The Ghost That Haunts the Chinese Navy: When China and Japan Went to War

The First Sino-Japanese War a century ago offers Beijing interesting lessons for the future—lessons China's military through its writings is clearly exploring. 

Even as Western strategists spill gobs of ink recalling the Great War that convulsed Europe a century ago, Chinese military thinkers are actually fixated on another anniversary.  120 years ago, Japan shocked the world with a lightning campaign that not only reduced the faltering Qing dynasty to its knees in a matter of months, but more to the point:  put the pride of China’s then ascendant fleet on the bottom of the Yellow Sea.

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The war was primarily fought over the Korean Peninsula and featured two sizable naval engagements:  the first near the Yalu and the second near the tip of the Shandong Peninsula at Weihai, where an enormous Chinese museum has quite recently been completed to commemorate the war.  The conflict ended with Japan’s conquest of the Liaodong Peninsula, but this was not permitted by the jealous European Powers, which intervened collectively in the so-called “Triple Intervention.”   Tokyo had to be satisfied with China’s recognition of an independent Korea, the not insignificant prize of Taiwan, a huge indemnity paid in silver, the right to navigate the Yangtze, as well as the opening of more treaty ports to Japanese merchants.   This edition of Dragon Eye will not dwell on recent China-Japan tensions, which are presently experiencing a thaw albeit a tepid one.  Instead, this brief analysis endeavors to sample a few of the innumerable Chinese military writings published during 2014 on the subject of that pivotal conflict.

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Reflections on the war during this anniversary year have appeared in just about every military and quasi-military publication in China, for example a piece by the popular and rather hawkish professor-general Luo Yuan that appeared in a special September 2014 issue of 军事文摘 [Military Digest] devoted to the war.  However, for the purposes of this discussion, I will concentrate exclusively on several articles that appeared in the more authoritative 中国军事科学 [China Military Science] in mid-2014.  The lead article in this valuable clutch of writings is by General He Lei, director of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Military Sciences.   General He’s piece does not particularly focus on Japan’s aggressive intent, though he does observe that the war was “not accidental.”  Nor does he dwell on strictly political factors, but he also credits Marx with the idea that “war is the continuation of politics” and suggests that the war illustrated the corruption and decline of the Qing regime.  With evident disgust, he critiques the traditional Chinese cultural and social paradigm prevailing in that period:  “好铁不打钉, 好男不当兵”  [Just as good iron is not used for nails, so good men should not be soldiers].  In a seeming dig at contemporary Chinese society and its rampant materialism, he implores his fellow officers: “不当和平兵” [not to become peace-time soldiers].  To further inspire his forces, he writes that China’s total military failure in the Sino-Japanese War resulted from half-hearted preparation before the conflict and also the paucity of a military doctrine that emphasized vigorous combat tactics and seizing the initiative. 

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It is noteworthy that a major theme of General He’s essay concerns China’s historical mistake of “重陆轻海” [emphasizing land forces, while neglecting naval forces]. He cites the classic misuse of naval funds by the Empress Dowager Ci Xi, and derides the Manchu regime as completely lacking any leaders with naval experience.  That point is especially interesting in light of the prevailing critique of China’s current military leadership as overly representative of ground forces personnel, particularly at the highest levels.  General He, in addition, points out the total failure of harmonization between Chinese ground and sea forces, and how this failure caused defeats in many instances.  As a result of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, it is said that China lost Korea, Taiwan and a wide expanse of maritime territory, thus “vastly compressing China’s maritime strategic space, and also blocking modern China’s historical process of “走向海洋” [going out to the ocean].   Keeping that in mind, General He states that China cannot permit “海上霸权” [the maritime hegemonic power] – obviously referring to the United States – from interrupting the historical march of the Chinese nation to the “deep blue.”  Again, the fact that a Chinese Army general is making such points about the contemporary imperative of developing seapower may demonstrate the broad military consensus behind China’s current naval buildup.