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.


Prior to the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, there were—in addition to Mao's obsessive anti-Sovietism—two basic reasons why the Chinese opposed a détente with Moscow. One was ideological, the other strategic. The ideological concern of Mao and the "radicals" was that too close a relationship with the "revisionist" Soviets could contaminate the Chinese revolution. But once Mao died, the post-Mao leaders quickly purged the radical "Gang of Four," and have since adopted a markedly pragmatic approach to the country's development. They have invited foreign capital into China; they have expanded free markets; they have increased material incentives; and they have even engaged in a virtual de facto decollectivization of agriculture under the rubric of the "household responsibility system." Having replaced revolutionary zeal with a determined emphasis on economic development, the new Chinese leaders now have much less to fear from Soviet "revisionism." In this new context, it would be patently hypocritical for them to continue their ideological critique of the Russians; they can hardly accuse the Russians of "heresies" that they themselves are practicing. So, for several years now, the Chinese have stopped referring to the Soviets as "restoring capitalism" and "betraying Marxism." In sum, Mao's death has worked to remove the ideological barrier to détente.

The second barrier to détente prior to Mao's death was strategic. China's concern about possible military action by Moscow was at its height in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In this period, the Soviets greatly increased the quantity and quality of their military forces on the Chinese border; they invaded Czechoslovakia and proclaimed the "Brezhnev Doctrine," which arrogated to Moscow the right to intervene in the affairs of any "socialist" country; they began to threaten a preemptive strike against the Chinese nuclear missiles; and there were two bloody battles between Soviet and Chinese forces over disputed islands in the Amur River. It was these developments that propelled the Chinese into the arms of the United States in the early 1970s.

Since the death of Mao, however, both the Soviets and the Chinese have been proceeding with much greater caution. The Russians made only verbal threats when the Chinese launched their incursion into Vietnam in February 1979; the Chinese have been behaving more cautiously on the border and there have been no major incidents in recent years. Moreover, the normalization of relations with the United States in 1979 and the stabilization of the Chinese leadership after 1978, when Deng Xiaoping established rather firm control, added to Chinese self-confidence. Thus, by 1979, within three years of Mao's death, the ideological barriers to détente were gone and, on a strategic level, some of China's worst fears about the Russians were receding.

In the fall of 1979, the Chinese agreed to participate without preconditions in "normalization" talks with the Russians. These talks took place in Moscow between September and November 1979. According to one authoritative Soviet account, the Chinese raised four points in these talks as preconditions for, or "obstacles" to, the reestablishment of "normal" relations.[2] Beijing called for: 1) a unilateral reduction of the Soviet armed forces in the area bordering on China; 2) a withdrawal of Soviet forces from the Mongolian People's Republic; 3) a discontinuation of Soviet support "in any form" of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; and 4) a settlement of the longstanding border dispute, talks on which had been going on without result since 1969.

According to this same source, the Soviet response to these demands was rather unyielding. With regard to the first point, the Soviets replied that they took "only necessary defensive measures on the border" and, moreover, that "there were more troops on the Chinese side of the border than on the Soviet side." With regard to Mongolia and Vietnam, the Soviets said that Soviet cooperation with other sovereign states "cannot be a subject of Soviet-Chinese negotiations." And so far as the border dispute was concerned, if the Chinese "were really serious about specifying the border line," all that was necessary was to make sure that the border conformed with the Russo-Chinese treaties of the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the most significant development that took place at the 1979 meeting was that the Soviets tabled what might loosely be called a nonaggression pact. It was a draft declaration of the principles of mutual relations between the U.S.S.R. and the P.R.C. According to one Soviet source, this declaration called for mutual recognition of the principles of peaceful coexistence—full equality, mutual respect for state sovereignty, respect of territorial integrity, noninterference in each others' internal affairs, and non-use of force or the threat of force. In pursuance of these principles, the Soviet side said it would specify and record the commitments of both sides concerning the renunciation of the use or threat of force.

At these 1979 meetings, the Soviets also proposed a discontinuation of "unfriendly propaganda" and an expansion of trade, as well as economic, scientific, technological, cultural and other peaceful exchanges. Finally, Moscow proposed a variety of meetings, "including summit talks," to speed normalization.

It is not clear how the Chinese responded to these Soviet overtures. According to one account from high-ranking Chinese officials, the Chinese delegation had been instructed to listen to what the Soviets had to say but not to enter into any agreement. Following the conclusion of the talks, the two sides agreed to hold a second round of meetings in Beijing early in 1980. But the Chinese postponed these talks indefinitely after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Subsequently, Beijing added a fifth "precondition" for normalization, namely the removal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

Throughout 1980, Sino-Soviet relations remained frozen. In 1981, however, the two sides once again began to explore the resumption of normalization talks. On March 7, 1981, Moscow proposed implementing "confidence-building measures" along the border, including advance notification of military exercises, exchange of observers at those exercises, and similar steps.[3] The Chinese gave no official answer. Then, in October 1981, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry revealed that a Soviet note of September 25, 1981, had called for a resumption of negotiations. The Chinese made no direct response to this note but, in November 1981, Chinese officials told West Germany's Franz Josef Strauss that a resumption of talks with the Russians was indeed possible and that the West should not "misunderstand." In the same period, China signed a railroad transport agreement with the Soviets and proposed a doubling of bilateral trade. It thus appears as if sometime in the fall of 1981 the Chinese leadership made the decision to respond positively to Soviet overtures. This was a period, it will be recalled, when Chinese-American relations were beginning to deteriorate because of Chinese concerns that the Reagan Administration was moving back toward a "two Chinas" policy. Although Chinese dissatisfaction with Reagan's policy toward Taiwan was not the sole, or even the major, factor which brought about a shift in Chinese foreign policy, it was probably one of a number of factors.

