What was the official position of China during the Sino-Soviet border clashes in the 1960s?

What was the official position of China during the Sino-Soviet border clashes in the 1960s?

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As I know, there was no mobilization, nor public alarm in the USSR. Also Sino-Soviet friendship treaty continued to function as well as all trade agreements throughout the whole period of clashes.

How this was possible? Did Chinese government made it clear that the conflict will not escalate and all the treaties remain in force? What was the official version of the clashes?

I suspect two variants

  1. Chinese claimed that they were attacked themselves by the USSR but really wanted peace

  2. Chinese claimed that the attacks on Russian territory were by uncontrolled units or groups.

Maybe there could be other explanation. Who knows what was the official Chinese position in reality?

Sourced from http://www1.american.edu/ted/ice/ussuri.htm

TL;DR: "He started it!" "No HE started it!" "NO HE STARTED IT!!!!!" "OK, there's soccer match in 3 minutes, let's just say we are even" "sulk OK"

  • In May 1966, foreign minister Ch'en yi reiterated the Maoist theme in an interview with a group of visiting Scandinavian journalists: the Russians, he said, were thieves who had annexed one and a half million kilometers of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century and even afterward. In October, as the Revolution swirled around the gates of the Soviet embassy in Peking, the Moscow press charged that Chinese troops had begun to fire indiscriminately at Russian ships plying the Amur, and Occidental correspondents in Moscow reported that, according to a Soviet source, organized Chinese "people's" movements in the Amur region and Sinkiang were calling for the return of "lost territories".

  • On March 2, 1969, Chinese and Soviet forces clashed on obscure Damanski (Chen Pao) Island in the Ussuri River, and the Soviets suffered thirty-four killed… Then, in a note delivered to the Soviet embassy and published in Peking on March 13, the Chinese charged new Soviet aggressions in the disputed sector - as if building up a case.

  • A diplomatic exchange followed (the later March 15 clash). On the day after the clash, the Chinese Ministry for Foreign Affairs delivered a note to the Soviet embassy at Peking charging that a large number of Soviet forces accompanied by armored cars and tanks had penetrated Danamski Island "and the region west of that island". Chinese stated immediately that the Soviet government must bear the entire responsibility for all the grave consequences which could result from this.

    The Soviet government on the same day addressed to the Chinese government a note: "… provocation… heavy with consequences"

    On March 29, 1969, the Soviet government delivered the declaration to the Chinese embassy in Moscow regarding Sino-Soviet relations (since you only asked for Chinese position, I'll omit the discussion of the 2 notes above)

    Peking in its April report to the congress acknowledged receipt of the Soviet offer and said that "our government is considering its reply to this".

    On May 12, Peking announced that it had sent a message to the Soviet Union accepting in principle the Soviet proposal for resumption of the work of the mixed commission for the regulation of traffic on the border rivers and proposing that the date be fixed for mid-June. Moscow agreed, naming June 18 as the exact date. A few days after that exchange, on May 18, the Peking, as if to demonstrate that there had been no Chinese surrender, denounced the "new Soviet tsars" policy of naval expansion.

    The Sino-Soviet frontier issue was still pending. The Chinese government complained that Soviet gunfire on the Ussuri had continued as an evident attempt to force negotiations, but in the end it agreed in principle to the Soviet proposal, suggesting that the date and place of the projected negotiations regarding the Sino-Soviet frontier be discussed and decided by the two parties through the diplomatic channel.

I would add that the conflicts didn't stopped in sixties, it continued to seventies, as well. In the middle of seventies (sorry, don't know exactly, it is Info that I got from a captain of the Soviet Army tank forces, with which I was in the same hospital and he told me this as a participier) the SU finally attacked China territory in depth of up to 400 km. And they wanted to go further. But China declared the nuclear experiments in that area and the SU army returned. After that conflicted stopped for long.

But in china maps even now it is easy to see huge parts of Russia, most of its territory, belonging to China.

And now Putin had sold almost all Siberia resources to China, allowing them to put there their fctories and use only china workers. So, in 20-30 years, Siberia will be chinese.

And it diddn't started in sixties, too. In the 17th century China prepared mass attacks of 3 great armies with sweden consultants and guns, against all asian part of Russia. Only death of the emperor and the elder son and later conflict of two next sons, who were at command of two larger armies, prevented the occupation.

Sino-Soviet relations

Sino-Soviet relations (simplified Chinese: 中苏关系 traditional Chinese: 中蘇關係 pinyin: Zhōng Sū Guānxì Russian: Советско-китайские отношения , Sovetsko-kitayskiye otnosheniya) refers to the diplomatic relationship between the Chinese Republic and the various forms of Soviet Power which emerged from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

China–USSR relations


Soviet Union

How the Soviet Union and China Almost Started World War III

After weeks of clashes, war between the two nuclear powers seemed right around the corner.

Americans tend to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis as the most dangerous moment in Cold War brinksmanship. Despite some tense moments, Washington and Moscow resolved that crisis with only the death of U.S. Air Force pilot Maj. Rudolph Anderson Jr.

Seven years later, in March 1969, a contingent of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers raided a Soviet border outpost on Zhenbao Island, killing dozens and injuring scores. The incident brought Russia and China to the brink of war, a conflict that might have led to the use of nuclear weapons. But after two weeks of clashes, the conflict trailed off.

What if the brief 1969 conflict between China and the Soviet Union had escalated?

The incident on Zhenbao Island, where the initial ambush and the bulk of the fighting occurred, represented the nadir of Soviet-Chinese relations. Just ten years earlier, Beijing and Moscow had stood hand in hand as bulwarks of the Communist world. Struggles over ideology, leadership and resources, however, resulted in a sharp split between the allies that had global repercussions. The split exacerbated territorial disputes that had existed since Tsarist and Imperial times. The long, poorly demarcated border left numerous gray zones in which China and the USSR both claimed sovereignty.

After a few minor incidents, the Zhenbao Island incident drove tensions through the roof. A Soviet counterattack incurred serious casualties, as did a similar incident in Xinjiang in August. A consensus has emerged on both sides that the Chinese leadership prepared for and orchestrated the clash. Why would the Chinese provoke their much more powerful neighbor? And what if the Soviets had responded more aggressively to the Chinese provocation?

Avenues of Escalation

In the immediate wake of the conflict, both the USSR and China prepared for war, with the Red Army redeploying to the Far East and the PLA going into full mobilization. The Soviets enjoyed an overwhelming technological advantage over China in 1969. However, Beijing had constructed the largest army in the world, much of which mustered within reach of the Sino-Soviet border. The Red Army, by contrast, concentrated its strength in Eastern Europe, where it could prepare for a conflict with NATO. Consequently, at the moment of the clash, the Chinese could plausibly claim conventional superiority along much of the border.

However, China’s manpower advantage didn’t mean that the PLA could sustain an offensive into the USSR. The Chinese lacked the logistics and airpower necessary to seize substantial amounts of Soviet territory. Moreover, the extremely long Sino-Soviet border gave the Soviets ample opportunity for response. With a NATO attack unlikely, the Soviets could have transferred substantial forces from Europe, attacking into Xinjiang and points west.

The most critical avenue of potential advance lay in Manchuria, where the Red Army had launched a devastating, lightning quick offensive in the waning days of World War II. Despite its size, the PLA of 1969 had no better hope of stopping such an offensive than the Kwantung Army had in 1945, and the loss of Manchuria would have proven devastating to China’s economic power and political legitimacy. In any case, Soviet airpower would have made short work of the Chinese air force, subjecting Chinese cities, communication centers and military bases to severe air attack.

After conquering Manchuria in 1945, the Soviets looted Japanese industry and left. A similar scenario might have ensued in 1969, but only if the Chinese leadership could bring itself to face reality. With the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the very recent rear-view mirror, and competing factions still trying to ideologically out-radicalize one another, Moscow might have struggled to find a productive partner for peace negotiations. Continued Soviet advances might have resembled the Japanese main advance of 1937, albeit without the naval dominance that the Imperial Japanese Navy enjoyed. Expecting such attacks, the PLA might have withdrawn to the interior, conducting a scorched earth campaign along the way.

China tested its first nuclear device in 1964, theoretically giving Beijing an independent deterrent capability. However, their delivery systems left much to be desired—liquid-fueled missiles of uncertain reliability that required hours to prepare, and that could only remain on the launch pad for a limited amount of time. Moreover, Chinese missiles of the era lacked the range to strike vital Soviet targets in European Russia. China’s bomber force—consisting of an extremely limited number of Tu-4 (a Soviet copy of the U.S. B-29) and H-6 (a copy of the Soviet Tu-16 Badger)—would have fared very poorly against the USSR’s sophisticated air defense network.

