Nibbling Around the Edges: China’s Geopolitical Trauma in the 20th Century

Page 3.

The above suggest (in overlay) a terrible dilemma for planning or prioritizing military defense quadrants or priorities. For, even before the 20th century “slicing of the melon” by the lieqiang array of belligerent powers, while the Qing court still had the major say in border strategy and the confidence to impose its will, even then the strategic map (indexed by subjugation campaigns outside of Han China “proper”) was almost a parody of radial outthrusting, or perhaps random scrapes in all directions. Though there was still a skew Westward, inherited from the initial conquest and the incompletion of its westward thrust. More to the point, three S/E quandrant campaigns had to be mounted (against Taiwan, Burma, and Vietnam), of which two produced humiliating setbacks, most painfully in Burma (5 major indiecisive campaigns) and Vietnam (an outright defeat). It takes only a quick viewing of the chronologies to confirm that the SE Asia debacles were the product of gro-strategic indecisiveness, of thinking in terms of around-the-compass threat, as so graphically illustrated (caricatured) in our masthead illustration from ca. 1900.

Fig. 2 Qianlong’s (1735-96) “10 Great Victories” after Castiliogne: direction and target

map Tang China overlaid QL campaigns

Fig. 3 Time-line of Manchu Initial conquest, 1625-1757


Fig. 4

Chronology of Qianlong’s “10 Great Campaigns
Qianlong's wars table

The Vietnam invasion in particular was hamstrung by having to compete with not just the Taiwan assault (to some extent along the same supply and advance axis), but the start of ambitious plans for subduing Nepal and its ever-defiant Gurkhas, a task which took 5 years and never succeeded in cowing the real target: the Bengal Raj, which was already considering an alliance, and the conscripting of Gurkha units into the EI Company’s mercenary phalanxes.

Taiwan, too, was a geographically miscalculated endeavor, for the Coxinga/Sanfan hegemony (basing) on that island were never near recrudescence; while the colonizers recruited from Fujian (one concern in the Lin Shuangwen rebellion of ’87-88), with the door now open, only increased their pace of migration and in the process planted a variety of Triad and related cells which ensured a steady flow of local level rebellions. There were more than a hundred rebellions during the early Qing. The frequency of rebellions, riots, and civil strife in Qing Taiwan is evoked by the common saying “every three years an uprising; every five years a rebellion” (三年一反、五年一亂).[8]. Thus the Eastward leap (the only one attempted during the pre-Boxer years) proved utterly misdirected, the piecemeal nature of the 11th hour “modernization” program of Liu Mingchuan (1885-94) only playing into French then Japanese hands as they (1894) searched to extent their archipelagic perimeter southward from the Ryukyus. The pattern of diasporic chaos and criminality had already played out in the great 16th>19th century extrusions of poor Chaozhou, Fuzhou, and Zhang/Quan ex-peasants into the lower coastal archipelago (Philippines, Indonesia, then Malaysia), and should, with any objective reflection, have warned against mobilizing last-ditch support for the declining resources of Beijing. Its internal structure was always rooted in clandestine and infinitely parochial self-protection leagues loyal to no one except TRULY marginal and vagabond leaders like Sun Yatsen (a latter day Hong Xiuquan), and ideologically resistant to any notion of bankrolling a promising central government of any sort.

The compromise(s) in Indochina played out even worse, as the paramilitary “Black Flags” under Liu Yongfu, paradoxically mobilized a last-ditch stand to protect the Nguyen dynasty from French interlopers, channeled the fighting back up the littoral to Fuzhou and Keelung (Taiwan), where the Qing’ painfully (half) modernized dockyards at Fuzhou (Mawei) were reduced to ashes.

As (in retrospect) the events of 1949-1975 (8?) show, the Manchu imperium would have been far better advised to cut back at least along two of its littoral/rainforest frontiers – the East and the South (Taiwan, Indochina, Burma), leaving the way for concentration in the highland plateaux of “the West”, where Dzungar (now Uighur) Sinkiang and Tufan (pre-Buddhist Tibet), the latter with its tricky and expensive-to-defend trans-Himalayan borders, remained the clearest strategic frontier challenges, but also where Manchu horse-archers (or their retrained cavalry successors) operated at maximum advantage.

