[ISSN 1974-028X]



191 / NOVEMBRE 2023 (CCXXII)


The Sino Soviet Split

Unraveling the Ties Between Two Communist Titans

di Augusto Tamponi


The term ‘Sino-Soviet Crisis’ refers to a long period of strong tensions that characterised the relationship between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China from 1961 until, in fact, the dissolution process of the USSR that began in 1989. It is worth specifying that although the crisis actually lasted almost thirty years, it recorded more acute and less acute phases, with episodes that on some occasions, as we shall see later, risked degenerating into a real armed clash between the two powers.


The Sino-Soviet Crisis constitutes a fundamental, albeit often forgotten, chapter in 20th century history, representing one of the most tense and conflictual moments of the Cold War; interestingly, the Cold War witnessed moments of strong crisis not only between the capitalist and communist blocs, but also within the blocs themselves.


The Crisis not only delineated the international relations between the two largest communist powers in history, but naturally went so far as to significantly influence the entire global politics, drastically altering the balance of power and diplomatic strategies of the capitalist superpowers, particularly the United States of America.


The roots of the Sino-Soviet Crisis lie in the second half of the 1950s. The People’s Republic of China was a young power that had emerged a few years earlier in the aftermath of the victory of the Mao-led faction over the Kuomintang nationalists. At that historical stage, it was obvious to consider China and the Soviet Union as natural allies, not only in the light of ideological commonality but, above all, in the identification of a common enemy in Western capitalism.


It is interesting to note precisely how it was Marxism-Leninism that created discord between the two powers. In fact, the main cause behind the Sino-Soviet crisis lies precisely in the drastic differences between the two countries in the interpretation of communist doctrine. After Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union inaugurated a series of policies and measures that have gone down in history as ‘De-Stalinisation’ (culminating in the Khrushchev Secret Speach denouncing Stalin in 1956) aimed at, to some extent, cleaning up the country’s image of the crimes of Stalinism. This move by Khrushchev should be seen in the broader context of an attitude geared towards building peaceful coexistence with the Western Bloc. The USSR’s new posture was immediately repudiated by Mao, who immediately judged it as ‘heretical’, even in light of Mao’s lifelong feeling of veneration for Stalin. China, which was still trying to stabilise and consolidate its regime in the decade following its victory in the civil war, saw the Soviet position as a dangerous downward compromise.


Moreover, beyond ideological differences, the PRC and the USSR had a not insignificant tradition of mutual mistrust and territorial disputes. China was definitely worried by the constant dense presence of Red Army troops along its borders and perceived the solid Soviet support for India and Mongolia as attempts to surround and isolate it geopolitically.


Another element that contributed to Mao’s resentment towards the Kremlin was Moscow’s failure to assist during the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis.


During the 1960s, the rift became more evident. Indeed, the two countries began to compete head-to-head for the ‘monopoly’ of exporting Communist doctrine to the world: on the one hand, Maoist China promoted a more radical approach of Marxism-Leninism.

China’s challenge to the USSR for communist world domination culminated in the so-called ‘Great Leap Forward’, an economic and social strategy implemented by the People’s Republic of China government between 1958 and 1961. Its objective was to galvanise the enormous Chinese populace in order to swiftly reform the nation through the conversion of its agricultural-based economy into a collectivistic, modern communist society.


The programme was founded upon Mao Zedong’s theory of productive forces. Nonetheless, the Great Leap proved to be an economic catastrophe that prevented the nation’s expansion for a number of years and further undermined the USSR’s view of China and Mao’s extreme and irrational leadership. Disagreements on arms collaboration were also preponderant.


China’s pursuit of an its own nuclear arsenal was driven by its desire to enhance both its internal security and its international influence. Initially, the Soviet Union showed a willingness to support China in the advancement of nuclear weaponry. However, in 1959, they reneged on their commitment. The rejection represented a pivotal moment in the bilateral relations, indicating an emerging lack of confidence and divergence in strategic interests between the two nations. Anche a proposito di strategia, infatti, il solco tracciato tra i due paesi fu netto; The Soviet Union’s predilection for traditional military philosophy and strategy often clashed with China’s military style, which was heavily influenced by Mao’s guerrilla warfare tactics.


