The Sino-Soviet Split

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Recognised as one of the key influences on the fate of the Cold War socialist bloc, the decline in Sino-Soviet relations has been the focus of extensive historical analysis since it first made international headlines in the 1960s. The tight control exercised by both Soviet and Chinese government agencies, however, has obstructed progress towards a complete understanding of the issue, barring access to relevant documents until only a few years ago. Earlier publications on the subject that are consequently dependent on Western sources tend to express the erroneous view that the split was the direct result of Washington’s “wedge strategy,” an explanation that was initially accepted by the intellectual world. But the opening of national archives has seen a dramatic movement away from this interpretation, showing instead that the Sino-Soviet relationship self-destructed as a result of long term competition. Throughout the ten year duration of their alliance, the leaders of both Russia and China were involved in campaigns aimed at consolidating their national position in the context of the Cold War - as Yang Kui Song puts it, “communists…tend to be nationalists when it comes to international affairs.” Concerns over the Eastern bloc were critical, then, but of secondary importance to the private goals of the Kremlin and the CCP. It was only while the Sino-Soviet alliance presented itself as a mechanism through which each participant could advance its own economic, military and political standing that it was viewed with any real interest. Ultimately, as mutual criticism arose, and the divergent backgrounds of the two parties caused them to develop different ‘paths to socialism’, the friendship that had been hailed as “eternal” and “unbreakable” disintegrated into heated confusion and rivalry, escalated by the nuclear hazard and consciousness of the ever present American threat.

The early years of the Sino-Soviet relationship were characterized by “Soviet disinterest and Chinese mistrust.” In the late 1940s, when the Chinese Communist Party had been working towards the Revolution of 1949, its leaders had approached Stalin for military assistance, but were turned down with instructions to “obey the GMD wholeheartedly.” From this occasion, and a number of others, it became clear to the CCP that Stalin was willing to jeopardize the success of their revolution in order to prevent Western alarm about China’s political alignment. This tendency would be a source of constant disappointment in the years to come, as Mao “pinned…his future on (Soviet) aid” only to find that Stalin was content, especially in the first few months of the alliance, to offer only minimal economic support.

Considering the immense pressure that the CCP was under in the weeks immediately following the revolution, it is understandable that this lack of interest should place Mao in a dilemma. Forced to present the Soviets as the heroes of the Marxist cause in order to strengthen the Chinese population’s faith in communism, he was nonetheless frustrated with them for being so reluctant to assist in the construction of a Chinese utopia. Particularly important to him was the complete defeat of the Nationalist Party stationed in Taiwan, which was not militarily dangerous, but undermined the CCP victory as a symbol of rebellion. The Soviets, however, were not committed to taking any action against the Nationalists, with whom the Americans had close ties, and this thwarted Mao’s efforts to build a strong public image.

The Soviets perhaps underestimated the urgency of this campaign to strengthen China’s national identity because they did not recognize its roots. Having a history of foreign occupation and imperialist oppression, the Chinese people were desperate to prove their merit in the international arena, a sentiment which Mao had, during his rise to power, promised to satisfy with the creation of a new and resurgent China. He was particularly eager to erase every vestige of the Nationalist rule, which he associated with meekness, and, now that his victory was complete, set about the task of rectifying some of the issues that had been the focus of domestic indignation. In a meeting with Soviet ambassador Mikoyan shortly after the CCP triumph, Mao communicated his intention to ignore all treaties made between the GMD and other countries. He also requested control of Port Arthur, Outer Mongolia, industries in Dalian, and the Soviet funded Changchun Railway, in an attempt to empty China of all foreign presence. These moves constituted an important part of his campaign to show the Chinese that the CCP would liberate them from the long-standing problem of imperialism.

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As had been the case before the revolution, Stalin’s lack of interest proved to be a major inhibition to the success of this scheme. He agreed to leave Port Arthur after three years, and acceded to the requests about the Dalian industries and the Changchun Railway, but was immovable over Mongolia, insisting on its independence. In addition, and this was by far the most important problem, he did not respond to Mao’s hints that a new Treaty of Friendship and Alliance be drafted to replace the old one signed by the Soviet Union and the GMD. When the Chinese ...

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