Sino-Soviet Relations and U.S. Policy

Sino-Soviet Relations and U.S. Policy

by Allen S. Whiting
December 1, 1990

Just as Sino-Soviet relations were officially normalized, changes in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. introduced new problems with far-reaching implications for how the two communist neighbors deal with each other. These problems bear on U.S. policy in their bilateral military, economic, and political manifestations, as well as in their impact on situations elsewhere, such as in Korea and Japan.

Not since 1960 has American foreign policy been confronted with a Sino-Soviet relationship relatively free of serious conflict. From the armed clashes along the border in 1969 to the Deng Xiaoping-Mikhail Gorbachev summit in Beijing in calculating how to deal with each point in the strategic triangle. During this period, Beijing and Moscow were at odds, and an objective of American policy throughout the earlier years of the Sino-Soviet alliance was achieved.

Yet dramatic as the new detente as defined during Beijing summit was, its immediate context lessened its impact. Just as Sino-Soviet relations were officially normalized, changes in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. introduced new problems with far-reaching implications for how the two communist neighbors deal with each other. These problems bear on U.S. policy in their bilateral military, economic, and political manifestations, as well as in their impact on situations elsewhere, such as in Korea and Japan.


Although both capitals are publicly committed to the principle of demilitarizing the 4,600-mile border, discussion of implementation is only beginning. Until now, most troop reductions an weapons removal have been unilateral, carried out apparently on the tacit assumption of reciprocity at some point. On the Soviet side, of course, elimination of the SS-20 missiles resulted from the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement. More to the point, however, is the Soviet withdrawal of divisions from Mongolia, the larger Soviet drawdown of forces in East Asian Siberia, and the overall reduction of Chinese ground forces.

These moves have been both internally and externally motivated. Moscow and Beijing are sorely pressed economically, and seek any military cuts that do not jeopardize national security. Reassurance on the once-feared mutual threat has been won through a decade of mutual observation and lengthy negotiation. Neither side has literally or even figuratively embraced the other, much less returned to the halcyon years of alliance. But both have gained confidence that whatever may be the long-term danger, the foreseeable future carries no major risk of war.

Two factors, however, severely limit the extent to which China will reduce its military deployments along the Soviet border. One is the basic distrust with which China views Russia as a result of the latter’s historical expansion at the cost of the Middle Kingdom. During the past decade of gradually improved relations, Beijing quietly dropped its demand that Moscow void the “unequal treaties” of the 19th century that transferred vast tracts in central and northeast Asia to Russian rule. But it still insists that disputed territory remains to be settled by negotiation. Chinese authorities specifically include Heixiazi (Bear Island) at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri rivers opposite Khabarovsk in this category. Control of the island could command shipping beyond Khabarovsk in either direction of its owner so wished, giving it strategic importance.

Chinese distrust has its Soviet counterpart. Beijing has not reduced its investment in strategic and intermediate missiles. Its formidable population predominance increases yearly. In 1969, some Soviet analysts believed Chinese provocations along the border were aimed at uniting a demoralized and divided people against an external enemy. Now, concern over Chinese instability in a post-Deng crisis will continue to prompt Moscow to commit strong defensive forces in the distant Maritime Territory and elsewhere.

For U.S. policy, these underlying perceptions make any close Sino-Soviet military cooperation unlikely, especially in the realm of high technology transfer. China will want to maximize its indigenous capability, meanwhile diversifying as much as possible its dependence on external sources of technology and weaponry. Soviet planners will want to minimize China’s long-term threat potential, meanwhile playing tactically on whatever difficulties Beijing may have in gaining access to foreign military hardware. Moscow may offer to sell advanced fighter planes that pose no offensive threat; this might enable Moscow to score a point with Beijing when U.S. military transfers are proscribed or uncertain. But the net effect of such interaction will be negligible in terms of the global military balance. China will continue to pursue non-Soviet military assistance regardless.

A second factor limiting a reduction of China’s military deployments along the Sino-Soviet border concerns the possible spillover effects of Soviet reforms—or worse, Soviet instability—along the Central Asian frontier. Conversations this author had in Beijing in June 1990 revealed that Kazakhs and Uighurs who fled from Xinjiang to the Soviet Union during the post-Great Lead Forward economic crisis in 1962 have been returning “to visit relatives” in China, and staying. This may be only a short-lived phenomenon resulting from the 1989–90 outbreak of ethnic rioting in Soviet Central Asia. Should economic cooperation among the Central Asia republics result in greater autonomy from Moscow, China’s unwanted visitors might well return from whence they came.

