With Friends Like These: The Sino-Soviet Split

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The Cold War is often depicted as a bilateral conflict between the USSR and the US, each of whom led a bloc of nations aligned with their respective ideology. However, this view frequently leads to overlooking the ever-shifting relations between these two states and their allies, which often had to balance the benefits of superpower patronage with its costs. The reality was that, far from the world being neatly divided into capitalist countries and communist countries, the Cold War involved fairly flexible alliances, neutral nations and, on occasions, the triumph of realpolitik over ideology. This was best demonstrated in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when friction between the USSR and China culminated in the Sino-Soviet Split, and placed the two communist superpowers at odds with each other.

In the aftermath of the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviets were positive. In 1950, the two agreed the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, which forged closer political, economic and defensive ties between the two communist super-states. The Soviets loaned China $300 million, promised military aid in the event of another Japanese invasion and returned the Chinese Eastern Railway, Port Arthur and Dalian. The USSR provided further assistance during China’s First Five-Year Plan (1953-1957), which allowed China to quadruple steel production.

Yet lurking beneath the surface of unity, ideological differences between the two states already existed. Traditional Marxist-Leninist theory stipulated that the communist revolution should be led by an urbanised proletariat, but Mao Zedong argued that the banner of revolution could also be carried by a peasant working class. This was largely a reaction to the reality that these peasants formed the backbone of Mao’s support, and that, because China was not yet an industrialised nation, there did not exist an urbanised working class for the Chairman to mobilise. However, as Stalin was recognised as the de facto leader of global communism, these ideological differences were not of enormous significance – not even Mao sought to challenge Lenin’s self proclaimed heir.

When Stalin died, Khrushchev implemented a series of liberalising reforms following his Secret Speech of 1956, which denounced the dead dictator’s initial military incompetency in the face of Operation Barbarossa, irresponsible use of power and cult of personality. The reforms, also known as the ‘Khrushchev Thaw’, saw the relaxation of censorship and release of political prisoners. The PRC mirrored these reforms with the 1956 Hundred Flowers Campaign, which similarly experimented with more freedom of expression. However, the campaign resulted in a dramatic failure, as the government was inundated with millions of letters that voiced criticisms of the government. The results worried the central government, as it had been expected that most of the Chinese people had embraced communism. Additionally, Mao felt threatened by events like the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, which he saw as the product of liberalising reforms. As a result, the Anti-Rightist Movement was implemented by the PRC, leading to the persecution of over 500,000 ‘rightists’, mainly intellectuals, students and artists who had expressed criticism of the government and its policies. Meanwhile, these very ‘rightists’ were being freed from prisons in the Soviet Union, which displayed the increasing ideological rift between the two nations. 

At the same time, the USSR was also beginning to soften the Soviet stance towards the West. Khrushchev’s desire to seek peaceful coexistence with capitalist states was viewed by Beijing as a betrayal of the worldwide revolution. Mao was far bolder in propagating communism, even accepting the possibility of a global conflict to do so. Khrushchev, terrified of Mao acquiring an atomic bomb, ordered the USSR to halt funding of the Chinese nuclear program. His concerns were well-founded; that same year, Mao attempted to invade Taiwan to destroy the remnants of the Kuomintang. Concerned the Soviets would be sucked into what could easily escalate into World War III, Khrushchev urged Mao to call off the attack, but he was ignored, and Mao only ordered the invasion be cancelled after he realised China was unlikely succeed. The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict, when, instead of supporting its communist ally China, the USSR backed India by exporting MiG-21 fighter jets to them. An apoplectic Mao broke off diplomatic relations with Moscow later that year. 

The consequences of the Sino-Soviet Split were immense: the Cold War became, in many ways, a tripolar struggle, and both China and the USSR sought to use the US to weaken the other. In the early 1960s, Washington also grew concerned about the prospect of a nuclear China, and so proposed a joint pre-emptive American-Soviet assault on the PRC, but the USSR declined to participate. In 1969, the Soviets considered attacking the PRC themselves, and requested American neutrality, but the US had little interest in permitting the Soviets to defeat their troublesome neighbour. Instead of launching a nuclear assault, the Soviets simply stationed 16 divisions, 200 aeroplanes and 120 medium-range missiles along their Chinese border.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were multiple disputes along the said border between the USSR and the PRC, some of which even escalated into firefights. At the Battle of Zhenbao Island, the Soviets sustained around 30 to 50 casualties, while inflicting anything between 29 to 248 Chinese casualties.

Such clashes led Beijing to resolve that it could not challenge both superpowers simultaneously. Accordingly, Chinese leaders began seeking a rapprochement with Washington. These efforts culminated in a series of meetings between leading Chinese politicians and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, and eventually President Nixon. In 1973, the USSR responded by doubling the size of its garrisons along the Chinese border. Fearful of facing both China and the US, the Soviets began making tentative offers to America. By exploiting the Sino-Soviet Split, Nixon became the first American President to visit the two capitals of global communism: Beijing and Moscow. 

Following Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping became the premier leader of China. His tenure witnessed economic liberalisation and a decreased emphasis on abstract ideological diatribes. Relations with the USSR softened, and the Sino-Soviet Split finally ended when, in 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev was photographed shaking Deng’s hand.

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