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Carving up the roast

Christopher Nuttall

In 1900, some elements of Chinese society held a less ambiguous ‘protest vote’ against the foreigners who had invaded their country, forced a new religion on some of them and brought their government, corrupt and ineffient as it was, to heel, exhorting concessions, territory and special rights from it.  They were called the Boxers, and their small war came to be known as the ‘Boxer Rebellion’. 

History records that the Boxers, while laying siege to the foreign quarter in Peking, and disrupting troop movements, failed spectacularly to inflict any form of defeat upon the western powers (and Japan), even when the odds were vastly in their favour.  The Empress-Dowager, the effective ruler of china, had joined the rebellion for a time, and she had modern weapons.  So why did they not manage to break the siege?

The historian Henry Keown-Boyd, who wrote the best book on the subject, speculated (and, for what its worth, I agree with him), that the Empress-Dowager Tzu Hsi, once she had realized that the Boxer’s claim to supernatural aid had been disproved, realized that they (the boxers) must NOT succeed.  One of her greatest fears had been her empire being carved up by the victorious powers, Russia, France, Germany, Japan, the USA, Britain and Italy.   Italy has the distinction, if such it can be called, of being the only nation to have been faced down by the Chinese when they attempted to bully them out of a harbour.  This may well have encouraged the Boxers.

The Americans and, perhaps, the British could be expected to resist demands for china to be divided up between the powers.  For different reasons, the two powers would support the Chinese.  For the British, still playing the Great Game, if Russia achieved paramountisy in China, the problems of defending India and their section of China, would become insurmountable.  The Americans would not have got much territory out of any carving and would have feared the loss of trade. 

The Russians, still rivals with Britain, the French and Germans, desperate for empire and their place in the sun, and the Japanese, who want to prove themselves, are all in favour of dividing China between the great powers.  Ironically, this action will probably mean that relations between the four of them are likely to deoriate, as Japanese will collide with Russian and German.  The Italians may want territory, but I can’t see any of the other powers supporting that.

One point does come from that:  The British and the Americans can probably work together better than the Russians, French and Germans.  The Japanese will be the joker in the deck, but they are very vulnerable to Britain, so they’ll probably stay out of any conflict or take Britain’s side.

However, this is not a ‘great war in 1900’ secrenio, and I am going to consider what might happen if China was carved up between the powers.  The Boxer Rebellion will probably have to be the start point.  If it had been more brutal and destructive, there would have been a strong case for dividing China.  (There would also have been a case for leaving China alone, but people who want to build empires tend to ignore that.)

As I’ve noted above, the Empress-Dowager, after a brief filtration with the boxers, probably wanted them to fail.  In this timeline, she believes that she will be killed anyway, therefore she may as well try the best she can to give the ‘foreign devils’ a bloody nose.  She orders the imperial troops to halt the relief force, made up of an international force under a German general, and gives the boxers siege weapons to destroy the foreign quarter.  The result is inevitable:  The siege succeeds and everyone inside the compound is killed.

After a hard march though China, fighting Chinese troops of varying quality, the international force finally reaches Peking.  They discover the massacre and that the culprits have melted away into the countryside.  Their response is nasty:  they destroy and loot Peking and kill all the Chinese that they find.  This pretty much happened in OTL.  Then the powers hold a conference, negotiating with each other and the Empress-Dowager’s representive, Li Hung-Chung.  Li is probably better than China deserved at that point; he’s patriotic, devoted to the Empress-Dowager and cunning - and screwed.  In OTL, he manages to talk the powers out of simple annexation and conquest, in this timeline, he has a much harder job – and he fails. 

To be fair, this is not entirely his fault.  While he stalls for time, the Russians get impatient and cut a deal with the Germans.  The two powers will annex their ‘spheres of influence’ directly and dare the others to do anything about it.  The Russians also put pressure on the French to either join in or stay on the sidelines.  The annexation severely annoys Britain and the USA.  Italy is unhappy too, but can do nothing, while Britain is caught on the horns of a dilemma, if she takes her share, she is adding more territory to an already overburdened empire, while if she does not, the Russians might try and take the territory and get alarmingly close to India. 

