Book Review: China at War

History, whether written by academics or popular writers, is usually delivered in easily recognizable chunks with familiar faces – the Pacific War, the Korean War, the Chinese Revolution, etc. But it is often the links between events that tell a more coherent story. Hans van de Ven, professor of Modern Chinese History at Cambridge University, has successfully provided these as he sees China through the almost continuous wars it faced between the Japanese invasion in 1937 and up to the Korean War stalemate reached after China’s intervention in. Korea from late 1951.

At the core of the book is the indivisible nature of the war up to 1949. The War of Resistance to the Japanese and the Civil War between Chiang’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists were two parts of a single conflict interplaying with each other. Thus the rural movement which flourished in Jiangxi and other southern areas in the mid-1930s undermined Chiang’s efforts at unification and ending warlords. Likewise Chiang’s success against the Communists which forced their Long March to northern Shaanxi provided them with a base which was to be geographically advantageous as events developed elsewhere.

The book succinctly describes the phases of Chiang’s fight against the invading Japanese but also the disorders, occasional famine, corruption and general weakness of government which hampered resistance to much less numerous but well-armed and motivated troops. The war between Japan and the western powers begun by the Pearl Harbor attack might in theory might have provided opportunity for Chiang to regain lost ground as Japan focused on other fronts. But Chiang’s forces, though large in number, were too poorly equipped and trained to take full advantage. Units were required to fend for themselves, resorting to smuggling to generate income and angering peasants by seizing their crops.

Nonetheless. Chiang rode high internationally, treated as a major ally by the US and UK. He was invited to the late 1943 Cairo Conference with Roosevelt and Churchill to discuss postwar arrangements and achieved the singular success of abolition of the so-called “unequal treaties.” (Stalin did not attend Cairo as the Soviets were not at war with Japan but he met Roosevelt and Churchill at the Teheran Conference immediately after Cairo).

But Cairo was a high point for Chiang. The author then focuses on what he sees as the turning point in the China war. Japan was in retreat on most fronts although it then achieved a major victory but one which did it no good. The beneficiary was Mao.

In 1944 Japan launched its biggest land offensive of the entire China/Pacific war, committing 500,000 troops plus multitudes of planes and artillery against Chiang in a bid to wipe out his armies. By then Japan was aware of its own weakness and sought to strengthen its position in China and secure a land route to Burma in preparation for what it imagined would be a negotiated end to the war – only in July 1945 did the allies demand Japan’s unconditional surrender.

The surprised nationalists suffered a series of major defeats from Henan to Hunan to Guizhou. Roosevelt, partly for his own electoral purposes turned against Chiang, encouraging public criticism of his regime. US media began to write kind words about the discipline and dedication of Mao’s forces. Among other things, Chiang was blamed for refusing to let the arrogant, racist General Stillwell take command of all Chinese forces. Chiang’s own failures were compounded by a US focus on Burma and on bombing campaigns rather than providing badly needed air support for Chiang’s armies. The US also failed to deliver promised weaponry as it gave priority to theaters other than China. The defeats did similar damage to Chiang’s reputation at home, with talk of coups and discontent among the elite.

Meanwhile Japan’s military focus on offensive left few troops to garrison vast areas of China, providing openings for Mao’s forces which the US media praised for dedication and resolve. Thus immediately following Japan’s surrender, Mao was on the march, seizing huge quantities of Japanese weapons and then linking up with Soviet forces in Manchuria and occupying as much formerly Japanese occupied territory as possible.

The book deals succinctly with the final four years of the civil war from the Japanese surrender to the Oct. 1, 1949 declaration of the People’s Republic and then proceeds to its soon successor, the war against the US (and others) in Korea. The latter was a remarkable if very costly success which owed much to the experience of the Red Army in the previous decades. Chinese human losses eventually made up for the rash Soviet inspired decision of the North to force reunification on its terms which almost ended with US troops on the Yalu river, the China border.

Mao was reluctant to enter the war despite heavy pressure from Stalin. Lin Biao, a hero of the struggle against Chiang, declined Mao’s offer to be in command of the Chinese “volunteers,” and Stalin’s promise of air support proved minimal in practice. Mao eventually agreed with Stalin that a US-dominated, unified Korea would be a threat to China itself. Although the war ended eventually in stalemate the early combination of surprise and numbers against a complacent US was a victory for China, and its army, and put it on a path to a renewed international role befitting its size.

This reviewer has chosen to focus on a few themes of the book, but readers are equally well served by its coverage of all the interlinked wars, not as a series of battles but of a continuing historical process where “time and chance” have mostly ruled.