Sino-Soviet Relations


1949-1956 - Mao and Stalin

In 1949, the balance of power in the Cold War shifted with the creation of a Communist government in China. The US viewed the People's Republic of China (PRC) as a threat, a natural ally of the USSR.

However, Mao Zedong, the leader of China, was a nationalist as well as a Communist. Therefore, his relationship with the USSR was more complex than the US anticipated.

Mao respected Stalin as a leader of the Communist world. Nonetheless, Mao had been frustrated by Stalin's failure to support the Communists during the Chinese Civil War. Equally, Stalin was suspisious of Mao as he feared Mao may adopt policies that damaged the interests of the USSR. In addition, the USSR and the PRC had a competing power to be the leading power in Asia, and thus the relationship was difficult.

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1949-1956 - Friendship and Alliance

Stalin and Mao were able to work together for 3 reasons:

  • Mao respected Stalin.
  • Other world powers, such as Britain and the US, refused to work with Communist countries, therefore Mao had no alternative allies.
  • As Communists, Mao and Stalin had common enemies.

Consequently, in 1950, Mao and Stalin signed the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance. Although China gained a powerful ally, Mao felt the Treaty favoured the USSR as the terms of it dictated that:

  • China accepted the Soviet leadership of the Communist world.
  • China and USSR formed a military pact against invasion from Capitalist nations.
  • China was to be given economic and technical aid, and help with developing an airforce. However, under the terms, this aid was to be repaid at a high rate of interest.
  • China's sovereignty in Manchuria was restored.
  • Mongolia remained under the Soviet sphere of influence.
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1949-1956 - Korean War

The Korean War was the first test of the new alliance, Stalin wanted to avoid a direct military confrontation between the two superpowers. At the same time, he did not want Communist North Korea to defeated. Mao's willingness to send a volunteer force of 270000 to defend North Korea allowed Stalin to achieve both his objectives.

The conflict was highly significant for Sino-Soviet relations as it:

  • drained China's financial resources and therefore made it more dependent on the USSR.
  • demonstrated the courage and experience of Chinese troops, thus persuading Stalin that China was a useful ally.

Consequently, the Korean War helped to consolidate the Sino-Soviet relationship.

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Deterioration From 1956 - After Stalin

In the first years following Stalin's death in 1953, the relationship between the USSR and China seemed to improve:

  • The USSR increased the amount of technical support it offered to China. With Soviet help, 116 fully equiped industrial plants were constructed. In particular, there was aid for producing metal, prospecting for oil, the development of machine tools and the manufacture of locomotives.
  • 8000 Chinese students were invited onto advanced training courses in the USSR.

Diplomatically, Khrushchev appeared to be more accomodating than Stalin. He signed a treaty to give up Soviet territory in Lushsun and there seemed to be a positive working relationship between the USSR and China at the Geneva Conference of 1954

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Deterioration From 1956 - Mistrust and Taiwan

In spite of Khrushchev's generosity, there were important areas of difficulty between the two Communist powers.

Mao had little respect for Khrushchev, while he had respected Stalin as a courageous revolutionary, he believed that Khrushchev was nothing more than a timid bureaucrat. Mao's doubts about Khrushchev deepened when Khrushchev accused Stalin of betraying the revolution in Secret Speech of 1956. Khrushchev criticised Stalin for creating a 'cult of personality' which concerned Mao who had created his own personality cult. Following the speech, Mao argued that Khrushchev was a dangerous revisionist.

Mao believed that, in order to fully liberate China, he needed to gain control of Taiwan, the geographical base of his nationalist opponents. Mao was frustrated by Khrushchev's refusal to support this.

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Deterioration From 1956 - Two Taiwan Crises

Taiawan 1954-55:

  • In 1954, Mao began to bomb Taiwan, the US quickly signed a Mutual Defence Treaty. In effect, this meant that the US would defend Taiwan against Chinese or Soviet attack.
  • In public, Khrushchev supported China but privately he was clear that he did not want to jeapodise peaceful co-existence with the US.

