893.01 Outer Mongolia/57

The Ambassador in Japan (Grew) to the Secretary of State

No. 1648

Sir: I have the honor to report that, according to press despatches which have emanated for the most part from Hsinking, clashes between armed “Manchukuo” and Outer Mongolian forces have occurred on January 8, 14, 15, 16, and 17 at various places in the frontier region. On the last named date it is alleged that a group of more than 100 Mongols was involved; on January 15 seven “Manchukuo” soldiers are said to have been carried off by the Mongols, apparently in reprisal for the previous seizure of Mongol soldiers. The cause of these clashes is not clear, but it is apparent that neither the Mongols nor the Manchurians, each of whom is confident of support from the Soviets and the Japanese, respectively, are at present willing to show any sign of weakness or of a willingness to compromise. If the press may be credited, the language of the notes of protest exchanged between Hsinking and Urga has been intemperate and, on the part of Hsinking at least, there have been threats of action to force Mongolian acceptance of “Manchukuo’s” views on the location of the frontier. It is not certain, however, whether that is indeed the primary question at issue in these incidents; it is at least possible that the “Manchukuo” side is endeavoring to determine the extent and nature of the support which the Outer Mongolians are likely to receive from the Soviets.

In addition to the foregoing disturbances reports have been current that a Japanese airplane landed on Soviet territory not far from Vladivostok on January 10 and was detained with its two occupants who were wounded in an effort to abduct a local inhabitant. The press states that the Soviet Ambassador has protested to the Foreign Minister against the landing of this plane and that the Foreign Minister, in his reply, recalled the benefits which acceptance of his [Page 24]proposal for the establishment of a Soviet-”Manchukuo” border commission would entail. The Foreign Minister again referred to this question of establishing a border commission when he addressed the Diet on January 21, but his reference was a non-committal one, leaving in doubt whether or not negotiations are pending. The Embassy will endeavor to obtain further information on this matter when opportunity offers.

Meanwhile, with the border question coming to the fore once more, the Army has published an estimate of the land forces of China, Russia, and Japan, showing plainly the numerical inferiority of the Japanese Army. This, together with the speeches which dealt with military preparedness at the recent session of the Central Executive Committee of the U. S. S. R. in Moscow, has been commented on by several of the Japanese papers which suggest that the Soviet troops should be reduced along the Siberian frontier, that the normal development of Soviet-Japanese relations demands a settlement of the border difficulties, and, in the case of the Nichi Nichi at least, that a border commission should in fact be established. This paper stated on January 8th that

“Any ray of hope for the future relations of Japan and the Soviet Union must be based on the proposal of Mr. Koki Hirota, the Foreign Minister, for the establishment of a committee for the settlement of border disputes”.

Unfortunately, however, for the establishment of a border commission, Japanese references to this idea still tend to be put in the form of recommendations to the U. S. S. R. for acceptance in toto rather than as proposals for negotiations leading to mutual concession and compromise. Moreover the Japanese still emphasize that a commission would be first concerned with the demarcation of the frontier rather than with the settlement of incidents.*

From the foregoing then it is apparent that there has been an increase in the number and apparent seriousness of border incidents. Owing, however, to the general preoccupation with the Naval Disarmament Conference in London, with the dissolution of the Diet here in Tokyo, and with the progress of events in North China, there has not been an equivalent increase of public anxiety. These other issues are more real and more pressing in the public mind.

The difficulty of obtaining authoritative information as to what is going on in the northwestern corner of “Manchukuo” is of course apparent. There is none available in Tokyo at the moment. Any opinions or predictions are therefore subject to more than the usual [Page 25]qualifications and are necessarily speculative. Nevertheless two possibilities may be noted on this basis.

In the first place frontier incidents are occurring with increasing frequency along the Manchu-Mongol frontier and with diminishing frequency along the Manchu-Siberian frontier. From a region where the Soviet military preparations are admittedly powerful the center of friction has shifted to the poorly defined Outer Mongolian border where the defenses are relatively untried, to say nothing of the loyalty of the Mongolians to their Soviet tutors. Moreover this shift coincides with a general trend of Japanese interest westward and southward and with an intensified fear on the part of the army of the spread of communist influence in East Asia. The current incidents may be preliminary to an attempt by force to open Outer Mongolia to Japanese influence. An attempt by diplomatic means conclusively failed last summer and autumn.

In the second place, the winter climate of Mongolia with its temperatures of 40 and more degrees below zero renders military operations extremely difficult. Therefore, even if the current incidents should indeed be preliminary to large scale efforts to open Outer Mongolia, the winter season must pass before serious trouble is likely. A breathing spell of some three or four months might reasonably be expected.

However, time and time again in the Far East it has been demonstrated that the reasonable may not be counted upon. The Embassy holds to its previously expressed opinion that no serious trouble between Japan and Soviet Russia is foreseen in the near future, but so long as armed forces confront each other, so long as frontier incidents occur, it must be repeated that the risk of war is always present. The situation in Outer Mongolia described in this despatch cannot but create a certain degree of anxiety.

Respectfully yours,

Joseph C. Grew
  1. Embassy’s despatches No. 1467, September 7, 1935, and No. 1536, Confidential, November 1, 1935. [Footnote in the original; despatches not printed.]
  2. Embassy’s despatch No. 1630, confidential, January 7, 1936. [Footnote in the original; despatch printed on page 706.]