The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


USSR-PRC Relations

The Soviets sought to befriend the Chinese revolutionists by offering scathing attacks on "Western imperialism." But for political expediency, the Soviet leadership initiated a dual policy of support for both Sun Yat-sen and the newly established Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Soviets hoped for consolidation but were prepared for either side to emerge victorious. In this way the struggle for power in China began between the Nationalists and the Communists. In 1923 a joint statement by Sun and a Soviet representative in Shanghai pledged Soviet assistance for China's national unification.

Soviet advisers -- the most prominent of whom was an agent of the Comintern, Mikhail Borodin -- began to arrive in China in 1923 to aid in the reorganization and consolidation of the Guomindang along the lines of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The CCP was under Comintern instructions to cooperate with the Guomindang, and its members were encouraged to join while maintaining their party identities. In early 1927 the Guomindang-CCP rivalry led to a split in the revolutionary ranks.

Mao Zedong, who had become a Marxist at the time of the emergence of the May Fourth Movement (he was working as a librarian at Beijing University), had boundless faith in the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. Mao's prestige rose steadily after the failure of the Comintern-directed urban insurrections. In late 1931 he was able to proclaim the establishment of the Chinese Soviet Republic under his chairmanship in Ruijin, Jiangxi Province. The Soviet-oriented CCP Political Bureau came to Ruijin at Mao's invitation with the intent of dismantling his apparatus. But, although he had yet to gain membership in the Political Bureau, Mao dominated the proceedings. In the early 1930s, amid continued Political Bureau opposition to his military and agrarian policies and the deadly annihilation campaigns being waged against the Red Army by Chiang Kai-shek's forces, Mao's control of the Chinese Communist movement increased.

After the founding of the People's Republic, the Chinese leadership was concerned above all with ensuring national security, consolidating power, and developing the economy. The foreign policy course China chose in order to translate these goals into reality was to form an international united front with the Soviet Union and other socialist nations against the United States and Japan. Although for a time Chinese leaders may have considered trying to balance Sino-Soviet relations with ties with Washington, by mid-1949 Mao Zedong declared that China had no choice but to "lean to one side" -- meaning the Soviet side.

Soon after the establishment of the People's Republic, Mao traveled to Moscow to negotiate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. Under this agreement, China gave the Soviet Union certain rights, such as the continued use of a naval base at Luda, Liaoning Province, in return for military support, weapons, and large amounts of economic and technological assistance, including technical advisers and machinery. China acceded, at least initially, to Soviet leadership of the world communist movement and took the Soviet Union as the model for development. China's participation in the Korean War (1950-53) seemed to strengthen Sino-Soviet relations, especially after the UN-sponsored trade embargo against China. The Sino-Soviet alliance appeared to unite Moscow and Beijing, and China became more closely associated with and dependent on a foreign power than ever before.

During the second half of the 1950s, strains in the Sino-Soviet alliance gradually began to emerge over questions of ideology, security, and economic development. Chinese leaders were disturbed by the Soviet Union's moves under Nikita Khrushchev toward deStalinization and peaceful coexistence with the West. Moscow's successful earth satellite launch in 1957 strengthened Mao's belief that the world balance was in the communists' favor--or, in his words, "the east wind prevails over the west wind"--leading him to call for a more militant policy toward the noncommunist world in contrast to the more conciliatory policy of the Soviet Union.

In addition to ideological disagreements, Beijing was dissatisfied with several aspects of the Sino-Soviet security relationship: the insufficient degree of support Moscow showed for China's recovery of Taiwan, a Soviet proposal in 1958 for a joint naval arrangement that would have put China in a subordinate position, Soviet neutrality during the 1959 tension on the SinoIndian border, and Soviet reluctance to honor its agreement to provide nuclear weapons technology to China. And, in an attempt to break away from the Soviet model of economic development, China launched the radical policies of the Great Leap Forward (1958-60), leading Moscow to withdraw all Soviet advisers from China in 1959 and 1960.

Khrushchev's renunciation of the agreement to provide a sample nuclear weapon to China, and increasing mutual accusations of ideological deviation were all evidence of the political rift between the two countries. In retrospect, the major ideological, military, and economic reasons behind the Sino-Soviet split were essentially the same: for the Chinese leadership, the strong desire to achieve self-reliance and independence of action outweighed the benefits Beijing received as Moscow's junior partner.