On January 8, 1982, Beijing took another step toward negotiations with Moscow when Li Xinnian, a vice-chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), told an Italian Communist paper: "Why should we be against Sino-Soviet negotiations as long as they can lead to concrete results?" A week later, S.L. Tikhvinsky, rector of the Diplomatic Academy under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a prominent China specialist, arrived in Beijing for a two-week visit. Two years before, Tikhvinsky had been the deputy head of the Soviet team holding normalization talks with the Chinese. During this return visit, Tikhvinsky presumably entered into discussions with Chinese officials on how and when to resume negotiations.

Shortly thereafter, the Soviets sent out an ambiguous signal. On February 18, 1982, Soviet Premier Nikolai A. Tikhonov said in an interview that the Soviet Union is "not going to keep from concrete steps" toward improving relations with China, but that the process "must not be one-sided." This was obviously a reflection of what was being said in private. The Chinese were insisting on some concrete Soviet "deeds" relating to their various "demands." And the Soviets, while not rejecting the need for such action, were calling on the Chinese to reciprocate—presumably by ending "unfriendly propaganda," etc.

A month later, Brezhnev, speaking in Tashkent, signaled a willingness to resume border talks with the Chinese and held out "possible measures to strengthen mutual trust in the area of the Chinese-Soviet frontier." Brezhnev was presumably referring to the "confidence-building measures" that the Soviets had offered earlier in the year. Brezhnev went on to say that Moscow was prepared to come to terms with China but "certainly not to the detriment of third countries."

In September 1982, this time in Baku, Brezhnev again underscored the importance he attached to improving relations with China and, about the same time, the Soviet media began to halt all anti-Chinese propaganda, the fourth such moratorium since the death of Mao. This was a tangible indication that the Russians were now looking forward to some progress in their effort to improve relations.

In early October 1982, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Leonid Ilyichev, Moscow's ranking negotiator with the Chinese, quietly arrived in Beijing for the first round of post-Afghanistan talks with his Chinese counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Qian Qichen. The Chinese described these talks merely as "consultations," clearly seeking to retain the option not to go ahead with formal negotiations. According to subsequent Chinese accounts, the Chinese raised three issues with Ilyichev: Afghanistan, the Soviet troops along the border and in Mongolia, and, "above all," the problem of Kampuchea. At this meeting, Qian reportedly proposed a plan for a phased settlement of the Kampuchean conflict. The plan called for a complete withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Kampuchea over an unspecified but "reasonable period of time" in return for a gradual improvement in Chinese-Vietnamese relations.[4]

In November 1982, the Chinese sent then Foreign Minister Huang Hua to Moscow to attend Brezhnev's funeral and, following a lengthy meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Huang announced that he was "quite optimistic" about the prospects for improving Sino-Soviet relations. This visit attracted worldwide publicity. It is not clear whether Huang Hua's immediate dismissal as Foreign Minister upon his arrival back in Peking had anything to do with his expression of optimism in Moscow. But it is likely that the Chinese leaders are divided about how fast to proceed with the Russians.[5]

Soon after Huang's remarks, Pravda editor-in-chief Viktor G. Afanasyev, a member of the Soviet Central Committee, told Japanese journalists that the Sino-Soviet discussions could lead to an agreement on troop reductions along the border. The Chinese immediately hailed these remarks as "important" and they now seemed to relax their "preconditions" for normalization. Deputy Foreign Minister Qian told some Austrian journalists in early December 1982 that even "little steps" could improve relations.

At the same time, Qian voiced considerable skepticism about the outcome of the forthcoming dialogue with Moscow. "A complete normalization of relations is only possible," he stated, "if the threat to China's northeastern border is eliminated," if Soviet troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan, and if the Soviet Union agrees to a solution of the Kampuchean problem along Chinese lines. Throughout the conversation, Qian underscored the fact that China continued to look with alarm at Soviet aspirations to world domination. And, he concluded, "the talks will last a long time. They will be marathon talks."[6]

An abrupt revival of polemics between Beijing and Moscow early in 1983 suggested that Qian's caution was not misplaced. In late December, a prominent editorial in People's Daily stressed the need to give more moral and material assistance to the guerrillas in Afghanistan, and accused the Soviets of posing a "grave threat" to China's security by massing troops along China's narrow border with Afghanistan. It concluded that the Soviets wanted to turn Afghanistan "into a springboard for its southward drive," and that the "Soviet aggression against Afghanistan is a major step in the Soviet global strategy for world domination."

