Despite not taking any official part in the Russo-Japanese War, China was a vital stakeholder. Her neutrality was perhaps the most important political and military decision taken by any during the conflict.
The war took place on China’s land, but certainly not on her terms. She was caught in the middle of two nations keen for victory for very different reasons: Tsar Nicolas II of Russia required a military triumph to revive his declining popularity. Contrastingly, the Meiji Emperor in Japan was sitting on a developing economy, and the chance to stamp Japanese authority on East Asia (see http://wp.me/p3g0mz-1L for a discussion of capitalist development in Japan). The Japanese victory, a crushing one by any measure, was the first time a developing nation had defeated a genuine world power in open warfare: this was an inspiring feat for the Chinese to witness, and nationalist discourse developed significantly in the years following the war.
Story and Sentiment
Prior to the declaration of war, China found herself in a tricky position. She had little to offer either Japan or Russia, lacking the true military and political power to participate. Even as tensions grew in 1903, China had failed to express its stance on the impending conflict. In the end, it was unanimously encouraged, that China remain as neutral as possible towards the war, but her position was in doubt right up until the Japanese victory in 1905.
Russian failure to withdraw from Manchuria resulted in Japan declaring war in February 1904. The Russians never won a clear battle during the 15 months of conflict. They were pushed back by the Japanese from Port Arthur on the Liaodong Peninsula, retreating to Liaoyang and then Mukden. In March 1905, Japan defeated Russia on land as 400,000 Japanese soldiers stormed Mukden, but there was still conflict to be resolved in the water. Russia was finally finished off in the battle of the Tsushima Straits, fought in the Korean/Japanese seas, when Admiral Togo’s fleet intercepted a final Russian attempt to retake Port Arthur, annihilating the Russian navy and forcing surrender.
Upon its declaration of neutrality, China warned both Russia and Japan not to violate its lands in Manchuria. It seems, however, that they paid little attention. While the Russians were perhaps slightly favoured over the Japanese in Manchuria, having already occupied part of the region, sentiment towards the two sets of intruders was distinctly negative. Both Russian and Japanese treatment of the Manchurian Chinese was harsh and brutal. Although it was reasonably common to find mercenaries spying for one side or the other, neither Russia or Japan showed any mercy to those who crossed their path.
In Chinese urban centres however, the notion of Pan-Asianism was developing. Japanese actions were interpreted positively and the public turned somewhat on its own rulers for their lack of support. Students and other motivated social groups took Qing neutrality as a display of faulty Manchu commitment to China as a whole. Some even requested that they be allowed to join the Imperial Army as volunteers, although this was never officially sanctioned by the Qing government.
The Treaty of Portsmouth, signed in September 1905, ended the Russo-Japanese War declaring Japan as the victor, but was a disappointment to the Meiji government. The Japanese felt that they had not seen the fruits of their sacrifice, retaining trade ports but little formal control over the majority of the land on which they had fought. For the Russians, defeat only had a detrimental effect on the position of the Tsar, who would struggle for power until his murder in 1917.
The Manchurian Treaties between China and Japan were reasonably beneficial to the Chinese, who lost none of their official economic influence in Manchuria, although they conceded to allowing Japan autonomy over many of the coastal trading ports. However, it soon became apparent that Japan had imperialist intent in the region, as China lost control of much of the railway system that had been used during the war. Some resentment towards Japan grew as Chinese interests in Manchuria were compromised.
Some historians regard the Russo-Japanese War as an important catalyst to infrastructural developments in China, such as civil service reforms, academic investment and military modernisation. A defeat of a Western power at the hands of an Asian nation was certainly motivating; it was thought that if China could mobilise its resources, then it could have considerable impact in the global sphere, as Japan now had.
While the immediate effects of the war on China were compromising to say the least (loss of some economic and political power in Manchuria, loss of land etc.), the conflict was too instructional not to have had a somewhat positive, or inspiring, impact too. The growth of nationalism in China in the aftermath of the war was to have a critical impact on future events such as the 1911 Revolution.
Jacques Gernet, 1982. A History of Chinese Civilisation. Cambridge: CUP
Rolem Kowner, 2007. The Impact of the Russo-Japanese War. London: Routledge