The Chinese Border

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Once allies in the world-wide struggle against western imperialism, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China became embroiled during the 1960s in ideological controversy, political rivalry, and, towards the end of the decade, armed clashes along their lengthy common border. These hostilities between the two Communist giants had profound implications for both countries’ relations with the rest of the world, including other Communist-ruled states, popular insurgency movements, and the other superpower, the United States. Within the Soviet Union, members of the Politbiuro spent many a late night pondering how to deal with the challenges posed by their Chinese counterparts. Soviet citizens, many of whom regarded the Chinese as latter-day descendants of the Mongol hordes, meanwhile cowered at the thought of them pouring across the border and precipitating an all-out war.

The Sino-Soviet “dispute” emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s after negotiations involving Soviet military assistance to China bogged down over the question of nuclear weapons. To the Chinese, the Khrushchev administration’s reluctance to help the People’s Republic develop its atomic weapons program smacked of “big power chauvinism,” which, as relations worsened, was one of several accusations hurled against the Soviet leadership. They denounced the Soviet emphasis on “peaceful coexistence” with the capitalist world as kowtowing to the “paper tiger” of imperialism, considered de-Stalinization as “revisionism,” and, in Enver Hoxha, the leader of tiny Albania, found an ally among ruling Communist parties. For its part, the Soviet leadership criticized Mao Tse-tung for unbridled nationalism, “left-wing sectarianism,” and other ideological sins. Although somewhat abating after Khrushchev’s forced retirement in 1964, this war of words divided Communists throughout the world into pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions.

In March 1969, tensions between the USSR and China erupted into clashes between regular military units over control of Damanskii Island (Chenpao Island to the Chinese), situated at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri rivers. Later in the year, clashes occurred further to the west along the Xinjiang-Kirghiz border. On August 28, 1969 Pravda called on China to give up its “absurd territorial claims” and warned that if war broke out, the Soviet government would not shrink from employing its nuclear arsenal. With China in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s intentions were difficult to gauge, but in October both sides agreed to reopen talks on resolving the border dispute. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued to increase its military forces along the Far Eastern border and to expand its Pacific fleet.

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