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

December 3, 2014 Topic: HistoryDefense Region: ChinaJapan

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.

Two further essays in this edition of China Military Science are by senior naval officers.  Vice Admiral Jiang Weilie, a vice commander of the critical Guangzhou Military Region, echoes many of the points made in the essay by General He, especially concerning China’s historic neglect of seapower.  Admiral Jiang, moreover, bemoans the fact that contemporary Chinese society still obviously lacks in maritime consciousness.  Using the case of the Sino-Japanese War as a clear illustration of disjointed command structures, Admiral Jiang makes the fascinating point that the recent unification of Chinese maritime law enforcement forces in March 2013 “未得到根本解决” [did not result in a fundamental resolution] with respect to unifying China’s maritime power.  Above all, Admiral Jiang focuses, similarly to General He, on the regrettably “passive disposition” of Chinese forces during the Sino-Japanese War.  In the essay’s conclusion, he calls for “积极长远的力量运用规划” [plans for the active wielding of long range power].  As for the many maritime disputes on China’s flanks, he calls for Beijing to “regularize the demonstration of military forces, developing military deterrence, and gradually consolidating [China’s] advantageous position in these maritime struggles.”

A somewhat more reflective essay is contributed by Senior Captain Yang Xiaodan, director of a PLA Navy maritime studies center.  Unlike the other two essays that are quite dismissive of the late Qing’s efforts at military reform and naval modernization, Captain Yang offers a detailed look at the establishment and initial operations of China’s very first modern naval academy at Fuzhou in 1866. He notes that China’s nascent, modern navy had quite an extensive system of sending young officers abroad, as well as a relatively ambitious training program, focused on “远航训练” [long distance training] in particular.  In a somewhat nuanced conclusion about China’s much-maligned naval reformer, Li Hongzhang, Captain Yang concludes that “Although Li Hongzhang put great emphasis on building up the Beiyang Fleet, there was not sufficient focus on combat operations…”  In the ultimate test against Japan in 1894-95, Chinese naval officer quality was thoroughly outclassed and is described as:  “又慢又旧又有限” [slow, archaic, and totally limiting].  For Captain Yang, the primary lessons of this conflict for China’s current naval modernization are to raise the combat realism of naval exercises, to rotate personnel frequently and, above all, to build a first-rate naval educational and training system.

These writings by senior Chinese military officers on the 120th anniversary are not surprising.  We may even be somewhat reassured, given the recent bitter recriminations flowing between Beijing and Tokyo, that these articles are not ultra-nationalist in tone and tinged with anti-Japanese xenophobic sentiments, but are generally professional and substantive.  It might be said that they even betray a continuing Chinese admiration for Japanese military prowess.  However, this series of articles is, at the same time, revealing of a Chinese military that has a definite chip on its shoulder.  As any sports coach knows, a team that has been humiliated, relentlessly studies its former mistakes, enjoys new access to resources, is hungry for respect, has a laser-like focus, and is fired by no small amount of bitterness as well, is one that may be poised to “roll.”  One interpretation of these Chinese military articles is that the PLA is now in such a state of mind – and this should concern practitioners and students of international security on both sides of the Pacific.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.    

Editor’s Note: The following is part five of a new occasional series called Dragon Eye, which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs. Part one of the series, “What Does China Really Think About the Ukraine Crisis?” can be found here. Part two of the series, “The World’s Most Dangerous Rivalry: China and Japan,” can be found here. Part three of the series, “How China Sees America’s Moves in Asia: Worse than Containment,” can be found here. Part five of the series, “ The Dragon and The Atom: How China Sees Iran and the Nuclear Negotiations,” can be found here.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet/CC by-nc 2.0