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The Sino-Soviet Split, why and how did it happen?

By Cde. Jeroboam Shaanika

Recently the Sino-Soviet split became a subject of discussion within the context of the support to the liberation struggle in Africa and elsewhere. While the two countries supported various liberation movements, that in itself was not the main bone of contention of the duel. Before venturing to give some accounts on why and possibly how the Sino-Soviet split happened, I would want to use the words by Henry Kissinger, former US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to both Presidents Nixon and Ford. This is what Kissinger said in his book Henry Kissinger On China "Every statesman needs to balance the experience of the past against the claim of the future". In using the words of Kissinger is by no means that I share his ideological way of reasoning, but merely because of the quote has relevance to the subject matter.

Let me also put it directly that my attempt to answer the above question is by no means that I am allotting to myself absolute knowledge on the subject matter, but only trying through my own understanding. To balance the experience of the past against the claim of the future is the same as know where you have come and where you are going. The Sino-Soviet split was a result of a cocktail of many factors, but all boils to one thing, the feeling of strategic vulnerability and misconceptions. The doctrinal differences originated from Soviet and Chinese national interests as well as two diametrical interpretations of Marxism:

Maoism and Marxism- Leninism. Mao believed that Leninist revolutionary theory was incompatible to China, because China's ideology was meant for the poor rural peasants, while the Soviet version was to attract urban working class. The Soviet Union either by default or purposely failed to understand the Chinese allergic with past vulnerabilities through dominations.

China wanted to assert its new found independence while the Soviets were claiming ownership over the communist ideology. The Sino-Soviet split was driven by a number of strategic motives. Firstly, the perception of strategic vulnerability is embedded in the Chinese national psyche.

Because of past dominations and territorial ambition of foreign powers like Japan and Russia, any strategic move closer to China is balanced along the experience of the past against the claim for the future. China is cautious about Strategic encirclement. To prevent the strategic encirclement, Li Hongzhang, a Chinese negotiator in 1860s crafted a strategy to balance the danger posed by outside powers, allowing none to pre-dominate.

In a letter to the Empress Dowager, just before his death in 1901, Li Hongzhang was said to have concluded with a riddle "looking at the question as one affecting chiefly the integrity of our empire, who should be so foolish to cast missiles at a rat in the vicinity of a priceless piece of porcelain"? Meaning that a rat cannot be allowed to get near the priceless porcelain, otherwise once it gets closer it enters the zone of immunity offered by the priceless porcelain. Therefore, the strategic motive is to keep the barbarians far enough so that they would not be able to endanger China with a strategic encirclement.

The Boxer Uprising may have been what Li Hongzhang prophesized. The targets of the Boxer Uprising in 1898 were mainly foreigners including foreign emissaries. Eight foreign powers had to intervene to secure the emissaries and suppress the uprising and defeat the Qing Dynasty troops. This led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. Qing Dynasty having been defeated and unable to prevent foreign troops from ransacking the country has by default lost its mandate. Perhaps the Qing Dynasty allowed the rats to come closer to the priceless porcelain thereby depriving itself the opportunity to act, since they had entered the zone of immunity. Care should be taken that the history of China is long and what is said here is only tip of an iceberg.

By 1920, China was under the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) led by Chiang Kai-shek. The Soviet Union had by then recognized the Nationalist government and had a Treaty with the nationalists, while at the same time it supplied weapons communist guerrilla led by Mao Zedong. In 1949, the Nationalist troops lost control of the mainland China and retreated to the Island of Taiwan (Formosa). This event will later on also have strategic implications on Chinese long term desire to re-unite Taiwan with the mainland. China felt that the Soviet Union was not considerate enough to the issues of strategic importance to them. This matter added a dose of irritation no doubt.

Another dose of irritation could be attributed perhaps to the content of a White paper issued by the US State Department in August 1949, in which post-mortem on the defeat of the Nationalist government was made. There were geopolitical repercussions as well as geopolitical expectations. China was counting on the Soviet Union to help it take Taiwan from the Nationalist government, which it considered as a renegade province. The Soviet was perceived to be reluctant to sign a Friendship Treaty with a fellow communist China, while at the same time it did not annul the Treaty it had signed with the Nationalists. For China it was vital to re-take Taiwan, but China at that time was still not yet matured militarily.

The Soviet Union on the other hand was avoiding a nuclear confrontation. The US initially, appeared to have given up on Taiwan. A National Security Council memorandum NSC 48/2 concluded that "the strategic importance of Formosa does not justify overt military action. However, Washington appeared to have been concern with the spread of what it termed as Russian imperialism in Asia. When Dean Acheson, then President Truman's Secretary of State proposed a relation with China based on national interest, the proposal waffled feathers in Moscow.

