The Sino- Soviet Split

The Sino- Soviet Split

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Background

The Sino- Soviet split of the late 1960s was not only a result of the developing ideological differences between China and the Soviet Union. The personalities of the leading actors, Mao and Khrushchev, were also important, though by far the most significant factor in the split were the countries conflicting national interests.

Alliance with the USSR was to be the cornerstone of Mao’s foreign policy in 1949. Mao believed that it was only through the assistance of the USSR that Communist China could receive the protection it needed against attack from the USA and anti-communist forces in China. He also wanted the help of Soviet experts to ensure a socialist society was developed within China. In 1954-55, China used the first of the Taiwan Straits crises to cement the alliance with the USSR. Despite the CCP not informing the Soviet leadership of their plans to shell Quemoy, Khrushchev was willing to support China militarily. In 1958 Mao ordered a new wave of shelling of Quemoy. Amongst other reasons (for example the frustration at Taiwan’s lack of concessions at the negotiations started after 1954, or Mao’s attempt to stir up “revolutionary enthusiasm” in the Chinese masses) was that it was an opportunity to tie the USSR to the defence of China by highlighting the threat of the USA. The Soviets had misgivings over Chinese tactics but felt that the force of Communism needed to stand together against the USA.

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However, the alliance between Russian and Chinese Communism was never a very stable one. Resentment had been brewing between Stalin and Mao, especially since the former had been lukewarm in his support for the Chinese Communists in the civil war against the Nationalists. The different forms that communism took in the two countries also caused disagreements- Stalin pushed for the mechanisation of agriculture, but as Chinese communism was based on the support of the peasants, Mao wanted to provide more work for them, not less.

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Ideological Differences

Ideological differences between the two communist powers did play a role in the Sino- Soviet split in the late 1960s. The differences centred on what Mao termed “ideological revisionism”. He felt that Khrushchev was changing the USSR’s interpretation of Communism, and was no longer equipped to be the leader of the world movement. Mao’s accusation of revisionism can be traced to several events. Mao did not agree with Khrushchev’s idea that Communism could be achieved without revolution; to Mao, revolution and war went hand in hand if the expansion of communism was to be successful. The Soviet Union’s new policy of Peaceful Coexistence with the capitalist countries seemed to Mao to show weakness, and abandoned those millions of comrades struggling to free themselves from capitalist and imperialist oppression. Increasingly, Mao formed the opinion that the Soviets were only interested in spreading Communism where it would further the interest of the USSR.

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Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Party Congress of February 1956 made criticisms of Stalin’s domestic policy, implying that Stalin’s application of ideology contained errors and Communism must be applied in different ways. Mao may not have agreed with Stalin on every point, but he had thought him an effective leader of the world movement. As many of Mao’s policies were based on Stalin’s he was greatly offended by “Destalinisation”, and felt that Khrushchev may have been obliquely referring to the situation in China. This was compounded by the fact that he had not been consulted before the speech, and Khrushchev’s policy of reconciliation with Tito (the Yugoslav leader who had been unwilling to implement Stalin’s policies in 1948). Mao also criticised Khrushchev for failing to see that a privilege elite had developed in the Soviet Union that would stop the progress from socialism to communism. He felt that the use of strong tactics was needed against these revisionists or the revolution would be threatened.

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Ideological differences were also highlighted by the Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap Forward was a campaign launched by Mao in 1958 to increase production in industry and agriculture. Khrushchev was highly critical of the campaign, the industries established were labour intensive and central planning was abandoned in favour of local organisation. The USSR thought the plan a dangerous experiment that disregarded the experience of other communist countries (namely the Soviet Union). In 1960, the USSR withdrew not only its aid but also its technical experts from China, leaving half built factories to fall into ruin and other projects incomplete. Khrushchev also criticised Mao for splitting the communist movement and therefore helping the capitalists.

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Personalities

The personalities of Mao and Khrushchev also contributed to the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1960s. Although in 1957 Mao stated: “The socialist camp must have one head, and that head can only be the USSR”, after the apparent revisionism of Khrushchev he felt better qualified to lead the world movement. He also desired greater personal status on the world stage and this can be linked to the national interest of China. Khrushchev’s personality also contributed; he was often impulsive, was prejudiced against the Chinese, and in some instances racist.


