When the Pacific War began, Japan controlled all China’s industrial centres and major ports. Jiang Jieshi [Chiang Kai-shek] was in a poor situation, under threat from Japanese airpower and with dwindling sources of supply. Soviet aid stopped after 1940 as Stalin wished to avoid antagonising the Japanese, and wanted to marshal his resources for possible conflict with Germany. The Burma Road was sporadically closed under Japanese pressure. However, Japan did not have the military force to conquer the rest of China, or even achieve a decisive victory. Both sides were pre-occupied with maintaining authority in their spheres. Jiang was continually faced with the need to exert his authority over his own forces, many of which owed at least partial allegiance to a local warlord. Then there were the Communists (CCP) based in Fushih. After the Sian agreement there was an uneasy truce between the Kuomintang (KMT) and CCP, to focus their attention on the Japanese. Communist forces were under Jiang’s nominal overall command, though in practice they fought separate wars. In 1940, the Japanese set up a puppet regime under Wang Ching-Wei (who had defected from Jiang), but held collaborators in contempt and did not give them any real authority. The Japanese never had the numbers to maintain full dominance over the countryside by their own efforts: their main focus was on extracting the resources they needed for their war effort elsewhere – rice, minerals, coal and Manchurian manufactures – and exploiting the labour force where they could. The 25 divisions they deployed in China were mainly involved in occupation and pacification, though they were also able to exploit the complications of Chinese politics by dealing with the warlords who maintained an autonomous existence between Jiang in the south and Mao’s Communists in the north and resistance within their occupation zone never seriously discommoded them, apart from in a few areas penetrated by the CCP. Conversely, Jiang’s forces, though nominally the largest army in the world, were mostly passive, being poorly-trained and equipped and preoccupied with the internal politics of his militaristic regime. Until 1944 the Japanese were under no pressure to mount offensives, as they controlled all the productive parts of the country and until major air attacks began, they were under no threat.
When the US entered the war, Jiang hoped that China would be the centre of American efforts against Japan. Congress voted a $500 million loan in February 1942 and Roosevelt depicted China as the US’s major ally against Japan, but the logistical difficulties of supplying China, British reservations about Jiang and the urgency of other fronts meant that this never came to fruition. General Claire Chennault’s aviators in the American Volunteer Group were reinforced (eventually to become the 14th Air Force), and General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell was appointed as Jiang’s Chief of Staff, and as commander of US forces in the China–Burma–India theatre. Stilwell’s job was to improve the efficiency of Jiang’s forces and to push back the Japanese. He found both to be very difficult tasks. Jiang, Stilwell and Chennault bitterly disagreed on the use to put the limited (15,000 tons a month in January 1944) amount of aid coming in over the ‘Hump’ (the Himalayas) from India to Kunming.
In any case, other theatres got first call on resources, especially once American strategy no longer hinged on China, with their advances in the Pacific. The obvious low priority China was given in Allied strategy, despite the popularity of Jiang and his wife in the US, helped both the KMT and the CCP to conclude that the US did not need China to beat Japan, and they sought to keep their forces intact, ready for the renewal of their own conflict, though also recognising that they could not be entirely passive and retain credibility. The Communists were the more successful in organising their region and building loyalties among the peasantry, and also in organising armed activities behind Japanese lines. In Jiang’s sphere, his authoritarian rule was based on managing factional conflicts, which produced an increasing amount of inefficiency and corruption.
As the airpower situation improved at the start of 1944, deliveries over the Hump increased, and Stilwell’s training programmes bore fruit. Although threatened by the Japanese U-Go offensive in Burma in March, the Ledo Road (later re-named the Stilwell Road) was re-opened. However, Chinese plans for an offensive were pre-empted by the Japanese, provoked by Chennault’s attacks on their bases. In the Ichi-Go offensive beginning on 17 April 1944 they overran many of the airfields in Kiangsi and Kwangsi, and by June they had gained control of the Peking–Hankow railway, then Changsha and Hengyang. There were fears in the US that Jiang’s government would collapse. Jiang blamed Stilwell for these setbacks, because Stilwell was personally commanding Chinese forces in (successful) operations in Burma at the time. In October, Roosevelt acceded to Jiang’s request and replaced Stilwell with Wedemeyer.
Chinese forces were able to hold Kunming, and in summer 1945 they defeated two further Japanese offensives in Hunan and Hupeh. At the time the Japanese surrendered to the Allies, Jiang was preparing an offensive towards Hong Kong and Canton. It is estimated that over 1,500,000 Chinese were killed between 1937 and 1945, and with conflict re-opening immediately between Jiang and the Communists, there were to be four more years of war in China.