It is now eleven years since an ideological dispute between the Chinese and Soviet communist parties burst into the open on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of Lenin's birth, and almost eight years since the pattern of world affairs became definitely "triangular" with the open break between the two leading communist powers. Since then, the view of some Western dogmatists that personal rivalry between Khrushchev and Mao Tse-tung for the control of "world communism" was the only cause of the rift was plainly refuted as it continued after Khrushchev's fall; but at the opposite extreme, forecasts about tension between the two communist giants building up steadily toward nuclear war appear hardly more plausible at the present time. What events have tended to show so far is rather the persistence of controlled conflict between Moscow and Peking, with the ups and downs of crisis and relative détente familiar from other great-power conflicts of the nuclear age. A new wave of speculation has been generated in recent months by the efforts at a normalization of Sino-Soviet state relations and the subsequent revival of bitter polemics over the Polish December crisis, by the shifts in the Chinese party leadership since the end of the cultural revolution; and by the approach of the 24th Congress of the CPSU. These may justify one more attempt to analyze the factors underlying this strange relationship and its possible impact on the future.

It is useful to recall at the start that history and geography oppose China and Russia far more to each other than they oppose either to the United States, They are neighbors with the longest common frontier in the world; and among the European powers which took advantage of China's weakness in the nineteenth century, Tsarist Russia was the closest and territorially the most rapacious. It was revolutionary ideology alone that tended to bridge this "natural" conflict of interest after 1917, and the bridge remained imperfect and fragile at best. Soviet Russia's Mongolian and Manchurian policies ensured that Chiang Kaishek never ceased to distrust the powerful ally-even in his early days as a national revolutionary leader. Mao Tse-tung rose to leadership of the Chinese Communists after experiencing, in 1927 and 1934, the disastrous consequences of the party's obedience to Soviet advice; he rose to national power by repeatedly defying that advice; and he had to pay for Soviet support not only by "leaning to one side" in world affairs, but by signing-in February 1950-the last of the unequal treaties in modern China's history. So conscious was Mao of Stalin's tendency to use the Chinese Communists as expendable pawns, and of the potential conflict underneath the ideological solidarity, that from his Yenan days he deliberately trained his cadres to follow their own model of revolutionary strategy, and only his own ultimate authority. Outwardly, he had to tolerate Soviet bases in Manchuria and to fight Russia's war in Korea while Stalin lived; but once the Vozhd was dead, Mao hastened to depose and arrest Kao Kang, long Russia's trusted man in the Chinese leadership, and to negotiate a revision of the unequal treaty. The different ideological emphasis, developed in following an increasingly independent road to power, now became a compass for an increasingly independent national policy.

The death of Stalin had given China equality of status within the alliance; the crisis of de-Stalinization seems to have been viewed by Mao as a chance to win major influence on Soviet policy without conflict. In the fall of 1957, he offered to Khrushchev the support of his intact authority for overcoming the crisis in the bloc and at home-at a price. His demands included substantial new capital aid, delivery of the latest weapons including in due course atomic bombs, and a more forward joint policy in Asia-and at least the first two were apparently promised to him. But the state of Soviet resources and the East European situation prevented major capital aid to China, while the Soviet view of the world relation of forces combined with the vulnerability of the advanced Soviet economy to limit Moscow's willingness to take major risks on Peking's behalf. Furthering atomic proliferation to build up an independent great power bordering Russia must have appeared to the Kremlin as the most foolhardy risk of all. From the end of 1957, the differences in the situations and interests of the two powers thus led to a whole series of Chinese disappointments-over capital aid, over atomic proliferation, over Middle Eastern diplomacy, over military aid in the Quemoy crisis, over Soviet-American and over Chinese- Indian relations. To those disappointments, the Chinese reacted in the course of 1958 and 1959 first with implied, then with increasingly explicit, attacks on Soviet ideological positions, in the hope of exerting effective pressure on the Soviet leaders by hitting their vulnerable spot- the weakness of their ideological authority. It was the public appearance of such symptoms of an "ideological dispute" that first indicated the existence of the underlying power conflict to the non-communist world.