The Soviets, on the other hand, were on the verge of achieving nuclear parity with the United States. The USSR had a modern, sophisticated arsenal of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, easily capable of destroying China’s nuclear deterrent, its core military formations and its major cities. Sensitive to international opinion, the Soviet leadership would have resisted launching a full scale nuclear assault against China (U.S. and Chinese propaganda would have had a field day), but a limited strike against Chinese nuclear facilities, as well as tactical attacks on deployed Chinese forces might have seemed more reasonable. Much would have depended on how the Chinese reacted to defeats on the battlefield. If the Chinese leadership decided that they needed to “use or lose” their nuclear forces in anticipation of decisive Soviet victory, they could easily have incurred a preemptive Soviet attack. Given that Moscow viewed Beijing as abjectly insane, Moscow could very well have decided to eliminate the Chinese nuclear force before it became a problem.

U.S. Reaction

The United States reacted to the clashes with caution. While the border conflict reassured Washington that the Sino-Soviet split remained in effect, officials disagreed over the likelihood and consequences of broader conflict. Through various official and non-official channels, the Soviets probed U.S. attitudes towards China. Reputedly, the United States reacted negatively to Soviet overtures in 1969 about a joint attack on Chinese nuclear facilities. However, even if Washington did not want to see China burn, it would not likely have engaged in any serious, affirmative effort to protect Beijing from Moscow’s wrath.

What Comes Next?

A decade before, Dwight Eisenhower had outlined the Soviet Union’s biggest obstacle in a war with China: what to do after you win. The Soviets had neither the capacity, nor the interest, in governing another continent-sized territory, especially one that would likely have included masses of disaffected resisters. And the United States, husbanding a “legitimate” government on Formosa, would eagerly have supported a variety of resistance elements against a Soviet occupation. Indeed, if a rump Beijing had survived the war, the United States might still have considered “unleashing Chiang,” in an effort to restore parts of China to the Western column.

The most likely outcome of war would have been short Chinese success, followed by a sharp, destructive Soviet rebuke. Such an outcome would have served to drive Beijing even more fully into the arms of the United States, which is likely one reason that the Soviets decided not to risk it.

Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and the Diplomat.

Readjustment and reaction, 1961–65

The years 1961–65 did not resemble the three previous ones, despite the persistence of radical labels and slogans. The Chinese themselves were loath to acknowledge the end of the Great Leap period, declaring the validity of the general line of socialist construction and its international revolutionary corollary for one and all.

Reality can be seen, however, in the increasing role of the Chinese military and security personnel. At a top-level meeting of the Military Affairs Committee in October 1960 and at one of the rare plenary sessions of the party’s Central Committee the following January, the elite gave the highest priority to restoring security and national order. Party recruitment procedures were tightened, and a major thought-reform movement was launched within the cadres’ ranks. The Central Committee also established six supraprovincial regional bureaus charged with enforcing obedience to Beijing and bringing the new procedures for control into line with local conditions. The army, now firmly under Lin Biao, took the lead, beginning with a “purification” movement against dissidents within its own ranks. Throughout 1961 and most of 1962, the central officials worked to consolidate their power and to restore faith in their leadership and goals.

By January 1962 Mao had, as he later put it, moved to the “second line” to concentrate “on dealing with questions of the direction, policy, and line of the party and the state.” The “first line” administrative and day-by-day direction of the state had been given to Liu Shaoqi, who had assumed the chairmanship of the People’s Republic of China in 1959 (though Mao retained his position of party chairman) additional responsibilities in the first line were given to Deng Xiaoping, another tough-minded organizer who, as general secretary, was the party’s top administrator. By 1962 Mao had apparently begun to conclude that the techniques used by these comrades in the first line not only violated the basic thrust of the revolutionary tradition but also formed a pattern of error that mirrored what he viewed as the “ modern revisionism” of the Soviet Union.

Under Liu and Deng, the CCP during 1960–61 developed a series of documents in major policy areas to try to bring the country out of the rapidly growing crisis. In most instances, these documents were drafted with the assistance of experts who had been reviled during the Great Leap Forward. These documents marked a major retreat from Great Leap radicalism. The communes were to be reduced on the average by about two-thirds so as to make them small enough to link peasants’ efforts more clearly with their remuneration. Indeed, by 1962 in many areas of rural China, the collective system in agriculture had broken down completely, and individual farming was revived. Policy toward literature, art, and motion pictures permitted a “thaw” involving treatment of a far broader range of subjects and a revival of many older, prerevolutionary artistic forms. The new program in industry strengthened the hands of managers and made a worker’s efforts more closely attuned to his rewards. Similar policies were adopted in other areas. In general, China during 1961–65 did a remarkable job of reviving the economy, at least regaining the level of output of 1957 in almost all sectors.

These policies raised basic questions about the future direction of the revolution. While almost all top CCP leaders had supported the launching of the Great Leap, there was disagreement over the lessons to be learned from the movement’s dramatic failure. The Great Leap had been intended both as a means of accelerating economic development and as a vehicle for achieving a mass ideological transformation. All leaders agreed in its aftermath that a mobilization approach to economic development was no longer appropriate to China’s conditions. Most also concluded that the age of mass political campaigns as an instrument to remold the thinking of the public was past. Mao and a few of his supporters, however, still viewed class struggle and mass mobilization as core ingredients in keeping the revolutionary vision alive.

Mao personally lost considerable prestige over the failure of the Great Leap—and the party’s political and organizational apparatus was damaged—but he remained the most powerful individual in China. He proved able time and again to enforce his will on the issues that he deemed to be of top priority. Claims made later, during the Cultural Revolution, that Mao had been pushed aside and ignored during 1961–65 are not supported by the evidence.

Mao was in fact deeply troubled as he contemplated China’s situation during 1961–65. He perceived the Soviet socialist revolution in the years after Stalin’s death in 1953 to have degenerated into “social imperialism.” Mao evidently had been shocked by these developments in the Soviet Union, and the revelation made him look at events in China from a new vantage point. Mao became convinced that China too was headed down the road toward revisionism. He used class struggle and ideological campaigns, as well as concrete policies in various areas, to try to prevent and reverse this slide into revolutionary purgatory. Mao’s nightmare about revisionism played an increasing role in structuring politics in the mid-1960s.

Mao was not the only leader who harboured doubts about the trends in the recovery effort of 1961–65. Others gathered around him and tried to use their closeness to Mao as a vehicle for enhancing their political power. The key individuals involved were Mao’s political assistant of many years, Chen Boda, who was an expert in the realm of ideology Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who had strong policy views in the cultural sphere Kang Sheng, whose strength lay both in his understanding of Soviet ideology and in his mastery of Soviet-style secret police techniques and Lin Biao, who headed the military and tried to make it an ideal type of Maoist organization that combined effectiveness with ideological purity. Each of these people in turn had personal networks and resources to bring to a coalition. While their goals and interests did not entirely coincide, they all could unite on two efforts: enhancing Mao’s power and upsetting Mao’s relations with Liu Shaoqi (then the likely successor to Mao), Deng Xiaoping, and most of the remainder of the party leadership.

Mao took a number of initiatives in domestic and foreign policy during the period. At a major Central Committee plenum in September 1962, he insisted that “class struggle” remain high on the Chinese agenda, even as enormous efforts continued to be made to revive the economy. He also called for a campaign of “socialist education,” aimed primarily at reviving the demoralized party apparatus in the countryside. By 1964 he began to press hard to make the Chinese educational system less elitist by organizing “part-work, part-study” schools that would provide more vocational training. Throughout this period, foreign observers noted what appeared to be some tension between a continuing thread of radicalism in China’s propaganda and a strong pragmatic streak in the country’s actual domestic policies.

The most important set of measures Mao took concerned the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which he and Lin Biao tried to make into a model organization. Events on the Sino-Indian border in the fall of 1962 helped the PLA reestablish discipline and its image. From 1959 to 1962 both India and China, initially as a by-product of the uprising in Tibet, resorted to military force along their disputed border. On Oct. 12, 1962, a week before the Chinese moved troops into disputed border territories, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru stated that the army was to free all Indian territory of “Chinese intruders.” In the conflict that followed, Beijing’s regiments defeated Indian forces in the border region, penetrating well beyond it. The Chinese then withdrew from most of the invaded area and established a demilitarized zone on either side of the line of control. Most significantly, the leadership seized on the army’s victory and began to experiment with the possibility of using army heroes as the ideal types for popular emulation.

Increasingly preoccupied with indoctrinating its heirs and harking back to revolutionary days, Beijing’s leaders closest in outlook to Mao Zedong and Lin Biao viewed the soldier-communist as the most suitable candidate for the second- and third-generation leadership. Army uniformity and discipline, it was seen, could transcend the divided classes, and all army men could be made to comply with the rigorous political standards set by Mao’s leadership.

