Russian East Asia Policy

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This article describes the politics of the Russian Empire in the Far East between 1890 and 1905.

History of Russia

Main articles: History of Russia and History of Siberia

In the 19th century, the Russian Empire was characterized by its economic backwardness compared with the other major European powers. It was not until 1861 - around 50 years later than in Prussia - that serfdom was abolished and industrialization , which was initially slow, penetrated only slowly into the rural areas of Russia. The prevailing poverty and the lost Crimean War of 1856 fueled dissatisfaction among the population, which was largely made up of peasants.

The constant threat of revolution caused the Tsar and his government to think about measures to calm the population.

Goals of Russian Far East Policy

Due to the conditions described, a decision was made in the second half of the 19th century to expand the Russian Empire to the south and east. They wanted to expand their borders significantly, but shied away from overseas imperialism because they were not up to the British naval superiority.

Therefore, China , which was enormously marked and weakened by the loss of prestige of the Qing emperors , offered itself for the Russian projects in East Asia. Here, and especially in Manchuria in northeast China, attempts were made to create new sales markets for Russian products before “ Great Britain or Germany could finally gain a foothold in China”. In addition, the area around Vladivostok (“Rule the East”), a port city on the Sea of ​​Japan founded in 1860, would finally be opened up and economic and political supremacy in northern China would be achieved.

Finally, through the export of capital and goods (“ financial imperialism ”) and the import of raw materials, industrialization, which until now was largely financed by foreign capital (“ borrowed imperialism ”), was supposed to be boosted in order to finally be able to settle foreign debts.

Railways as an "imperialist tool"

“Their [meaning Russia's East Asia policy] vehicle was the railroad, their instrument - the bank and loan capital that is sibling with the St. Petersburg treasury, their declared goal - the long-term development of sales markets, the 'peaceful penetration' of economically undeveloped, power-devoid territories Strengthening the imperial position of the tsarist empire. " (Dietrich Geyer)

Dietrich Geyer describes the methods and goals of the Russian East Asian policy between 1890 and 1905 in his book “The Russian Imperialism”. Geyer assigns central importance to the railway - primarily the Trans-Siberian Railway - without opening up China, and thus also the imperialist projects of the Russian Empire, would have been impossible.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, the rapid expansion of the rail network was part of economic and industrial growth and played a key role in industrialization. Now it was possible to develop distant areas and to unite them economically. At the same time, the high capital requirements for railway construction linked large-scale industry with banks. This made railways a symbol of the imperialist development of a nation and, according to Lenin, the "most vivid gauge of the development of world trade and of bourgeois-democratic civilization."

The areas opened up by the railway construction became economically dependent on the industrialized nation and experienced a change from subsistence to a world market economy . For the industrialized countries, the dependent countries offered a suitable market for their own consumer goods, while raw materials were imported from the imperialist territory. The construction of the railways also brought massive capital exports to the dependent countries, while heavy industry could profit from technology exports at the same time. In summary, it can be said that railway construction in underdeveloped countries has always been accompanied by capital exports and branches of other industries and that new sales markets and raw material sources have been created for the industrial superpower.

Examples of railways as a means of expansion

Around 1900 there are some examples of such an expansion policy in which railways served as the tool of imperialist penetration to build informal colonial empires:

  • The transcontinental railways of the USA from 1869: Railroad lines that connected the west and east coasts of America (“from coast-to-coast”) and heralded the time of the imperial expansion of the United States. The USA grew from an agricultural nation to an industrial nation within a few years. ( see: History of the Railroad in North America )
  • The Baghdad Railway (Anatolian Railway) from 1912: Railway line that extends from Constantinople (now Istanbul) in Turkey to Baghdad in Iraq. The Baghdad Railway was a German project financed by Deutsche Bank, among others, and was intended to establish a direct connection to the oil-rich Mesopotamia on the Persian Gulf and to increase German influence in the Ottoman Empire.

Russian "railroad imperialism"

But the Russian Empire, in the period between 1890 and 1905, had almost identical goals with its expansion policy in the Far East, with the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway playing an important role.