Taiwan 1958:

  • Aware of Mao's ambitions, the US provided matador missiles to defend Taiwan. In response, Mao bombed Quemoy and Matsu in August 1958 as a means of stepping up pressure on the US.
  • As tension mounted, Khrushchev refused to support China which forced China to back down..

The two Taiwan crises showed that Khrushchev was unwilling to support Mao's attempts to conquer Taiwan. Consequently, they deepened Mao's mistrust of Khrushchev.

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Deterioration From 1956 - Nuclear Weapons

The USSR and China were also divided on the issue of nuclear weapons:

  • Khrushchev was alarmed by Mao's attitude to nuclear war, Mao had stated he was willing to see half the world's population die in order to advance Communism.
  • Mao viewed Khrushchev's commitment to 'peaceful co-existence' between Capitalism and Communism as a sign that Khrushchev was a coward who was betraying Communism.

Khrushchev was horrified by Mao's willingness to use nuclear weapons and therefore refused to help China develop its own nuclear weapons; Mao felt betrayed. As an alternative, Khrushchev proposed the establishment of a sophisticated radio station in China, which would monitor US submarines in the pacific. Mao took this as a patrionising gesture, part of what he believed to be a 'cat and mouse' relationship on the part of the Soviets.

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Ideological Rivals - China's New Direction

In 1958, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, an economic policy that he claimed was superior to the Soviet economic model. Khrushchev was frustrated by the implicit criticism of Soviet policy and the Great Leap Forward reflected growing ideological differences between China and the USSR.

Mao felt that Khrushchev's style of government had become bureaucratic and he wanted Chinese Communism to maintain its radical spirit. Therefore, his new policy was based on the creative power of China's peasants over the technical expertise of Soviet advisors.

Significantly, the new policy represented Mao's increasing self-confidence and his desire to replace Khrushchev as the leader of the Communist world. Khrushchev understood this and criticised Mao's new policies, creating greater strain between the two leaders. In 1960, the tensions came to the surface when Khrushchev ordered the removal of all 1390 Soviet experts from China and the cancellation of all 257 joint technical projects.

Mao's new policy was a spectacular failure and resulted in major famine. However, Sino-Soviet relations had deteriorated to such an extent that Mao refused offers of Soviet supplies of grain and sugar.

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Ideological Rivals - Public Dispute

During 1963, the USSR's Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party criticised each other more formally. The Open Letter of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union argued that China was no longer on the true path to Communism. Mao responded with even greater criticism, arguing that the USSR had re-established Capitalism.

Mao's refusal to compromise with the USSR was based, in part, on a genuine ideological rejection of bureaucracy, which he regarded as a central part of Soviet 'revisionism'

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Ideological Rivals - Moscow Meeting, 1964

Following Khrushchev's fall, the new Soviet leadership of Brezhnev and Kosygin held talks in Moscow with Zhou Enlai, China's Foreign Minister, during the 47th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. However, the talks were unsuccessful because China was unwilling to compromise due to:

  • its successful test of a nuclear devise and this led to less need for Soviet protection.
  • Communist Albania had rejected Soviet leadership and allied with China.

The Soviet government was also inflexiable, powerful figures felt that Mao would soon be ousted, just as Khrushchev had been removed as Soviet leader. The Soviet Defence Minister, Malinovsky, went as far as to suggest a leadership change to Chinese Diplomats. With no sign of compromise on either side, the talks broke down.

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Deterioration From 1956 - Chinese Policy

Since the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao has been forced to play a smaller role in the government. By the mid-1960s, Mao was determined to reassert his authority and eliminate rivals. Consequently, in 1966, he launched the Cultural Revolution, which was designed to purge Soviet 'revisionists' from the Chinese government. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao's anti-Soviet rhetoric intesified and his main rival, Lin Shaoqi, was publically denounced as the 'Chinese Khrushchev'. Mobs of student activists beseiged the Soviet embassy in Beijing and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai had to intervene to prevent it being burnt down.

