Book Review: The 1929 Sino-Soviet War: The War Nobody Knew


by Michael Walker

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017. Pp. xvi, 400. Map, appends., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 0700623752

Chinese and Soviet Military Performance in a Forgotten War

The 1929 Sino-Soviet War is about the power struggle between China and Russia over China’s northeast, specifically over the former Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria, during the inter-war years. Michael Walker here has filled a long-standing gap in modern, pre-communist Chinese history with his impressive work on the 1929 War between a China emerging from its Warlord Era, and a Soviet Union emerging from its Bolshevik consolidation of the former Russia Empire. In a campaign whose numbers may be easy to ignore, the brief war in 1929 set much of the stage for pre-World War II Soviet military developments, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and World War II in Asia, which ultimately resulted in the communist conquest of China.

Starting with the often-ignored background of China’s warlord anarchy that would soon face the ever-increasing Imperial Japanese threat, and with a detailed description of the particulars of China’s northeastern railways which became the economic and geopolitical focus of Manchurian regional conflict, Walker proceeds with a review of the strengths and weaknesses of China’s Northeastern Army under Chang Hsu-liang (Zhang Xueliang), then a new ally of China’s fledgling central government led by a fractious Guomindang (Nationalist Party), and the strengths and weaknesses of Josef Stalin’s Far Eastern region’s forces. Walker details the sides’ equipment and leadership, with an easy narrative of the actual 1929 War and its immediate consequences.

Walker provides insight into the evolution of various military arms during the inter-war years by comparing the Chinese and Russian forces; with the more effective Russian use of artillery, riverine, and air power, particularly highlighting how the Chinese military in 1929 had not yet passed World War I quality. Interestingly, Chinese infantry through sheer determination gave a good account of themselves, especially as the Russians dominated the other arms. Walker provides an Order of Battle and a chart of the previous and modern name for many locations, which is particularly handy for English readers faced with Chinese and Russian names. Walker rounds off his discussion by describing the parties’ use and effectiveness of their propaganda weapons.

Walker comes to the conclusion that the Chinese barely had a modern military, despite having the equipment and numbers, when compared with the Russians, who were just beginning to formulate the Soviet “operational art” for modern mechanized forces. The Chinese may have had some modern equipment, but had not yet developed the modern use of that equipment. Furthermore, the relevant Chinese military leadership was still mired in a warlord mentality which made force preservation a paramount objective, as compared to the Soviets who had a more nation-state willingness to expend resources for achieving national strategic goals. Walker is quite clear that the 1929 War was further proof of the failure of inter-war collective security and pacifism.

Perhaps even more notable than the specific military aspects of the 1929 War, however, is how Walker’s work lays bare the hypocrisy of the communist ideology of the time, from the Soviet Union’s reneging on its promise to return China’s land to China’s control, to the Chinese communists support of foreign Russian control of China’s property while accusing other Chinese for a supposed lack of patriotism. In addition, the often-heard criticism against the Guomindang, the Chinese communists’ main opposition at the time, for the Guomindang’s unwillingness to resist Imperial Japanese aggression during the 1930s, is shown as criticism utterly divorced from reality. Continuing, often communist-inspired, calls for war with Japan, eagerly took no notice of the structural incapacity of China to prosecute the supposedly desired war. China’s 1929 War with the Soviet Union exposed China’s inability to face a more modern cohesive opponent, an inability that the Guomindang’s critics eagerly exploited when they continuously agitated for China’s Guomindang-led central government to start a war with Japan which China obviously could not win by itself.

After viewing the 1929 defeat of China’s military in Manchuria, it would have been irresponsible for any accountable government to launch that same defeated military against a powerful opponent like Imperial Japan, which just two years later quickly seized Manchuria, when China still had not had enough time to solve its own internal problems. The Chinese forces available in Manchuria in 1931 were still superior to most other Chinese armies except the elite units of China’s central government, but even with numbers which may have on paper matched those available to Imperial Japan, China simply did not have the capacity in Manchuria to oppose Japan’s maneuvers. China’s 1929 defeat made it painfully obvious, to anyone honest enough to see, that China throughout the 1930s would still lack the military and industry necessary to fight an all-out modern war. In fact, China’s contribution to the Allied effort in World War II is made more impressive given the nation’s structural difficulties as described by Walker.

If Walker had included more illustrations and maps, his work could easily form the lighter basis for numerous wargaming opportunities, table top or miniature. However, his summary of China’s warlord realities and his situation report of the times is by itself a worthwhile read; while his easily comprehensible description of the local forces, the background politics, and the broader context of the unknown 1929 War, makes his work a valuable contribution to the study of Asian history.


Note: A volume in the University of Kansas “Modern War Studies” series, The 1929 Sino-Soviet War is also available as an e-book, 978-0-7006-2376-1, and in several proprietary e-reader editions


Our Reviewer: Ching Wah Chin, a member of NYMAS, has lectured and written widely on East Asian History. His most recent reviews include The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat Was Not Inevitable and Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City.


Reviewer: Ching W Chin   

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