What Is China Learning From Russia’s War in Ukraine?
America and Taiwan Need to Grasp—and Influence—Chinese Views of the Conflict
In the past, when a bitter quarrel broke out between neighboring nations, rival territorial claims were often the underlying cause. France and Germany remained hostile to each other for a long period over the question of Alsace and Lorraine; the slogan "Italia Irredenta" so embittered the relations between Italy and Austria that the residue of this feeling contributes to the present unrest in the Italian Tyrol. China's conflict with her great southern neighbor, India, along the disputed Himalayan boundary seems to conform to the classic pattern of territorial disputes (although the Indians do not altogether agree).
In the early stages of the Sino-Soviet dispute, on the other hand, ideology seemed to be the only point at issue. Russia was denounced as revisionist for believing in the false theory of a "parliamentary road" to socialism and faintheartedness in backing revolutionary wars. Her boundaries with China seemed no part of the problem. Recently, however, the Russians and the Chinese have themselves hinted at incidents along their common frontier, which extends from Mongolia eastward 1500 miles to the sea, and westward from Mongolia 1200 miles to the Wakh panhandle of the Afghan frontier. (See map.) If they had kept silent, it is unlikely that the rest of the world would have had any information about what was going on in these vast areas so far from Western observation.
While it is not at all clear how much credence can be given to the mutual accusations of China and the U.S.S.R., it is at least probable that some real friction exists. What began as an ideological dispute may have become inflamed by territorial ambitions or resentments. If so, it is necessary to consider the problem from three aspects: the historical basis for a territorial dispute between China and Russia; whether there is a real danger of a broader war; and what would be the objectives of either side.
From a historical point of view the Chinese have several just grievances, at least in terms of prior claims and occupation. It is now nearly two thousand years since the Chinese under the Han dynasty first conquered Sinkiang, colonized it and spread their power westward through what is now Russian Central Asia to the shores of the Caspian Sea. They did not hold the region west of the Pamirs for long, but their rule over Sinkiang proper continued until the end of the Han dynasty early in the third century A.D., and was restored by the Tang dynasty in the early seventh century. It was lost again at the end of the ninth century, came under the far-reaching empire of Genghis Khan in the twelfth, and was finally conquered once more and incorporated into China by the Ch'ing (Manchu) emperors in the late seventeenth century. Except for one stab at independence, Sinkiang has been indisputably Chinese territory for nearly three hundred years since then.
These ancient conquests and withdrawals are not of present political importance. More relevant is the fact that during the mid-nineteenth century the whole of Sinkiang revolted against the Manchus and for more than a decade maintained independence under a local ruler called Yakub Bey. When the Chinese general Tso Tsung-t'ang reconquered the country in 1877 he actually received considerable Russian assistance in supplying his troops by way of Siberia, although no Russian troops were engaged. Meanwhile, with Manchu rule in abeyance, the Tsar had sent troops to occupy the Ili River valley, allegedly to prevent disorder in the rebellious province from spreading into his own Central Asian territory, only recently occupied. He used the classic argument of imperial powers when making an advance against a weak neighbor. "The need to restore order ... the threat to settled territory under our protection ... a temporary measure until stability is restored." (The British at the same time were saying the same things about Egypt, which they occupied until 1955.) When, after the Chinese reconquest, the Manchu Court took the Russians at their word and reclaimed the Ili valley, Russia was not willing to leave. A first treaty, which virtually endorsed Russian annexation, was met with a storm of protest in China. Perhaps encouraged in this attitude by European powers (such as Britain) which were not friendly to Tsarist ambitions, the Chinese negotiated a revised treaty, which restored to them the upper half of the Ili valley. However, they had to cede the lower half and also pay Russia's expensive "occupation costs."
It is this transaction, which the Chinese quite accurately describe as a piece of imperialistic land-grabbing, that is the basis of China's claim against the U.S.S.R. If the Soviet Union were sincerely faithful to communist doctrine, they say, it would not now wish to profit from the evil actions of the Tsarist régime, but would restore to a fellow-communist state what was taken from it in the bad imperialist days.
On the eastern frontier, the story is similar although not identical. The ancient Chinese dynasties never claimed and never occupied either northern Manchuria or the area beyond the Amur or the Maritime Province. These were barbarian lands sparsely inhabited by hunting and fishing tribes of little culture. It was not until the rise of the Manchu kingdom, before its conquest of Ming China between 1644 and 1662, that any sort of organized state system existed in these remote regions. And then, even if the tribes acknowledged the suzerainty of the Manchu king, for practical purposes they remained beyond his rule. After conquering China, the Manchus became the supreme power in the Far East, soon adding Mongolia and Sinkiang, as well as Tibet, to their empire. Their vague suzerainty over north Manchuria was enforced and extended to the present Maritime Province, but it does not appear that they coveted or acquired the region beyond the Amur. In 1689 the appearance of Russian pioneers in that region led to a clash in which the Manchus expelled the Russians from a fort which they had built on what the Manchus considered to be their territory. The conflict was followed by the signing of the Nerchinsk Treaty which established the Amur as the frontier. The Maritime Province remained Manchu.[i]
The Nerchinsk Treaty, little noticed by non-Russian Western historians, was an event of some importance. It was the first agreement regarding a border question made by the Chinese Empire with a European power, and the first time in Chinese history that a common frontier was established with another major land power of advanced civilization.