But the specifics are less important than the symbolic reminder to Beijing that the border is highly permeable to whatever political influences or population infiltration may result from radical and essentially unpredictable change on the Soviet side. Muslim dissidence in Xinjiang earlier this year caused Beijing to close part of the region to foreigners. China accused foreign conspirators of instigating an armed revolt on behalf of an “East Turkestan Republic.” Whatever the facts, the incident recalled past instances of local challenges to Chinese rule, most notably n 1944–48. At that time a widespread uprising of Uighurs and Kazakhs with Soviet support established control over the western half of Xinjiang in the name of the “East Turkestan Republic.” Whatever the facts, the incident recalled past instances of local challenges to Chinese rule, most notably in 1944–48. At that time a widespread uprising of Uighurs and Kazakhs with Soviet support established control over the western half of Xinjiang in the name of the “East Turkestan Republic.” Only the communist conquest in 1949 restored Chinese power throughout the region.

Moscow is not likely to play a similar role again. On the contrary, it will want to suppress such local nationalism as a threat to its own rule over Kazakhstan. Nevertheless the end result for Beijing is similar. Xinjiang requires a strong military presence against external as well as internal subversion. Cross-border communication is impossible to control. In addition to radio, a burgeoning trade brings local peoples into close contact. In June the air link between Alma-Ata and Urumqi opened, and the long-delayed Xinjiang-Kazakhstan railroad is scheduled to start regular operation in 1992. In sum, whatever positive or negative religious, ethnic, linguistic, or political developments occur on the Soviet side, they are certain to become known on the Chinese side. If local violence occurs in Kazakhstan, as it has in the other Central Asian republics, mass flight across the border could result. If local power prospers at the cost of Moscow, parallel ambitions in Xinjiang might challenge Beijing’s ability exclusively to exploit local resources, including oil.

For U.S. policy, this means that there cannot be a Sino-Soviet analogue to the U.S.-Canadian border, despite talk by both sides about demilitarization. On the contrary, Beijing and Moscow will feel compelled to maintain strong security along an extensive frontier that lacks natural boundaries or defenses. For Washington, different developments in the overall border situation offer only modest advantages for U.S. policy interests. On the one hand, China’s concern for its northern and western border security can pose a small but nonetheless real deterrent to aggressive action on other fronts, most notably in the Taiwan Strait. On the other hand, Sino-Soviet military exchanges and border agreements reduce Moscow’s need to maintain its current military strength in East Asian Siberia. Detente along the border can also encourage bilateral confidence-building measures and multilateral arms control agreements in the region.

More broadly, Beijing will monitor Moscow’s political-military position along the entire Asian front from northeast to southwest. North Korea anchors one end of this line. Its provision of overflight access for Soviet reconnaissance planes and port visits for Soviet naval ships in the 1980s caused concern in Beijing that has not yet disappeared. Moscow’s drawdown of ships and planes in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay has not eliminated the potential use by the Soviet Union of this valuable base on the South China Sea. Soviet-Indian military relations continue to strengthen New Delhi against Beijing’s interests. Taken together with Moscow’s preponderant nuclear capability on land and at sea, these factors make the long-term Soviet threat uppermost in Chinese military calculations. This in turn removes the danger of Sino-Soviet military collusion or cooperation from U.S. policy considerations.


Sino-Soviet trade will remain minuscule in comparison with each country’s total foreign trade. Overall the exports of each have limited utility for the other, which both countries have competing import needs that range from Wheat to advanced electronics. Both China and the Soviet Union are also hard pressed for foreign exchange and are in no position to extend vast credits. Northeast China and Xinjiang, however, enjoy a rapidly growing exchange of manufactured and agricultural goods with their Soviet counterparts across the border. This border trade is negotiated by local agencies outside of the annual trade agreements concluded between Moscow and Beijing. A weak infrastructure limits this growth, but both sides are investing in its improvement. They are also studying how to move from barter to hard currency trade.