But because (for political reasons) the demotion or accommodationist settlement of the ocean-exposed or -connected frontier areas, most painfully in the “Northeast” = Liaoning/Liaodong, Suiyuan, and of course Korea, but also all around the Pacific perimeter and into SE Asia, was never a viable consensus policy; and this cost dearly, indeed became the major infirmity of BOTH revolutionary Chinas: the supposedly Fabian (trade space for time) KMT, and (as if in revenge or reversal) the PLA, which could not partition away not just “the Northeast” and Korea, but Taiwan and Vietnam, and paid a horrendous price in dollars and diplomatic de-leverage for these acts of unwise over-assertion.


Environmental Disjuncture along the E-W axis

In complete contrast to the FSU and the US or northern (Baltic) Europe, China has never been culturally or economically “navigable” along a broadly continuous geophysical or climate corridor at the same latitude. . Or almost so: there is one very navigable eco-similar beltway conjoining two margins: the Mongol-Dzungar settled “panhandle” that crosses from the eastern end of (current) Inner Mongolia across the Gobi to the Takla Makan (Sinkiang), thence (via the Ili corridor) into Kazakhstan. The climate-zone map reprinted below parses this eco-zone as “Type B”, that is quasi-desert, no monsoon, minimal rain retention, and — most important of all, no significant agriculture: the only means of survival being pastoral (horse-breeding, yak-herding). Which in turn means (or meant) under-population and almost total lack of urban settlement. Yet the Mongolia-Turkestan (romantically renamed the “Silk Route”) corridor, to the extent that it is culturally hybred into the “Northeast” (“Manchuria”), does indeed create a line of march of sorts, if not for migration, then surely for defense of the much richer but mixed terrain to the south. Under the pax manchuensis, this latter utility was keenly recognized, which explains why the Qianlong campaigns were most vigorously and upscheduledly prosecuted in the (former) Dzungar basin of N. Ili and Urumqi – 3 of the 10 (1755-1759), and the only ones which significantly expanded the imperial reach, as opposed to beating back or forestalling a threat.


The pastoral nature of the zone (even) at its westernmost extremity, at the foot of the Pamirs, is reflected in this the first of Qianlong’s (Western-painted) scrolls, representing the defeat of the (independent, Moslem) Dawachi Dzungar khan by a Banner force in the Ili corridor in 1755. But there are shades of pastoralism, at one end merging into what might be called “oasis urbanization”, producing a variety of long-distance tradeworthy outputs.
While at the other, never superseding unsettled steppe yieldful enough only support carefully planned seasonal grazing.

800px-Receiving_the_surrender_of_the_Yili Dzawachi Khan 1755maybe

The Qing (Banner) forces are strangely underarmed and isolated from any visible supply train: being entirely cavalry, they would have had to live on forage as they advanced; while the (Muslim) Dzungar force seems representative of a higher level of (complexity of) economic and technological acculturation. They are armed with (at least) 17th century (Czarist) muskets and ? bayonets [and cannon?], which would have to be “fed” by separate military logistical units (no doubt camel-trains), which would also have borne infantry rations (largely on-the-hoof) and probably water (?). If “campaign” livestock (sheep, camels, and yaks (?) removed from grazing) equate to capital investment, and the costs of smithing weapons etc. are added in, their military is much more akin to Russo-European or perhaps Ottoman formations than to the classically Mongolian “pony” columns fielded (in least pictorially) by the Qing. The distinction suggests that the corridor had a semi-divide of sorts: the caravan pastoralists of the trans-Pamir seem to have been quite a bit better off (wealthier) than the desert-pony nomads of the Gobi, and thus were able to deploy (the luxury) of muskets as they confronted their “Manchu” attackers: presumably they would have held out or even triumphed had the attacking force not had (invisible) technical or financial support from the China warchest. But perhaps the de-visualizing of this all-important support infrastructure is also part of a strategic message: the Qing wishe(d) to retain the area as in a sense part of the Great Mongol-Buddhist heritage, as an in memoriam to the Yuan conquerors. One finds the same message of course in the roping off of so much of “Manchuria” as the Fort Bragg for Manchu cavalry and archery practice.

Coastal Strategy: China’s Skittishness as a Deepwater Naval Power/Inshore Paranoia

Coastal Insecurity Index – Patrol Craft Radius, average (Coastal+Waterways, and Coastal Only), km/vessel

coastal insecity index 2012

China’s perennial and surviving deflection or hesitancy of deep-water naval building (relative to potential) might seem strange considering the long list of amphibious invasions suffered since the 1890s, which low fleet readiness and lower still technical equipage very greatly explain.