The Soviets lost little time in firing back. Early in January, a Soviet journal said that Beijing was undermining the fragile movement toward détente by keeping longtime territorial claims and disputes alive and infusing its people with anti-Soviet sentiment. The Soviet journal chronicled in great detail the dissemination in China of claims to territories allegedly seized by the Russian tsars. It concluded that the Soviet impression was that "the Chinese side is keeping the border issue" as an "expedient for retarding the process of normalization."

In February, U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz visited China, and this visit was followed in early March by the opening of the second round of Sino-Soviet talks in Moscow.

In sum, more than a year and a half after the Chinese decided to reconsider opening "normalization" talks with Moscow, there have been few concrete results. From this record, it seems reasonable to conclude that the pace of normalization is likely to be rather slow.


Viewed objectively, both the Chinese and the Russians have a great deal to gain from reducing tensions. For Beijing, the Maoist policy of confrontation was both risky and costly. It was risky because it might have led to an unwanted military conflict for which China was ill prepared. It was costly because it meant increasing military spending at a time when China's resources were spread painfully thin. The post-Mao leaders have evidently decided to reduce both the risks and the costs of confrontation. They believe that their most urgent priority for the next decade or two is to modernize China's economy; to do this, they require a peaceful international climate, increased trade with Russia, and the avoidance of any big increase in defense spending. In a word, the Chinese leaders want a breathing space with Moscow in order to concentrate on economic development.

In this context, the Soviet Union will be a particularly attractive trade partner for China, because, although not as affluent as the West, it will bring with it few ideological or cultural problems and it will trade with China on a barter basis, thus eliminating the kinds of balance-of-payment frictions that have developed with the United States. Moreover, for reasons of proximity, border trade with Russia will be particularly attractive to the Chinese.

By normalizing relations with the Russians, China could also hope to achieve much greater maneuverability and flexibility in the great-power triangle and thus put itself in a position where it could extract concessions from both superpowers. In the earlier situation of frozen relations with Moscow, Beijing could not exert much leverage on either Moscow or Washington. The Russians saw no advantage in making concessions to China, and the Americans had no need for such concessions.

The Chinese may also hope to manage their adversarial relations with Moscow more effectively through détente. This was, after all, the philosophy behind American thinking on détente with the Russians in the early 1970s. Distancing itself somewhat from Washington also helps China to enhance its image of independence, particularly in the Third World, which China seeks to lead. Also, now that Moscow has a new leader, the Chinese have strong incentives for testing just how far Yuri Andropov is really prepared to go in an effort to improve relations. Finally, China may now see a reduced Soviet capacity for adventurism as an opportunity to test the Kremlin's willingness to compromise. The Russians are bogged down in Afghanistan and Poland, and the tough line of the Reagan Administration toward Moscow is probably one of several reasons why the Russians have been unusually moderate throughout 1982 in the Lebanese war, in Africa, in the Middle East, and even in Central America.

The effort to conclude a détente with Moscow, however, should be seen as only one part of a larger shift in Chinese foreign policy that has been taking place since 1981. That shift involves some distancing from the United States as well as attempts to normalize relations with Moscow, and renewed stress on China's relations with both the "Third" and "Second" worlds. This shift in Chinese foreign policy was doubtless motivated by a variety of factors, but the Chinese must have been somewhat uncomfortable at placing themselves in a position where they had become too dependent on the United States. The proud, highly nationalistic Chinese were not suited to be the junior partner of the Americans any more than they were suited to be Moscow's junior partner in the 1950s. Their present stress on "independence" reflects a desire both to gain greater future maneuverability and to carve out a fully independent place in world politics.

The Russians have equally powerful incentives for wanting détente with China. At a time when Soviet relations with the United States are at a low ebb, the Soviets have a strong incentive to try to play their "China card" against the United States. Moscow could hope to put some pressure on the Reagan Administration to be more flexible in strategic arms negotiations. Improving relations with China will also help ease the Soviet Union's two-front problem by undercutting any strategic cooperation between Washington and Beijing. In the long run, of course, Moscow hopes to break up the Washington-Beijing rapprochement. Writing in Izvestia on January 31, 1982, the influential Soviet journalist, Aleksandr Bovin, concluded that the Sino-American relationship was no more than a marriage of convenience marked by mutual suspicion and the desire of each partner to outmaneuver the other. He predicted that the relationship would finally come apart as a result of fundamental differences in ideology and global interests.

The wretched state of the Soviet economy is also a factor. Brezhnev's speech to Soviet military leaders just before he died clearly indicated that the Kremlin sees a connection between easing its military and economic burdens on the one hand, and reducing tensions with China on the other. Calm on the Siberian border could also alleviate the Soviet Union's present crisis of overextension. With 105,000 troops in Afghanistan, a simmering crisis in Poland, and an East European empire that has accumulated a substantial debt to Western banks, Moscow might well welcome a breather with China. Finally, it should be noted that every new Soviet leader since Stalin's death has attached a high priority to trying to improve relations with China. It would be a great coup for Andropov if he could succeed where his predecessors failed.


Although there are strong pressures on each side to ease tensions with the other, there are deep-seated suspicions and fears as well as conflicts of geopolitical interest that will make any détente process difficult.

