Whilst it is easy to conclude that the Sino-Soviet split was simply a culmination of events after 1953, it seems more plausible to assert that tensions between Russia and China had been simmering beneath the surface for decades. In many ways, friction was inevitable due to various disputes over the 7000 km border they shared, but these altercations were hurriedly swept under the carpet, due, in large part, to the emergence of a mutual communist ideology. This period of convalescent relations was short-lived, and it seemed that deep-rooted discrepancies could not be dismissed as easily as previously thought. As a consequence of ideological differences, incompatible national interests, conflicting personalities, and evolving nuclear issues, a Sino-Soviet split was the climatic end to a period of high tensions.
The logic behind burying any previous unrest in the move towards an era of close Sino-Soviet links, was that two countries both pursuing similar aims for a communist revolution, would do better to collaborate their effort. The logic, it seems, was flawed and their aims not similar enough. The methods and actions believed to reach this aim were discordant, and it emerged that ‘communism’ meant different things to both countries. Khrushchev criticised Stalin on the world stage, zealously ostracising his methods in 1956, greatly offending Mao, who’s own policies were based on Stalin’s. The Soviets pursuit of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the US was seen as a betrayal of sorts against the ‘true’ communist cause, and Mao’s distaste intensified when Khrushchev visited the USA in 1959. China and the USSR it seemed, had interpreted Marxist ideology in different ways to their own benefit, and were neither willing to compromise, nor discuss their options. Such behaviour was common throughout their alliance, and these personal traits played a contributory factor in the deterioration of relations.
Mao called Soviet Communism ‘social fascism’, and was deeply suspicious of Khrushchev’s ‘revisionist’ attitude towards the West, and his detachment from Stalin. The allegations were by no means one-sided; Khrushchev declared the Chinese ‘Trotskyists’, citing Mao’s’ Cultural Revolution, and other attempts to advocate a proletarian world revolution, as ‘raging fanaticism’ that threatened to destroy the world. A relationship between two powers that both thought they were right, yet had differing aims and methods, and continued to aggressively denounce each other’s actions, was never going to be healthy, nor stable. This initial factor of a common ideology, which caused China and the USSR to unite, was ultimately not strong enough to keep them united, and despite the universal label of ‘communism’, in practice, the differences were too great and drove the two countries apart. Conflicting ideology was often the excuse used to justify divisions between the countries; however, in some cases it was a facade hiding other factors that were instrumental to the split.
Ideology is arguably, only as important as a leader interpret. Both Khrushchev and Stalin acted under the name of communism; however, it was only between Khrushchev and Mao that sparks flew. Mao had considered himself junior to Stalin, but with Stalin dead in 1953, Mao expected a sense of deference from Khrushchev that he never received. When Khrushchev unveiled his plans for ‘peaceful coexistence’ Mao’s ambitions and indignant traits came to the surface. Khrushchev himself said that he ‘sensed that Mao had aspirations to be the leader of the world Communist movement’. His ‘tit-for-tat’ attitude was illustrated in his successful attempt to humiliate Khrushchev when he visited China in 1958. The competitive and sometimes petty attitudes of Khrushchev and Mao, underlined by their differing beliefs, fuelled many disputes, one such being the rivalry over Albania.
In retaliation for what Mao saw the Soviet Union’s attempt to undermine Chin’s standing among the Communist bloc; the People’s Republic gave support to those countries that defied the USSR, such as Albania. The USSR angry at Albania’s refusal to act on their commands, withdrew all financial aid, and China was quick to step in. This demonstrated the fierce competitiveness between the leaders, and whilst Albania was only a minor player, it was the ability to have the upper hand, which was the real success. The real indicator of collapsed relations was the personal jibes they made at each other, Khrushchev calling Mao an ‘Asian Hitler’ and Mao responding by referring to his as a ‘redundant old boot’.
The practicality of a Sino-Soviet relationship is unfeasible, when Soviet and Chinese leaders insisted on offensive personal references; a real hindrance in progressing their alliance. However, the appointment of Brezhnev as Soviet leader had little effect on relations, as by this point, Mao reckoned the USSR a socialist apostate, and so dismissed the new leader. On the contrary this suggests that the personalities of the leaders was important to an extent, however the tipping point had already been reached, and Mao had deemed the ideological differences to great to even consider that a new leader might change affairs, which turned out to be true. There was no thaw in the tense relations between China and the USSR when Brezhnev took to power and consequently ideology obviously played a larger role in breaking down the bond.