II

But once the common ideology is no longer sufficient to bridge the conflicting policies of communist states, conflicting ideological arguments will be advanced to justify those policies-and will make compromise more difficult. As each side seeks to present its own practice as orthodox and its opponent's as heretical, it attacks by implication the legitimacy of the rival leader, and is perceived by him as threatening the stability of his rule. The very first disappointment-Russia's inability to supply the capital needed for China's industrialization-led Mao not only to launch the "People's Communes," but to proclaim them as a shortcut to the "higher stage" of communism-a challenge to the Soviets' birthright as pioneers on that road which they were bound to reject. True, the economic setbacks of the "Commune" experiment led the Chinese to withdraw that challenge in early 1959, and the first muted ideological dispute was thus patched up; but the same setback led one of Mao's domestic critics, Marshal P'eng Teh- huai, to seek Khrushchev's support-an approach which the Soviet leader failed to discourage. When Mao learned of this, he must have felt that both his own control and China's independence were threatened by Soviet subversion. His second, less muted ideological attack, which culminated in the Lenin anniversary speeches and articles of April 1960, was thus prompted not only by the growing conflict over foreign policy, military support and international revolutionary strategy, but by a sense that he was fighting for his survival as leader of an independent great power.

On the other hand, the fact that both V. M. Molotov, then Soviet Ambassador to Mongolia, and the Albanian Communists began to argue on Chinese lines soon convinced Khrushchev and his associates that they had to defend the cohesion of their empire against a subversive attack from Peking. The brutality of the total withdrawal of Soviet technicians from China in the summer of 1960 and the persistence of the Chinese challenge in the face of that blow, disproportionate and irrational in relation to the original policy conflicts, become comprehensible only in the light of the ideological broadening of those conflicts to encompass the domestic and imperial control of both leaders.

By the time of the last joint world conference of communist parties, held in Moscow in November and December 1960, the Chinese leaders were thus convinced that they would have to go their own way without Soviet help, unless and until there were radical changes in Soviet leadership and policy. In the circumstances, the compromise hammered out at this conference could be tactical only, and it proved short-lived because it had a different tactical meaning for each of the two sides. The Soviets had formally renounced their "leading role" in the world movement because they wanted to be rid of ideological debates: relying on their superior material strength to impose their course in foreign affairs, they were willing to stop criticizing what Mao did at home if Mao would stop criticizing what they did in Russia and East Europe. The Chinese, on the contrary, were interested in maintaining formal unity only as a basis for carrying on a long-term ideological struggle throughout the world movement-including Russia and East Europe.

When the difference became obvious in the Chinese support of Albania against Soviet pressure, a third and open phase of the dispute started, in October 1961, with the clashes at the 22nd Congress of the CPSU. But now, because of the adoption of a new party program at that congress as well as the increasingly apparent internal struggles in China over methods of industrialization, the basic divergence of the domestic development of the two became involved in the dispute. The need of an advanced industrial (and nuclear) power for continuity of production, hence for domestic stability and internal peace, and its reliance on a highly graded scale of material incentives and privileges seemed directly opposed to the need of an overpopulated, agrarian country with immense problems of modernization for a harsh régime of sacrifice. China needed to keep the masses fired by revolutionary enthusiasm and by the spirit of a besieged fortress. As Mao Tse-tung engaged in a bitter struggle for the distinctively Chinese form of revolution within his own party, he had to hold up the post-revolutionary materialism of Soviet society in the sixties as a warning example of the revisionist degeneracy to which any alternative road would lead. The consequences of different national conditions and stages of development were thus raised to the rank of incompatible principles; the objective divergence of the Russian and Chinese roads was magnified by ideology; and the earlier doctrinaire differences about the international struggle against imperialism were absorbed into two complete, mutually exclusive versions of what had once appeared as a common, Marxist-Leninist doctrine.

With the sense of a basic community of goals thus destroyed, the earlier conflicts about the proper contents of a common strategy on the world scene were soon replaced by outright power rivalry between the two nominally still allied states. Even before the rival doctrinaire structures had been fully worked out by their creators, the dual international crisis of the fall of 1962, in the Caribbean and on the Sino-Indian frontier, showed that all sense of solidarity between Moscow and Peking had disappeared : the Chinese delight in embarrassing the Soviets during their retreat from Cuba was matched by the Soviet willingness to aid Indian rearmament. As the Caribbean defeat led to a Soviet decision to seek a détente in relations with the West, regardless of Chinese denunciations, the last official meeting between delegates of the Soviet and Chinese communist parties, held in Moscow in the summer of 1963, was conceived by each side solely as an occasion to "unmask" the other, and its breakdown marked the effective end of the Sino-Soviet alliance: during the year that followed, the public exposition of the two competing ideological systems and the splitting of a number of communist parties along those lines was paralleled by a series of official disclosures about the earlier conflicts in foreign and military policies, and by a growing number of frontier incidents.