On the Soviet side, there is what Henry Kissinger once called a deep "neuralgic" fear of China, a fear that extends from the leadership down through the entire society, including the dissidents. Even Solzhenitsyn considers the Chinese a long-range enemy of Russia. Soviet political prisoners in prison camps with Andrei Sinyavsky in the 1960s told him they would side with the West in any future war with Russia, but they would fight with Russia against China. In the small towns of Siberia, according to Sinyavsky, most people believe that war with China is inevitable. For some indication of this visceral fear of China at the highest level of the Soviet leadership, one need only consult Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs. His meetings with Mao, said the former Soviet Premier, sent shivers down his spine.

This visceral fear of China is reinforced by the geopolitical vulnerability of Siberia and the Soviet Far East. That portion of the Soviet Union is sparsely populated, it is a long distance from European Russia, it is very difficult to reinforce, and it is very difficult to develop. These problems will only partly be overcome when the new Baikal-Amur Railroad is finished sometime in the next few years. It was for this reason that the Soviets carried out a major military buildup on the Chinese border during the late 1960s and early 1970s—a buildup that has permanently altered the military geography of the frontier with the establishment of underground silos, airfields, missile bases and new highways. This permanent military transformation of the border is the decisive strategic change that has taken place in the Far East during the past two decades; it will not be altered by symbolic Soviet drawdowns along the border.

Then, too, Soviet fears of China are reenforced by continual Chinese harping on China's "lost territories," which, according to Beijing, were forcibly taken from China by the Russian tsars in a series of "unequal treaties" signed in the nineteenth century. Although the Chinese do not now demand the return of those territories, ever since Mao told some Japanese socialists in 1964 that the Chinese had not yet presented their "bill" to Russia for those territories, the Soviets have had to think about China as a potentially revanchist power once it becomes strong.

Some indication of the deep suspicions of China that exist within the Soviet Central Committee and Foreign Ministry can be gleaned from two articles that appeared in the Soviet journal Far Eastern Affairs after Brezhnev's Tashkent speech of March 24, 1982.[7] One was written by "O. Borisov," the pseudonym for Oleg B. Rakhmanin, first deputy head of the Central Committee's Department for Relations with Socialist and Workers' Parties, and one of the most powerful of the China specialists in the Soviet elite. The second article was written by "M. Ukraintsev," the pseudonym for M. S. Kapitsa, recently promoted to Deputy Foreign Minister, and probably the most experienced Soviet diplomat in dealing with China over the past two or three decades.

Rakhmanin's assault on the Chinese was hard-hitting and comprehensive. It included the following accusations:

- The Chinese leaders have adopted practices and doctrines that run "counter to the principles of socialism."

- Beijing's heretical stance has implications that transcend bilateral Sino-Soviet relations and threaten the ideological orientation of the entire international revolutionary movement.

- The struggle against "distortions of scientific socialism" is particularly important at a time when an alliance is shaping up between anti-communism of the Reagan brand, Beijing's social chauvinism, and various brands of opportunists and right-wing nationalists.

- The post-Mao Chinese leaders continue to throw mud at the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

- Beijing's recent "tactical maneuvers" to improve relations with the Soviet Union are designed to "blackmail the West with threats of improving relations with the Soviet Union."

- The ideological reorientation now under way in China is simply designed to make Maoism more flexible, while retaining its essence of Sinified Marxism plus a hegemonistic foreign policy and anti-Sovietism.

- The changes in China's domestic policy are not significant and they are aimed at providing a more dependable basis for Beijing's anti-Sovietism.

- Under the P.R.C.'s constitution and the rules of the CCP, struggle against the Soviet Union is a constitutional and a statutory duty of each citizen and each Party member, reflecting repeated Chinese statements that struggle against the Soviet Union is a long-term task.

- It is up to China to take initiatives to improve relations; the Soviet Union has done all it can.

It seems fair to conclude from this analysis, coming as it did right on the heels of the Brezhnev Tashkent speech, with its overtures to China, that powerful figures in the Soviet Central Committee have deep reservations about the wisdom of making any concessions to China in the interests of détente.

Kapitsa's reservations about détente with China were expressed in more measured terms but were equally apparent. Reviewing the origins of the Sino-Soviet conflict, Kapitsa concluded that it was all the fault of China.

- After Stalin's death, Mao began claiming to be the leader of the world communist movement.

- Mao was eager to launch an immense nuclear-missile program whereas the Soviet Union maintained that such a step was unreasonable and would complicate the struggle for disarmament and peace; the Soviet Union had sufficient military strength to protect all the socialist countries.

- Mao and other Chinese leaders wanted to incorporate Mongolia into China.

- Finally, in the late 1950s, Mao insisted that the Soviet Union should deliver a nuclear strike at the United States and its allies and that the task of eliminating U.S. imperialism was worth the sacrifice.

Against this background, Kapitsa continued, China split with Moscow and "joined hands" with U.S. imperialism. The Soviet Union then proposed a variety of measures to halt the deterioration of relations, but Mao and his group did all they could to aggravate relations. They staged armed provocations at the border in 1969 both in order to poison the minds of the Chinese people against the U.S.S.R., and to make it clear to the United States that China wanted a rapprochement on an anti-Soviet basis.