The Russian intervention in the peace negotiations between China and Japan (see Treaty of Shimonoseki ) and the occupation of the "ice-free port" of Port Arthur at the beginning of 1898 fueled the nervousness of the Japanese, who are threatened by the Russian Empire in their position as a great power in East Asia saw. In the resulting Russo-Japanese War , which began with an attack by the Japanese on Port Arthur and was decided by the naval battle of Tsushima , the Russians were defeated so that they had to give up the port of Port Arthur and largely evacuate Manchuria.

Conception of the Trans-Siberian Railway

In order to realize the Russian plans in the Far East and to be able to control the developed area in Manchuria accordingly, the Russian leadership began building the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1891 .

This project, headed by Finance Minister Sergei Juljewitsch Witte , exceeded all previous projects in size and played a key role in Russia's East Asian policy.

"The Russian enterprise in the Far East at the end of the 19th century was impossible without railways". (Hans-Ulrich Wehler)

Sergei Witte struggled to convince the government of the need for a railway line to Vladivostok on the east coast of Asia. He struggled with critics in the government who questioned the economic benefits and funding of the railroad and found it difficult to convey the ideology of the Trans-Siberian Railroad to the people.

In addition to the creation of new sources of raw materials and markets in China, Witte advertised the increased development of the so far little developed Siberia , whose rich natural resources could be exploited by the construction of the railroad.

The resulting economic upswing in the Russian Empire should eliminate poverty and overcome its own backwardness compared to the industrialized nations. In addition to saving time when trading with the East Asian region, the railroad would make it much easier to station troops in the event of a conflict.

Witte also appealed to the nationalism of the Russians by explaining the interest of other great powers in the potential target of China and the need for rapid action. In order to be able to compete with the other industrially more highly developed states, one would have to be the first major power in China to secure a zone of influence and to force it into economic dependence. The neighborhood role of Russia in connection with the railroad was seen as an enormous advantage over the other major European powers active in East Asia.

In the course of the propaganda before and during the construction of the railroad, Witte turned out to be a good speaker who knew how to use his speeches to stylize the railroad project into a “world event” capable of attracting the “currents of world trade “And to assign Russia an important role in the relationship between Europe and Asia.

With the presentation of all these economic, political and nationalistic arguments for his endeavors in East Asia and not least his oratorical skills, Witte was able to convince the Russian government and enforce the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1891.

Railway construction phase 1891–1897

Witte, who worked his way up from a position in the railroad to transport and finally to finance minister, was the defining head of Russian politics at this time, as there was no prime minister.

From the beginning he strove for a “ peaceful penetration ” (“pénétration pacifique”) of northern China by gradually making the area economically dependent and subjecting it to Russian influence. The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway gained increasing international importance through investments from abroad and was at the same time the “engine and guide rail of industrialization” (Dietrich Geyer) in Russia. In total, the project covered a distance of 25,300 kilometers and devoured 39 percent of Russia's pig iron production.

Initially, the Russian Empire, relatively unmolested by other great powers, was able to expand peacefully in accordance with Witte's ideas in order to expand its strategic possibilities.

Sino-Japanese War and Port Arthur Conflict

While the Siberian metropolitan area was gradually being developed by Russia, a conflict between Japan and China broke out in the Far East of Asia.

The reason for the dispute were Japan's ambitions in Korea , a vassal state of China. These disputes over the political status of Korea finally culminated in the First Sino-Japanese War in August 1894 , which Japan won in April 1895 due to considerable military superiority. The devastated China was devastated and forced to cede the Liaodong Peninsulas with the port of Port Arthur to Japan, which collided with the interests of the other great powers.

Above all, the Russian Empire, whose declared goal was an ice-free port like Port Arthur, was reluctant to occupy Port Arthur, which is why they turned to the other major European powers. Thus, in 1895, Russian diplomacy managed to achieve cooperation with the German Empire and France and thus create a naval superiority over Japan. Thereupon Japan gave in to the pressure of the hopelessly superior powers and gave up the Liaodong Peninsulas and Port Arthur.

Once again it was mainly the work of Sergei Juljewitsch Witte who achieved a "peaceful" evacuation of Port Arthur through diplomatic channels. He himself recognized the favorable position of the port of Port Arthur on the Yellow Sea and therefore, with the help of the " East Asian Triple Alliance ", paved the way for his own expansion in Manchuria.