Yet compared with the fundamental power rivalry and the divergence of roads of development, the friction at the borders constituted a subsidiary phenomenon. Its first high point was reached when Mao, in an interview granted to Japanese visitors in the summer of 1964, complained about the massing of Soviet forces on the borders of Kazakhstan and Sinkiang, and Moscow failed to deny the charge. But what Mao feared was clearly not a Soviet attempt at territorial conquests, but a preventive strike at China's fledgling nuclear installations. A few months later, the fall of Khrushchev and the first Chinese atomic explosion ended that particular fear.

III

Khrushchev's successors do not seem to have been under any illusions that the former ideological unity of the communist powers could be restored-not, at any rate, while Mao was in power. But they have made repeated if not consistent efforts to achieve the more modest goal of a "normalization" of Sino-Soviet relations. They aim at a state of affairs in which the two communist great powers would pursue their respective interests independently, now in coöperation, now in conflict with each other, but without fanatical and systematic hostility. Given that the Soviet Union was necessarily opposed to Chinese pressure on India and Chinese influence in Pakistan, could it not at the same time coöperate with China against the Americans in Vietnam? While taking their precautions along the border, seeking to deter Pakistan from relying on China in her conflict with India, and working to forestall a growth of Chinese influence in Japan, the Soviets have therefore not only repeatedly offered a cessation of hostile ideological polemics, and invited the Chinese Communists to join another international conference of communist parties, but have made specific offers for a "united front" in support of North Vietnam, both on the government and party levels.

The Chinese have consistently refused those offers, to the dismay of the independent communist parties of Asia. As many of their earlier sympathizers turned into ideological neutrals while their most promising allies, the Indonesian Communists, suffered disaster in the fall of 1965, the prospect of a powerful bloc of pro-Chinese communist parties vanished. Yet Mao was willing to pay the price of growing international isolation because by then the domestic power struggle had absolute priority in his eyes; and for that he needed the bogey of Soviet revisionism leading to a restoration of capitalism. If Liu Shao-chi had to be branded, in the course of the cultural revolution, as the "Chinese Khrushchev" walking the capitalist road, evidently no united front was conceivable with Soviet leaders whose policy had been unmasked as "Khrushchevism without Khrushchev."

In the course of the cultural revolution, Soviet-Chinese relations thus fell to their lowest point yet; as insults to each other's diplomatic personnel led to the withdrawal of both ambassadors, Chinese propaganda called for the overthrow of the revisionist traitors by the Russian people and Soviet propaganda for the overthrow of Mao Tse-tung, the destroyer of the Chinese communist party. The Soviets, at least, may for a time have believed that such an outcome was possible. However, as Mao's domestic victory became evident with the approaching end of the upheaval, the Soviets returned once more to their earlier efforts to work for a pragmatic normalization.

In fact, the end of the cultural revolution has brought a growth of pragmatic influence in the Chinese leadership and a return to a more "normal" conduct in foreign affairs-but at first, Sino-Soviet relations remained an exception. Though evidence on the responsibility for the Ussuri River incident of March 1969 remains conflicting, an analysis of possible political motives strongly suggests a Chinese initiative. The disputed islands themselves are worthless. The prospect of a multiplication of similar incidents along the endless frontier offered to the Soviets no possible gain, but the nightmare of having to tie down large forces for recurring, indecisive battles against an enemy specializing in hit-and-run warfare and disposing of inexhaustible manpower. The Chinese, on the other hand, whose propagandist exploitation of the incidents was far better prepared-with detailed maps-could make excellent use of them for maintaining the "besieged fortress" spirit in general and popular hostility to the "new Tsars" in particular beyond the end of the cultural revolution.

Conversely, it seems plausible that the Soviets were responsible for the subsequent renewal of clashes on the border of Sinkiang, as they were certainly responsible for spreading the rumor, in the summer of 1969, that they might still decide on the preventive strike against China's nuclear installations which Mao had feared five years earlier. However unconvincing the rumor was in view of the probable cost of such an attempt at this stage, it may have helped to bring the Chinese to the negotiating table after Kosygin's meeting with Chou En-lai in September of that year, and to end the frontier fighting for the time being.