How did it happen, Kapitsa inquires, that China, initially an ally of the socialist states, could become a junior partner of U.S. imperialism? His answer is that during and after the revolution in China there was a fierce struggle within the CCP between "internationalists" and "national chauvinists" and that, by the end of the 1950s, the "internationalists" had been exterminated or ousted. During the Cultural Revolution, those who survived were sent to reeducation camps or massacred.

This Maoist chauvinism, Kapitsa concluded, was reenforced by several thousand years of Chinese history which dictates that barbarians should be subjugated by other barbarians and that any means from simple deceit to war can be used in the struggle against barbarians.

As to China's reasons for wanting some relaxation of tension with Moscow, Kapitsa sees essentially two motives. First, China wants greater freedom for maneuvering in the international arena; second, China wants to increase trade, and scientific and technological exchanges with the U.S.S.R.

In sum, although not quite as hostile to China as Rakhmanin, Kapitsa is far from enthusiastic about the prospects for Sino-Soviet détente and rather skeptical about China's motives.

Suspicion of, and skepticism about, the Soviet Union on the Chinese side is equally deep rooted. The Chinese see a long history of Soviet efforts to dominate China and the CCP. They see the Soviet Union as the heir to tsarist Russian imperialism. They are well aware that they cannot hope to deal with the Russians from a position of weakness and, for this reason alone, they will undoubtedly want a continuation of their American connection, both as insurance against, and stimulus to, Moscow. Finally, there can be little doubt that over the next decade or more, the Chinese see Russia as their main threat. After all, it is the Russians who are in Afghanistan, Mongolia and Indochina; and it is the Russians who maintain such large forces on the Chinese border.

Some indication of the kinds of suspicions and grievances that the Chinese hold about the Russians can be found in an article written in 1979 on Sino-Soviet relations by one of China's leading specialists on the Soviet Union, Liu Keming, Director of the Institute of Soviet Studies in the Beijing Academy of Sciences.[8] At the very moment that the first round of normalization talks was proceeding, Liu ticked off ten basic complaints about the Soviet "hegemonists":

- They have consistently tried to control China. In 1958, they proposed the establishment of a joint fleet which actually had as its purpose an effort to control the Chinese coastline. After 1959, the Soviets tried to prevent China from acquiring its own nuclear weapons. They wanted to turn China into a "nuclear protectorate" of the U.S.S.R.

- The Russians have repeatedly carried out divisive activities in China's border regions. In particular, they have had an eye on incorporating Inner Mongolia into the U.S.S.R.

- The Russians have repeatedly carried out subversive activities against China with the aim of establishing a pro-Soviet regime in China.

- The Soviets have obstructed the solution of the border problem by refusing to acknowledge the existence of disputed areas.

- The Soviets have greatly increased their troops along the border to strengthen their whole strategic position in Asia and to intimidate China.

- The Soviets have turned Mongolia into a forward base from which to make military threats against China.

- With Soviet support, Vietnam has invaded Kampuchea and made territorial claims against China.

- To obstruct China's four modernizations, the Soviets have tried to interfere in China's trade with the West.

- The Soviets have sought to isolate China from Japan, the United States and India.

- The Soviets have spread lies and distortions about China's positions, seeking to slander China as an aggressive power out to provoke a world war.

In sum, Liu's article contends, the Soviets want to turn China into a client state; they have developed the traditions of Russian imperialism; they cannot allow a strong and powerful China at their side any more than they could allow the emergence of a powerful Europe in the West. To cope with Russia, Liu argues, China must deal from a position of strength. Even if relations were to be normalized on the basis of the five principles of coexistence, he writes, the normalization process would be "protracted, difficult and complex."

In addition to mutual suspicions and fears, the geopolitical conflicts of interest between the two sides will greatly increase the difficulties of reaching any kind of détente. The Soviet Union is unlikely to withdraw from Afghanistan because such a withdrawal would, under present conditions, ensure the collapse of its client government under Babrak Karmal and lead to an anti-communist and anti-Soviet government. The Soviets are not in a position to force Vietnam to withdraw from Kampuchea and, under present circumstances, it is not in Vietnam's interests to do so. A Vietnamese withdrawal from Kampuchea might well lead to the return to power of the Khmer Rouge, the strongest of the guerrilla resistance forces now fighting against the Vietnamese in that country. Nor are the Chinese likely to withdraw their support from the Khmer Rouge and its partners, Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann, in the tripartite coalition that is actively resisting the Vietnamese occupation. Finally, the Soviets almost certainly will not withdraw their forces from Outer Mongolia, a country that has been a Soviet protectorate since the 1920s. Thus, the prospects do not seem very bright for any substantial compromises on the geopolitical obstacles to normalization raised by Beijing.


Although there are many roadblocks standing in the way of "normalization" of Sino-Soviet relations, the process will still go forward. There will be an increase in trade, particularly in border trade. There will also be increases in cultural, economic and technological exchanges, and in diplomatic contacts; tensions on the border will continue to diminish; and there will be some reduction in mutual polemics.[9]

Of the various "demands" made by the Chinese for lessening tension, the one issue on which there is some prospect for Soviet concessions is the matter of Soviet troop dispositions on the Chinese border. The Soviets may make a modest and symbolic drawdown of Soviet forces as a gesture of goodwill to the Chinese.

