Soviet sea denial in Port Arthur and Dairen
Troops of the 13th Nationalist Army disembark from the USS Cullman (APA-78) in Chinhuangtao, China, in October 1945. This is one among many transport ships that was denied access to Port Arthur throughout the month of September 1945
Two U.S. admirals whose transportation of Chinese troops was frustrated by the Soviet tactics were Daniel E. Barbey (left) and Thomas C. Kinkaid. Despite repeated Chinese demands, they refused to embroil the U.S.A. in China’s developing civil war by landing KMT troops in a conflict area (Courtesy of U.S. National Archives)
Although U.S. efforts to support Chinese Nationalists via troop transport were sometimes thwarted by Communist forces, the U.S. continued to support the Nationalists in other ways, including provision of military equipment. Shown here: a Chinese Sherman tank, among the first of many.
Taking advantage of several vaguely written articles in the Sino–Soviet Friendship Treaty, signed with the Nationalist government on 14 August 1945, the Soviet Union actively intervened in the Chinese Civil War by blocking international access to Manchuria’s main ports, thereby helping to tip the military balance in favor of the Communists. Soviet assistance ensured that the Chinese communists would never face a combined land-sea attack from the Nationalist Army and Navy. This enabled the People’s Liberation Army to surround and destroy Nationalist troops sequentially.
In talks leading up to the February 1945 Yalta conference, Joseph Stalin promised W. Averell Harriman, the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow, that he would ‘support America’s open door policy’ backing China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. By the time the agreement was signed on 11 February 1945, however, Stalin had convinced Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to grant the USSR a ‘pre-eminent’ position in Manchuria. This was widely understood to mean ‘in regard to other powers, not to China.’ During Sino–Soviet talks in the summer of 1945, Stalin insisted that ‘pre-eminent interests’ meant greater than ‘China’s interests' as well. This interpretation vastly exceeded Yalta’s terms.
Sino–Soviet negotiations resulting in the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance agreed that Port Arthur (in Chinese Lüshun) would be fully under Soviet control while the administration of the city of Dairen (Dalian) would be split, with the USSR exerting control over this strategic port only during times of war. When the Soviet government refused to return control of Dairen to China during fall 1945, however, Moscow claimed that without a signed peace treaty with Japan, the port continued to fall under the military ‘administration of the Port Arthur naval base’ and it ‘sees no basis for a change of the regime.’
The Nationalist government repeatedly denounced Moscow’s interpretation, arguing these terms were based on precautionary measures against the possible re-emergence of an aggressive Japan and not as means of fostering aggressive competition between China and the Soviet Union. When the Nationalist Navy tried to land troops at the alternate port of Newchwang, the USSR foiled this plan while sticking to the letter of their agreement. The Russians withdrew from Newchwang, which was then occupied by Chinese communist guerilla forces. The Russian authorities then notified the Chinese government that they could not guarantee a safe arrival for Nationalist troops.
Either by directly denying Nationalist ships access or by allowing selected ports to fall into Communist hands, the Soviet Union effectively halted the flow of Nationalist troops by sea to many of the most strategic areas in Manchuria. The United States Navy was powerless to help because, under General Order No. 1, access to ports was limited to the country tasked with accepting Japanese surrender. Hence, the United States could not intervene to assist the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War.
The Communist victory in Manchuria, which was the first step in taking power throughout mainland China, can thus be attributed in large measure to the USSR’s sea denial policy in Port Arthur, Dairen, and along the Manchurian littoral. (See also Elleman 2008.)
Although the Sino–Soviet friendship treaty proscribed cooperation between the Soviet Union and Chinese communists, the Soviet retreat left open territory that Mao's forces quickly filled. This undated photo shows Chinese communist soldiers heading toward Manchuria.