During the 1960s the Sino-Soviet ideological dispute deepened and spread to include territorial issues, culminating in 1969 in bloody armed clashes on their border. In 1963 the boundary dispute had come into the open when China explicitly raised the issue of territory lost through "unequal treaties" with tsarist Russia. After unsuccessful border consultations in 1964, Moscow began the process of a military buildup along the border with China and in Mongolia, which continued into the 1970s.

The Sino-Soviet dispute also was intensified by increasing competition between Beijing and Moscow for influence in the Third World and the international communist movement. China accused the Soviet Union of colluding with imperialism, for example by signing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the United States in 1963. Beijing's support for worldwide revolution became increasingly militant, although in most cases it lacked the resources to provide large amounts of economic or military aid.

Chinese leaders must have been disturbed by Khrushchev's approach to foreign and bloc affairs, in particular by his coexistence line toward the US and by his increasingly personal vindictive approach to the Chinese Communist problem.

After Khrushchev's ouster in 1964, the new regimes most pronounced innovations were in the field of foreign policy. Khrushchevs successors, seeking new ways to cope with the Chinese challenge to Moscow's authority, altered their priorities. They began to do so very shortly after gaining power and well before new US policies in Vietnam went into effect. The new leaders did not set out deliberately to reverse the course of East-West relations which had developed after the Cuban missile crisis. Rather, they gave first priority to efforts to repair the USSRs position in its own camp and in the underdeveloped world, consciously accepting as a consequence a deterioration of relations with the US.

The altered tactics toward Peiping have in some respects put the Chinese on the defensive but have neither silenced their polemics nor halted the erosion of Soviet authority in the Communist movement. The involvement in Vietnam exposed the USSR to greater risks in a situation over which its control was indirect and very limited. And the adoption of a harsher stance in world affairs raised questions about the continued restraints on military expenditures. The Chinese Communist Party broke off ties with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1966, and these had not been restored by the end of the Cold War.

Brezhnev attempted to establish better relations with China, but his efforts foundered in the late 1960s. During the Cultural Revolution, China's growing radicalism and xenophobia had severe repercussions for Sino-Soviet relations. In 1967 Red Guards besieged the Soviet embassy in Beijing and harassed Soviet diplomats, leading to the evacuation of nonessential Soviet diplomatic personnel from Beijing. Beijing viewed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as an ominous development and accused the Soviet Union of "social imperialism." The Sino-Soviet dispute reached its nadir in 1969 when serious armed clashes broke out at Zhenbao (or Damanskiy) Island on the northeast border. Both sides drew back from the brink of war, however, and tension was defused when Zhou Enlai met with Aleksey Kosygin, the Soviet premier, later in 1969.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Brezhnev proposed an "Asian collective security system," which he envisioned as a means of containing China. This proposal, repeated by successive Soviet leaders, was rejected by most Asian countries.

During the 1970s, China began its policy of improving relations with the West to counter Soviet political and military pressure in Asia. Beijing shifted to a more moderate course and began a rapprochement with Washington as a counterweight to the perceived threat from Moscow. In the 1970s Sino-Soviet border talks were held intermittently, and Moscow issued conciliatory messages after Mao's death in 1976, all without substantive progress. Officially, Chinese statements called for a struggle against the hegemony of both superpowers, but especially against the Soviet Union, which Beijing called "the most dangerous source of war."

The Soviet Union sought to improve relations with China, but by early 1977 the polemics had renewed, and by mid-1978 increasing military tensions between Cambodia (China's ally) and Vietnam (the Soviet Union's ally) contributed to a return to poor relations. At the Eleventh National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), held in August 1977, CCP chairman Hua Guofeng declared that the Soviet Union represented a greater threat than the United States to world peace and Chinese national security. In keeping with this assessment, the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed in August 1978, contained an "anti-hegemony clause" in which the signees renounced the pursuit of hegemony and opposed the efforts of other states -- implying the Soviet Union -- to gain hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. The Sino-American joint communique of December 1978 contained an analogous clause.