The course of the negotiations has so far been inconclusive-apparently not because of any substantial difficulty in agreeing on the demarcation of the existing frontier, but because of the Chinese insistence that the Soviets should formally and publicly admit that this frontier was the result of unjust and unequal treaties imposed on China by the Tsars. In demanding this admission, the Chinese assert that they claim it merely as a matter of undeniable historical truth, without any thought of actually changing the frontier to reverse the Tsarist annexations. But the Russians clearly feel that they cannot make such a formal admission without laying themselves open to later substantive Chinese demands. Hence the Chinese appear to have hit on a means for keeping the frontier question open, and thus maintaining popular hostility, without dangerously provoking the Russians by actual fighting. In a similar spirit, Peking finally agreed to resume the exchange of ambassadors with Moscow, and on the occasion of last year's November celebrations for the first time publicly reciprocated the wish for the normalization of state relations which the Soviet government had repeatedly expressed. At the same time the Chinese continue to emphasize their uncompromising ideological struggle against Soviet "revisionism" and "social imperialism."

Yet while that distinction is in principle acceptable to the Soviets and indeed corresponds to the kind of modus vivendi they have long proposed, in practice the Chinese persist in drawing the line between state relations and ideological struggle in a manner which endangers vital interests of the Soviets and cannot be tolerated by them: for the Chinese concept of ideological criticism includes the right to conduct propagandist attacks on the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and even on the unity of the nationalities of the Soviet Union. True, the Chinese attacks on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia took place while the cultural revolution was still in progress and before any talk about normalization of state relations. But in December 1970, Chinese propaganda interpreted the crisis of the Polish régime, in which the Soviets were not visibly involved, in exactly the same spirit as a revolt of the Polish working class against the "revisionist" régime in which the Soviets had allegedly threatened to intervene, and forecast the ultimate victory of the Polish people over "Soviet social imperialism."

To the Soviets, such propaganda naturally appears as incompatible with "normal state relations;" and this applies even more to the continuing Chinese efforts to encourage separatist national movements among the Ukrainians and other constituent nationalities of the Soviet Union. More than a year after the start of negotiations between the governments, Russia and China thus seem back at the point at which the last compromise between the parties broke up a decade ago: at the Chinese refusal to accept the Soviets' control over their own power sphere as the minimum basis for a modus vivendi.

IV

In trying to evaluate the prospects of the conflict, it may be useful to start by separating its components. The first striking fact is that the basic power rivalry between the two communist giants has survived the disappearance of many of the original policy issues of the late 1950s- issues that were linked to the situation of China's material dependence on a richer and more powerful ally. As a nuclear power with an independent role in world affairs, China is clearly determined never again to rely on Soviet economic or military aid for achieving its policy aims; nor has the Soviet Union any more grounds to fear that it might be drawn against its will into risky adventures by the now defunct alliance. What has remained, however, is the power rivalry itself-the interest of Russia in slowing down the growth of the industrial and military might of its eastern neighbor, and the determination of China to overcome the obstacle.

At present, the rivalry manifests itself above all as a struggle for influence in Asia. That struggle takes the form of political competition in North Korea, which has become independent of both, and in North Vietnam, which both have supported without ever coöperating directly. It takes the form of primarily economic competition with Japan. It appears as a direct clash in the Mongolian Peoples' Republic, where China is trying to undermine Soviet control, and in South Asia, where the Soviets are objectively aligned with the United States for the protection of India and have profited from the collapse of Chinese influence in Indonesia.

The importance of the frontier issue in the wider power conflict remains highly controversial among outside observers. The nature of China's overpopulation is not such as to constitute an urgent compulsion to expand her territory: China remains short of capital rather than land. Nor is there the slightest evidence of a Chinese inclination to engage in dangerous military adventures at the present stage-rather it is the contrast between wild language and cautious behavior that continues to impress the student Even for the longer run, assuming an absolute and relative growth of China's military power and an eventual exhaustion of the reserves of arable land with a further increase of her population, it is by no means "fatalistically inevitable" that she must seek to expand at Russia's expense, at the risk of nuclear war, rather than move south against weaker neighbors or seek peaceful economic solutions. But neither can the possibility of such a development be excluded from the Soviet point of view in the light of the growth of Chinese armaments, of her present hostility, and of her insistence on the illegitimate origin of the present frontier. Seen from Moscow, the rise of China to the full status of a modern world power, which may be slowed down but is unlikely to be prevented, remains a potential long-term threat to Soviet territorial security-by now presumably the only serious threat of that kind.