Some of the historical tensions between China and the USSR prior to their alliance in 1953, continued on, to feed into the Sino-Soviet split. Before communist ideology gripped China, and before Mao came to power, the USSR and China were locked in a battle over border disputes that neither side could ignore. These disagreements continued during their alliance, and the number of Soviet army divisions along the Chinese border doubled between 1967 and 1970. Instead of being the cause of further altercations, border disputes were often the manifestation of divisions, such as that along the Ussuri River in 1969. With 7000 km of shared borders, there was on-going opportunity for conflicting national interests. At the heart of the split was China’s struggle to become a world power and the Soviet Union’s determination to prevent it.
The Soviets claimed that they ‘want[ed] socialism, but we [USSR] want to win it through class struggle, not by unleashing a world thermonuclear war’ whereas the Chinese had no qualms about starting a war in order to achieve their goals. The trenchant denial to share nuclear technology, and thus thwart Chinese national ambitions was instrumental to the eventual split. What China saw as necessary to its national interests, the Soviets saw as potential threat to their own power. Ideology was to form the basis for further conflicts of national interests, as China saw ‘continuing revolution’ as vital, whereas the USSR mocked such beliefs as suicidal. This led to rivalry over the leadership of international communism; China was determined to play a leading role on the world stage, a future that the USSR seemed just as adamant to avoid. These clashes were continual and never-ending, China wanted what the USSR was keen to avoid, and the USSR wanted what China saw as a personal attempt to thwart their ambitions, and consequently relations deteriorated. Mutual interests, it appeared, were confined to their shared ‘ideology’, a loosely employed term because as discussed previously, communism took on different meanings for different countries.
The nuclear issue hold particular significance when examined in the context of conflicting national interests. China felt that nuclear weapons would help reach its ultimate goal of worldwide communist revolution, but Moscow resisted from giving assistance to the Chinese nuclear program without a controlling hand in its defence policy. This was the final straw; the stubborn attitudes of the leaders resulted in the Soviets withdrawing its scientists from the PRC. The Chinese continued to strive towards nuclear armament unaided after 1959, to success, producing its first atom bomb in 1964 and its first hydrogen bomb in 1967. This parting of ways was the first of many cracks in the Sino-Soviet alliance and was further followed by a dispute over the Soviet supported Test Ban Treaty in 1963 which Mao saw as an alliance with capitalism.
Thus nuclear disagreements were closely entwined with an ideological mismatch, and the Soviets denial to share technology hinted at their different national interests. The Soviets were alarmed at the power China held due to its newly acquired title of a world superpower, despite not having the same standing as the USA or the USSR, China was in a position of influence. The accumulation of nuclear weapons on China’s part led to the fast track of deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations, the year 1969 marking the nadir. Despite a new leader in power, Mao dismissed Brezhnev as holding the same kind of principles that Khrushchev had, allowing the slowly fragmentation of communist power in the Soviet bloc.
At this point ideology was often mistaken for national interest, both countries labelling their actions to be to the benefit of the communist cause. Brezhnev sought to expel China from the international communist collaboration, but failed to do so. Border disputes had become more violent than ever before, and in an alarming move, the people’s republic of China and the Soviet Union re-positioned their nuclear weapons so they now face towards each other, rather than their western enemies. Only after the China obtained nuclear technology, and emerged as a superpower with newly attained bargaining powers, did the Sino-Soviet split reach its lowest point making the split official, and thus the nuclear issue was a significant causal factor in the split in relations.
In conclusion, we can see that the causes of the split in the late 1960’s were as a result of four, very closely linked, factors. Ideology is the main vein throughout; the personality clashes came to a head as a result of the different strains of ideology that the leaders wished to pursue, and this in turn led to conflicting national interests. Border disputes and other similar tensions, were ostensibly the materialization of dispute over national interests, but at the core they provided an outlet for ideological feuds, without the escalation into war. During the course of their relationship, China and the Soviet Union skirted around the fact that whilst they both claimed to advocate communism, they had different ideas of how to pursue that dream. The cherry on the cake was the acquisition of nuclear arms, thrusting the PRC on the world stage.
The reason the Soviets had wanted to prevent this so very much is because it would buy China the power to influence, whereas before the USSR had very much dominated the relationship. The personality of the leaders whilst played an important role initially, as Mao and Khrushchev never saw eye-to-eye, the appointment of Brezhnev indicated that personality change would not change the dynamic between the Chinese and the Soviets. Nevertheless, the leaders were imperative in the early stages of the alliance, as ideology and national aims in my opinion were formed largely as a result of the leaders’ views. Hence ideology was the fundamental reason for the split in Sino-Soviet relations, yet these principles were slowly eroded and substituted by national interests as interpreted by the leaders. These differing idyllic views of the future of each country were the reason for increased tensions, and with the China’s emergence as a superpower, and the removal of a mutual Western enemy, in place of each other, a split in relations was the inevitable result.