The Sino-Soviet rift was significantly aggravated when Chinese forces fired at Soviet border troops patrolling Zhenbao (Damanski) Island on the Ussuri River on 2 March 1969. The clash stemmed from ongoing attempts by both nations to assert control over the river islands.


Since the signing of the Treaty of Peking in 1860, during a period of uncertainty over the status of these islands, China and the Soviet Union have engaged in a rivalry to assert their respective claims to sovereignty over these islands. This conflict originated when the status of these islands was still undetermined. The conflict on Damansky or Chen Pao Island was not accidental, but rather the consequence of meticulous planning, as evidenced by the level of brutality exhibited.

The data suggests that the provocations might have emanated from either side. Reports of Soviet military actions near the Ussuri region have caused escalating tensions, with China responding with countermeasures. China and the Soviet Union have substantially strengthened their border defenses in this area. China has a substantial military presence in Manchuria, while the Soviet Union has deployed approximately 25 divisions along their separate borders.


The primary focus at this stage is the alteration of borders, rather than the revision of treaties. While the Chinese have acknowledged the 1860 pact as “unequal,” their main focus is on the ownership of the disputed island, rather than seeking a complete renegotiation of the entire contract. The efforts of a collaborative boundary commission, founded in 1964 to delineate the border, were left unfinished and failed to achieve a resolution.


The accumulation of Soviet troops along the Chinese border seems to be primarily driven by a focus on safeguarding their own security rather than intentionally inciting a military reaction from China. Chinese responses, including extensive demonstrations and propaganda, suggest a focus on diplomatic and political avenues rather than an intensification of the armed war.


Another factor of tension was the 1962 conflict that erupted between India and China. Triggered by territorial disputes that mainly concerned the borders the two powers shared in the Himalayas, China initiated the conflict by commencing synchronised offensives in Ladakh and along the McMahon Line in the Eastern Himalayas. The fight was characterised by its brevity and intensity, culminating in a resounding victory for China.
The neutrality adopted by the Soviet Union on that occasion was an element that contributed to exacerbating the already critical relations with China, which would have expected support that, however, as in the case of the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1958, did not come.


Khrushchev’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis was also not appreciated by Mao, who would have favoured a more rigid and muscular approach by the Soviet Union in the name of the resilience and strength of the communist bloc. The Kremlin’s decision to withdraw the missiles and thus defuse the crisis was seen as a display of weakness and, in some ways, as a missed opportunity for the communist bloc to compete with the West in terms of geopolitical and military projection.


The Cultural Revolution inaugurated by Mao also marked yet another divergence between the countries; the deeply repressive and violent methods of the Maoists were rejected by the Soviet Union which, in the preceding decades, had initiated the process of de-Stalinisation to lighten the stigma of the season of terror that hung over the image of the Soviet Union. The Cultural Revolution, with the horrors and purges that followed, cast many shadows on the global credibility of communism and constituted a valuable propaganda element that the West could exploit to its advantage.


The Sino-Soviet Crisis was a particularly complex phase, especially in light of the considerable consequences it had on the politics of the countries involved and on the entire international landscape embedded in the historical context of the Cold War. The split helped create a shift from a Cold War of a bi-polar nature to one of a de facto tripolar nature, of which the United States was very adept at taking advantage; in fact, the rift with the USSR prompted China to seek new allies and reorient its foreign policy. This change of direction was evident with China’s opening to the US and the West, culminating in President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. This event marked the beginning of a new era in international relations and helped reshape the geopolitical balance of the time.


Isolation from the Soviet sphere of influence also pushed China towards internal economic reforms; Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening and reforms in the 1980s can be seen in part as a response to the need to diversify international relations and modernise the Chinese economy.


The Sino-Soviet confrontation serves as an illustration of how alliances that initially seem impenetrable can be undermined by national interests and ideological disputes. This lesson remains relevant in the current geopolitical landscape, characterized by the frequent establishment and termination of alliances in response to changing political and economic circumstances.





thi, Lorenz M.The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World. Princeton University Press, December 16, 2010.
The Sino-Soviet Split from Part II - The Search for a Chinese Road, 1958–1965. Published online by Cambridge University Press, March 28, 2008.





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[ iscrizione originaria (aggiornata 2007) al tribunale di Roma (editore eOs): n° 215/2005 del 31 maggio ]