Lin Biao developed a simplified and dogmatized version of Mao’s thought—eventually published in the form of the “Little Red Book,” Quotations from Chairman Mao—to popularize Maoist ideology among the relatively uneducated military recruits. As the military forces under Lin increasingly showed that they could combine ideological purity with technical virtuosity, Mao tried to expand the PLA’s organizational authority and its political role. Beginning in 1963, Mao called on all Chinese to “learn from the PLA.” Then, starting in 1964, Mao insisted that political departments modeled on those in the PLA be established in all major government bureaucracies. In many cases, political workers from the PLA itself staffed these new bodies, thus effectively penetrating the civilian government apparatus. Other efforts, such as a national propaganda campaign to learn from a purported army hero, Lei Feng, also contributed to enhancement of the PLA’s prestige.

The militancy of subsequent campaigns to learn from army heroes, or from the PLA as a whole, was echoed in international politics. In a tour of Africa in late 1963 and early 1964, Zhou Enlai startled his hosts by calling for revolution in newly independent states and openly challenging the Soviet Union for the leadership of the Third World. Simultaneously, China challenged the U.S. system of alliances by establishing formal relations with France and challenged the Soviet Union’s system by forming closer ties with Albania.

Beijing’s main target was Moscow. A Soviet-U.S. crisis in Cuba (October 1962) had coincided with the Sino-Indian struggle, and in both cases the Chinese believed the Soviet Union had acted unreliably and had become “capitulators” of the worst sort. For the next months, polemicists in Beijing and Moscow publicly engaged in barbed exchanges. When the Soviet Union signed the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty with the United States and Great Britain in August 1963, Chinese articles accused the Soviets of joining an anti-Chinese conspiracy. Confronted by this new strategic situation, the Chinese shifted their priorities to support an antiforeign line and promote the country’s “self-reliance.” Mao’s calls for “revolutionization” acquired a more nationalistic aspect, and the PLA assumed an even larger place in Chinese political life.

These many-sided trends seemed to collide in 1963 and 1964. With the split in the international communist movement, the party in late 1963 called on intellectuals, including those in the cultural sphere, to undertake a major reformulation of their academic disciplines to support China’s new international role. The initial assignment for this reformulation fell to Zhou Yang, a party intellectual and deputy director of the Central Committee’s Propaganda Department, who tried to enlist China’s intellectuals in the ideological war against Soviet revisionism and in the struggle for rigidly pure political standards. (Less than three years later, however, Zhou Yang was purged as a revisionist, and many intellectuals were condemned as Mao Zedong’s opponents.)

Closely connected with the concerns of the intellectuals were those relating to the party and the Communist Youth League. A drive began to cultivate what one author called “newborn forces,” and by mid-1964 young urban intellectuals were embroiled in a major effort by the Central Committee to promote those forces within the party and league meanwhile, their rural cousins were buffeted by moves to keep the socialist education campaign under the party’s organizational control through the use of “work teams” and a cadre-rectification movement.

In the summer of 1964, Mao wrote a document titled “ On Khrushchev’s Phony Communism and Its Historical Lessons for the World,” which summarized most of Mao’s doctrinal principles on contradiction, class struggle, and political structure and operation. This summary provided the basis for the reeducation (“ revolutionization”) of all youth hoping to succeed to the revolutionary cause. This high tide of revolutionization lasted until early August, when U.S. air strikes on North Vietnam raised the spectre of war on China’s southern border. A yearlong debate followed on the wisdom of conducting disruptive political campaigns during times of external threat.

This period of time has come to be interpreted as one of major decision within China. One ingredient of the debate was whether to prepare rapidly for conventional war against the United States or to continue the revolutionization of Chinese society, which in Mao’s view had fundamental, long-term importance for China’s security. Those who argued for a postponement of the internal political struggle supported more-conventional strategies for economic development and took seriously Soviet calls for “united action” in Vietnam and the establishment of closer Sino-Soviet ties. Their position, it was later alleged, received the backing of the general staff. With the dispatch of about 50,000 logistic personnel to Vietnam after February 1965, factional lines began to divide the military forces according to ideological or national security preferences.

Meanwhile, some members tried to restore rigid domestic controls. Where Mao in May 1963 had called for an upsurge in revolutionary struggle, by the following September other leaders were circumscribing the area of cadre initiative and permitting a free-market system and private ownership of rural plots to flourish. A stifling of the revolutionary upsurge was supposedly evident in regulations of June 1964 for the organization of poor and lower-middle-peasant associations, and by early 1965 Mao could point to bureaucratic tendencies throughout the rural areas. In a famous document on problems arising in the course of the socialist education campaign, usually referred to as the “ Twenty-three Articles,” Mao in January 1965 stated for the first time that the principal enemy was to be found within the party, and he once more proclaimed the urgency of class struggle and mass-line politics.

It was in that period of emphasis on self-reliant struggle that China acquired nuclear weapons. Although the Soviet Union supported Chinese nuclear aims for a time, that effort was taken over completely by the Chinese after June 1959. By 1964 the costs of the program had forced a substantial reduction in other defense costs. China’s first atomic explosion (Oct. 16, 1964) affected the debate by appearing to support Mao’s contention that domestic revolutionization would in no way jeopardize long-term power aspirations and defense capabilities.

Mao’s military thinking, a product of his own civil war experiences and an essential component of his ideology, stressed the importance of military strength through sheer numbers (“people’s war”) during the transition to nuclear status. He felt that preparation for such a war could turn China’s weaknesses into military assets and reduce its vulnerability. Mao’s view of people’s war belittled the might of modern advanced weapons as “paper tigers” but recognized that China’s strategic inferiority subjected it to dangers largely beyond its control. His reasoning thus made a virtue out of necessity in the short run, when China would have to depend on its superior numbers and the morale of its people to defeat any invader. In the long run, however, he held that China would have to have nuclear weapons to deprive the superpowers of their blackmail potential and to deter their aggression against smaller states.

Lin Biao repeated Mao’s position on people’s war, further arguing that popular insurrections against noncommunist governments could succeed only if they took place without substantial foreign assistance. To the extent that indigenous rebels came to depend on outside support, inevitably their bonds with the local populace would be weakened. When this happened, the rebellion would wither for lack of support. On the other hand, the hardships imposed by relying on indigenous resources would stimulate the comradeship and ingenuity of the insurgents. Equally important, Lin’s statement also indicated a high-level decision for China to remain on the defensive.

Lin’s speech coincided with yet another secret working conference of the Central Committee, in which the Maoist group reissued its call for cultural revolutionization, this time convinced that the effort of 1964 had been deliberately sabotaged by senior party and military officials. Initiated by Mao Zedong and Lin Biao, the purge first struck dissident army leaders, especially the chief of staff as the power struggle began, China turned its back on the war in Vietnam and other external affairs. The September meeting may be taken as a clear harbinger of what came to be known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

China and East Germany at the Height of the Sino-Soviet Split

On 2 June 1969, the East German ambassador to Beijing, Gustav Hertzfeld, met with the head of the Main Department in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Yu Zhan. The meeting took place at the height of the Sino-Soviet split, and the record of the encounter clearly illustrates the tense atmosphere inside the communist world.

On 2 June 1969, the East German ambassador to Beijing, Gustav Hertzfeld, met with the head of the Main Department in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Yu Zhan. The meeting took place at the apogee of the Sino-Soviet split, and the record of the encounter clearly illustrates the tense atmosphere inside the communist world. Both Hertzfeld and Yu Zhan took turns to accuse each other’s country of failing to offer fraternal assistance.

What is perhaps most striking throughout the conversation is the unequivocal refusal of both officials to compromise on their respective country’s policies and to try and resolve what Yu Zhan described as the “basic, irresolvable differences of opinion.” This comes through loud and clear in the inability of the two statesmen to agree on even one single political topic.

Furthermore, rather than debate these issues, the tone of the two men was accusatory and critical. Already at the start of the conversation, Hertzfeld harangued the Chinese government for its lack of propaganda in support of East Germany’s endeavour to nullify the Hallstein Doctrine and achieve legitimacy on the international stage. To be sure, in 1969, the Ulbricht government achieved several diplomatic breakthroughs, notably, state recognition from non-communist nations, such as the Kingdom of Cambodia, the Sudan, Egypt and Iraq. Despite this “severe blow against imperialism, especially that of West Germany,” Hertzfeld complained that not even the “basic facts” had been reported in the Chinese press.