Current Chinese estimates put annual border trade at roughly $2.3 billion as against approximately $3.8 billion for Sino-Soviet trade negotiated by the central governments. While sources in Beijing speak optimistically of continued growth, both types of trade are vulnerable to disruption; border exchange is especially susceptible to interruption by regional or local disturbances.

For U.S. policy, any increase in Sino-Soviet trade is to Washington’s interest, since stable economic growth in both countries is preferable to stagnation or serious instability. This is especially true for China’s frontier, which remains relatively isolated from world trade and investment. The economic gap between the interior and coastal regions, if not narrowed, could feed political discontent and complicate central rule. In addition, any contribution either country could make toward meeting the other’s economic needs would reduce a possible burden on outside sources. For example, Siberia’s vast timber resources could be exchanged for food from China’s northeast region so as to relieve respective shortages in these products. At the same time, the low overall level of Sino-Soviet trade will preclude any manipulable interdependency for either side, and it will not offer serious competition to American business.


Judging from conversations in June 1990 and alleged internal Chinese documents reports abroad, the political impact of Gorbachev’s reforms within the Soviet Union deeply concerns the Chinese leadership. Of particular concern are the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the erosion of party rule in the Soviet Union, the explosion of nationality tensions and demands throughout the U.S.S.R., and the possible fall of Gorbachev. Any or all of these prospects complicate not only Sino-Soviet relations but Beijing’s domestic politics as well. In this sense, elements of China’s leadership may feel more threatened by Moscow’s political turmoil today than they ever did by Moscow’s military strength in the past.

As the accompanying essay by Harry Harding demonstrates, the Chinese regime remains divided on how to manage political and economic reform. Soviet success or failure plays into these divisions.

For Chinese conservatives, the more trouble for Gorbachev’s reforms, the stronger the argument for heavy ideological and hard-line politics in China. Yet even they cannot take comfort in the erosion of Moscow’s control over the non-Russian republics. For reformers, the better Moscow manages economic change following radical political change, the more reassuring it is as a model. Yet conservative and reformer alike share a common fear of luan, or chaos, in China, a fear made appallingly vivid by the Cultural Revolution mayhem.

On the surface Moscow and Beijing steadfastly put the best face on the political aspect of their relations, as during Li Peng’s visit to Moscow when each pledged not to interfere in the internal affairs of the other. But the Chinese leadership must wrestle with not only the spillover effects of change in the Soviet Union, but also with its own course of modernization. Beijing must address, explicitly or implicitly, alternatives posed by Soviet developments.

For U.S. policy, this means that wholly apart from the past heritage of distrust and the anticipation of future threats that encumber Sino-Soviet relations, at this juncture political tensions exist between Moscow and Beijing because of the divergent direction of the two political systems. Beijing’s refusal to allow Gorbachev to appear before the gathering of students in Tiananmen Square during his May 1989 visit betokened concern over his impact, not over his safety. These political tensions reinforce other factors in preventing Sino-Soviet relations from becoming genuinely cooperative, regardless of whatever ideological protestations of common interest may be articulate. Therefore Washington can deal separately with Moscow and Beijing according to its particular interests in each capital, without regard for the effect on the Sino-Soviet relationship.


Chinese and Soviet national interests dictate their relations with other countries, converging or competing as particular circumstances dictate. On the Korean peninsula, the past competition for influence in Pyongyang constrained both sides in their relations with Seoul. Now, both Beijing and Moscow feel compelled by domestic economic needs to seek South Korean trade and investment. The better Sino-Soviet relations, the less leverage Pyongyang has on either party. Moreover, both China and the Soviet Union recognize that the importance of relieving tension on the peninsula through North-South détente increases as Kim Il Sung’s reign nears its end and succession in Pyongyang remains in doubt.

China’s annual trade with South Korea spurted in the latter 1980s, nearly equaling official Sino-Soviet trade. Instead of moving discreetly through Hong Kong and third parties, this trade now increasingly occurs directly across the Yellow Sea, and trade delegations are openly active in the two capitals. Moscow’s economic prospects in regard to trade and investment with Seoul are more limited because of the underdevelopment of the Soviet Far East. Moscow’s disadvantages are somewhat offset, however, by its greater willingness to move politically, dramatically illustrated by the recent “non-summit? Meeting in San Francisco between Gorbachev and President Roh Tae Woo. Although nothing specific emerged from the encounter, highly publicized photographs of handshakes symbolized the shape of Future relations, much to Pyongyang’s dismay.

