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Sino-Soviet Relations In Dr. Kissinger’s Book On China – Analysis


By N. Narasimhan

In an appreciation of the unfolding drama of US-China relations, with the Soviet Union ( SU ) in a supporting role , the book ‘Kissinger on China’ could be usefully supplemented with some of his earlier writings, both for details of how the domestic polity impinged on the USG decision making in this case, and how astutely they were managed by Dr.K, against difficult odds. There were serious policy and philosophical differences in the country on the macro perspective of Super power relations in a bi-polar world. There were also intra-USG Departmental sensitivities and infirmities which had scope to derail the rapprochement process and therefore necessitated the basics to be kept under the wraps till the optimal moment.

In fact, his elaborate treatment of the developments within the USG preceding the momentous February 1972 statement announcing the Nixon visit, finalised by him and Chou-enlai, (“….will shake the world”), in his earlier book ‘The White House Years’ ( “WHY”), has greater depth and detail and provides many insights which are not available in his latest book.

The “Dispute”

China - Russia Relations
China - Russia Relations

Dr.K has fascinatingly, and in engaging detail traced the wide sweep and violent swings in the relations between the SU and the PRC over the past sixty years with acceptable acumen bringing out the fact that these had never been at any level of comfort to either of them, vitiated, ‘ab initio’, by historic developments from Czarist, Chinese Imperial eras, feeding into mutual suspicion and distrust : from the Chinese side huge, long-nursed grievances of territorial occupation of its territories, economic exploitation, and, later, fears of an imposition of US-Soviet condominium over the world, with potential to set at naught China’s own dreams and visions of its future as a world power matching all its past Imperial glory. These are peppered with riveting quotes of the leading dramatis personae, culled from documents become available more recently.

China and the Soviet Union employed numerous strategems, not excluding forays into war/brink of war situations, to further their respective, competing/conflicting national interests and ambitions, using nuanced mixes of these ingredients to shield their real goals at a given point of time, which got conveniently dubbed with the label, the “Sino-Soviet Dispute”.

This umbrella also spawned lesser, localized sub-texts authored by the likes of Tito, Ho Chiminh, Kim Il Sung, Castro et al, to suit their own specific game plays and exploit those of the two Biggies.

The Pacific Duo – Duel and Duet

Nixon was not the first President to “discover” the efficacy of normalizing US-China relations. Even at the birth of the PRC in 1949, before (neutral) rational policy making in the U.S was swept away by the domestic tide of the “Who lost China” debate, and the Korean war precipitated by the machinations of Kim Il Sung, entangling the trio, PRC-US-SU, apparently unwittingly despite their better judgments, and the accompanied advent of virulent anti China/anti Communist sentiment in the country, statesmen like Dean Acheson had contemplated developing relations with the new regime in Peking.

JFK and a succession of Presidents/Presidential aspirants had noted, usually through the medium of an article in the Foreign Affairs or an important address to a suitable forum, meant to set out the policy framework of the new/incoming Administration, the desirability of developing relations with China, mainly on grounds that it was too big to be ignored/isolated. But they were always compelled to attach, out of prevailing domestic considerations, riders /conditionalities like that the PRC had to become mainstream, abjure its revolutionary stance and activities. These sentiments were however too generalized, and in passing, that scope to discuss strategies like leveraging the triangular relations with the S.U. did not figure in the avowals of that time.

At one point Dr.K himself notes, with uncharacteristic self effacement, that it was inevitable that the PRC and the US would find a way to come together, given the necessities of time. It would have happened sooner or later, whatever the leadership of either country. Both nations were exhausted from war ( Vietnam for the US and border clashes with the SU for China). The Moscow menace took their minds off the confrontations in Vietnam and Taiwan and quelled even ritual denunciations. Nixon’s contribution was his decisiveness ( “going for the jugular ” ) & his immunity from serious attack of “sell out ” from the domestic Right

Dr.K’s broad segmentation of the evolution of US-PRC relations into three major, distinct phases, from the perspective of the dominant underlying current governing each, is over all accepted by cognescenti. The first is the two “frozen” decades (1949-1969) of open hostility, marked by an actual war in Korea and near war situations twice in the Taiwan straits. The second phase (1969-1989) can be justifiably termed as the Kissinger Act/Show, in view of his titular role, when relations were normalized with a dramatic oeuvre, shrouded in tantalising secrecy, & progressed under dominating ,yet contrasting , leadership of Mao & Deng from the Chinese side. The third chapter (1989-2009) is the period of “refreeze” in the relations when “human rights” constituted the major sticking point, post Tien Anmen massacre, impeding the linear progression of the previous two decades.