It must also be emphasized that the Ming and earlier true Chinese empires had never ruled in those areas now acquired as part of the Manchu Kingdom. Chinese settlement existed in southern Manchuria, which had been a Chinese province centuries before the Manchus conquered it, but northern Manchuria, and still more the Maritime Province and the trans-Amur country, had probably seldom even been visited by Chinese. The intrusion of the Russians from the west and the Manchus from the south into this almost virgin land was not unlike the English and French penetration of northern Canada. Consequently Chinese national feeling was hardly at all engaged in what might happen in these regions, nor where the boundary between Manchu power and that of the Tsar might be drawn.
In 1858 and in 1860, when China was distracted internally by the T'ai P'ing rebellion, as well as the British and French invasion which actually took Peking, the Tsar saw an opportunity to make a significant advance. He claimed the Maritime Province as his price for staying out of the war and using his good offices to end it. The Manchus were glad enough to let him have it (by the treaties of Aigun and Peking). It was said that the Russians found that the inhabitants numbered no more than 16,000, all members of a hunting and fishing tribe remotely linked with the Manchus. But Russia was a maritime as well as a land power. In this wilderness she built the port of Vladivostok-Lord of the East-which, although icebound in winter, was yet an effective base for colonization and further conquest. At the end of the century the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway, with its extension across northern Manchuria (to avoid the long detour on the north bank of the Amur), both enhanced the importance of the new city of Vladivostok and brought Russia into China proper. North Manchuria, in consequence of the railway, soon acquired a large Chinese population, as well as a considerable Russian colony at the new city of Harbin. Later the invention of modern icebreakers, and an alternative railway along the north bank of the Amur, were to give the Maritime Province still more importance and a steadily increasing Russian population.
Thus the present Chinese grievance is that a hundred years ago the Tsar took advantage of the weakness of the Manchu dynasty to pry away the Maritime Province from the Empire. They argue further that this act was the prelude to more extensive Russian plans aimed at the seizure of all Manchuria, and Korea too. These schemes allegedly were frustrated only by the "contradiction" (to use communist terminology) of the counter-pressure of imperial Japan, and later by the final triumph of the Chinese Communists themselves. The terms which Stalin exacted from Mao Tse-tung in 1949, which provided for Russian joint ownership of the railway across Heilungkiang and joint use of the naval base at Port Arthur and the commercial port of Dairen, certainly suggest that the U.S.S.R. had not yet wholly renounced the ambitions of the Tsars. Nor did the Russians relinquish their claims and rights in China until they had been compelled to rely upon the Chinese Communists to save their protégés, the North Koreans, from the imminent prospect of conquest by General MacArthur and the armies under his command. The Chinese therefore can truly say not only that the original cession of the Maritime Province was a typical imperialist "blackmail," but that its deleterious consequences in Manchuria have only recently been effaced, not by Russian generosity but by China's increasing power.
Another recent incident gives the Chinese some ground for complaint. From the beginning of this century, up to the Second World War, Chinese immigration into Russian territory was steady, and apparently welcome. The commercial life of Vladivostok was largely sustained by a sizable Chinese colony, which remained after the Russian Revolution. In the trans-Amur region, where lumbering is the main industry, Chinese workers were in great demand, making up the largest part of the labor force. Exact statistics for this Chinese population, partly settled, partly seasonal workers, are hard to come by. It has been estimated that in 1926 there were 22,000 Chinese in Vladivostok, and that 50 percent of the coal miners and 30 percent of the timber workers were Chinese. What is certain is that they have now entirely disappeared, and that this was the consequence of the wholesale deportation of the Chinese at Stalin's orders during the Second World War. It appears that they were not pushed over the border into what was then Japanese- occupied Manchuria, but that they were removed to some part of western or northern Siberia, from which they have never returned.[ii] The Chinese do not seem, so far, to have raised this embarrassing question, but it can hardly be doubted that they are aware of the facts.
These, then, are the real tensions and fears which lie behind the border question. They are not new. They were kept out of view while Sino-Soviet relations were good, reappearing as soon as relations became bad. It must be observed that the claims are all on the Chinese side. The Russians have never lost territory to China and, as far as is known, claim none that is now Chinese.[iii] But how serious are the Chinese grievances against the Soviet Union in respect to the Maritime Province and the Ili valley?