Sino-Soviet competition in South Korea and consensus on North Korea finally persuaded Pyongyang to agree to a North-South prime minister’s meeting in September in Seoul. The much-celebrated event produced no joint communique, and no agreement on anything was reported other than a second meeting Pyongyang. Nevertheless this was the highest level of contact between the two sides, and the atmosphere was free of the standard recriminations, especially from Pyongyang, that have characterized past pronouncements. There is little doubt that it would not have occurred has Sino-Soviet détente not sharply reduced Pyongyang’s ability to play one side against the other and resist the combined pressure to lower tension on the peninsula.

Japan poses a different problem for Sino-Soviet relations. Until now Beijing has been able to count on Moscow’s ham-handedness and the Northern Territories dispute to keep Soviet-Japanese relations at low ebb. Meanwhile China could draw on Japanese investment, loans, and technology transfer to spur its economic modernization while confident, at least in the short run, that the Japanese-American security treaty maintained an acceptable balance of power in Northeast Asia.

Suddenly this long-standing situation seems in flux. Many analysts in Beijing and elsewhere anticipate a major Soviet concession on the territorial issue to accompany Gorbachev’s visit to Tokyo in April 1991, signaled by Moscow’s finally acknowledging that the territorial development, possibly to China’s disadvantage. At the same time economic pressures within the United States to reduce its military forces abroad is likely to spur further Japanese rearmament, already growing at six percent annually in budgetary support. Meanwhile, Japan’s political role in the Asia-Pacific region will probably expand commensurate with its economic ascendency.

In this context, Moscow and Beijing are more likely to compete than converge in their relations with Tokyo. China’s economic complementarity with Japan is greater, with the present level of Sino-Japanese trade, investment, and loans far in excess of what might be anticipated between the Soviet Union and Japan in this decade. At the same time Beijing remains apprehensive of Japan’s military potential and opposed to its political ascendancy in the Asia-Pacific region.

For U.S. policy, this means that no fixed set of triangular relations dictates how Moscow and Beijing will interact with each other and with U.S. interests in other countries. Each side will be aware of tactical advantages that may be gained through playing off competition for power and influence with and between other parties. Political-military interests may be involved, as in Korea, but they remain well below the point of igniting a global conflagration, as was feared in the past. Moreover the desire for a peaceful world order that minimizes the need for military expenditures and maximizes the possibility of foreign trade and investment pushes Moscow and Beijing to compromise, both between themselves and with other powers. This has been most evident in the persistent if erratic progress toward a solution in Cambodia over the past two years. As in Korea, détente between the two communist patrons was a prior condition for compromise between their Cambodian clients. This in turn served U.S., interests in Southeast Asia.

In discussing the international situation during the summer of 1990, Chinese analysts privately acknowledged a sense of shrinking importance for their country as improved Soviet-American relations appear to have ended the Cold War. They almost plaintively pleaded for recognition of China’s future economic potential rather than its present strategic weight as the determinant in Sino-American relations. On balance, their analysis conveyed realism more than rhetoric.


Developments inside China and the Soviet Union are certain to impact the other as well as their mutual relationship. In the Soviet Union, one can conjecture various worst-case scenarios, such as the breakup of the state with military capability coming under regional control, or even civil war. Alternatively one can envisage a military seizure of power at the center determined to enforce rule locally at any cost. In China, one can suppose similar decentralized disarray, with economic parallels to the warlordism of the early 20th century. Depending on what mix of futures are postulated, different Sino-Soviet relationships emerge with varying implications for U.S. policy.

For the near term, however, the Sino-Soviet relationship will probably be less relevant a factor for U.S. foreign policy. The United States does not need to manipulate its relations with either China or the Soviet Union in order to advance its relationship with the other. Similarly, neither Moscow nor Beijing has an “American card” to play against the other. Finally, China and the Soviet Union pose no major threat of acting together against U.S, interests. Instead, their unique military capabilities must be factored separately into the balance of power in East Asia, together with an assessment of domestic developments that may critically influence the growth, and possibly the use of, such capability.

Allen S. Whiting is a professor of political science and director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona. He is the author of China Eyes Japan (1989) and many other books on Chinese foreign policy.