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Border Conflict - Confrontation

In 1969, the ideological disputes between the USSR and China transformed into a military conflict. The conflict emerged over the 4406-km Sino-Soviet border. There had been occassional border clashes since 1967, but Mao became more concerned about Soviet forces during 1968. In 1968, Brezhnev ordered Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia to overthrow the government. He argued that the Czechoslovakian government had left the path of true Communism and thus the Soviet government had a right to replace them. Mao was afraid that the Brezhnev Doctrine might apply to China and therefore that the Soviet government would claim the right to replace the Chinese government.

Fearing a Soviet attack, the Chinese built up their force on the border. The Soviets, also fearing war, reacted by establishing a network of new command centres to repel a Chinese attack. The establishment of Soviet command centres convinced China that the USSR was preparing for war. Consequently, China decided on a policy of 'active defence' which involved launching a pre-emptive attack. On 2nd March 1969, Chinese troops ambushed a Soviet border patrol near Zhenbao Island in the Ussuri River region. The situation became fraught enough for the Soviet government to threaten nuclear attack. Mao responded by hastily constructin nuclear shelters in Beijing.

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Border Conflict - Defusion

The border crisis, or 'Ussari River Dispute', was resolved in mid-September at a meeting between Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai and his Soviet couterpart, Kosygin, at Beijing Airport. The 2 sides gave assurance that they had no intention of invading and agreed to maintain the existing border and avoid military clashes.

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Border Conflict - Impact

Initially, the Sino-Soviet split had no impact on the relationship between the US and the USSR. Officials in the US government assumed that China and the USSR were allies due to their common ideology. There was little interest in the ideological dispute between the two Communist nations at the top of the US government. The US' prime concern was containing Communism in Vietnam and, significantly, the USSR and China continued to collaborate in order to supply Communist troops in Vietnam to fight the US troops. However, by the late 1960s, the Sino-Soviet split had become public and therefore senior US officials began to discuss turning the Sino-Soviet split to their advantage.

The 1969 border conflict was significant because it forced the new US President Nixon to consider the US' position regarding a Sino-Soviet military conflict. Nixon reached the view that the successful Soviet invasion of China would give the USSR a new advantage in the Cold War, as it would allow the USSR to dominate Asia. Consequently, Nixon asked his military chiefs to devise plans, including plans for using nuclear weapons, to prevent a Soviet takeover of China.

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Sino-US Relations

From 1949, successive US presidents refused to recognise or have any dealing with Mao's regime. The US government recognised the nationalist government in Taiwan as the offical government of China and blocked Communist China from gaining membership of the United Nations (UN). Chinese involvement in Korea had increased antagonism and China officially reviled the US, whom they named 'Number One Enemy'.

However, better relations became possible as Mao and Nixon were prepared to act pragmatically. They put aside ideological conflict in favour of a relationship based on mutual economuc and strategic interests.

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Nixon and Mao - Why Move Closer To China?

This situation changed in the early 1970s under the Republican President Nixon who had a variety of reasons for wanting closer links with China:

  • Nixon wanted to end US involvement in the Vietnam War but didn't want the US to be humiliated. Mao should be able to place pressure on Communist North Vietnam to negotiate with the US which would establish relations.
  • China's relationship with the USSR had broken down and US relations with China would further weaken the USSR and strengthen the position of the US.
  • Nixon hoped to moderate China's influence and stop the spread of Communism in Asia.
  • Nixon worried about the prospect of a Sino-Soviet war which could lead to a Soviet victory and thus Soviet domination of Asia.
  • Vietnam had showed limits of the US military power which needed bolstering with new stretegic aliances.
  • Nixon hoped that a better relationship with China would allow the US to focus its entire nuclear arsenal on the USSR.
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Nixon and Mao - Why Move Closer To The US?

