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During World War II, British-held Burma (today’s Myanmar) was a strategic zone linking the China Theater and the Pacific Theater, two major battlefields where Allied forces fought Japan. Even before Japan arrived, it was identified as an important territory of Southeast Asia. In early 1941, China and Britain planned a military alliance to defend Burma. On December 23, 1941, just after the outbreak of the Pacific War, the two countries signed the Sino-British Agreement on the Joint Defense of the Yunnan-Burma Highroad, marking the formation of the Sino-British military alliance.
To back British troops’ anti-Japanese campaigns in Burma and defend China’s southwestern border areas, the Chinese government deployed the Chinese Expeditionary Force to Burma twice to fight the invading Japanese army, setting an example for military cooperation between China and other Allied countries.
On January 4, 1942, Japanese troops began to invade Burma. The defending British Burma Army was pushed into a continued retreat, and Japanese forces soon closed in on Rangoon. Britain asked China to send troops to support its forces. On February 16, the Military Commission of the National Government of China ordered the 5th Route Army and the 6th Route Army garrisoning the border between Burma and China’s Yunnan Province to march towards southern and eastern Burma, where they joined the anti-Japanese campaigns commanded by Thomas Hutton, commander-in-chief of the British Burma Army.
After Japan’s attack on Burma, Britain shifted its Far East strategic focus from Singapore to Burma. However, India remained the top priority of its defense plan. For this reason, the British Burma Army chose to retreat when facing Japanese attacks, and never organized effective resistance. In this context, the Chinese Expeditionary Force received no backing from the British Burma Army during their march towards southern Burma. In early May of 1942, the Chinese Expeditionary Force was also forced to retreat because of monsoon season. The retreating Chinese troops had to trek muddy tracks in dense forests and lofty mountains while lacking supplies, resulting in heavy casualties. Some 103,000 Chinese troops initially entered Burma, but only about 40,000 successfully retreated to India and western Yunnan by early August.