As Sino-American relations come under increased strain, scholars, civil authorities, servicemembers, and strategists have theorized about how the United States can bring various instruments of national power to bear against the People’s Republic of China. Some have speculated, channeling concerns of the National Defense Strategy Commission, that armed conflict with China might spell decisive defeat for US forces. Preoccupation with the pacing threat of the century has even infiltrated popular print culture. The novel 2034 is a New York Times bestseller and has captured scores of readers through its gripping, Tom Clancy–esque tale of great power war. Too many of these considerations, in imagining some unrealized future, fail to offer historical perspective; they neglect the fact that the United States has deployed forces to China before.

In the summer of 1900, the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, a militant, antiforeign society, took root in China’s northern provinces and overran the imperial seat of Peking (present-day Beijing). Commonly called Boxers, they were religious zealots who practiced ancient forms of mysticism, self-flagellation, and martial arts in an effort to make themselves invincible to Western weapons. As a militia, albeit one that lacked a central and unified command, the Boxers sought to end foreign commercial, industrial, and religious influence in China. They routinely slaughtered Western Christians (whom they regarded as “foreign devils”) as well as indigenous Chinese who converted to, and proselytized on behalf of, Christianity. In 1900, Boxers enjoyed official sanction in the Manchu court as Qing officials—powerless to suppress the group, and simultaneously lacking a modern, twentieth century–style military with which to deter foreigners—felt their power slipping away.

In response to the crisis, a combined force of US sailors, soldiers, and Marines participated in a multinational coalition to save from annihilation the American and European diplomats in China, their families, and thousands of Chinese converts to Christianity. From the top down, this coalition little resembled joint, multinational military efforts of later conflicts. France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Russia, and the United States committed sizeable contingents of soldiers to land operations but all exercised independent commands that sought to act in unison through coordination and synchronization. Councils of war proved suitable for coalition naval commanders in the initial phase of the campaign.

Upon the land, however, unity of action was more complicated. Joint doctrine did not exist in 1900. Ground forces laboring to relieve their besieged legations in Peking did not operate under a multinational, unified field general staff, making combined interoperability especially challenging. Difficulties in communications compounded problems. Whereas admirals in the Bay of Chihli (Bohai Bay) enjoyed seamless communication with one another and an unbroken line of telegraphic communications with the outside world via Chefoo (present-day Yantai), Tongku (present-day Tanggu), and Nagasaki (Japan), land component commanders enjoyed no such luxury, and sometimes even lacked translators to facilitate coordination across staffs in action.

Further complicating the situation was the somewhat unusual employment of American military forces. American sailors and Marines conducted the first land operations before elements of the 9th and 14th US Infantry Regiments arrived from the Philippine Islands. The piecemeal arrival of maritime and land forces throughout the campaign tested American logistical flexibility; it compelled US troops, like their allies, to consolidate whatever initial gains they made in the campaign and to phase their tactical actions so as to preserve combat effectiveness, protect their force, and not strain supplies.

In light of the conditions that shaped it, the China Relief Expedition was a pivotal moment for the American profession of arms. Like military operations in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War, the campaign in China enabled the successful implementation of comparatively new military technologies that demonstrated marked advances from those employed in the US Civil War and, in the European context, the Franco-Prussian War. At the level of small arms and tactics, for instance, the China Relief Expedition was a conflict of bolt-action, magazine-fed rifles, smokeless powder, and dispersed firing lines that prefigured how American infantry would fight in France in 1918. Beyond small arms, improvements in field weapons were also apparent. The Americans used Colt and Gatling machine guns in China, and their breech-loading artillery, among the best of all the coalition field guns, provided excellent fire support in every phase of the campaign.