Each side has several reasons to fear incursions by the other. It is obvious that if northern Manchuria, with its hard climate, is not too harsh for extensive and expanding settlement by northern Chinese, mainly originating in Hopei and Shantung Provinces, the opposite bank of the Amur is no worse, and the Maritime Province, being further south, may be even better. In just fifty years the Chinese population of Manchuria has expanded from a possible 10 or 12 million, confined under the dynasty to the old settlements in the southern Liaotung peninsula, to a probable 60 to 70 million spread over all the three great provinces of Liaoning, Kirin and Heilungkiang. The Amur is a thin barrier against such a flood as this. Manchuria has been the last major addition to the Chinese homelands, conquered, like so much of the rest, by the plough more than by the sword. The Russians may well fear that eastern Siberia might be next.
China, on the other hand, has some reason to fear that what was done in the green wood of the Tsarist empire might recur in the dry of the Soviet Union. It should not be too hard for Russia to stir up trouble in Sinkiang among the non-Han population. In the present turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, stories have come from Sinkiang which suggest that the Chinese genuinely fear this. Chou En-lai was quoted as saying that in "Sinkiang the Cultural Revolution has come to an end, for national security reasons." This, if true, is very plain speaking, signifying the Chinese fear that such disruptive conflicts could either encourage anti-Han movements by the Kazakh and other peoples or could open an opportunity for the Soviet Union to exploit such movements and perhaps even move in troops.
Military conflict over these complaints and historical wrongs is not a real prospect at the moment, however. In both disputed regions, the logistics would be formidable. Modern communications capable of handling any large operation do not exist. Railways are few in northern Manchuria, the province of Heilungkiang; while on the Soviet side of the border, the land communications tend to follow the line of the Amur valley, close to the frontier. In the western sector the Russians have the advantage of having at their backs the relatively developed regions of Kazakh and Kirghiz, with a railway system connecting these republics to the principal industrial areas of the U.S.S.R. China, so far as is known, has only one very long line from northwest China to Urumchi and the Ili River valley. No railways run to Kashgar across the deserts and through the oases of central Sinkiang province. The old caravan route, the immemorial silk road, is no doubt passable for motor transport, but it is a very long and hard road to serve as the main supply route for a large military operation.
Therefore, the anxiety which Russians are said to feel about a Chinese threat to their territories can hardly be immediate, though they may fear for the future. With the exception of the Ili valley, which runs down from Chinese into Russian territory, the frontier is extremely rugged. In the west, toward Afghanistan, the border is formed by the Pamir Mountains, one of the highest ranges in the world. A Chinese invasion would have to operate at the end of an enormously extended line of communications, and the Chinese would have to advance far into the plains of Central Asia to win a lasting advantage.
It would, in theory at least, be very much easier for the Chinese, by a swift strike across the Amur, to dislocate the communications between the Russian Maritime Province and its capital, Vladivostok, and the rest of Siberia. Since there are no alternative routes well to the north of the Amur river, where the country and the climate become exceedingly harsh, the Chinese could conceivably overrun the Province, take Vladivostok, and sever the communications with Siberia and metropolitan Russia. But they would be badly placed to counter a Soviet retaliatory invasion in the west, up the Ili valley to Urumchi. In either case it seems most unlikely that such a war could be limited to these areas of conflict; it would become almost at once a major war between the two powers, expanding into a full-scale air attack by Russia upon Chinese industrial centers and military bases-an attack which the present Chinese air force is very ill-equipped to meet. There are thus no limited objectives which the Chinese could hope to gain by provoking a border conflict, while it is at least possible that the Russians under certain circumstances could hope for such an advantage in the western sector.
The province of Sinkiang, the most westerly of the Chinese territories, borders the Soviet Union along the whole western sector of the frontier. It is separated from ancient China by the extensive desert which extends from northwestern Kansu Province to the oasis of Hami, the first of the Sinkiang oases. Racially, Sinkiang is only partly Han (Chinese); the majority is composed of various peoples, Moslem by religion, and closely allied to the Moslems on the Russian side of the frontier. It is at least possible that a massive Russian thrust through Ili, accompanied by supporting air attacks, could drive the Chinese out of Sinkiang, or at least into the southern half of it-a much more arid section where a large defending army could not be adequately supplied. As it is in Sinkiang that the Chinese have developed their nuclear weapons-testing stations and also, it is believed, the plants in which such weapons are produced, the Russians may be said to have a real motive for such a conquest. On the other hand, so ambitious an adventure would mean a wider war, with its incalculable risks. A better prospect for the Soviets might be to promote a separatist régime in Sinkiang-one based on the non-Chinese population, subservient to the U.S.S.R. and under its protection.
