The Puppet Masters – How Japan’s Military Established a Vassal State in Inner Mongolia

An Inner Mongolian army cavalry column, 1935.

“Japan propped up the region’s fledgling nationalist movement as a means to to further destabilize China, as well as to provide a strategic glacis in the event of a larger war with the Soviet Union.”

By Florian Heydorn

DIVIDE AND CONQUOR. That was Japan’s underlying policy towards China during the 1930s.

For years, the far right nationalist regime in Tokyo sought to take advantage of the internal strife of the Sino Civil War to expand the emperor’s influence on the continent and finally settle the Japanese-Chinese rivalry for hegemony in East Asia forever.

Inner Mongolia. (Image sourceL WikiCommons)

Inner Mongolia, which was a part of China, was a vital pillar in their scheme. Japan propped up the region’s fledgling nationalist movement as a means to to further destabilize China, as well as to provide a strategic glacis in the event of a larger war with the Soviet Union.

The most prominent figure in Tokyo’s establishment of this puppet Mengjiang state was its leader Demchugdongrub, a 32-year old Mongol nationalist of noble ancestry, who since the late 1920s had sought to free the region from Chinese rule. But as the Mongol nobility were highly suspicious of one another’s intentions and anxious not to lose even a quantum of their power, nothing came of these efforts until 1933.

With Japanese advances continuing in Manchuria after the 1931 occupation and the establishment of the puppet Empire of Manchukuo there in 1932, the Mongol leaders saw their opportunity to seek their own limited autonomy from China, warning that if their demands were not met, they’d seek Japanese assistance and push for all-out independence. Fearful of the potential loss of additional territory, the government in Beijing accepted the establishment of the Mongol Local Autonomy Political Affairs Committee in 1934.

Japanese troops in action in Manchuria, 1931. Tokyo was only too happy to foster Inner Mongolian independence as a means of weakening the Chinese. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The high command of the Kwantung Army, Japan’s military force in Manchuria, acting more and more on their own initiative, saw Inner Mongolia’s bid for self-rule as the perfect chance to increase their hand in the region. While most Mongol leaders remained loyal to China, the Kwantung generals began to court pro-independence elements, and as some suggest, even murdering influential moderates. The Japanese eventually found an ally in Demchugdongrub, who was an influential member of the Mongolian ruling committee.

In April 1936, the young statesman met with a Japanese agent, Captain Takayoshi Tanaka. Backed by supporters from Inner Mongolia, Qinghai and Mongolia, he was able to convince Tanaka that he could rally a pan-Mongol insurgency with military aid from Japan. A plan was drawn up to create a Greater Mongolian Monarchy which would include all Mongol inhabited lands. The new military government would be led by Demchugdongrub.

Demchugdongrub (left) with Japanese officers.

Whether Tanaka made these promises on behalf or even with the knowledge of Japan’s military high command is unclear. But as Demchugdongrub in fact lacked any significant assistance for his cause, no insurgency took place and with most of Inner Mongolia staying under Chinese control, Japan’s military leaders saw no need to hasten the declaration of independence or the coronation of an emperor.

The only way left to unite Inner Mongolia as a first step to the creation of a new Mongol empire would be through military action. But the first, and last, Mongol attempt to expand was an ill-fated campaign to control of Suiyuan as a springboard to the Mongol lands further west. With 10,000 men, marching in two columns and assisted by a brigade of Chinese mercenaries, the Inner Mongolian Army began its invasion in October 1936.

They lay siege to the city of Honggor on Nov. 14 but were unable to break through the city’s defenses. The Mongol advance there finally came to a halt, when the Chinese defenders, clearly outnumbering the invaders and equipped with modern machine rifles, launched a counter-attack three days later.

Taken by surprise, the Mongols fell back to their stronghold at Bailingmiao, where they tried to regroup. The Chinese pressed the attacked and conquered the city at the end of the month, with the fleeing Mongols leaving behind large amounts of ammunition and weapons.

Demchugdongrub’s army proved to be far too poorly trained and equipped for open war and. About 2,000 men were killed, wounded or captured and most of the Mongol equipment was lost. The remaining forces were in complete disarray. The defeat proved to be a major blow to Demchugdongrub’s reputation in the eyes of his Japanese supporters, who finally realized, that there was little enthusiasm among the Mongols for his plan.

In an attempt to shore up fading Japanese support, Demchugdongrub turned total control of his forces over to the Kwantung Army. His last real rival, Yondonwangchug, who had returned as a member of the newly formed Inner Mongolian military government in 1936, was killed by the Japanese in 1938, leaving Demchungdongrub the sole and uncontested leader of their Mongol vassal state.

The Soviet invasion of China in 1945 snuffed out the independent Inner Mongolia.

With its fledgling army consigned to the role of auxiliary troops and its economy completely controlled and exploited by Japan, by 1937 it was evident that Inner Mongolia’s plans for independence were a pipe dream. After former Chinese Minister Wang Jingwei allied himself with Japan and formed a new government, from which Tokyo expected a significantly greater contribution to its war efforts, Mengjiang was placed officially under its control. Without any real authority, the local government was effectively powerless.

The final blow came in the last days of the Second World War when Soviet troops, along with soldiers from the communist Mongolian People’s Republic, invaded Japanese-occupied territories in northern China in August 1945. The Mengjiang army, whose main task should have been the delay of the Russian advance along the anticipated invasion routes, disbanded offering virtually no resistance.

Demchugdongrub finally fled to Mongolia but was arrested and returned to China after the communist takeover. He was sentenced to high treason and imprisoned only to be pardoned in 1963, three years prior to his death.

Two things made Mengjiang a standout amongst the other Japanese puppet states created during the Second World War: 1) It was at no time declared independent and probably was never intended to be, and 2) the whole military, political and economic hierarchy aside from the state leader Demchugdongrub himself was not just de facto but officially either controlled by or filled with officers of the Japanese military.

Florian Heydorn is a native Germany and has earned a master’s degree in Islamic Studies and Politics from the University of Hamburg and has studied history at the Phillips University of Marburg. He works in a German publishing company and is a freelance writer on historical and political subjects. His work has appeared in different German magazines and blogs. 


Jowett, Phillip S.: Rays of the Rising Sun, Armed Forces of Japan’s Asian Allies 1931-45. Volume I: China & Manchuria. Helion, 2004.
•MacKinnon, Stephen R.: China at War: Regions of China, 1937-1945. Stanford University Press, 2007.

3 comments for “The Puppet Masters – How Japan’s Military Established a Vassal State in Inner Mongolia

  1. 13 March, 2017 at 10:50 pm

    Good History lesson! It’s funny that at one time Japan was happy to foster help the cause for Mongolian independence thinking it would weaken the Chinese.

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