Nevertheless, throughout the conversation, it becomes ever more evident that neither Ambassador Hertzfeld nor the GDR were considered a priority by Beijing. For instance, the Chinese ambassador in East Berlin had been withdrawn and there was no sign that a replacement would be sent anytime soon. Yu Zhan likewise did not respond to Hertzfeld’s open request for future meetings with leading Chinese decision-makers and insisted that diplomats were being received “according to concrete needs.” At the same time, rather than justify the dearth of news about the GDR, Yu Zhan’s response comes across as rather nonchalant and dismissive, claiming that the press would not express the Chinese position “at every occasion” and that the press “has its own rules.”

Not only did Yu Zhan rebuff Hertzfeld’s complaints, he also explicitly criticised East Germany’s “certain vacillations” on the Berlin question and insisted that “really decisive measures” would precipitate more Chinese patronage. This was an implicit reference to the split between the two sides on strategy. Whereas the Soviet bloc preached “peaceful coexistence” with the imperialist countries, Maoist China conversely advocated a more dynamic policy, believing that the communist countries should not fail to utilize revolutionary conditions or exploit advantageous situations just because it risked nuclear war. Clearly, Yu Zhan judged the Ulbricht government’s stance on Berlin both inadequate and ineffective.

In turn, the archival document underlines East German concern about the specter of Beijing establishing diplomatic relations with its estern nemesis. As early as 1955, the West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, had entertained the idea of exploiting the Sino-Soviet disagreement to gain leverage on Berlin and German reunification. It is telling that Hertzfeld mentioned the former West German Foreign Minister, Franz Josef Strauss, who, akin to Adenauer, had been one of the most outspoken advocates of rapprochement.

And yet, irrespective of Hertzfeld’s repeated request that the Chinese government publicly refute the possibility of a “Bonn-Beijing axis” and shatter West German eagerness of acquiring Chinese support for its national objectives, Yu Zhan refrained, again, from offering any indication that the PRC would quash these rumors. No doubt this was due to Mao Zedong’s theory of the “intermediate zone,” which stated that the secondary powers on both sides of the Iron Curtain wanted to unfetter themselves from the two superpower’s hegemony and pursue independent policies. As a result, the Chinese government was unwilling to close the doors on better relations with Bonn.

It was not only Hertzfeld, however, who believed that the other side was failing to satisfy the demands of communist unity. Yu Zhan pointed out that fraternal support needed to be “reciprocal” and, just like Hertzfeld, lamented the opposite side’s lack of assistance and cooperation. This is particularly noticeable when discussing the border clashes on the Sino-Soviet border. It is striking that, when talking about the Soviet Union, Yu Zhan’s tone became severely bitter and explicit. In his eyes, the USSR was both an “imperialist country” as well as a “friend” of the United States, which was endeavoring to wage war against Beijing.

Yu Zhan also made it plain that the GDR was not taking a disinterested stance on the crisis. He pointed out to the ambassador that East Berlin had published the Soviet’s report on the border clashes and simply returned the Chinese statement.

Finally, the language used by both officials is pertinent. Although Hertzfeld noted that the meeting proceeded in a “calm manner,” there is a striking despondency about the whole affair. At the end, Yu Zhan claimed that the problems would become “only bigger with the progress of this conversation” and that the PRC was “talking in the language of facts and, therefore, is correct,” suggesting that there was nothing that Hertzfeld could say which might change his mind. In a similar vein, Ambassador Hertzfeld acknowledged that “no agreement” would be “reached during this meeting.”

The “principled differences in opinion” were, in short, too deeply entrenched and paralyzed any prospect of either rapprochement or cooperation between the two sides.

Sino-Soviet Relations, March–August 1969

It was in this context that the Kremlin seemed to switch tactics. While the Soviet Army and Brezhnev throughout the year followed a hard line, Kosygin seemed to represent a more conciliatory policy. Footnote 54 On 21 March, Radio Moscow suddenly denied Western news reports about Soviet nuclear threats. Footnote 55 The same day, Kosygin tried to telephone Mao. Footnote 56 The Chinese operator refused to connect the Soviet premier, cursed him as a “revisionist element” and then simply hung up. Zhou was shocked: “The two countries are at war, one cannot chop the messenger.” Footnote 57 While the Soviet embassy tried to obtain Mao's office phone number several times during the evening of the 22nd, the Chinese leadership received reports alleging Soviet troop movements near Zhenbao. Zhou proposed to keep channels of communications open via the foreign ministry, but, given the supposed Soviet military preparations, to avoid any phone contacts. The Chairman agreed, but nevertheless ordered in an optimistic mood: “Immediately prepare to hold diplomatic negotiations.” Footnote 58 But negotiations did not materialize.

On 22 March, Mao ordered the four marshals to prepare another report. The first one, submitted four days earlier, had quickly become obsolete following the second border clash. Mao believed that both sides had stormed into conflict without due deliberation. As a result, he concluded, China had become isolated in the world. Thus all aspects of the country's foreign relations should be up for reconsideration. Footnote 59 While ordering the marshals to write another report, he criticized their previous method of splitting up responsibilities, meeting only infrequently, collating the report from individual parts and focusing only on military issues. Footnote 60 The marshals submitted the still classified second report within ten days. Footnote 61

The ninth CCP congress (1 to 24 April) slowed down China's attempts to defuse the border crisis. Although Mao tried to strengthen the moderate forces, the results of the congress were mixed. The election for the new CC resulted in a victory for the radical factions around Jiang and Lin. Footnote 62 Conflict between these two factions, however, now got carried into reconstituted CCP organs. Footnote 63 On 28 April, the new CC elected the Politburo, which also ended up in the hands of the members of the radical Cultural Revolution Small Group which it was supposed to replace. Footnote 64

With the congress over, Mao and Zhou were finally able to address China's international problems. Footnote 65 In view of the most recent Soviet military build-up along the north-eastern border, Footnote 66 Mao emphasized the need to concentrate on war readiness. Rejecting the idea of fighting on the “territory of other nations,” he argued for a defence in depth, allowing space to be traded for the world's sympathy in case of a large-scale attack. Footnote 67

Against this background, the newly constituted Politburo picked the members of the MAC, formally in charge of military planning. Although the MAC also included the four marshals, its lower-level work group under PLA General Huang Yongsheng 黄永胜, one of Lin's protégés, fulfilled most of its planning functions. Footnote 68 While Lin expected large-scale war, the four marshals received instructions to work on another report on a general assessment of China's position in world affairs. Footnote 69 However, Chen wondered how far the marshals could depart from Lin's report on foreign relations to the recent CCP congress. Thus, while Zhou provided the four with two assistants from the foreign ministry, they still waited for over a month for additional instructions. Footnote 70

Once the congress was over, Mao also turned toward diplomatic measures. On 1 May, he invited several ambassadors from friendly or neutral countries to attend the Labour Day festivities in Tiananmen Square, where he announced the resending of Chinese ambassadors abroad and apologized for the Cultural Revolution violence against foreign embassies. Footnote 71 From 15 May to 17 August, the PRC stationed ambassadors in almost 20 countries across the globe, except in the socialist world but including Vietnam. Footnote 72 Yet Beijing made no overtures to the United States Zhou only instructed Lei Yang 雷阳, who left for Warsaw to become chargé d'affaires in June, “to pay close attention to developments in US policy.” Footnote 73

Following Kosygin's unsuccessful call, Soviet policy seemed to vacillate between confrontation and accommodation. On the one hand, anti-Chinese propaganda increased dramatically after 22 March. Footnote 74 According to American intelligence, Kosygin's son-in-law Jermen Gvishiani and the nuclear specialist Lev A. Artsimovich tried to solicit American reactions with hints of a Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear facilities during their spring stay in Boston. Footnote 75 In the same vein, the Soviet Union also tried to organize China's neighbours in an anti-Chinese security system. Kosygin travelled to India on 5 May, where he tabled a proposal of greater regional cooperation, particularly with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Footnote 76 The chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Nikolai V. Podgorny, visited North Korea from 14 to 19 May, but failed to achieve the desired show of unity. Footnote 77 During his subsequent five-day stay in Outer Mongolia, Podgorny and Yumjaagiyn Tsedenbal agreed that border problems should be settled “first of all at the negotiation table.” Footnote 78 Kosygin's tour of Afghanistan and Pakistan on 30 and 31 May obviously had the aim of promoting the security system once more, Footnote 79 but Pakistani General-turned-President Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan warned Kosygin that his country was unwilling to be drawn into any anti-Chinese cooperation. Footnote 80

The Soviets tightened the screws once more at the Moscow meeting of the world's communist movement from 5 to 17 June. Seventy-five communist parties gathered in an attempt to overcome past divisions – divisions not only over Czechoslovakia but also over the PRC. In his opening remarks, Brezhnev avoided mentioning the disagreements with China, Footnote 81 but during his long speech two days later, the Soviet party leader attacked the PRC for splittist activities and called for an Asian security system similar to WAPA. Footnote 82 Brezhnev explicitly called for a new, separate alliance system because he knew that some WAPA members had previously rejected the use of that alliance against China. Footnote 83 But the Romanian, Italian, Australian, Swiss and Swedish party delegations warned against turning the gathering into an anti-China meeting while strongly advocating Sino-Soviet negotiations. Footnote 84 In view of the failure to obtain significant political support against China, Footnote 85 the proposed Asian security system never took off.

