The Moscow-Beijing Détente

Since the end of World War II, there have been three watersheds in Sino-Soviet relations. In February 1950, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China formed an alliance against the West. In the late 1950s, there was the beginning of the historic split between them that transformed international politics. Then, in the early 1970s, there began the Sino-American rapprochement that, by the end of the decade, completely altered the strategic landscape and led to an incipient Chinese-American alliance against the Soviet Union.

A fourth stage in the evolution of the strategic triangle is now underway and will probably continue during the 1980s. Through a variety of winks and nudges, China has responded positively-if still somewhat skeptically and ambiguously-to Soviet overtures for détente. The process of achieving such a détente, if it is successful, will almost certainly be long and difficult. The Soviets, although they have temporarily halted most of their polemics against China, continue to fear that a China modernized with the help of the West will one day be in a position to pursue the "Great Han, chauvinistic and expansionistic" aims which Soviet propagandists have frequently attributed to China during the past two decades. The Chinese, although they have largely dropped the Maoist ideological indictment of the Soviet Union as a "revisionist" country and a "betrayer of Marxism-Leninism," still continue to portray Moscow as a compulsive "hegemonic" power out to dominate the world.1

Still, détente is viewed by both adversaries as a means of managing their rivalry, not of eliminating it, and so the trend toward détente is likely to continue. Both the Russians and the Chinese have powerful reasons for desiring an end to the confrontation that has marked their relationship during most of the Maoist era. The big question remains: how far is a Sino-Soviet détente likely to go and what are its implications for the West?

This essay will attempt to examine some of the recent developments in Sino-Soviet relations; to explore the reasons why both Russia and China are now interested in a détente; to identify some of the substantial limits on that détente; and, finally, to analyze the implications of the new trends for the United States.

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