(Data to follow).

Without psychotherapeutical access to the PLA’s top staffers, we have to guess: but if there is such a thing as historically justified paranoia or eccentricity of focus, the key factor would seem to be highly fragmentary nature of cross-oceanic exchange insofar as ethnically Chinese owned trading “junks” sustained it. From at least the 16th century, a division of labor becomes visible between cargo-specific truly longhaul carriers, deploying from the “East India Companies” of Portugal, Spain, Holland, France and Britain, on the one hand, and what might be best grasped as (Chinese-manned) cruises of opportunity along the E China archipelago (Japan to Malaya/Java) which, much like later (latter-day) American whaling fleets, had neither bases nor scheduled terminals nor even schedules – trading till their holds were full then limping into the port nearest the community/dialect zone where they had recruited their crews and refitting.

Not that the strategic curiosity was missing. The ever-badmouthed Ming court sent 7 missions (1405-1433) to sea – along what is now called the “Maritime Silk Road” – with larger fleets, ships, and embarked soldiers than any of the subsequent European trading fleets were able to muster, and more than a century before they even appeared – getting as far (South) West as the Gulf of Hormuz or perhaps even the E. African shore.

But, tellingly, these great flotillas were not fitted out to or mandated to explore opportunities for high-value-added cargo trading, such as Portugal had started in 1510 along the Coromandel coast (for spices). Nor indeed were they even armed for fleet-to-fleet combat: like their almost contemporary Spanish seagoing galleons, but even more so, they were undergunned and badly designed for anything but floating-tower type exchanges.

The strictly trading-purposed junk fleets that had already emerged from the shell of coastal trade to/with Arab traders were not in fact truly fleets at all.
Not even privateer letters of marque linked them to coastal authority; no bills of lading or customs collection were ever imposed; no records kept by officials of sailing dates, crew sizes, cargoes. Still less was there any surveillance or permissioning of one of their key cargoes: emigrants from the SE coast to the arc of underpopulated subtropical territories, eventually peaking in the 19th century when British tin-mining along the Kra Peninsula began to draw bundled parties of what we now call coolies. Seasonal catches of a large-scale dimension do not figure either, though crab, shrimp, and cuttlefish were in the onshore diet and did coalesce for breeding.

But the biggest counterfactual cargo was “not-slaves”. The largest and most in-need-of-protection longhaul cargo across the Atlantic, after the original spice chest had been filled, was NE African slave-labor. Not only did it make specialized large-tonnage carriage profitable for investors (many recruited via the London stock exchanges) but it reliably delivered a labor supply for the colonizing of the Caribbean then the Southern US, whose counter-exports (sugar, tobacco, less so rice) essentially paid the cost of a high seas navy several times over.

To her long term credit (humanistically speaking), China never quite reached the point of direct-market human transoceanic exchange managed by third party capitalists: “coolie” migration on fixed-term contract was alike in scale and profitability, but generally went in or on foreign-owned bottoms, in which the recruiters did not themselves invest. Transport risk was somebody else’s worry, though by the turn of the 20th century presumptively “progressive” provincial officials had begun to lobby for an open door for indentured (coolie) labor to the US and Canada, first for railway construction (as far south as Panama), then, ironically, for silver-mining in Nevada (this at a time when silver was still in scarcity in the mother country).

But there was something in the psychology of (even) pre-Manchu imperia and then (for sure) in the 1930s-50s that made a strategic, single-corridor focus very hard to accept – a problem that was to hamstring KMT China’s scattershot approach to resistance, which seems in retrospect to have been both territorially universal and reactive. This was not the master plan. Wisely transplanting the Russian/Soviet model of pre-engineered retreat from (in the face of) a single-axis enemy campaign, and making sure to stay clear of the inevitable side-runs (encirclements) to be expected as invasive progress stalls, the Wartime government, albeit with some relapses, conceded that it would have to fight from the West – the uppermost reaches of the Yangtze, where it melds with the Tibetan hydro-plateau, thence intersects with N-S riverine extensions in Yunnan and Burma, and also (then anyway) with a N-S highway route to Kunming, in turn expected to be a “second” (say, Murmansk/Archangel-like) point of influx for external munitions via the Burma road(s) once the European war cut the Indochina rail link via Guizhou.

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