Sino-Soviet Border Disputes
During the early years of the Cold War, most Americans looked on China and the Soviet Union as a two-headed monster, separate nations but essentially the same Communist beast. It took a virtual war between the two for Washington to realize how deeply divided the Communist superpowers actually were -- and how that division might be played to America's advantage.
Incipient tensions between the Soviet and Chinese Communists dated back to the 1930s, when Russia supported Chiang Kai-shek rather than Mao Tse-tung. In the early days of the People's Republic, Russia and China appeared to stand together. In 1950 Mao Tse-tung signed a Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union, which offered China a semblance of security against American attack. But almost immediately the Sino-Soviet alliance began to show signs of strain.
From the mid-1950s on, a growing ideological rift emerged between Moscow and Beijing over the proper pace and form of Communist development and how best to deal with the West. While China favored continued aggression towards "imperialist" nations, the USSR began to consider "peaceful coexistence" with the United States. Soon the ideological differences took on national dimensions, as both the Chinese and Soviets vied for territory and control of Communist satellite states.
By the early 1960s, Moscow and Beijing had dispensed with veiled critiques and began openly trading insults in the press. In April 1960, Beijing publicly attacked the Soviet leadership as "revisionist," and Moscow responded in turn by recalling thousands of Soviet advisers from China and canceling economic and military aid to its erstwhile ally. In 1962 the Soviets backed India in its long-standing border dispute with China. Sino-Soviet relations grew only more hostile throughout the 1960s. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Moscow claimed the right to intervene in other Communist states to "protect" them from anti-Communist influences, the Beijing leadership began to fear that China would be next.
Tensions finally came to a head in March 1969, along the Ussuri River, the poorly demarcated border between the USSR and Northeast China. The world had been amused by colorful reports of Chinese border guards "mooning" their Soviet counterparts, who would in turn "defend" themselves by holding up portraits of Chairman Mao. But it was no laughing matter when the border harassment escalated into a shooting match on March 2 and 15, resulting in heavy casualties.
Armed skirmishes continued into the spring and summer, with both sides contributing to a massive military buildup in the region. For several harrowing months, as the world watched, China and Russia teetered on the brink of a nuclear conflict. Repeatedly, Moscow hinted at the possibility of a preemptive strike against Chinese nuclear installations, while China built up a vast underground network of tunnels and shelters to be used in case of nuclear attack.
Luckily, the border crisis was defused diplomatically in September 1969, when Soviet Premier Kosygin flew to Beijing for high-level border talks with Premier Chou Enlai. But the Soviet threat provided a strong impetus for Chou and Mao Tse-tung to begin rethinking China's geopolitical strategy. They knew that in the event of all-out war, China couldn't match Soviet forces. Then there was the American presence in Vietnam and a new Nixon administration in Washington, whose intentions toward China were not yet clear.
Faced with the disastrous prospect of war on two fronts, Beijing began to see improved relations with the United States as the best way to safeguard China's security. Better to "ally with the enemy far away," as Mao put it, "in order to fight the enemy who is at the gate." At the same time, in Washington, as the depth of the Sino-Soviet split began to sink in, Nixon and Kissinger realized they could play Moscow against Beijing to improve relations with both nations. More than any other factor, it was the Sino-Soviet split that drew the U.S. and China toward the dramatic rapprochement that would so capture world attention in February 1972.