Russo-Chinese Alliance of 1896

Another step towards the development of Manchuria was the decision of the Russian Empire to extend a hand to save China, which was marked by the lost war, in order to be able to realize its own ambitions in the northeast. The result of the cooperation was the Russian-Chinese alliance of 1896:

While the Russian Empire guaranteed the integrity of the Chinese Empire against a Japanese attack, in return it received the concession to build the East China Railway , a considerable shortening of the railway line to Vladivostok, which runs across Manchuria to the Russian port city.

The Russian project of the Far East expansion increasingly became a foreign policy issue of the first order and gained more and more explosiveness through the Russian intervention in the Sino-Japanese peace settlement and the subsequent Russian-Chinese defensive alliance. The alliance with China and, above all, the construction of the east Chinese railway caused criticism of Witte's policy within the Russian authorities, and the project was described as a “huge historical mistake”. One could not expect "Russification of Manchuria", so that a military defense of the area is impossible.

Nonetheless, Witte stuck to his peaceful, imperialist policy and in 1896 even discussed the construction of a branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway towards Port Arthur with Li Hongzhang (Viceroy of China). The peaceful expansion of the Russian borders up to this point followed the ideas of Finance Minister Witte, who was in control of the Russian-Chinese bank founded in 1895 and the East China Railway, and thus also over the whole of Manchuria.

But just two years later, his domestic rivals' striving for prestige and profit thwarted Witte's plans for a “pénétration pacifique”, which gradually led to the finance minister being disempowered and the Russian Empire to expand more aggressively.

Change in Russian expansion policy, occupation of Port Arthurs in 1897/98

After the decision to build the East China Railway towards the end of 1897, thus securing Russian influence in Manchuria, the main focus of Russian expansion was now on the port of Port Arthur, which, unlike Vladivostok, was ice-free.

The new Foreign Minister Mikhail N. Muravyov in particular pleaded for a quick occupation of the port, contrary to the agreements made by China and contrary to Witte's concept of "peaceful penetration". When Muravyev, supported by the tsar, was finally able to assert himself and, in early 1898, occupy the Liaodong Peninsula with Port Arthur as a naval port and Dalni as a trading port, Witte's first defeat in the struggle for supremacy over Russia's Far East policy was sealed. Witte tried in vain to oppose the sudden occupation of the ports, urged friendship with China and warned against the Japanese, who saw themselves cheated of the price of their victory over China and might react to the occupation of Port Arthur by imitating Korea. Undeterred by Witte's warnings and proposals for an agreement “on the basis of economic interests”, the Russian leadership was able to lease the southern Liaodong Peninsula, including Port Arthur, for 25 years in March 1898.

Witte then made the most of his failure by finalizing negotiations on the concession of a line connecting the East China Railroad to Port Arthur - the Transmanjurian Railway.

The occupation of Port Arthur was the first detachment from Witte's expansion concept and resulted in a number of other offensive Russian measures in which the use of "regular troops" was increasingly demanded by the Russian elites. So far, Greater Manchuria has been under the control of the Russian-Chinese Bank and the Railway Police of the East China Railways , which in turn were subordinate to Finance Minister Witte, but the empire's more aggressive action in the Far East has resulted in the use of "regular troops", i.e. troops that support the Russian War Minister Kuropatkin was inevitably subject to it.

The Boxer Rebellion of 1900

After the Russian admiralty increasingly demanded reinforcement of the troops and the armament of the fleet in East Asia, the so-called " Boxer Uprising " in China of 1900 finally gave the War Minister Kuropatkin the opportunity to station well over 100,000 soldiers in Manchuria to suppress the uprising .

This uprising, led by the members of the Chinese secret society " Fist for Law and Harmony ", was a movement against all foreigners and against Christianization in China. The followers of the order saw the Chinese culture and traditions perish, whereupon on May 18, 1900 they began to cut telegraph lines, destroy Russian railway tracks and kill Chinese Christians . Regular Chinese troops and even the government support the xenophobia movement to protect themselves.

