hankow.
When we narrow the field of military speculation to Manchuria the difference in Chinese and Japanese military strength becomes even more glaring. In this area the maximum Japanese forces are available for oversea operations. The Chinese armies, on the other hand, are strictly limited. For large bodies of men and for heavy shipments of munitions, the only avenue of entrance into Manchuria from China proper is along the littoral of the Gulf of Pechili; and at Shanhaikwan, where the mountains reach down to the coast, this route becomes a constricted gullet under the thumb of Japanese sea-power.
When hostilities flared up recently China's Manchurian armies were divided into three provincial groups, imperfectly coördinated and with only nominal unity of command. Chang Hsueh-liang, their commander-in-chief, had set up his headquarters outside of Manchuria, in Peiping. Early in September 1931, before the fighting began, the strengths and locations of his troops were as follows. The Liaoning (formerly Fengtien) troops, personal forces of Chang Hsueh-liang, had approximately 60,000 effectives in Manchuria. They were disposed for the most part in fairly large garrisons, notably at Taonan, Mukden and Chinchow. As might be expected, the center of gravity of this army lay between Mukden and the Great Wall, along the Peiping-Mukden railway. In and around Mukden were quartered some 15,000 men. The Kirin troops, followers of Chang Tso-hsiang, Chairman of that Province, amounted to approximately 70,000 men. Generally speaking, they were stationed at Kirin, Changchun, Harbin and along the eastern section of the Chinese Eastern Railway to the Siberian border. Wan Fu-lin's troops from the province of Heilungkiang, 24,000 strong, garrisoned the line of the Chinese Eastern Railway from Tsitsihar to Manchouli. Thus, excluding the distant troops in Jehol, the Chinese had in Manchuria some 154,000 soldiers, most of whom were remote from the zones where the fighting of September 19-22 took place.
Japanese regular forces in Manchuria at that time were organized into one division (the 2d), 7,000 strong, and railway guards numbering approximately 5,000 men. They were stationed along the South Manchuria Railway, with small concentrations at Changchun, Mukden, Liaoyang and in the Dairen-Port Arthur area. The Japanese garrison at Mukden was approximately 1,500 strong. In addition to these regular troops there were resident in Manchuria some 40,000 reservists, available upon call. There have been persistent rumors from Chinese sources that an appreciable number of these men were called to the colors.
Upon the outbreak of fighting at Mukden the Japanese immediately put into effect a definite military plan covering the whole zone of the South Manchuria Railway. In the early morning of September 19 three companies of Japanese troops, say 500 men, stormed the main Chinese barracks at Mukden and thrust the Chinese garrison, several thousand strong, away from the city. The Chinese city was occupied, as was the large Mukden arsenal. Almost simultaneously the 8,000 Chinese troops at Changchun, 180 miles away, were attacked and expelled from that city. The Japanese immediately instituted a rigid patrol of the whole South Manchuria Railway and began to push troops out along certain of its feeders. On September 19 they established a post at Hsinmintun, 35 miles from Mukden, on the Peiping-Mukden line. Two days later they occupied Kirin, 79 miles from Changchun, and on September 22 they reached Tunhua, 112 miles east of Kirin. Troops from Ssupingkai reached Chengchiatun, 50 miles west, on that same day and promptly sent advance forces to Taonan. To replace the units thus dispersed an infantry brigade reinforced with artillery was shipped in from Korea, so that the total of Japanese troops in Manchuria was brought approximately up to the treaty limit of 15,000. Serious fighting had been confined to Mukden and Changchun. Japanese casualties had been infinitesimal, and those of the Chinese had been small. It is estimated, however, that no less than 10,000 Chinese soldiers melted away from their units during the fighting and retreating.
The local results obtained by the Japanese in this three-day campaign can be summarized as follows:
1. The creation of a favorable strategic situation.
2. The establishment of complete military security for the South Manchuria Railway.
3. The establishment of physical and moral superiority over all Chinese troops engaged.
4. The dislocation of the local governmental system of Liaoning Province, probably including control of important bullion reserves.