On the other hand, the Soviet government indicated in a 29 March note to its Chinese counterpart that it was willing to restart border negotiations that had been stalled since September 1964. Footnote 86 After a while, on 11 May, the PRC agreed to convene the Sino-Soviet Commission on the Navigation of Boundary Rivers in mid-June. Footnote 87 This agreement reflected Beijing's decision to balance its foreign policies. In particular, it did not want to provide the United States with an opening to exploit the Sino-Soviet conflict, while at the same time it tried to maximize its own opportunities. Footnote 88 Concurrently, it also did not wish to make too many concessions to Moscow. Footnote 89 Overshadowed by the 8 July border incidents at Bacha Island (Heilongjiang River), Footnote 90 the commission met from 18 June to August and was able to resolve only minor issues. Footnote 91

It was in the context of this dual Soviet policy that Zhou turned to the four marshals, criticizing them for having lost a month in providing strategic advice. Footnote 92 On 27 May, they finally started to work in the same conspiratorial framework Footnote 93 while, for the following seven weeks, Zhou provided them with sensitive information. Footnote 94 The final report reflected the help of one of Zhou's assistants who researched English-language materials, including Western newspapers. Footnote 95

The 11 July report was the first Chinese official analysis of international relations to contain the Western concept of a Sino-Soviet-American power triangle, to which the Chinese leadership had previously not subscribed. Footnote 96 Defining “the struggle between China, the United States and the Soviet Union” as the dominant feature in international relations, it concluded that war with the United States was highly unlikely, but a quick Soviet “war of aggression against China” possible. Yet the marshals believed that Moscow shied away from a long war because of logistical, economic and political difficulties. They considered recent Western news speculation of a Soviet, American or combined nuclear attack on China mostly an empty threat. Ultimately, China would be best served if it was willing to defend itself actively, to take positive diplomatic steps on a global scale and to develop itself economically. However, the four marshals did not advocate Sino-American rapprochement China should continue to oppose both the United States and the Soviet Union. Footnote 97

U.S. Relations With China

Since 1949, U.S.-China relations have evolved from tense standoffs to a complex mix of intensifying diplomacy, growing international rivalry, and increasingly intertwined economies.

Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong establishes the People’s Republic of China in Beijing on October 1 after peasant-backed Communists defeat the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang and thousands of his troops flee to Taiwan. The United States—which backed the Nationalists against invading Japanese forces during World War II—supports Chiang’s exiled Republic of China government in Taipei, setting the stage for several decades of limited U.S. relations with mainland China.

The Soviet-backed North Korean People’s Army invades South Korea on June 25. The United Nations and the United States rush to South Korea’s defense. China, in support of the communist North, retaliates when U.S., UN, and South Korean troops approach the Chinese border. As many as four million people die in the three-year conflict until the United Nations, China, and North Korea sign an armistice agreement in 1953 [PDF].

President Dwight Eisenhower lifts the U.S. navy blockade of Taiwan in 1953, leading Chiang Kai-shek to deploy thousands of troops to the Quemoy and Matsu islands in the Taiwan Strait in August 1954. Mainland China’s People’s Liberation Army responds by shelling the islands. Washington signs a mutual defense treaty with Chiang’s Nationalists. In the spring of 1955, the United States threatens a nuclear attack on China. That April, China agrees to negotiate, claiming a limited victory after the Nationalists' withdrawal from Dachen Island. Crises erupt again in 1956 and 1996.

Nine years after the People’s Republic of China asserts control over Tibet, a widespread uprising occurs in Lhasa. Thousands die in the ensuing crackdown by PRC forces, and the Dalai Lama flees to India. The United States joins the United Nations in condemning Beijing for human rights abuses in Tibet, while the Central Intelligence Agency helps arm the Tibetan resistance beginning in the late 1950s.

China joins the nuclear club in October 1964 when it conducts its first test of an atomic bomb. The test comes amid U.S.-Sino tensions over the escalating conflict in Vietnam. By the time of the test, China has amassed troops along its border with Vietnam.

Differences over security, ideology, and development models strain Sino-Soviet relations. China’s radical industrialization policies, known as the Great Leap Forward, lead the Soviet Union to withdraw advisors in 1960. Disagreements culminate in border skirmishes in March 1969. Moscow replaces Washington as China’s biggest threat, and the Sino-Soviet split contributes to Beijing’s eventual rapprochement with the United States.

In the first public sign of warming relations between Washington and Beijing, China’s ping-pong team invites members of the U.S. team to China on April 6, 1971. Journalists accompanying the U.S. players are among the first Americans allowed to enter China since 1949. In July of 1971, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger makes a secret trip to China. Shortly thereafter, the United Nations recognizes the People’s Republic of China, endowing it with the permanent Security Council seat that had been held by Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China on Taiwan since 1945.

President Richard Nixon spends eight days in China in February 1972, during which he meets Chairman Mao and signs the Shanghai Communiqué with Premier Zhou Enlai. The communiqué sets the stage for improved U.S.-Sino relations by allowing China and the United States to discuss difficult issues, particularly Taiwan. However, normalization of relations between the two countries makes slow progress for much of the decade.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter grants China full diplomatic recognition, while acknowledging mainland China’s One China principle and severing normal ties with Taiwan. Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, who leads China through major economic reforms, visits the United States shortly thereafter. However, in April, Congress approves the Taiwan Relations Act, allowing continued commercial and cultural relations between the United States and Taiwan. The act requires Washington to provide Taipei with defensive arms, but does not officially violate the U.S.’s One China policy.

The Reagan administration issues the “Six Assurances” to Taiwan, including pledges that it will honor the Taiwan Relations Act, it would not mediate between Taiwan and China, and it had no set date to terminate arms sales to Taiwan. The Reagan administration then signs in August 1982 a third joint communiqué with the People’s Republic of China to normalize relations. It reaffirms the U.S. commitment to its One China policy. Though Ronald Reagan voices support for stronger ties with Taiwan during his presidential campaign, his administration works to improve Beijing-Washington relations at the height of U.S. concerns over Soviet expansionism. President Reagan visits China in April 1984 and in June, the U.S. government permits Beijing to make purchases of U.S. military equipment.

In the spring of 1989, thousands of students hold demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, demanding democratic reforms and an end to corruption. On June 3, the government sends in military troops to clear the square, leaving hundreds of protesters dead. In response, the U.S. government suspends military sales to Beijing and freezes relations.

In September 1993, China releases Wei Jingsheng, a political prisoner since 1979. That year, President Bill Clinton launches a policy of “constructive engagement” with China. However, after Beijing loses its bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games, the Chinese government imprisons Wei again. Four years later, Clinton secures the release of Wei and Tiananmen Square protester Wang Dan. Beijing deports both dissidents to the United States.

The Nationalist Party’s Lee Teng-hui wins Taiwan’s first free presidential elections by a large margin in March 1996, despite Chinese missile tests meant to sway Taiwanese voters against voting for the pro-independence candidate. The elections come a year after China recalls its ambassador after President Clinton authorizes a visit by Lee, reversing a fifteen-year-old U.S. policy against granting visas to Taiwan’s leaders. In 1996, Washington and Beijing agree to exchange officials again.

NATO accidentally bombs the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during its campaign against Serbian forces occupying Kosovo in May 1999, shaking U.S.-Sino relations. The United States and NATO offer apologies for the series of U.S. intelligence mistakes that led to the deadly bombing, but thousands of Chinese demonstrators protest throughout the country, attacking official U.S. property.

President Clinton signs the U.S.-China Relations Act of 2000 in October, granting Beijing permanent normal trade relations with the United States and paving the way for China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001. Between 1980 and 2004, U.S.-China trade rises from $5 billion to $231 billion. In 2006, China surpasses Mexico as the United States’ second-biggest trade partner, after Canada.

In April 2001, a U.S. reconnaissance plane collides with a Chinese fighter and makes an emergency landing on Chinese territory. Authorities on China’s Hainan Island detain the twenty-four-member U.S. crew. After twelve days and a tense standoff, authorities release the crew, and President George W. Bush expresses regret over the death of a Chinese pilot and the landing of the U.S. plane.