Since the seventeenth century when the Chinese empire was forced by Russia's advance into Siberia to deal with a great land power, and was brought into ever closer contact-and conflict-with Britain and Japan, the sea powers which successively dominated the western Pacific (succeeded now by the United States), it has been a rule of wise Chinese policy that a quarrel should never be pursued with both these major forces at the same time. The rule was often disregarded by régimes too obscurantist to understand modern international relations or too brash to heed the plain facts. The Manchus, trained to believe that they were the only true sovereigns in the world, and that international relations were an affair of tributaries and barbarians coming to pay respect to the Emperor, could not shape a policy which either conciliated the British as allies against the Russians or used the Russians to check the British-even though these two powers were at that time distinctly unfriendly to each other. The Nationalists, simultaneously committed to ideological nationalism, which meant pinpricking the Western powers, and to anti-communism, which meant aloof relations with the Soviet Union, could use neither effectively to check the very real menace of Japan. Mao Tse-tung, when he first came to full power, seemed to have learned the rule. "We lean to one side," he said, and he meant the side of Russia.
What, then, will be the consequences of ceasing to lean on this side while certainly not receiving any support from the other? If China were raising embarrassing ghosts from the Tsarist political past to frighten Russia, while actively seeking a détente with the United States, the policy would make sense in the old terms of diplomacy. But the quarrel with the United States is pursued at least as vigorously-verbally-as that with the Soviet Union. It is true that so far both are wars of words, not bullets. No Chinese forces are engaged in Viet Nam, and there is much evidence that China seeks to avoid accidental encounters both by sea and by air. There is no hard evidence of open conflict on the frontiers with Russia, although it has long been known that they are strictly watched and patrolled-and this was so before the Sino-Soviet dispute broke into the open.
It may be hazarded that Mao's policy is not intended to be as reckless as it seems. The raising of old scores against Tsarist Russia serves to underline current propaganda, painting the Soviet Union as a sham communist state, riddled with bourgeois reaction and revisionism; and not only at home. China says, in effect, "See, even in their foreign policy, the Russians are not ashamed to profit by the evil deeds of the imperial Tsars, and make no amends." It need not be said that on the frontiers of Tibet and India the Chinese themselves are quite ready to profit from the consequences of Manchu imperialism, and even, when the maps suit, of British imperialism too. It would seem that the main Chinese motive in calling the Soviet border into question is to carry on a polemical war against Russian revisionism rather than actively to press claims for lost territory. In the case of the Maritime Province such a claim is particularly weak, and though China has a stronger case in the western sector, in reality the Ili valley was no more Chinese than the Maritime Province; it was a small part of the large colonial empire which the Manchu Emperors had added to their estates. It had no long-established Chinese settler population, and the local inhabitants are Kazakhs. These people may well regret that they are divided between two alien régimes, but their complaints are not the issue. Much of the local trouble, in so far as it is not mere propaganda, stems from the nomadic habits of the Kazakhs, who wish to drive their flocks up to the highlands in China in the summer and down to the lowlands in Russian territory in winter. It is easy to represent these movements as "flights of refugees" one way or another; if they are forbidden, it is equally easy to allege harsh repression and arbitrary interference with long-established rights.
These facts are usually concealed by the vague language of the polemical attacks and replies. The Russians allege that fifty thousand "Chinese" (i.e. Chinese nationals) have fled into their territory in recent years. It is obvious that these people-whatever the real numbers-were Kazakhs, and very probable that they were merely exercising their normal nomadic habits. Both sides have endeavored to populate the border lands with their own nationals. Chinese immigration in recent years has raised the Han Chinese population of Sinkiang to over six million, and it is said that the native non-Han tribes are not much larger. In Russian Central Asia there are now twelve million European Russians and seventeen million of the local peoples- Uighur, Kazakh and Kirghiz. The Chinese probably also hope to check Russian intrigues among the non-Han population of Sinkiang by emphasizing their claims and grievances against the Soviet Union; it is unlikely that they have at any time contemplated direct action to enforce these claims, either in the western or eastern sectors of the common frontier. The advantages to be gained by either side from military adventurings along the frontier do not, at the present, seem worth the risks.
[i] 0ne minor cause of friction is that the Amur shifts its course, leaving former islands attached to one bank or the other. Thus the sovereignty of such islands comes into dispute.
[ii] Walter Kolarz, "The People of the Soviet Far East." London: George Phillip, 1954.
[iii] Mongolia is recognized as an independent state; it maintains diplomatic relations with Peking, and if the Chinese have deplored the Mongol preference for the Russian side of the present dispute, the Mongols themselves have done their best to keep out of the line of fire and remain on passable terms with both sides.