Why did the Soviet Union and China split in the 1960s? A new article surveys the causes, and sheds new light on thinking in Beijing and Moscow.
In the Journal of Cold War Studies, Danhui Li and Yafeng Xia (reviewed by Avram Agov) survey the historical research on the Sino-Soviet relationship in the early 1960s. The authors focus their argument on the competition for ideological leadership between Beijing and Moscow. By their account, the ideological and security differences emerged and sharpened as the two giants tried to make space for themselves at the top of the international communist movement. The Soviet Union naturally saw itself as the leader of the movement, as it had the most powerful, longest established socialist regime. The Chinese regarded their revolution as indigenous, and saw the developing world as key to the long-term success of the socialist bloc. The two countries fought this battle in a series of pamphlets and conventions, often through proxies in the Communist world.
This struggle helped drive personal tension between the leadership of the two countries. Internal politics also contributed to the dispute; both Mao and Khrushchev sought to consolidate power against rivals by staking out ideological positions in contrast to one another. In the case of Mao, this amounted to a claim of communist purity, while Khrushchev developed a reputation for flexibility and practicality.
Given the centrality of ideology to the legitimacy of both regimes, the contestants unsurprisingly took the competition seriously. Eventually, Soviet suspicion of China would result in a deterioration of the military and economic relationship, which caused an even greater degree of Chinese hostility. Soviet refusal to support China against India in 1962 amounted to the last straw. The two states could not agree to coexist as leaders of the same ideological bloc.
For its part, the Western bloc lacked dynamics of this sort. Great Britain had no interest in challenging US leadership, or in facilitating European efforts to develop a balancing coalition. The French took the most aggressive steps towards competing with Washington for leadership, but lacked both the resources and the narrative appeal necessary to make a game of it. For its part, while French recalcitrance annoyed Washington, the United States never took any meaningful steps towards attacking the ideological legitimacy of the French government.
But it’s also worth noting that China irrefutably lost this contest. China could not command the tremendous resources that the Soviet Union enjoyed, nor could it threaten wayward satellites with military intervention. Whatever ideological appeal Beijing held, Moscow held the cards with respect to both carrots and sticks. However, China’s defeat resulted in a flexibility that enabled Beijing to reposition itself towards the United States, and survive the Cold War.