In a September 2005 speech, Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick initiates a strategic dialogue with China. Recognizing Beijing as an emerging power, he calls on China to serve as a “responsible stakeholder” and use its influence to draw nations such as Sudan, North Korea, and Iran into the international system. That same year, North Korea walks away from Six-Party Talks aimed at curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. After North Korea conducts its first nuclear test in October 2006, China serves as a mediator to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

In March 2007, China announces an 18 percent budget increase in defense spending for 2007, totaling more than $45 billion. Increases in military expenditures average 15 percent a year from 1990 to 2005. During a 2007 tour of Asia, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney says China’s military buildup is “not consistent” with the country’s stated goal of a “peaceful rise.” China says it is increasing spending to provide better training and higher salaries for its soldiers, to “protect national security and territorial integrity.”

In September 2008, China surpasses Japan to become the largest holder of U.S. debt—or treasuries—at around $600 billion. The growing interdependence between the U.S. and Chinese economies becomes evident as a financial crisis threatens the global economy, fueling concerns over U.S.-China economic imbalances.

China surpasses Japan as the world’s second-largest economy after it is valued at $1.33 trillion for the second quarter of 2010, slightly above Japan’s $1.28 trillion for that year. China is on track to overtake the United States as the world’s number one economy by 2027, according to Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill. At the start of 2011, China reports a total GDP of $5.88 trillion for 2010, compared to Japan’s $5.47 trillion.

In an essay for Foreign Policy, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlines a U.S. “pivot” to Asia. Clinton’s call for “increased investment—diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise—in the Asia-Pacific region” is seen as a move to counter China’s growing clout. That month, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, U.S. President Barack Obama announces the United States and eight other nations have reached an agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a multinational free trade agreement. Obama later announces plans to deploy 2,500 marines in Australia, prompting criticism from Beijing.

The U.S. trade deficit with China rises from $273.1 billion in 2010 to an all-time high of $295.5 billion in 2011. The increase accounts for three-quarters of the growth in the U.S. trade deficit for 2011. In March, the United States, the EU, and Japan file a “request for consultations” with China at the World Trade Organization over its restrictions on exporting rare earth metals. The United States and its allies contend China's quota violates international trade norms, forcing multinational firms that use the metals to relocate to China. China calls the move “rash and unfair,” while vowing to defend its rights in trade disputes.

Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng escapes house arrest in Shandong province on April 22 and flees to the U.S. embassy in Beijing. U.S. diplomats negotiate an agreement with Chinese officials allowing Chen to stay in China and study law in a city close to the capital. However, after Chen moves to Beijing, he changes his mind and asks to take shelter in the United States. The development threatens to undermine U.S.-China diplomatic ties, but both sides avert a crisis by allowing Chen to visit the United States as a student, rather than as an asylum seeker.

The 18th National Party Congress concludes with the most significant leadership turnover in decades as about 70 percent of the members of the country’s major leadership bodies—the Politburo Standing Committee, the Central Military Commission, and the State Council—are replaced. Li Keqiang assumes the role of premier, while Xi Jinping replaces Hu Jintao as president, Communist Party general secretary, and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Xi delivers a series of speeches on the “rejuvenation” of China.

President Obama hosts President Xi for a “shirt-sleeves summit” at the Sunnylands Estate in California in a bid to build a personal rapport with his counterpart and ease tense U.S.-China relations. The leaders pledge to cooperate more effectively on pressing bilateral, regional, and global issues, including climate change and North Korea. Obama and Xi also vow to establish a “new model” of relations, a nod to Xi’s concept of establishing a “new type of great power relations” for the United States and China.

A U.S. court indicts five Chinese hackers, allegedly with ties to China’s People’s Liberation Army, on charges of stealing trade technology from U.S. companies. In response, Beijing suspends its cooperation in the U.S.-China cybersecurity working group. In June 2015, U.S. authorities signal that there is evidence that Chinese hackers are behind the major online breach of the Office of Personnel Management and the theft of data from twenty-two million current and formal federal employees.

On the sidelines of the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, President Obama and President Xi issue a joint statement on climate change, pledging to reduce carbon emissions. Obama sets a more ambitious target for U.S. emissions cutbacks, and Xi makes China’s first promise to curb carbon emissions’ growth by 2030. These commitments by the world’s top polluters stirred hopes among some experts that they would boost momentum for global negotiations ahead of the 2015 UN-led Climate Change Conference in Paris.

At the fourteenth annual Shangri-La Dialogue on Asian security, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter calls on China to halt its controversial land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, saying that the United States opposes “any further militarization” of the disputed territory. Ahead of the conference, U.S. officials say that images from U.S. naval surveillance provide evidence that China is placing military equipment on a chain of artificial islands, despite Beijing's claims that construction is mainly for civilian purposes.

U.S. President Donald J. Trump says he will honor the One China policy in a call with President Xi. After winning the presidential election, Trump breaks with established practice by speaking on the telephone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and questioning the U.S. commitment to its One China policy. Washington’s policy for four decades has recognized that there is but one China. Under this policy, the United States has maintained formal ties with the People’s Republic of China but also maintains unofficial ties with Taiwan, including the provision of defense aid. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, visiting Beijing in March, describes the U.S.-China relationship as one “built on nonconfrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and always searching for win-win solutions.”

President Trump welcomes China’s Xi for a two-day summit at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, where bilateral trade and North Korea top the agenda. Afterward, Trump touts “tremendous progress” in the U.S.-China relationship and Xi cites a deepened understanding and greater trust building. In mid-May, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross unveils a ten-part agreement between Beijing and Washington to expand trade of products and services such as beef, poultry, and electronic payments. Ross describes the bilateral relationship as “hitting a new high,” though the countries do not address more contentious trade issues including aluminum, car parts, and steel.

The Trump administration announces sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports, worth at least $50 billion, in response to what the White House alleges is Chinese theft of U.S. technology and intellectual property. Coming on the heels of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, the measures target goods including clothing, shoes, and electronics and restrict some Chinese investment in the United States. China imposes retaliatory measures in early April on a range of U.S. products, stoking concerns of a trade war between the world’s largest economies. The move marks a hardening of President Trump’s approach to China after high-profile summits with President Xi in April and November 2017.

The Trump administration imposes fresh tariffs totaling $34 billion worth of Chinese goods. More than eight hundred Chinese products in the industrial and transport sectors, as well as goods such as televisions and medical devices, will face a 25 percent import tax. China retaliates with its own tariffs on more than five hundred U.S. products. The reprisal, also valued around $34 billion, targets commodities such as beef, dairy, seafood, and soybeans. President Trump and members of his administration believe that China is “ripping off” the United States, taking advantage of free trade rules to the detriment of U.S. firms operating in China. Beijing criticizes the Trump administration’s moves as “trade bullying” and cautions that tariffs could trigger global market unrest.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivers a speech marking the clearest articulation yet of the Trump administration’s policy toward China and a significant hardening of the United States’ position. Pence says the United States will prioritize competition over cooperation by using tariffs to combat “economic aggression.” He also condemns what he calls growing Chinese military aggression, especially in the South China Sea, criticizes increased censorship and religious persecution by the Chinese government, and accuses China of stealing American intellectual property and interfering in U.S. elections. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounces Pence’s speech as “groundless accusations” and warns that such actions could harm U.S.-China ties.

Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecom and electronics company Huawei, is arrested in Canada at the United States’ request. The U.S. Justice Department alleges Huawei and Meng violated trade sanctions against Iran and committed fraud and requests her extradition. In apparent retaliation, China detains two Canadian citizens, who officials accuse of undermining China’s national security. Calling Meng’s arrest a “serious political incident,” Chinese officials demand her immediate release. U.S. officials emphasize an unbiased and apolitical legal process, but Trump implies Meng’s charges could be used as leverage in ongoing U.S.-China trade talks.

Amid legal proceedings against Meng, Huawei sues the United States in a separate lawsuit for banning U.S. federal agencies from using the telecom giant’s equipment. In a battle with Beijing for technological supremacy, the Trump administration launches an aggressive campaign warning other countries not to use Huawei equipment to build 5G networks, claiming the Chinese government could use the company to spy.

After trade talks break down, the Trump administration raises tariffs from 10 to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. China retaliates by announcing plans to increase tariffs on $60 billion worth of American goods. President Trump says he believes the high costs imposed by tariffs will force China to make a deal favorable to the United States, while China’s Foreign Ministry says the United States has “extravagant expectations.” Days later, the Trump administration bans U.S. companies from using foreign-made telecommunications equipment that could threaten national security, a move believed to target Huawei. The U.S. Commerce Department also adds Huawei to its foreign entity blacklist.