There are, however, thorny problems involved in such a move. First, a symbolic gesture may not go far enough to merit much of a Chinese response. Second, the Soviet troops are deployed quite far forward due to the particular configuration of the border: the trans-Siberian railroad which those Soviet troops guard is located very close to the Chinese border. The Chinese troops, on the other hand, are deployed much further back from the border. Thus, any concessions on the deployment of troops will have to be unilateral Soviet concessions, at least initially. Also, if the Soviets pull back some troops from the border, this might lead the Chinese to argue that the Soviets are now in principle agreeing with them that there are "disputed areas" along the border, something the Soviets have refused to do in the past. Finally, the Chinese are specifically insisting on a pullback of some Soviet forces from Outer Mongolia.[10] This is bound to be a delicate issue for the Russians because it involves their commitment to a country on which the Chinese may well have designs. (According to Kapitsa, Mao wanted to incorporate Outer Mongolia into the People's Republic.)

On the whole, then, progress in détente between Russia and China is likely to be painfully slow. There are two basic reasons: on the Soviet side—inflexibility; on the Chinese side—a tactical interest in going slow.

Soviet policy in the Far East during the past two decades has been described by many Western analysts as "inflexible."[11] There are many reasons for this Soviet rigidity: the geopolitical vulnerability of Siberia; Moscow's classical "two-front" problem; the historical experience of four wars with Japan in the past 100 years or so; the open hostility of China under Mao; the territorial disputes with both China and Japan; the emerging entente between China and Japan, and between China, Japan and the United States; the slow but steady growth of Japan's defense capabilities; the relative political isolation of the Soviet Union in Northeast Asia and in non-communist Southeast Asia; and the ultra-conservative "political culture" in the Soviet Union. Given this set of factors, it is quite unlikely that the Soviets, even under a new leader, will make any bold concessions toward China or Japan on any of the key issues in dispute. The recent Soviet blast at China for keeping alive the territorial dispute and the attempt to intimidate Japan by threatening nuclear retaliation in response to Prime Minister Nakasone's promise in Washington to turn Japan into an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" are two recent indications that there is not going to be any sweeping change in the Soviet Union's attitudes toward its two major adversaries in the Far East.

On the Chinese side, progress in détente with Russia will be slow because it is not in China's interests to go very fast. The P.R.C. can hope to extract the largest number of concessions from Washington by moving deliberately but slowly toward a new relationship with Moscow. Too rapid progress carries the danger of so alarming the United States as to jeopardize the American connection altogether. China's interest is in worrying the United States about the "threat" of a Chinese détente with Moscow, not in going too far toward achieving such a détente.

Thus, in the coming year or so, while there is likely to be an improvement in "atmospherics" between Russia and China, there will not be any change in the fundamental strategic situation and even the pace of "normalization" will be very deliberate on both sides. In short, the Sino-Soviet détente will remain a "tactical" détente. Both sides will have very limited and very modest objectives. The détente will not constitute a far-reaching strategic change in the international balance of power, as did the U.S.-P.R.C. rapprochement in the 1970s.


A Sino-Soviet détente has both potential dangers and potential advantages for the West. Of course, a great deal depends on how far such a détente goes. But, for reasons that have been advanced, a far-reaching accommodation between the two adversaries is hardly conceivable. More likely is a limited détente which would include an increase in trade and exchanges of all kinds, some limited withdrawals from the border, and some efforts to reduce tensions on a variety of levels.

The dangers can be briefly described. If tensions on the border with China were drastically reduced, the Soviets could contemplate moving some of their troops in the Far East to Europe or the Middle East, thus increasing pressure on the West on other fronts. Such a development, while conceivable, is highly unlikely. The Soviets will not dismantle their Siberian base structure just on the basis of a tactical détente with China. The Soviet military establishment, which is an important constituency for Andropov, will almost certainly veto any such plan. Moreover, the Soviets will want to maintain an overwhelming conventional military superiority over all their adversaries in the Far East—not just China, but Japan and the United States as well. And while the threat of a China-Japan-U.S. alliance against the U.S.S.R. has temporarily receded, the Soviets cannot be sure that it will not one day be resurrected.

Short of moving troops from one front to another, it is possible that a Soviet Union freed from concern about its Siberian front might become more adventurous on other fronts. But there is no clear relationship between Sino-Soviet relations and Soviet adventurism. The Soviets were on the offensive in the Third World from Angola to Afghanistan in the period from 1975 to 1979 at a time when their relations with China were still relatively frozen. They have been somewhat more passive in the past year or two at a time when their relations with China were improving. This is not to discount the possibility that there may be a connection between an easing of Sino-Soviet tensions and Soviet adventurism; it is simply to suggest that many factors influence Soviet foreign policy—internal factors, relations with the United States, estimates of risk, etc. Sino-Soviet relations are only one such variable.

Moreover, if the Soviets, as a result of reducing tensions with China, were to embark on a more adventurous policy on other fronts, it is doubtful that the Sino-Soviet détente would survive. It is not in China's interests to encourage Soviet adventurism. Also, under such circumstances, China's ties with the West would come under enormous strain and the Chinese would probably be forced to choose between the advantages of a tactical détente with Moscow and the much greater economic and strategic advantages of their Western connection.

