Was the Sino-Soviet Split Borne of Ideology or Geostrategic Consideration?

Scholars have long debated the true motivations behind the Sino-Soviet split.

Was the Sino-Soviet Split Borne of Ideology or Geostrategic Consideration?
Credit: United Press International via Wikimedia Commons

The Sino-Soviet split remains one of the most pivotal events of the Cold War, representing the break between the two giants of the Communist world and the shattering of socialist solidarity. And in particular, the question of Mao’s attitudes towards the USSR remains one of the great lacunae of Cold War history. American scholars working in the Realist tradition have long viewed the split as emblematic of their worldview; ideological affinity cannot bridge gulfs between geostrategic interests. Kremlin and Peking-ologists, on the other hand, have long focused on ideological and personalistic factors.

Mao and the Sino-Soviet Partnerhsip, 1945-1959, a new volume from Shen Zhihua of East China Normal University and Xia Yafeng of Long Island University (both well-respected within the discipline) sheds new light on the post-war relationship between the two countries. The volume offers a Chinese perspective on the early years of the Sino-Soviet relationship (a second volume will bring the narrative into the 1970s), and uses a wide variety of sources from China, Russia, and elsewhere.

One of the core disagreements in the historical and analytical communities over the Sino-Soviet split involves the question of ideology versus geopolitics. Everyone grants that Mao has significant ideological differences with the Soviet leadership; everyone agrees that Soviet and Chinese geostrategic interests were in tension. But this leaves a great deal of space for disagreement between those who favor ideological or geostrategic factors. Of these, the volume leans towards the latter. Shen and Xia argue that China and the Soviet Union entered into the alliance for what were essentially practical reasons, and that while the disputes that eventually tore the alliance apart included a good deal of ideological window-dressing, they stemmed mainly from practical concerns.

The book includes a variety of fascinating tidbits about the relationship. For example, the authors conclude that the United States did not “miss a chance” to prevent collusion between the PRC and the USSR; Mao was committed to leaning towards the Soviet Union even before the end of the civil war, albeit for complex reasons.  The Soviet Union devoted an enormous amount of national treasure to the Chinese economic development, amounting to 7 percent of the economy at certain points during the 1950s.  Shen and Xia argue that the 20th CPSU Party Congress of 1956, scene of Nikita Khrushchev’s crucial denunciation of the policies of Josef Stalin, was not nearly as important to the divergence of China and Russia as many scholars have assumed; the Chinese were willing to live with the new line on Stalin as long as they were offered a co-equal voice within the international communist movement. The volume also revisits the controversy over the “Joint Fleet” which involved a 1958 Soviet proposal to operate a joint submarine fleet in the Pacific.  An already-irritable Mao reacted angrily to the proposal, believing it an infringement upon Chinese sovereignty.

With the entire U.S.-based alliance system of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras suddenly in doubt, the disintegration of the Sino-Soviet alliance once again bears a great deal of attention. As interests diverged, the Russian and Chinese effort at creating an ideologically-based alliance pact failed. It remain to be seen whether the United States and its allies can either maintain more coherent ideological ties, or hold together constellations of states through careful calibration of interest.