After China’s central bank lets the yuan weaken significantly, the Trump administration designates China a currency manipulator. The designation, applied to China for the first time since 1994, is mainly symbolic, but it comes less than a week after Trump announced higher tariffs on $300 billion worth of goods. That means everything the United States imports from China now faces taxes. Beijing warns that the designation will “trigger financial market turmoil.”

Russia and China signed a landmark deal on July 21, officially ending all outstanding territorial disputes between the two countries. Under the agreement, Russia will hand over Yinlong Island (known as Tarabarov in Russia) and half of the Heixiazi Island (Bolshoi Ussuriysky) at the confluence the of Amur and Ussuri rivers, clearing the way for closer strategic and economic relations with China.

The deal flowed from an initial agreement signed in 2004 by former Russian President Vladimir Putin that proposed a 50-50 division of the disputed islands. While Russia returns Yinlong and half of Heixiazi, totalling 174 square kilometres, China has given up its claim to the other half of Heixiazi.

In the 1960s and 1970s, clashes over the islands brought the former Soviet Union and China to the brink of war. Last month’s agreement is the final step in resolving the longstanding issues involving the 4,300-kilometre border between the two countries. The other disputes, mainly concerning China’s western border, were settled in the 1990s.

The political calculation behind the territorial settlement is clearly to strengthen the developing Russo-Chinese strategic partnership to counter the growing pressure from the US and its NATO allies on both countries on a number of fronts.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi described the agreement as a mutually beneficial “win-win”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared: “President [Dmitry] Medvedev asked me to tell you that the development and strengthening of the strategic partnership and cooperation with China is our foreign policy priority. The new edition of the Russian foreign policy concept, which was recently approved by President Medvedev, made a point of it.”

The new Russian doctrine, released earlier in July, declared a “negative stance” toward the eastward expansion of NATO, especially proposals to include the Ukraine and Georgia in the bloc as well as the US plans to deploy its anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic. At the same time, the document declared that “Russia will expand the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership in all areas, based on shared basic fundamental approaches to key issues of world politics.” It also called for a “Russia-India-China triangular format”, obviously aimed at countering Washington’s efforts to establish a strategic alliance with New Delhi.

There were no such formulations in Russia’s previous foreign policy statement in 2000, when Putin was attempting to engage with the US. The US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, as well as other aggressive American moves to install pro-Western regimes in former Soviet republics, led to closer relations between Moscow and Beijing.

With its rapid economic growth, China has come to be seen by the US as a long-term “strategic competitor”. In the past eight years, the Bush administration has been seeking to strengthen or cultivate alliances stretching from Japan, South Korea and Australia to India and much of South East Asia, in order to strategically encircle China. China and Russia both regard the establishment of US bases in Afghanistan and Central Asia as a threat to their vital strategic interests.

To counter US moves, China and Russia formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2001 with the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Iran, India, Pakistan and Mongolia have attended SCO meetings as observers. The SCO lobbied for the removal of US bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. In addition to cooperation over military technology, Russia and China have held joint military exercises in recent years, leading to speculation that the SCO may one day become a formal security pact.

Putin also proposed forming an “energy club” among the SCO states, with Russia seeking to increase its exports of oil and gas to the Asia-Pacific from 3 percent of its total at present to one-third by 2020. China has built mines and pipelines in Central Asia to exploit the region’s energy and mineral resources. India and Pakistan are looking to the SCO as a means of accessing Central Asian energy reserves. Amid US military threats, Iran has been seeking a security guarantee from China and Russia by joining the SCO as a full member. At present, Beijing and Moscow have turned down Tehran’s application for fear of openly antagonising Washington.

Russia and China have also come together to oppose the deployment of elements of the US missile defence shield in Eastern Europe and Japan. Neither country believes US claims that the shield is defensive or aimed primarily at blocking ballistic missiles from so-called rogue states such as Iran or North Korea. Rather the fear in Moscow and Beijing is that the anti-missile system undermines their ability to retaliate against an aggressive nuclear first strike by the US.

During his first foreign visit in May, Russian President Medvedev issued a joint statement with Chinese President Hu Jintao denouncing the US missile shield. The two countries have been closely cooperating on other global issues such as Iran’s nuclear program. Russia and China have been opposing any tough UN sanctions against Tehran. Not only do Russia and China have major economic stakes in Iran but the country is located at a strategic juncture between Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. A regime change in Tehran by the US would be a major blow to Russian and Chinese interests in these key regions.

Potential for disputes

Despite close relations at present, the potential of conflict between Russia and China is far from over. As the largest client of the Russian arms industry, Chinese military has been complaining about Moscow’s reluctance to sell it the most advanced technology, while allowing China’s regional rival, India, to purchase sophisticated weapons. Although Beijing has endorsed Moscow’s idea of a “Russia-China-India” triangle, there are suspicions in China that Russia is trying to balance China’s rising power by arming India. It is worth recalling that Beijing regarded Moscow’s “neutral” position during the Indo-Chinese border war in 1962 as a betrayal, which became one of the major factors behind the Sino-Soviet split.

With high energy prices, Moscow is seeking to use the country’s vast energy resources to enhance its economic and strategic position. China, on the other hand, is a major importer and is striving for energy self-reliance. China’s rapid penetration into Central Asia to secure oil and gas poses a potential challenge to Russian energy corporations, which are seeking to monopolise the region’s resources. Close ties with Moscow have not always guaranteed China priority in access to Russian energy over rivals such as Japan.

While territorial disputes have been formally settled, tensions continue to simmer. Nationalist voices have accused both governments of betrayal. In 2005, there were demonstrations of Cossack residents in neighbouring Khabarovsk against the handing over of the Russian-controlled islands to China. Sections of the media in Hong Kong and Taiwan have denounced Beijing for giving up China’s claim not just to Heixiazi, which was lost to the Soviet Union in 1929, but all of outer Manchuria, captured by Tsarist Russia in the nineteenth century.

The Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy on July 21 broadcast comments expressing fears that the agreement opened the door for China to claim more land. Veteran Far East journalist Sergey Doreko declared: “China’s claims go far beyond the Tarabarov Island or the Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island. China’s claims concern the entire treaty which defined the Russian Far East in the second half of the nineteenth century. Therefore, by giving in now we are giving China an opportunity to put forward ever-expanding claims.”

There is a long history of bitter territorial disputes between Russia and China. Amid China’s defeat by Anglo-French forces in the Second Opium War, the Tsarist regime forced the Manchu dynasty to give up 1.2 million square kilometres of land in Manchuria in 1858-60. The Chinese regime has repeatedly emphasised in its patriotic education that these events were “national humiliations”.

After the October Revolution in 1917, the new Bolshevik regime promised to abandon all colonial concessions in China. Leon Trotsky insisted, however, the territory should be returned to China only upon the victory of the working class or it would become a base for hostile imperialist powers to attack the USSR. Later, with the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy and its betrayals of international socialism, Moscow’s foreign policy was increasingly based on national interest.

The Heixiazi/Yinlong islands were seized by the Soviet army in 1929 during a skirmish with the Manchurian warlord, Zhang Xueliang. Through US arbitration, Zhang restored the Chinese Eastern Railway (a former Russian concession) to Soviet control in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Manchuria. However, the Soviet army held onto the islands due to their strategic value.

Stalin did not return the islands to China even after the coming to power of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. Instead, Stalin regarded a unified China under Mao Zedong as a potential rival. Stalin used the Sino-Soviet alliance to reassert former colonial concessions lost during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. At the same time, Mao’s resentment toward Stalin’s “Great Russian chauvinism” stemmed from the thoroughly nationalist ideology of the CCP. The conflicting national interests laid the basis for Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s.

Negotiations between the two countries over the status of Heixiazi took place in 1964. Beijing demanded acknowledgement of the “unjust” character of all the seizures of territories by Russia since the nineteenth century. Moscow refused to discuss the issue. The second round of talks in 1969 ended abruptly with the eruption of armed clashes over Zhengbao (Damansky) Island in the Ussuri River. Both sides massed millions of troops along their borders as tensions escalated.

Mao denounced “Soviet social imperialism” and followed this with a pragmatic turn toward US imperialism in 1971 and the formation of a de facto anti-Soviet alliance with Washington. Normalisation of Chinese relations with the US laid the basis for Deng Xiaoping’s “market reform” in 1978. The third round of talks with Moscow over disputed territory took place only in 1986, after former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called for a rapprochement with China, as part of his embrace of capitalist market relations.