US soldiers who fought their way to Peking from the coast encountered fierce local resistance and endured some of the most brutal marches in the annals of American warfare. Repulsed at the Battle of Tientsin (present-day Tianjin), Americans were forced to take cover from heavy artillery and small arms fire in ditches; waist-deep in brackish, bloody water, they waited until darkness to evacuate their wounded and withdraw. After-action reports from the company to regimental echelons are replete with references to dehydration, severe strain, and sunstroke. During the march from Tientsin to Peking, conducted in August, troops suffered for lack of water in the hottest month of the year, and at a moment in the campaign when operational tempo was critical, since communication with the legations was broken and coalition forces feared that terrible fates had befallen their countrymen. Suffering from heat, men drank freely from the Pei-Ho River, a main artery for military supplies, though it contained numerous floating bodies upon which dogs fed from the riverbanks. Major General of Volunteers Adna Romanza Chaffee, commander of American ground forces and a former Comanche fighter long accustomed to the arid and unforgiving American Southwest, described the heat of the march in his official report as “very great.” The expedition’s chief surgeon wrote that at least one soldier dropped dead in an engagement while en route to Peking not from enemy bullets but from heat exhaustion.

Combined, coalition forces numbered some seventeen thousand troops, exceeding the size of a US Army corps in the American Civil War but less than that of a typical US Army division in World War I. Given the comparatively small size of their expeditionary force—two infantry regiments (the 9th and 14th US Infantries), one artillery battery (Light Battery F, 5th US Artillery), one cavalry troop (of the 6th US Cavalry), and a lone battalion of Marines—the Americans depended upon their Japanese, Russian, and British allies for certain capabilities across the combat arms, as well as for military intelligence. Japanese forces proved especially adept at reconnaissance and urban warfare on the march from Tientsin to Peking, often sweeping villages of opposition before the Americans—whose position in the order of march was to the rear of the column—could get into action. Not once did Americans assume the tactical initiative.

Nevertheless, American officers drew useful lessons from the China campaign, as well as from the experiences of coalition partners in the Far East, that shaped their profession of arms in meaningful ways. US servicemembers were quick to note the capabilities of their coalition counterparts, and left detailed accounts of partner nations’ military forces. Much of this experience informed professional discourse on shaping the future of US forces and joint operations. On subjects ranging from surgery and medical treatment to amphibious landings and coastal fortifications, American sailors, soldiers, and Marines published informative and instructive essays in professional periodicals. Taken as a whole, these essays reflect a capable, inquisitive, mature, and technically minded officer corps whose grasp of joint military operations was nothing short of impressive. From their experience, US soldiers also concluded that the land component commander needed a proper staff that could be maintained without depriving line regiments of good officers. For such a staff to be assembled promptly—and function properly—without compromising the combat effectiveness of the force, line units needed their full complement of officers, and staff departments an increase in personnel.

The strategic and operational environments that conditioned the success of the informal, allied coalition in 1900 are fundamentally different from those in which civil-military authorities, planners, and strategists must function today. While the logistical and sustainment aspects of the US military intervention in China in 1900 are perhaps instructive for future operations, geopolitical conditions in East Asia in the historical present are different from those in the early twentieth-century context. The military situation is also dramatically different. In 1900, the near-total absence of Chinese naval capability ensured that coalition powers enjoyed unimpeded access to the Chinese coast from which they could land troops, horses, mules, ordnance, and provisions. Such conditions no longer exist.

The character of any future struggle with China is difficult to predict with certainty. And as one practitioner has argued recently, future naval operations against China, especially in the event of a conflict that threatens Taiwanese sovereignty, are likely to be mounted from a posture of strategic defense; as a result, naval activity may more closely resemble convoy escort operations undertaken by maritime forces in the Atlantic Ocean to sustain Great Britain in the early years of World War II. It is believed, though uncertain, that the United States still enjoys advantages in military capabilities across all domains necessary to achieve overmatch against China; more apparent is that the degree to which the United States enjoyed tactical overmatch in 1900 is a relic of the distant past.

Even so, the China Relief Expedition offers lessons sure to enrich any study of war. From the doctrinal perspective, the march undertaken by American soldiers and Marines from Tientsin to Peking demonstrated clearly how land component commanders must calibrate operational tempo and phasing to meet force protection demands, enhance endurance, extend operational reach, and prevent premature culmination. Colonel Aaron Simon Daggett of the 14th US Infantry Regiment gave articulation to these principles when he recollected that no soldier, no matter how skilled, was combat effective if he could not “be at the right place at the right time,” or, if at the proper place, “so exhausted as to be unable to render service.”