Stalin tried to caution Mao not to fall into capitalist trap, but Mao appeared to have been toying with the ideal so as to play the two super powers one against the other. This too appeared to have added another dose of irritation in the Sino-Soviet relations. The personal relations between Chinese and Soviet leaders were additional problem which could have heightened the split. Soviet Union China had divergence of opinion on ideological approach.

China diametrically opposed to the Soviet's concept of "peaceful coexistence" with capitalist and interpreted it as capitulation. To Moscow particularly Stalin, Mao was like a scorpion in a pocket. While negotiating the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty, Mao appeared to have been cautious or sensed a territorial ambition, which he did not support. Stalin on his part appeared not to have taken Mao seriously even when Mao visits Moscow, Stalin was communicating with him through emissaries. However, after the death of Stalin, China objected to Soviet de- Stalinization campaign, arguing that the general line of the International Communist Movement had been correct during Stalin's tenure and that his successes outweighed his failures. Moscow perceived Beijing as challenging its ideological leadership and it also appeared not to have understood emotional history on the part of China. This was perhaps another dose which caused further irritation in the Sino-Soviet relations. However, the conflict decreased after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the end of the Cultural Revolution in China.

The Korean War also added another dimension. While Stalin encouraged North Korea to attack South Korea based on a calculation that United States is unlikely to come to help South Korea, he tried to push to burden to the Chinese. Korea was initially not within radar observation of the US. This was interpreted that US was unlikely to intervene in the Korean War. The impacts of the Korean War were negative to China. The cordon sanitaire of strategic encirclement moved closer to its borders and the prospect of regaining Taiwan became a causality of the Korean War.

Stalin had known that should the US intervened, China would feel threatened and it would gravitate towards Moscow's orbit. Whether it was a miscalculation or by designed, the US intervened and the long term strategic burden fell on the shoulders of China.

The Korean War changed the strategic equation in the Korean peninsula and in Taiwan Strait. The US became overly protective of Taiwan while at the same time affirming the one China policy. That the re-unification of Taiwan and the mainland should come about through peaceful means.

The Korean War appeared to have closed the window of opportunity for China to claim Taiwan by force. Afterwards, then US President Truman decided to send the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to neutralize and prevent military attacks, mainly from the mainland China. Judging from the above, this too might have contributed to uneasiness in the Sino-Soviet relations. The Soviet military build-up along the Chinese borders was another dose of irritation in the two countries' relations. In 1969, it was said that the Soviet Union stationed about two divisions of about one million armed men close to Chinese borders. This led to clashes along their common borders. Chinese do not like to be encircled. The ancient wall of China was built to prevent the strategic vulnerability, stationing a million soldiers along the borders was hardly a sign of friendship.

Last but not the least was the US opening up to China. To Moscow this was perhaps interpreted as a strategic design by the capitalist country to divide the communist countries, but to China it was probably an opportunity to turn material weakness into psychological asset. It was an act to play the two super powers against each other. Sun Tzu, a Chinese warrior philosopher teaches that the best strategy to win the war is to achieve victory without a fight. If by warming up to the US, China had hoped to gain extra mileages, to address it strategic vulnerability then so be it. Indeed, "Every statesman needs to balance the experience of the past against the claim of the future".

The Sino-Soviet as demonstrated by the accounts above had more do with Asia than other places in the world. Although Mao advocated that Asian and world communist movements should emulate China's model instead of the Soviet's, he was more alarmed by the danger caused by encirclement. After all the reason why the Soviet Union missed the opportunity to cast a veto over the Korean War, it was protesting the Chinese Seat in the UN Security Council which was still occupied by Taiwan instead of the mainland.

There are also many areas even during their duel, they cooperated on many issues. In the 1980s, relations between the two countries were normalized, and after the dissolution of the USSR, the differences were consigned to the footnotes of history. Therefore, Sino-Soviet duel had more to do with fear by China of strategic encirclement on its backyard and Soviet misconceptions about the Chinese strategic desires.

The warning by Li Hongzhang not to cast missiles at a rat in the vicinity of a priceless piece of porcelain is applicable to our situation too. If we have laws in place, we do not need to worry to cast missiles because the rat will not come near the priceless piece of porcelain. It comes only when there is a hole. If there is indeed a hole then it must be fixed.

Jeroboam Shaanika is a Namibian civil servant; however, the views expressed here are entirely his own and do not reflect those of the Namibian government. This opinion is taken from his Facebook notes.


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