Overconfidence in Confidence Building

Why Sloppy Implementation Makes Us Less Secure

An aerial photo shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, May 11, 2015. Ritchie B. Tongo / Reuters

On the frigid morning of March 2, 1969, a contingent of Chinese border guards stationed in the country’s remote northeast began marching across the frozen Ussuri River, which forms a section of the border between China and the Soviet Union. They were headed for Zhenbao Island, a tiny, quarter square mile of uninhabited land located in the river. Although not much more than a pile of sand—one reporter at the time said that the island had “no value whatsoever to either country except one of prestige”—it became a flash point within an ongoing border dispute between the two erstwhile allies. Once at the island, the soldiers began chanting Maoist slogans and quickly attracted the attention of their Soviet counterparts on the opposite bank of the river. When the Soviets approached and demanded that they leave, the Chinese opened fire. After a two-hour exchange that drew in hundreds of soldiers on both sides, dozens lay dead.

The following weeks would see a dramatic escalation of words and deeds between the two communist powers. Soviet nuclear units stationed in the Far East were placed on alert. Chairman Mao Zedong ordered his country’s nuclear bases to prepare for Soviet air raids, saying, “We are now confronted with a formidable enemy.” The border crisis would become the first and only time in history that China placed its nuclear forces on full alert.

In the middle of the crisis, and with the shadow of nuclear war looming, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin attempted to phone Mao directly on a dedicated hot line that the two countries had set up in earlier, friendlier times. But Kosygin got no further than an obstreperous Chinese phone operator who refused to connect the call and, for good measure, cursed Kosygin, calling him a “revisionist element.” Fortunately, the situation did not escalate. When Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai later learned about this incident, he was incredulous and scheduled a personal meeting with Kosygin, where they agreed to resume diplomatic discussions and

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