Another lesson that emerges from the China experience of 1900 is that no matter how diligently and carefully a commander may try to shape an operational environment, often he or she will confront a fluid military problem to which that commander must adapt. First to encounter this hard truth in China was the British admiral Edward H. Seymour, whose railroad-based expedition to relieve Peking was met with almost-total disaster. Major General Chaffee learned a similar lesson. Chaffee arrived in China in late July, after much of the 9th US Infantry Regiment and US Marines present had already engaged the Boxers and imperial Chinese forces at the Battle of Tientsin. He was then compelled, on the ground, to organize a staff and to resupply his force in a matter of days. These facts testify to the volatility of military operations even in theaters where the United States enjoys advantages in unit organization, weapons, and the impedimenta of war. In 1900 China, the American land component commander needed to comprehend the operational environment and achieve national strategic objectives under circumstances he inherited but over which he exerted little direct control. Even so, Chaffee persisted under severe conditions and managed, in the end, to execute the strategic guidance he received from the US War Department.

At its height, the China Relief Expedition failed to assume the character or stature of a large-scale war between nation states that enjoyed parity in economic strength, military capabilities, and technology. One historian has written that the Boxer War was but one installment in America’s “savage wars of peace”—a so-called “small war” that furthered the inexorable “March of the Flag” into the Pacific. United States diplomats and military personnel maintained that theirs was a military expedition to protect American citizens in Peking. In light of this, and in the near term, they limited the application of military force to Boxers who sought to obstruct those national interests.

Despite its smallness, however, the conflict presented coalition forces with real elements of complexity. The need to establish a base of supply at Tientsin—and to secure a strong line of communications—for a march on Peking compelled coalition naval commanders to capture several Chinese forts at Taku, a tactical action that prompted the Manchu court to declare war against the various coalition nation-states. Thus, a combined rescue operation featuring occasional armed conflict with nonstate actors broadened and resulted in pitched battle with Boxers and imperial forces.

The China Relief Expedition concluded with a successful military occupation that portended the end of the Qing Dynasty. For lives lost and damages suffered to their commercial interests, coalition nations obliged China to pay a substantial indemnity of 450 million taels (approximately $333 million in 1900 exchange rates) in gold and at four percent interest over thirty-nine years. In all, this amounted to a whopping $700 million. In 1908, the United States remitted its portion of the indemnity—the first nation of the informal alliance so to do—on the condition that funds be directed toward education: first, for Chinese students in the United States, and second, for the creation of the Ch’inghua University in Peking.

When viewing the wide sweep of coalition warfare throughout history, the campaign of 1900 appears, upon first glance, to be a comparatively minor affair. For the Americans, however, it was a success and proved an important moment in the evolution of their warfighting capabilities. In addition to furnishing lessons of military science, the expedition demonstrated to authorities in Washington and commanders in multiple theaters of military operations that they could manage strategic risks in Asia and execute simultaneous campaigns—in the Philippine Islands as well as in China—that required extensive sustainment efforts.

But in a larger sense, no consideration of future international relations with China can escape the history of 1900. If the China Relief Expedition is forgotten in the annals of American warfare, and if historians of US wars have in large measure neglected the conflict, still its consequences have endured and doubtless shape how China imagines its place in the emerging international order. It is doubtful that China will patiently suffer another such humiliation. To the contrary, the People’s Republic of China’s relentless pursuit of modernized, first-strike nuclear capabilities (evinced by recent construction of intercontinental ballistic missile silos), her numerous shipbuilding projects, and her increasingly adversarial—if not hostile—posture toward nations in the Asian community suggest that China looks actively to reverse the history of 1900 on the global stage. There are also concerns that the US Navy lacks the readiness to counteract Chinese ambition. All the more reason, then, for Americans to remember the China Relief Expedition: not because it provides a blueprint for some future war, but because from it they can perceive how high the geopolitical stakes have risen, note how and to what degree the proverbial tables may have turned, and peer into the glass to see how devastating a different kind of military confrontation with China could prove in the end.

Mitchell G. Klingenberg, PhD, is a historian in the Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations at the US Army War College. He is the author of a monograph-length case study on the China Relief Expedition and is currently at work on a biography of US Major General of Volunteers John Fulton Reynolds.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or of any organization with which the author is affiliated, including the US Army War College.