In the late 1970s, the increased Soviet military buildup in East Asia and Soviet treaties with Vietnam and Afghanistan heightened China's awareness of the threat of Soviet encirclement. In February 1979, China launched a limited military incursion into Vietnam in retaliation for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, a Chinese ally. The Soviet Union harshly condemned this Chinese incursion and stepped up arms shipments to Vietnam.

In April 1979, China declared that it would not renew the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance, but it offered to begin negotiations with the Soviet Union to improve relations. These negotiations began in late September 1979 (separate border negotiations had been ongoing since 1969), with China demanding a cutback in Soviet troop strength along the border, withdrawal of Soviet troops from Mongolia, an end to Soviet aid to Vietnam, and a Vietnamese military withdrawal from Cambodia. These negotiations were cut off by the Chinese in January 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous month. The Chinese thereafter added the demand that an improvement in Sino-Soviet relations required Soviet withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

At the Twenty-Sixth Party Congress in February 1981, Brezhnev reported that "unfortunately, there are no grounds yet to speak of any changes for the better in Beijing's foreign policy." Relations began to improve, however, after Brezhnev delivered a conciliatory speech at Tashkent in March 1982, and in October the Sino-Soviet border "consultations"--broken off after the invasion of Afghanistan--were reopened.

In the 1980s China's approach toward the Soviet Union shifted once more, albeit gradually, in line with China's adoption of an independent foreign policy and the opening up economic policy. Another factor behind the shift was the perception that, although the Soviet Union still posed the greatest threat to China's security, the threat was long-term rather than immediate. Sino-Soviet consultations on normalizing relations were resumed in 1982 and held twice yearly, despite the fact that the cause of their suspension, the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, remained unchanged. Beijing raised three primary preconditions for the normalization of relations, which it referred to as "three obstacles" that Moscow had to remove: the Soviet presence in of Afghanistan, Soviet support for Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, and the presence of Soviet forces along the Sino-Soviet border and in Mongolia. For the first half of the 1980s, Moscow called these preconditions "third-country issues" not suitable for bilateral discussion, and neither side reported substantial progress in the talks.

Soviet leadership changes between 1982 and 1985 provided openings for renewed diplomacy, as high-level Chinese delegations attended the funerals of Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuriy Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko. During this time, Sino-Soviet relations improved gradually in many areas: trade expanded, economic and technical exchanges were resumed (including the renovation of projects originally built with Soviet assistance in the 1950s), border points were opened, and delegations were exchanged regularly.

After Gorbachev became general secretary in March 1985, relations with China did not improve markedly at first. Nevertheless, high-level visits and discussions were encouraging enough that Gorbachev, at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in February-March 1986, was able to "speak with satisfaction about a certain amount of improvement" in relations with China.

The Soviet position on Sino-Soviet relations showed greater flexibility in 1986 with General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev's July speech at Vladivostok. Among Gorbachev's proposals for the Asia-Pacific region were several directed at China, including the announcement of partial troop withdrawals of six Soviet regiments from Afghanistan, and troop withdrawals from Mongolia, and that Soviet negotiators would discuss a reduction in Soviet forces along the Sino-Soviet border. He also proposed the renewal of a concession pertaining to the border dispute, and proposals for agreements on a border railroad, space cooperation, and joint hydropower development. Further, Gorbachev offered to hold discussions with China "at any time and at any level."

Although these overtures did not lead to an immediate high-level breakthrough in Sino-Soviet relations, bilateral consultations appeared to gain momentum, and border talks were resumed in 1987. Another Soviet gesture was the removal of SS-20 missiles from the border with China as a result of the Soviet-American INF Treaty of December 1987. In April 1988, the Soviet Union signed accords calling for the total withdrawal of Soviet military forces from Afghanistan, which were a serious obstacle to better Sino-Soviet relations. During 1988 Vietnam committed itself to removing troops from Cambodia, overcoming another obstacle to improved relations and a summit. In 1987 and repeatedly in 1988, Gorbachev proposed a Sino-Soviet summit meeting, which was finally scheduled for June 1989. It was the first since the Khrushchev period.

In the late 1980s, it seemed unlikely that China and the Soviet Union would resume a formal alliance, but Sino-Soviet relations had improved remarkably when compared with the previous two decades.

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 29-12-2015 19:49:37 ZULU