Fair to say empirically that the so-called “Sino-Soviet Dispute” had been a factor, one way or the other, in this denouement only in the first two stages. The symbolic beginning of the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, from that of the Berlin Wall in 1989, culminating in the dissolution of the SU itself in 1993, literally marked the closure of the “Dispute”. The corresponding rise of China in the last phase moved the bilateral relations between the US and China to a different, totally new & currently much-debated level.

It can be safely postulated that the seed for the US-China rapprochement had already started sprouting with the determination of the Chinese, “to sup with the devil, if China’s interests warranted it” – a signal Chairman Mao sent quite early in the 1960s through a non-governmental, old American friend (Edgar Snow), which got lost in the cacophony of current crisis of the day in the US.

The Triangle In Motion (TIM) – Some Analysis

In this highly intricate, tripodal minuet, the PRC seems to have been the smartest/nimblest, in time and again exploiting the susceptibilities of the other two to its immense advantage. All along, in every crisis situation, the Chinese were considerably the weaker of the three, but managed to come up trumps, through manipulations of all genre, taking maximum advantage of the circumstances prevailing, to their overall benefit; even if in the short term, or on any particular occasion, they might have suffered a temporary setback, as in the case of their adventure to teach Vietnam a lesson following the Cambodian invasion crisis (1979) , or paid a heavy price in terms of humungous domestic privations (many times unrelated to foreign policy, except in point of time).

It is now quite clear, in the light of the significant disclosures from even Chinese sources, besides the unraveling of the Soviet era documents, that the real strategic contest was between the SU and the PRC to ensure that the US was not used by the other to its own detriment. It seemed rarely the case of the US going any extraordinary length, or jeopardize its vitals, to outmaneuver either of the other two Communist countries, to achieve the best in a crisis.

For the US, it has been relatively a case of picking low hanging fruits. The Soviets, it appeared, were made to do all the huffing and puffing. The Chinese give the impression of agonizing deep and long to extract the maximum benefits, while seeking to keep up the pretence, may be quite successfully with the domestic audience, of winning the game of “Barbarian Management”, in the best convoluted Confucian, Sun Tzu-ian (verbal) traditions.

At least in hindsight, being the weakest of the three, the situation was the most dire, most of the time, for the PRC leadership. Hence, the criticism of the “Kissinger -Nixon” duo by their American domestic detractors that they should have extracted better terms from the PRC for getting into a “quasi-alliance”, especially on the main, bilateral bone of contention, Taiwan, which could have spared the US considerable future problems, may not be far off the mark.

Again in retrospect, on the two major planks of compulsions constituting the US motivation/actions in the three way tussle, namely, the easing out of the Vietnam War and success in the negotiations underway for achieving US-Soviet détente, the trajectory of US moves was already independently well on course to success, and it was reasonable to suggest that the rapprochement with China was not critical in the eventual outcome of the two US goals.

Similarly, the impact of the US-China rapprochement on the eventual demise of the SU was marginal, if at all. The over all Soviet decline was attributable substantially to other factors more intrinsic to Soviet polity, economy, its own missteps and miscalculations, without too significant external contributions by either the US or the PRC.

An entirely Soviet/Russian centric study of the history of this era may possibly bring out different shades of perspectives and conclusions. But it is inescapable that the extant literature shows the SU coming a poor third in every one of these contests, in spite of its strong points on most metrics, specially in comparison to the PRC.

It is not that Dr.K’s accounts alone, undoubtedly Sino centric, if not that of a Sinophile as alleged by his harsh critics, lead to this impression. Unbiased, objective assessment also seem to point in this direction, even if one may overlook the caricature aspect of some of the reactions and statements attributed to Soviet leaders in these pages (KOC) – like meeting of Mao with Khrushchev in Beijing in 1959. It is pertinent to note that KOC is clearly the result of extensive research into a wide range of all available up-to-date literature on the topics dealt with, including Soviet origin documents, besides many Chinese originals.

One essential point to be gleaned additionally from the relevant pages in the “WHY” is that the SU, ( the overall impression of a bumbling super power Inspector Clouseau , played for a sucker notwithstanding ), was all along alive to the general trend of the ongoing US-China rapprochement, even though possibly not about all the specific steps and their timing,. It exerted fully, often, and at different levels, to warn the US about the serious consequences of any missteps it may take at the expense of the SU, to the overall Super power relationship in which, inter alia, serious negotiations for management of the threat and potential of nuclear war were afoot.

In response, Dr.K seemed to have tried NOT to mislead the SU by denial or evasion. He led them in on the basics to this extent.

i) We do not accept the proposition that permanent hostility is the iron law of US – China relations.

ii) Our policy is not aimed against the USSR.

iii) We take no sides in the Sino – Soviet Dispute.