Mao also had a variety of reasons for wanting closer links with the US, he was particulally concerned with China's geopolitical position:

  • There were still tensions between China and the USSR over their joint border, and Mao was worried about a pre-emptive Soviet nuclear attack.
  • Mao was concerned that China was encircled by unfriendly states, he stated: 'we have the Soviet Union to the North and West, India to the South and Japan to the East'.
  • China's relationship with India had become increasingly hostile; the 2 countries had been at war in 1962 and there was significant conflict in 1967. Mao had become increasingly concerned by the USSR's public support for India.

There were also economic factors troubling Mao:

  • The leaders of the Chines petroleum industry argued that their resources were in need of investment and research. The US was the undisputed world leader in petroleum technology. Consequently, China sought better links with the US in the hope of gaining support for its industry.
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Nixon in China - Ping Pong Diplomacy

Between 1969 and 1972, China and the US developed a closer relationship:

  • In 1969, Nixon began secret talks with China.
  • In January 1970, the Chinese and US ambassadors to Poland met. The Chinese ambassador said that China wanted to arrange talks 'at a high level' between the countries.
  • In April 1971, the Chinese and US Pong-Pong teams met during a tournament in Japan. As a result, the US team were invited to China to enjoy 'Friendship First, Competition Second'. The US team visited Beijing in mid-April and, as a result, steps towards Sino-US relationships became known as 'Ping-Ping diplomacy'.
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Nixon in China - Week That Changed The World

Nixon travelled to China in Februaury 1972, describing his trip as 'the week that changed the world'. The trip culminated in a meeting between the two leaders and the summit between the two leaders was a clear indication that the bi-polar world, dominated by 2 Superpowers, was at an end. China was now a significant world power.

The meeting didn't lead to a formal Sino-US alliance but it was clearly successful. As a result, China began to downplay its support for the 'revolutionary struggle' in the Third World and both powers released a statement condemning 'Soviet imperialism'.

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Nixon in China - The Shanghai Communique

Nixon's visit concluded with the publication of a joint communique setting out the basic agreement that had been drawn up by Kissinger and Zhou:

  • No single power should attempt to dominate Asia. This aspect of the communique was a tacit warning that the US would not tolerate a Soviet invasion of China.
  • The US and China should develop closer cultural and educational links. Trade between the 2 nations developed from 5 million dollars in 1972 to 500 million dollars within the decade.
  • The US acknowledged that Taiwan was part of China
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Nixon in China - Impact on the USSR

Nixon's visit to China and the Shanghai Communique horrified Soviet leaders. As Nixon hoped, the fear of a Sino-US alliance forced Soviet leaders to cultivate a better relationship with the US. This was reflected in the Moscow Summit of May 1972.

At the same time, Soviet leaders began to prepare for a 'war on 2 fronts', against the US in the West and China in the East. This forced the USSR to divide its forces, and therefore diminished their effectiveness.

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Nixon in China - Impact on the USSR

Nixon's visit to China and the Shanghai Communique horrified Soviet leaders. As Nixon hoped, the fear of a Sino-US alliance forced Soviet leaders to cultivate a better relationship with the US. This was reflected in the Moscow Summit of May 1972.

At the same time, Soviet leaders began to prepare for a 'war on 2 fronts', against the US in the West and China in the East. This forced the USSR to divide its forces, and therefore diminished their effectiveness.

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After Nixon - 1973 to 1976

Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, continued to try and build a close relationship with China. Consequently, during 1975, Kissinger and Ford both visited China. However, due to Watergate, Ford was in a weaker position than Nixon as he had assumed the presidency following Nixon's resignation. Therefore, he had not been elected and could not claim to represent the people. Thus, he was not able to compromise on important issues, and the meetings consolidated the link between the two powers, rather than leading to full normalisation of the Sino-US relationship.

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