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It can be argued that as the split continued after the removal of Khrushchev and the death of Mao, the source of the split had to be national interest. Border disputes between China and Russia had a long history that the communist regimes of both countries could not ignore. In 1967, the Soviet Union had 15 army divisions stationed along the Chinese border. This figure had doubled by 1970. Many of the national interest factors can be linked to the fact that China was determined to become a World power, and the USSR was determined to prevent it. The Soviet Union possessed atomic weapons, had developed a successful space programme with the launching of Sputnik in 1957 and had ICBM capability, yet refused to share these technologies.

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National Interest

Arguments also arose over the USSR’s refusal to reduce its influence in Mongolia, which China considered to be within its own sphere of influence, and the Soviet’s refusal of China’s requests to expand its control in North Korea.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 had a profound effect on Chinese perceptions of the USSR. Czechoslovakia’s government had been attempting to follow a more independent, reformist line, and had been invaded to bring them back into line with Moscow’s direction. The Chinese understood the message: that the USSR could use the actions elsewhere. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 produced a real fear of invasion in China. In response the Chinese military developed a strategy of “active defence” whereby they would make a pre-emptive strike against the USSR where Chinese forces were in the advantage in the hope of deterring the USSR from invasion. It was a risky strategy. The dispute had the potential to escalate, especially as both sides possessed nuclear weapons. Rumours spread that the USSR was prepared to use a nuclear strike against China; the appointment of Colonel General Tolubko, deputy commander of the USSR’s Strategic Rocket Forces, to command Soviet forces in the Far East did little to ease these concerns.

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Verbal attacks and a failure to cooperate progressed to more serious manifestations of dispute in 1969 during the Ussuri River Dispute. Arguments over the exact position of the Sino-Soviet border had been long-standing and had often been sources of tension between Tsarist Russia and Imperial China. What made the issue of laying down borders along Ussuri River was so difficult was the geographical condition of the area. The Ussuri River is one of the largest in China and as such it subject to widespread flooding, which means its course can alter and the islands in the middle of the river can appear and then be washed away.

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In 1964 a preliminary agreement had been reached by which the USSR was prepared to hand over Damansky (Zhenbao) Island over to China. But when Mao spoke openly of this being the first of many territorial gains from the USSR, Khrushchev was outraged and cancelled the agreement. This shows how the personalities of the leaders contributed to the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1960s, but also how the foundations for the split were laid by competing national interest.


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After the dispute Damansky Island remained in Soviet hands and the border dispute was left unresolved. Tensions increased along the border. In the west at Xinjiang on August 13th 1969 a serious clash occurred between Soviet and Chinese troops that resulted in the elimination of an entire Chinese brigade. When Kosygin, the soviet prime minister, met Zhou Enlai, his Chinese counterpart, in September 1969 relations remained frosty. Kosygin was returning from the funeral of Ho Chi Minh and made a stop at Beijing and the talks took place in the airport. The dispute of 1969 seems to have been of key significance in persuading Mao that China’s foreign policy needed to be reappraised. The result was a changed approach to the USA, which was to have a profound impact on the Cold War and shatter the bipolarity that had existed since 1945.

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Conclusions

Overall, the Sino- Soviet split of the late 1960s was not only a result of the developing ideological differences between China and the Soviet Union. The personalities of the leading actors, Mao and Khrushchev, were also important, as they prevented reconciliation (as demonstrated by the Ussuri River Dispute in 1969). The fact that the CCP itself traces the beginnings of the dispute to Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 and the policy Destalinisation suggests that “revisionism” was a significant factor in the split. However, ideology often provided the excuses and language in which to present divisions, which had been caused by national interest. Attacking the so called revisionism in the USSR helped to consolidate the power of the CCP in China. At its heart the Sino-Soviet spilt of the late 1960s was about China’s struggle to become a world power and the Soviet Union’s determination to prevent it.

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