Chairman Mao’s Role

From the vantage point of an observer outside the US-Soviet-China triangle, in retrospect, it is really breath taking how a couple of major lines of strategy employed by Chairman Mao had proved so effective and successful, for so long and so often. It, therefore, merits special highlighting, even if only sketchily.

One is the popularly called China’s tactics of “nuclear blackmail” – the “put-on” nonchalance to the consequences of a nuclear war, first enunciated by Mao , in a seemingly innocuous way , in an insignificant meeting with the first Finnish Ambassador to PRC , on 28th January 1955, then developed into an “ideology” at the Moscow Conference of Communist Parties in 1957 , and later a sophisticated geo-political strategy, and successfully employed repeatedly, with great seriousness and finesse, in a variety of formulations and bilateral high level talks, wherein the other two powers hesitasted to call the bluff . The SU emerged the more gullible of the two Super Powers in these episodes.

Like elseswhere, Mao had to pay a heavy price for this high stake game, like suffering suspension of Soviet nuclear and technical cooperation, cancellation aid projects, withdrdawal of Soviet technicians etc., (1958-1960).

There was one American riposte, in March 1955, during the first Taiwan straits crisis which proved the efficacy of Mao’s nuclear blackmail by exception, when President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles made a counter nuclear threat to China expressing US readiness to use tactical nuclear weapons. They had no intention to test Mao’s grandiose claims of endurance in a nuclear war. They were merely showing readiness to defend US national interest. Correspondingly Mao showed that he was only willing at that time to announce China’s imperviousness to nuclear war, but was not ready to practice it.

Another “totem” brandished by Chairman Mao was the concept of different versions of “Revolution”–“Continuous”, “World” etc., itself segmented into First , Second, & Third. Mostly it was used as a weapon against the SU in the guise of ideological purity, calling on all the Countries and Peoples to unite and fight against “Imperialists”, “Reactionaries”, “Revisionists”, “Expansionists”, “Hegemonists” etc., It was as much a geopolitical tool for China against the United States, as to isolate the SU, & counter the Soviet strategy enunciated through Brezhnev Doctrine ,theory of Limited Sovereignty & so on , in their duel/ competition for world leadership in the anti-Imperialist struggle phase., , through its own counter interpretations of ‘Peaceful Co-existence”, “World Peace”, “Nuclear Hegemony” , tailored adroitly to each specific crisis, as suited to its convenience and circumstances.

Dr.K credits Mao with making the best of the game play by being a contraian. As against conventional diplomacy, where statesmen serve their objectives by bringing about confluence of interests, Mao did the opposite and learned to exploit overlapping hostilities. For example, Moscow-Washington Conflict which was the strategic essence of the cold war period; playing on the mutual hostilities of the nuclear Super powers and using the tactic of nuclear black mail – the impression of being impervious to nuclear devastations. By these he managed to bring about a kind of diplomatic sanctuary for the PRC. Far from seeking the support of either Super power as traditional balance of power theory would have counselled, he exploited the US- Soviet fear of each other by challenging each of the rivals simultaneously.

Parting Thoughts

History is useful for the policy makers and practitioners of Inter-State relations management. The general principles of Otto van Bismarck (and Sun Tzu ?) about a country joining sides with the (numerically) stronger grouping in a pentangular-triangular relationship, as elaborated by Dr.K.. in this retelling of the TIM, offers plenty of scope to ponder. The cardinal issue is the difficulty in nuancing it further in ground reality situations, to determine joining which one of the other two will constitute the stronger grouping in the three-some at a given point of time. Be alert always to make nimble movements as warranted; nothing to be left ironclad or set in concrete. In the many triangular relations of the future, India’s focus may have to be on at least the following three involving itself: (i) India-China-US (ii) India-China-Pakistan and (iii) India-US-Pakistan. Obviously, the three sides comprising each of the three triangles, do not stand apart unconnected in isolation, but have points of intersection “permutating” among all the three.

While it will be difficult to predict the intricacies of the dynamics of their evolution, one basic point it would be prudent to keep in mind will be that no relationship is ever smooth and irritant free, that even the China-Pak bilateral relationship is not immutably bilateral and linear , sans twists & turns , and there are enough gaps between the lips and the teeth in any “friendship” , to watch out for by the smart, to play along.

Imperative to remind oneself constantly – relations between great powers can not be sustained by Inertia, Commerce or mere sentiment. Reciprocity has to be the bedrock. In particular, where the PRC is concerned, “Insistent posture” is the answer to the “singularity” of their civilizationally rooted “exceptionalist” diplomacy & (negotiating) tactics, hailed by Dr.K..

(The writer is a former chief of India’s External Intelligence Agency)


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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