Behind the cynical Sino-Soviet polemics over who represented “Marxism-Leninism” were the national interests of two competing bureaucratic cliques, both of which were based on the reactionary Stalinist conception of “socialism in one country”. The Soviet Stalinists ultimately restored capitalism in the former USSR in 1991, while Mao’s heirs transformed China into the sweatshop of the world after brutally crushing the working class in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

What is now bringing the two countries closer together is the common concern in ruling circles at the threat posed by US militarism. But if the strategic partnership no longer serves their national interests, the two capitalist powers could quickly become hostile to each other and the “settled” territorial disputes could again flare up.

Battlefield Asia: Why and when Russia fought China

In 1650, Cossack detachments sent by Moscow Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich to explore the east of Siberia reached the Amur River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean. That was when Russians, for the first time in history, came into large-scale contact with Chinese civilization.

Siege of Albazin. Engraving, 1692.

Of course, Russians and the Chinese had learned about each other much earlier: in the Middle Ages they were "introduced" to each other by the Mongols during their campaigns of conquest. However, back then, there were no permanent contacts between the two peoples, and not much interest in establishing them.

In the second half of the 17th century, the situation was completely different. The arrival of Russian troops on the banks of the Amur, inhabited by Daurian tribes, who paid levies to the Qing Empire, was perceived by the latter as an invasion of its zone of interests. For their part, the Cossacks intended to force &ldquoprince Bogdai&rdquo, about whom they had learnt from the Daurs, into subordination to the Russian tsar, without realizing that the &ldquoprince&rdquo was none other than the powerful Chinese emperor himself.

For several decades, Russian troops clashed with Chinese and Manchu troops (the Manchu dynasty came to power in China in 1636). The conflict culminated in the two sieges of the Albazin fort, which Russia intended to turn into its stronghold in the conquest of the Far East.

Kangxi Emperor, the fourth Emperor of the Qing dynasty.

For several weeks in June 1685, a Russian garrison of 450 men withstood a siege by the Qing army (which numbered from 3,000 to 5,000 men). Their large numerical advantage notwithstanding, the Chinese and Manchu soldiers were inferior to the Russians in combat training, which allowed Albazin to withstand the siege. Nevertheless, not hoping for the arrival of reinforcements, the garrison capitulated on honorable terms and retreated to join the rest of the Russian forces.

Russia, however, had no intention of giving up so easily. A year later, Russians restored the dilapidated fortress, which had been abandoned by the Chinese, and were once again besieged by the Qing troops. In fierce assaults, the enemy lost up to half of its 5,000-strong army, but still was not able to seize Albazin.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689, the Russian troops left the fortress, which was then destroyed by the Chinese. Despite achieving a temporary victory, the bloody battles for Albazin made it clear to Beijing that driving the Russians out of the Far East would not be so easy.

The Boxer Rebellion

In the late 19th century, major European powers as well as the U.S. and Japan, took advantage of China's technological backwardness, and became actively engaged in the economic exploitation of that country. In response, the Chinese, who did not want to see their homeland become a semi-colony, in 1899 launched an uprising against foreign domination known as the Yihetuan (Boxer) Rebellion.

A wave of murders of foreigners and Chinese Christians, arson attacks on churches and buildings of European missions swept across China. The government of Empress Cixi oscillated from one side to the other, first opposing the uprising, then supporting it. When in June 1900, the Yihetuan besieged the Legation Quarter in Beijing, it prompted a large-scale intervention of foreign powers in China.

In August, troops of the so-called Eight Nation Alliance (the U.S., Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, as well as the Russian, German and Japanese empires) occupied the Chinese capital, with the Russian detachment of Lieutenant-General Nikolai Linevich the first to enter the city. Having rescued foreign diplomats, the Allies paraded right in front of the Chinese emperors' palace complex, known as the Forbidden City, which was taken as a serious insult in China.

Russian cavalry attack the Yihetuan.

Another important theater of military operations between the Russians and the Chinese was Manchuria. Russia had big plans for that region. Taking advantage of China's crushing defeat in the war against Japan in 1895, it managed to sign a number of agreements with the Chinese government, under which it received the right to lease part of the Liaodong Peninsula (where the Port Arthur naval base was immediately created) and to build the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER), linking the peninsula to Russian territory and running through the whole of Manchuria. The railway belonged to Russia, which had sent some 5,000 soldiers to protect it.

In the end, Russia's active penetration into the region would lead to its disastrous clash with Japan in 1904. A couple of years prior to that, Russian positions in Manchuria were attacked by the Yihetuan. They destroyed sections of the Chinese Eastern Railway under construction, pursued Russian construction workers, railway workers and soldiers, and brutally tortured and killed those they could capture.

Railway personnel and guards managed to take refuge in Harbin, a city founded by the Russians in 1898 and where the railway head office was based. For almost a month, from June 27 to July 21, 1900, the 3,000-strong garrison fought off 8,000 Yihetuan and Qing troops, who supported them.

To save the situation, Russian troops were dispatched to Manchuria. At the same time, St. Petersburg emphasized that Russia had no intention to seize Chinese territory. After they lifted the siege of Harbin and took part in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion, the troops were indeed withdrawn, but not before the Qing government in 1902 once again confirmed Russia's rights to the naval base in Port Arthur and the Chinese Eastern Railway.

The Sino-Soviet conflict of 1929

Chinese cavalry in Harbin, 1929.

The Chinese Eastern Railway became the cause of another conflict almost 30 years later, except that both China and Russia were by this time completely different countries. The fall of the Russian Empire and the subsequent Civil War resulted in Russia temporarily losing control over the CER. The Japanese tried to get their hands on it, but to no avail.

When the USSR gained strength and once again raised the issue of the Chinese Eastern Railway, it had to agree to joint control over it with the Republic of China, which was reflected in a 1924 treaty. At the same time, joint management was marred by constant conflicts. The disagreements were fanned by numerous White émigrés, who had settled in Harbin and sought to foment enmity with the Bolsheviks.

By 1928, Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang party managed to unite China under its banners and focused on seizing the CER by force: Chinese troops occupied sections of the railway, carried out mass arrests among its Soviet employees and replaced them with Chinese staff or White emigrants.

Soviet soldiers with captured Kuomintang flags.

Since the Chinese began to rapidly build up their armed forces on the border with the USSR, the Red Army command decided that the Special Far Eastern Army, which was greatly outnumbered (16,000 men against 130,000 Chinese troops spread over different directions), should act preemptively and destroy individual enemy groupings one by one, while they did not have time to join forces.

In the course of three offensive operations in October-December 1929, the troops of the Republic of China were defeated. The Chinese lost 2,000 soldiers, with over 8,000 taken prisoner, while the USSR lost fewer than 300 soldiers. Once again in the history of Russian-Chinese conflicts, Russian soldiers' better combat training outweighed the numerical superiority of the Chinese.

As a result of peace negotiations, the USSR regained control over the Chinese Eastern Railway and secured the release of Soviet workers arrested by the Chinese. However, blood spilt for the railway turned out to be in vain. Two years later Manchuria was invaded by Japan, a much stronger enemy than China. The Soviet Union, feeling that it could not maintain control over the Chinese Eastern Railway, sold it to the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in 1935.

The Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969

Soviet border guards during the Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969.

In the 1960s, China had grown significantly stronger and felt confident enough to present its neighbors with territorial claims. In 1962, it fought a war with India over the disputed region of Aksai Chin. And it wanted the Soviet Union to return the small deserted island of Damansky (known in China as Zhenbao, meaning "precious") on the Ussuri River.

Talks held in 1964 ended in nothing, and against the backdrop of deteriorating Soviet-Chinese relations, the situation around Damansky escalated. The number of provocations reached 5,000 a year: the Chinese demonstratively crossed into Soviet territory, making hay and grazing their cattle there, and shouting that they were on their own land. Soviet border guards had to literally push them back.

In March 1969, the conflict entered a &ldquohot&rdquo phase. The fighting on the island involved more than 2,500 Chinese soldiers, who were opposed by about 300 border guards. A Soviet victory was achieved through the use of BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket systems.

Chinese soldiers trying to enter Damansky Island in the USSR.

&ldquoEighteen combat vehicles fired a salvo, and 720 100-kg artillery rockets were launched towards the target in a matter of just a few minutes! When the smoke cleared, everyone saw that not a single shell hit the island! All 720 rockets flew 5-7 km further, deep into Chinese territory, and smashed a village with all the headquarters, rear services and hospitals with everything that was there at the time! That is why everything went so quiet: the Chinese did not expect such impudence from us,&rdquo recalled a participant in those events, Yuri Sologub.

In the fighting for Damansky, 58 Soviet and 800 (according to official data, 68) Chinese soldiers were killed. The USSR and China agreed to freeze the conflict, effectively turning the island into a no-man's land. On May 19, 1991, it was transferred to the jurisdiction of the PRC.

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