This enabled intervention from the Russian side, so that Kuropatkin had the first opportunity to station his troops in the Chinese sphere of influence. Together with German, US, Japanese, French and, above all, British troops, the Boxer Rebellion was suppressed in August 1900.

The following boxer protocol of February 1901 decided, on the one hand, that Manchuria would remain in China's possession and, on the other hand, that while the other great powers were withdrawing their armed forces, Russia's troops could remain in Manchuria after the uprising to protect the railroad.

With this 1901 resolution, control of Manchuria fell almost entirely into the hands of Minister of War Kuropatkin and Port Arthur was transformed into a huge naval and military base. With the subsequent loss of the railway monopoly in Manchuria and the release from his ministerial office, Witte finally lost all power to influence Far East policy, while his domestic opponents Sergei Besobrasow (State Secretary and later in the Special Committee for "Far Eastern Issues") and Vyacheslav von Plehwe (Minister of the Interior) gained power.

Russo-Japanese War

Since the Russian intervention in their peace negotiations with China in 1895 and the military occupation of Port Arthur in 1898, the Japanese have viewed the Russian military's continued military build-up with suspicion. They understood the southern Liaodong Peninsulas as their "rightful property" and saw their position as a great power in East Asia threatened.

With the concentration of Russian troops in Manchuria and, in 1903, also in Korea, the threatening war between the two world powers seemed inevitable. At the same time, the Russian leadership looked calmly in the face of the impending war, as they greatly underestimated the Japanese due to their expanded fleet . Especially the said Interior Minister Plehwe was very arrogant:

"Russia was created through bayonets, not through diplomacy, and we have to decide the issues that are disputed with China and Japan with bayonets and not with the feathers of diplomacy" or "Alexej Nikolajewitsch [meaning War Minister Kuropatkin ] , you do not know the internal situation in Russia . To contain the revolution, we need a small, victorious war. " (Plehwe)

These quotes from the interior minister show the arrogance of leading Russian politicians who believed in the invincibility of their own fleet.

Attack on Port Arthur

On the night of February 8 to February 9, 1904, the first attack took place Japanese at Port Arthur , that the Russian naval port in Manchuria.

Without a declaration of war, Japanese torpedoes hit the ships lying in the port that night, but after the first wave of attacks they were able to initiate evasive maneuvers, so that the Russian losses were limited.

This was followed by the battle of Chemulpo , the siege of Port Arthur , the naval battle in the Yellow Sea , the battle of Mukden and finally the decisive naval battle at Tsushima . By that decisive battle, the Russians had already suffered a few losses, which affected the morale of the Russian army . Finally, Japan retained the upper hand in the Battle of Tsushima, so that the Russian fleet was crushed.

Mediation through Roosevelt

After the Russian defeat at Mukden , the American President Theodore Roosevelt offered himself to mediate between the two warring parties. On September 5, 1905, the so-called Peace of Portsmouth was finally signed in Massachusetts :

The Russian Empire had to give up the right to lease the Liaodong Peninsulas and Port Arthurs, cede the southern half of Sakhalin to Japan, and recognize Japan's supremacy in Korea. There were no reparations and thus a loss of prestige, so that the negotiations were reasonably favorable for the tsarist empire.

Reasons for the failure of Russian policy on the Far East

With the start of construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway , the Russian expectations and goals were clearly too high. It was believed that in addition to China, Korea and Japan could also be subjected to its influence, and the Japanese were underestimated, as they rose at a rapid pace from an isolated island kingdom to a global power.

Some sources - including reports from Russian emissaries - show that the Japanese army in particular was highly regarded around 1900 and should not be underestimated. In addition, quotations, such as those from Interior Minister Plehwe, already mentioned above, illustrate the Russian arrogance that only ended in the defeat against Japan.

In addition to their own arrogance in setting imperialist goals and the underestimation of Japanese power, structural damage within Russia set limits to the expansion policy in China early on. The prevailing poverty in the country continuously exacerbated "the instability of the social and political order" of Russia.

In addition, the weak leadership of the autocratic government and the disagreements among the Russian power elites contributed enormously to the failure of Far East policy. If one had consistently stayed on Finance Minister Witte's course and had his ideology of “peaceful expansion” prevailed, the conflict with Japan would certainly not have escalated.

See also