5. The dislocation of the Manchurian munitionment system by the capture of the Mukden arsenal.
6. The protection of Japanese nationals, investments and property interests.
Of these considerations the first is most important from the standpoint of this article, namely the military standpoint. As already mentioned, Kirin and Tunhua were occupied by some 1,300 Japanese troops on September 21-22. The reason given publicly for this action was the protection of the lives and property of Japanese nationals in that region. This is a valid reason, in view of the heavy Korean immigration into the Chien Tao region of Manchuria and in view of the extreme popular tension already existing there. At the same time the action had important military implications. By making these dispositions the Japanese placed their forces in a wedge-shaped area, technically a salient, its base extending from Newchwang to the Korean-Siberian border, its apex at Changchun. Such a position is a very favorable one for an army contemplating offensive action. Its units can thrust forward or to either side at will. The Manchurian salient has certain drawbacks. Its communications are lopsided and close to its boundaries; there is no rail link between Tunhua and the Korean border; and its area is too large to be controlled effectively by the Japanese forces. On the other hand, its offensive potentialities are great. By a short move in force westward from Mukden or Ssupingkai the Japanese could interpose themselves between the Liaoning armies and the rest of the Chinese troops in Manchuria. By an advance from Changchun up the railway to Harbin, they could split the Heilungkiang and Kirin forces. Through quick positive action, then, the Japanese obtained a great strategic success. The Chinese armies in Manchuria were laid open to dismemberment and their opportunities for united effort definitely destroyed.
The initial operations of the Japanese in Manchuria were never wholly military in the classic sense of being directed at seeking out and destroying hostile armed forces. After the collapse of organized Chinese resistance in the first few days, political and economic factors occupied a larger and even dominating position in the picture. Consequently the best place to study subsequent operations is on a railway rather than on a topographic map. It is along the railways that the trade of Manchuria is canalized; and the railway towns are the major political centers. For example, the prompt garrisoning by the Japanese of Chengchiatun and Taonan, their activities toward the Nonni River, have an important military purpose in that they emphasize the severing of the Heilungkiang and Liaoning armies. But sight should not be lost of the fact that this occupation disrupted, even if only temporarily, the Chinese dream of a north-south railway line from North Manchuria to the sea at Hulutao.
When we say that the theater of operations in Manchuria is restricted to the zones of the railways that is another way of saying that military activities are confined to the plains and are only slightly affected by terrain considerations. Furthermore, this narrowing of the area of operations minimizes communications difficulties for both armies. They are seldom out of reach of a railhead.
Hostilities were commenced at the end of autumn. Winter in Manchuria is bitter. The freezing of the mud roads, with a resulting increase in mobility for wheeled transport, is of relative unimportance, since both sides depend primarily on rail transport for supply. Manchurian soldiers have frequently proved their ability to manœuvre and fight in sub-zero temperatures. While the Japanese as a race are more susceptible to extreme cold, in the Russo-Japanese War they won victories in Manchuria in the dead of winter. From the tactical viewpoint, frozen soil hampers the digging of trenches. This should be disadvantageous to the Chinese, who fight best when dug in and who on open ground, moreover, would be practically at the mercy of Japanese aviation attacks.
When Japan succeeded in imposing her strategic plan on the Chinese forces it became practically certain that large-scale warfare could be put out of the reckoning for the time being. This in turn implied the state of affairs already described, with operations confined to the zones of railways and with political and economic considerations assuming a dominant position in determining troop movements and contacts.
So far as can be seen at the moment of writing, a situation dictated by purely military considerations could be reëstablished in Manchuria only through formal large-scale intervention on the part of Russia. Such action, paradoxically enough, would tend to move the seat of war out of Manchuria. If hostile Russian masses could be concentrated at will along the Amur River they could drive into Manchuria and the Japanese enclave at points of their own choosing. The logical thing for Japan to do if she saw Russia preparing such a concentration would be to push forward aggressively beyond the junction of the Trans-Siberian and Chinese Eastern Railways, thus preventing the reinforcement of the two Russian corps on the Manchurian frontier, which now total some 50,000 men. This would imply the occupation of Chita and probably the establishment of a Japanese defensive front in the vicinity of Lake Baikal. Needless to say this would initiate for both Powers a struggle for national existence on the broadest possible scale.