A Sino-Soviet détente, even of a limited kind, will increase both Chinese and Soviet leverage on Washington, but the advantages of such leverage are not likely to be substantial. As long as Washington is convinced that there are serious limits to any Sino-Soviet détente, it will not pay a high price to avert it.

A more sobering consideration is that a more independent China, particularly a China which continues to adhere to a communist ideology, is likely to support a variety of anti-American movements and sentiments in the Third World. Particularly in the Middle East, Africa and Central America, China will probably increase its support for countries and movements opposed to American policy.

A more worrisome scenario for Washington would materialize if the Sino-Soviet détente were to be accompanied by a radical deterioration in Sino-American relations. Under such circumstances, the Soviets might be emboldened to increase their concessions to China and the Chinese might become more receptive. And if such developments were accompanied by a further fragmentation of the Western alliance over such issues as the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe, the overall perception would be one of a Western alliance in disarray. In time, this could lead to a major shift in the balance of power against the West. Thus, it would be unwise to regard the present trends in the great power triangle with complacency.

Viewed in this light, a good deal depends on the stability of American-Chinese relations. The recent visit to China by Secretary Shultz seems for the moment at least to have arrested the process of deterioration. Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang told Shultz he would visit America, and he invited President Reagan to come to China. Significantly, however, Zhao was unwilling to set a date for his trip. The United States and China did not agree during the Shultz visit on preliminary steps to revive high-level military contacts that were largely suspended after the Reagan Administration took office two years ago. The Taiwan problem remains a substantial irritant, along with frictions over trade and technology transfers, and these issues will have to be very skillfully managed in the years ahead.

In general, one can be cautiously optimistic about the future of Sino-American relations. The Chinese, skilled in the art of realpolitik, know very well that their long-range interests depend on containing the advance of Soviet power and that an American connection is indispensable in order to achieve this goal. And although the Reagan Administration was initially rather cool toward China, it has in the past year or so demonstrated an increasing awareness of the importance of stable Sino-American relations for the maintenance of a favorable global balance of power.

Barring a radical deterioration in U.S.-Chinese relations, it is difficult to conceive of any great catastrophe for the West as a result of a modest improvement in Sino-Soviet relations. The West, after all, does not have a stake in a very high level of Sino-Soviet tension. Its stake lies in an autonomous, independent China with stable, friendly ties to the West.

Almost all of the benefits that the West has derived from the Sino-Soviet split will continue even under conditions of a modest détente. China, for its own reasons, will continue to serve as a counterweight to Soviet expansion, particularly in such Asian areas as Indochina, Korea, and Pakistan. China will still want American power and influence in Asia, particularly in Japan, in order to counter the Soviets; this is why China continues to oppose any North Korean adventurism against South Korea, because it does not want to get involved in a war with the United States at a time when it is most concerned about Soviet expansion. China will continue, too, to reduce its support to Southeast Asian insurgencies, because it wants to cultivate relations with the governments of Southeast Asia in order to oppose Vietnam and the Soviet Union. In sum, for a variety of reasons, the American military burden in Asia will continue to be eased as a result of the adversarial relationship between China and Russia.

Are there any advantages to a limited Sino-Soviet détente? First, war between Russia and China is surely not in anyone's interest. Also, if the two adversaries were eventually to agree on Soviet withdrawals from Afghanistan or Vietnamese withdrawals from Kampuchea, this would benefit and not harm Western interests. Then, too, a Soviet Union that was somewhat less "neuralgic" about China might be more flexible on arms control negotiations with the West.


But the larger point is that Americans need not fear a Sino-Soviet détente because the United States will continue to occupy the pivotal position in the strategic triangle and because there may now be an opportunity to make that triangle more stable.

Both Russia and China want something from the United States that they cannot get from each other. Both want trade and technology. China, in particular, knows that the Russians cannot possibly supply the quantity and quality of technology it desperately needs to modernize its economy.

Moreover, both Russia and China need the United States as a partner. Russia knows that the most crucial relationship for it in the coming decades will remain its relationship with the United States. While it will seek to influence American behavior by applying pressure on, and courting, third parties from Europe to China, the Soviets know that they must come to terms with America, at least to avoid an escalation of the arms race which they can ill afford. The Chinese, for their part, know that the Russians will remain their main adversary over the coming decades, and they will have a common interest with the United States in containing Soviet expansion. Thus, while both Russia and China will seek to maneuver within the triangle in order to improve their bargaining positions vis-à-vis America, both need better relations with the United States.

A limited Sino-Soviet détente could in fact have the long-range effect of producing a more stable and less dangerous great-power triangle. In the 1970s, the Soviets had to worry about a U.S.-Chinese alliance directed against them. There was always the risk that the Soviets might be provoked into some kind of adventurist action to break up that incipient alliance. A gradual buildup of the Chinese armed forces and a developing relationship between the United States and China, even if it contains some military aspects, will look much less threatening to the Russians if there is a Sino-Soviet détente rather than a Sino-Soviet confrontation.

