After 1935 the Nationalists followed a forward strategy in north and north-west China. This was not an easy task as the Nationalists did not police clearly demarcated borders within which they controlled the means of violence. Rather, they faced a porous frontier zone populated by a number of larger and smaller military groups. These shaped their actions not only with an eye to Nanjing, but also to each other and to the actions of foreign powers, including Japan but also the Soviet Union, and even players further afield. To pursue their forward policy, the Nationalists needed to build mutually reinforcing domestic and foreign alliances, including with the Soviet Union, and develop more or less reliable local clients. They had to do so while not precipitating an early conflict with Japan and without alienating Germany, on whose military advisors and supplies of industrial and military resources they remained dependent. The task was further complicated by the reality that the militarists and the Communists in north and north-west China, no matter how patriotic and anti-Japanese they were, had much to lose not just from a war with Japan but also from the intrusion of the Nationalists themselves. This chapter examines how the Nationalists pursued this goal in the two years before the war and in the first months of the War of Resistance itself.
The He-Umezu Agreement of 1935 and the proximity of Japanese forces in Korea and Manchuria precluded too bold a policy in Hebei and Chahar, let alone the deployment of Nationalist forces. In Shandong, similarly, the Nationalists could not insert their armies. The best that could be done in these areas was to cultivate relations with regional power holders such as Song Zheyuan and Han Fuju, keep the National Government flag flying as best as possible, and prepare to insert forces quickly if war broke out.
In the north-west, by which I mean Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Suiyuan, the situation was different. Sufficiently far from Japanese armies, from 1935 the Nationalists sought to enhance their position there to make it possible to resist Japanese encroachment into Suiyuan and to weaken the local militarists and the Communists. In addition, firming up their position in the area would make it possible for the Nationalists from there to operate against the Japanese flank in case the Japanese moved south into Hebei, which is what Nationalist war plans expected and which would indeed happen after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 7 July 1937. 1 Zhang Xueliang's Fengtian forces (named after the province in Manchuria now known as Liaoning), Yan Xishan's Shanxi forces, Yang Hucheng's North-western Army, and the recently arrived Communist armies were the