Japan acts quickly and annexes her ‘sphere of influence’, followed closely by France.  The British hesitate, but reports of Russian troop movements and hostile noises from Japan prompt her to take her ‘sphere of influence’ and begin alliance talks with Japan.  In this timeline, Japan is less eager for an alliance, but it is made.  However, the alliance comes into play if there is a collision between Japan or Britain with Russia and another power.  Technically speaking, if the Russians start a war with Japan, the British are not obliged to get involved.  Italy, who believes that she has been cheated of her rightful share, begins a military build-up. 

In 1900, the various powers, all determined to keep up with the other bullying Joneses, all had areas of china assigned to them as ‘spheres of influence’.  These were

Russia:  All to the north of the great wall (Disputed with Japan)

Germany:  Shantung Province and the yellow river valley

British: The Yangtze Valley and central China

Japan: Fukien Province and Formosa (Taiwan)

France: South China, bordering on Indo-china

After the boxer rebellion in ATL, the powers have all moved large forces into their areas and begun an invasion or suppression.  The Chinese army of that period was, not to put too fine a point upon it, crap, and I can’t see them achieving more than a local success – if that – against European armies.  Therefore the occupations are completed quickly.  In some points, the powers butt heads.

The Empress-Dowager is captured by the powers and made to sign a document surrendering China in perpetually.  She, and the surviving members of the Manchu Dynasty, are exiled to France.  She will never set foot back in China again.

There is one other main factor of Chinese origin to be considered: the Boxers.  While they would have lost badly against Europeans (and vanished completely after the rebellion in OTL), they are still a powerful force and they conduct guerrilla wars against the occupying powers.  These are a constant thorn in the sides of the powers, and they respond in different ways.

So, its now 1902, and the world is very different.  China has been divided up between the powers, America is more isolationist and untrusting (Wilson’s government fell when the senate saw that America would not get a share of China) and Japan and Russia have a new reason to butt heads.  

In OTL, two years from now, the Russians and the Japanese went to war over Korea and Manchuria, a war which the Russians pushed the Japanese into starting.  In this timeline, the Russian empire will still be digesting its new territories, but the Japanese think that they have no choice.  They must strike, or lose their independence slowly.  They start the war with a pre-emptive strike at Port Arthur.   The war goes well at first for the Japanese, they achieve naval superiority very quickly, as in OTL, but here there are just too many Russian men in China.  The Russians manage to stabilise a defence line at the Yala River, and hold the Japanese there. 

At this point, events take a sharp turn towards global war.  Germany and France both announce that the conflict is threatening their national interests and send large forces to China.  They also plan to use these forces to hunt down the remaining boxers.  The Kaiser of Germany discovers that he needs a fleet as the British or French could have sunk his transports with ease.  The Germans begin building a naval fleet.  Sensing competition, the British respond by building a new class of ship, the Dreadnaught.  Launched in 1906, she would change the face of naval warfare. 

The Russians eventually manage to counter-attack across the Yala and push down into Korea, threatening to push the Japanese off the continent entirely.  Nether Britain or Germany can allow that and they both protest loudly to Russia.  The Russians point out that Japan did start the war and they want some of her territory as a salautly lesson.  The French persuade both sides to join a conference, which gives Russia half of Korea (about the same as North Korea today) and the Russo-Japanese war is over.  The Japanese take this defeat better than their ‘victory’ in OTL, as they have been roundly thrashed.

Note:  This is not a racist remark.  In the OTL RJ war, they won all the battles, but they very much lost the peace.  They got some territory, but no reparations and they were frankly abused by all the great powers – even Britain.  This led to riots in the streets and much unrest.  The west’s refusal to treat them as equals reaped a bitter harvest in World War Two.

So, where are we?  We’re in 1906 and the world is very different.  Ming China has been wiped off the earth, replaced by a bewildering division of its territory to the western powers.  We have a more powerful Russia, a stronger Germany, a weaker Japan and a severely overstretched British Empire. 

Short Term Consequences:

In this timeline, the prospects for a Russo-British war are far more plausible. Such a war, fought in china, would have pitted Britain, Japan and Germany against France and Russia.

Would there still be a first world war?  If we mean one like our timeline, the answer is probably no. 

Long-term consequences:

Lets assume that the world continues along much the same course until 1931, when in OTL Japan bumped into china.  In this timeline, they can’t move without bumping into one of the superpowers.  This could mean an earlier WW2.

Continuing this line of thought, what happens to china if it becomes independent when the colonial empires collapsed?  Would it remain divided along colonial lines, like much of Africa?   Or would there be a reunion like in Germany when the cold war ended?



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