If we now turn to the ideological aspects of the conflict, the struggle for control of the nonruling communist parties has lost much of its earlier importance because of the comparative failure of Chinese efforts in this field. The dominant fact here has been the collapse of the hopes for a bloc of major Asian communist parties under Chinese leadership since 1965, with the turn of the Korean and Japanese Communists and even the Indian left- Communists toward "neutral" independence and the catastrophe of the Indonesian party. But in Latin America, too, the Chinese have been unable to establish a solid influence among the more or less "Castroist" groups opposing Moscow's "peaceful road" to power, or to prevent the Cuban party itself from attending the Moscow world conference of 1969.

In Europe, the Chinese-oriented splinter groups have nowhere become more than a nuisance for the established communist parties, able at best to delay the evolution of the latter into potential participants in government coalitions useful to Soviet diplomacy. Nor has the Maoist influence among the student "New Left" become more than one unstable element in a general ideological ferment, as it met in the course of time increasing competition from the old-line communists in Western Europe and from the Trotskyites in the United States. The Chinese themselves seem to have come to realize their failure as an international doctrinaire center: there is evidence that for the propagandist struggle against the West and the Soviets, they are relying more and more on supporting militant movements of an outright nationalist character, like the Palestinian guerrillas, rather than left- wing ideological sects.

By contrast, the ideological legitimation of divergent roads of domestic development has remained a far more vital element in the conflict; but it is also far more liable to be affected by changes in the leadership and domestic policy of either country. Among the latter, changes in China are likely to have a more far-reaching impact on Sino-Soviet relations. A Soviet turn toward a new effort at modernizing reform could now only produce an intensification of Chinese ideological invectives, while a turn toward a wholesale rehabilitation of Stalin's memory and methods, from which its more primitive advocates are said to expect an ideological reconciliation with the Chinese, would leave the basic differences unaffected and only deprive the Maoists of the tactical pretext that they are defending the Stalinist tradition. In fact, the basic features of Soviet society which form the counterfoil to Mao's vision, such as its reliance on highly differentiated material incentives and its rigid bureaucratic stratification, go back to Stalin's own decisions, as Mao knows perfectly well; and they are unlikely to disappear through any change in the Soviet leadership conceivable at this stage.

On the other hand, a turn on China's part in a more "materialist" and therefore more Soviet-like direction, with more stress on material incentives and continuity of production and less reliance on revolutionary enthusiasm, is conceivable after the disappearance of Mao. Indeed the signs are not lacking that forces favoring such a "pragmatic" turn have increased their influence in the Chinese leadership since the end of the cultural revolution, and that they are the same who have pressed for a normalization of state relations with the Soviet Union (so far, as we have seen, with limited success). In that sense, a decline in bitterness of China's ideological hostility toward the Soviet Union and a move toward a climate of peaceful coexistence between independent communist powers building different types of "socialism" would be a possible development after Mao's demise. But it would not, of course, end the power rivalry between them; it might even, by speeding the success of China's modernization, make her a more formidable rival for Russia at a quicker pace. The power rivalry, then, will continue to be decisive for the substance of the conflict, while ideological factors may influence its more or less acute and intensive forms at particular times. That substance excludes a true "reconciliation" between the two leading communist powers in the sense of a return to a stable alliance based on the primacy of common ideological convictions and goals. But given a measure of rationality of the leadership on both sides, the fact of a serious conflict of power interests makes nuclear war between them no more inevitable than between either of them and the United States.

The continuation of limited and controlled conflict between Russia and China thus remains a far more plausible prospect than its end by either reunion or catastrophe. But in an increasingly triangular world, that leaves unanswered a question of decisive practical importance for the West: the question of priorities. In a triangular constellation, different combinations of coöperation and conflict are possible at different periods, with two of the major powers combining on different issues against the third. Yet it is in the nature of such a constellation that the combination that will become effective at any particular time is not predetermined, and therefore not predictable. It will be decided by the choice of the most urgent issues at any given moment, and that depends on the political skill of the leaders of each of the new Big Three-including the United States.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now