A modest détente between Moscow and Beijing might even improve the chances for a more restrained and cautious Soviet foreign policy. The Chinese will presumably tell the Russians that further adventurism in Asia or Africa comparable to what the Russians did in Angola, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Indochina will arrest the prospects for normalization. This will reenforce the similar messages of the Reagan Administration about the conditions for a revival of détente with the United States. Thus, the Russians will have increased incentives for pursuing a more cautious policy in the Third World if they want to improve their relations with both Beijing and Washington.

Also, a modest improvement in Sino-Soviet relations and a slight loosening of ties between Beijing and Washington could lead to greater realism on all sides of the triangle. The Carter Administration oversold the "strategic consensus" with China, and alarmed a number of our Asian friends and allies who see China as a potential long-range threat to their own security. To the extent that the Reagan Administration lowers expectations about what advantages we can derive from China, and they from us, it will lay the basis for a healthier long-term relationship. It was an illusion to believe that the United States and China could become close friends. There are too many differences of ideology, values and interests. What is possible and desirable is a stable and cooperative long-term relationship based on a common opposition to Soviet aggrandizement and a Western willingness to help China modernize. But neither the United States nor China can be expected to sacrifice any of its basic principles in the process.

The profound ideological differences between China and the West mean that, on the Chinese side, there will always be a fear of Western cultural infiltration and liberal pollution of intellectual life. On our side, we will continue to differ with China not only over the future of Taiwan but over the future shape of much of the Third World and much of the communist world as well. Continued Chinese support for Pol Pot in Kampuchea is one indication of that. China's indifference to the fate of the Polish workers' movement is another. In sum, we ought not to forget that China remains a highly authoritarian communist state with an outlook on the world profoundly different from our own. We can and we should find common ground with such a country, particularly when it comes to opposing Soviet aggrandizement, but we should have no illusions about the strength of those bonds. That is why the Reagan Administration is right to attach a higher priority to Japan than to China. Over the long run, a firm U.S. alliance with a democratic Japan is one of the best guarantees we have of maintaining a favorable balance of power in Asia.

In historical terms, what we are now witnessing is the reassertion of China, after more than a century of weakness, as an independent great power. Such a China cannot be manipulated by either of the superpowers. Just as the Soviet Union found in the 1950s that it could not "use" China against the United States, so the United States has now discovered in the 1980s that it cannot "use" China against the Soviet Union. China is not a "card" to be manipulated in great power politics. It is a great power whose full weight has yet to be registered in international politics. Within several decades, and certainly by the twenty-first century, China will be a superpower in its own right.

What is certain is that an independent, highly nationalistic, and communist China will pursue its own fundamental interests on the world scene. In the 1980s, those interests will include the "normalization" of relations with the Soviet Union to some degree, greater independence from the United States, and a greater role in the Third World. But so long as China is encircled and threatened by Soviet power, and so long as the Soviet Union remains determined to alter the global balance of power in its favor, China will not be able to afford a policy of "equidistance" between the two superpowers. On the key issues affecting the central balance, China will continue to lean to the West.

[1] As recently as October 1982, a Chinese journal called Moscow's "détente" policy a tactic to seize global hegemony from the United States. See Zhang Zhen and Rong Zhi, "Brief Discourse on the Soviet 'Détente' Policy," Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, no. 4, 1982, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), Daily Report, China, February 9, 1983, pp. C1-C9.

[2] M. Ukraintsev (pseudonym for M. S. Kapitsa), "Soviet-Chinese Relations: Problems and Prospects," Far Eastern Affairs, No. 3, 1982, Moscow.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Don Oberdorfer, "China Reported to Offer Soviets a Plan to Ease Cambodian Conflict," The Washington Post, January 17, 1983.

[5] Ba Yi radio, evidently a clandestine Soviet radio station broadcasting in Mandarin to China, contends that some Chinese leaders are against normalization with Moscow. See FBIS, Daily Report, China, January 17, 1983, p. K23.

[6] Quoted in Die Presse, Vienna, December 7, 1982.

[7] O. Borisov, "The Situation in the P.R.C. and Some Tasks of Soviet Sinology," Far Eastern Affairs, No. 3, 1982, Moscow; and M. Ukraintsev, op. cit. On Soviet pseudonyms, see the forthcoming article in China Quarterly by Gilbert Rozman and the doctoral dissertation in progress at Columbia University by Chi Su.

[8] Liu Keming, "Soviet Foreign Policy: On Sino-Soviet Relations," a paper prepared for the Sino-American Conference on International Relations and the Soviet Union, organized by the Research Institute on International Change, Columbia University, November 8-11, 1979, in Washington, D.C.

[9] According to Deng Liqun, director of the Chinese Central Committee's Propaganda Department, the situation on the border, both in the eastern sector, in Heilongjiang, and on the western sector, in Xinjiang, has "improved greatly." See Deng's interview with Guiseppe Boffa, L'Unita, Venice, January 30, 1983 (reprinted in FBIS, Daily Report, China, February 2, 1983, pp. A1-A5).

[10] Ibid.

[11] For a recent survey by Western analysts of Soviet policy in the Far East, see Donald S. Zagoria, ed., Soviet Policy in East Asia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

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  • DONALD S. ZAGORIA is Professor of Government at Hunter College and a Research Fellow at the Research Institute on International Change, Columbia University.
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