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50 Years Later: How the Soviet Union Called China's Bluff in 1969

Feature | 50 Years Later: How the Soviet Union Called China's Bluff in 1969
by David Gitter

[Chinese and Soviet Border Guards in Pushing Match at the Ussuri River, 1969]

The Sino-Soviet border clashes of 1969 resulted in the world’s two communist giants coming to the brink of nuclear war—both put their strategic forces on high alert during different points of the year. The crisis passed in fall of 1969, but the poisonous ideological climate of the broader Sino-Soviet Split had almost resulted in disaster.

On 2 March 1969, Chinese forces conducted an ambush on Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island. The ambush was part of a larger endeavor to deter future Soviet provocations and perhaps force Moscow to recognize that the current Sino-Soviet border was settled through “unequal treaties,” justifying a re-negotiated settlement. Moscow knew well that such an admission would raise into question large tracts of its territory and rejected Beijing’s assertions.

Though Beijing never actually prepared for or wanted a war, the ambush was the most serious instance of violence yet between China and the USSR, and was perceived as an act of treachery by Soviet leaders, requiring a firm response. This raised the dangerous prospect of a larger war along the vast border extending from central Asia to the Sea of Japan. However, Moscow succeeded in compelling Mao Zedong and his Cultural Revolution regime into giving up its ill-conceived campaign of coercion against vastly superior Soviet forces on the Sino-Soviet border.

The Soviet success wasn’t easy; it took seven months of diplomatic overtures backed up by repeated demonstrations of military force in deadly border skirmishes. Even more effective was Moscow’s carefully crafted hints of a looming missile attack, which led the CCP leadership to finally fear for its own survival.[1]

This begs the question: what was it exactly about Moscow’s approach that made it effective in 1969? Understanding the answer to this question represents an interesting case study for students of deterrence. 50 years after the Sino-Soviet standoff, some excellent literature exists on the topic. Nevertheless, this article briefly suggests the following reasons for Moscow’s eventual successful de-escalation of the border conflict.

Moscow responded to belligerence with greater belligerence. The 2 March clash was planned and prepared for by China many months in advance. In line with the Chinese military’s operational guidelines of fighting “on just grounds, to our advantage, and with restraint” (有理, 有利, 有节), official histories of the PLA record that Zhenbao Island patrols were instructed to prepare to win a short engagement, bring the fight quickly to a close, withdraw to safe grounds, and gather evidence to support the PLA’s version of events.[2] In other words, they were given a green light to launch a surprise attack. The result was what Moscow named a “gangster raid,”[3] during which Soviet border guards sent to evict a Chinese patrol were shot at close range and attacked with overwhelming numbers.

Chinese propaganda then blasted truculent warnings that Soviet provocateurs would be bloodied and bruised.[4] But on 15 March, the Soviet Union launched its own larger, retaliatory clash whose timing and scope was unsought by Beijing. Using tanks, aircraft, armored vehicles, and even new weapons systems such as the T-62 tank and truck-mounted BM-21 “Grad” rocket system, heavy casualties resulted on both sides.[5] With the exception of one demonstration of Soviet forbearance in May, subsequent serious border provocations by the PLA were met with strong retaliation, culminating in the 13 August encirclement and destruction of dozens of Chinese soldiers whose detachment had violated the Soviet border near Zhalanashkol and refused to leave.[6]

Notwithstanding these displays, clashes were not long in duration and were smaller than the 15 March clash. Moscow avoided signaling a decision to abandon diplomacy in favor of war. In fact, Moscow immediately sought for high-level talks within a week of the 15 March clash. Also noteworthy is the fact that China’s shrill propaganda warnings disappeared after 15 March, likely signaling that the Chinese leadership soberly reassessed the discrepancy in military power in less ideological terms.

Moscow utilized persistent and consistent communications. Six days after the 15 March clash began and one day after Moscow took its Strategic Rocket Forces off of high alert status, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin called the Chinese leadership on a direct hotline set up during the days of socialist solidarity. He was rejected by the operator, who called him a “revisionist element.” Brushing this off, Kosygin had the Soviet Embassy in Beijing contact the Chinese foreign ministry to arrange a top leadership call, but this was rejected too, with the ministry telling the Soviet government that traditional diplomatic channels should be used instead of a direct phone call.[7] Moscow did just that, sending a formal diplomatic note on 29 March proposing consultations.[8] But the PRC’s 9th Party Congress, where Lin Biao and the Cultural Revolution leadership solidified gains made over the past several years, began on 1 April.[9] When Moscow followed up on 11 April to propose border consultations on 15 April, Beijing taunted “We will give you a reply, please calm down a little and do not get excited.”[10]

Exercising forbearance and understanding China’s chaotic political climate, Moscow sought to use other channels. First, Moscow proposed—and Beijing accepted—lower level talks on the topic of river navigation beginning in mid-June. The talks went nowhere, but they arguably got the diplomatic ball rolling.[11] Second, Moscow took its message directly to the Chinese people early on through Chinese language radio broadcasts that described in great detail the Soviet Union’s missile superiority, exclaiming that “the destructive range of these rockets is practically unlimited.”[12] Most importantly, around the world, Soviet diplomats and agents planted the seeds of nuclear threat, understanding that Beijing would eventually get wind of these messages.

It took only a few months for Chinese leaders to initially respond to what it called “nuclear blackmail,”[13] but they only really got the message when CIA Director Richard Helms told the press on 27 August that Moscow was quietly touting the possibility of a strategic strike on China in private probes around the world. This set off a national panic in China, which led the CCP leadership to finally agree to top level talks. The first meeting was held on 11 September in Beijing,[14] kicking off the series of conversations that would eventually lead to deescalation. 

Moscow triggered the CCP’s survival instincts. Those close to Mao understood that the Chairman never flinched at the idea of civilian casualties—the kind you might expect in a potential Sino-Soviet war.[15] But the potential destruction of his leadership (and himself) was another story.

After the 27 August announcement by the CIA director, Mao and his lieutenants became convinced that a Soviet sneak attack was a real possibility, one that would likely come in the form of the plane that was supposedly carrying the Soviet Union’s negotiators for the 11 September talks. When the 11 September consultations successfully concluded, the doomsday date was then shifted to China’s National Day on 1 October, and when that passed without event it again was moved to 20 October.

During this period, breakneck war preparations were made. On 14 October, the CCP Central Committee advised all central leaders of the CCP, PLA, and government to evacuate the capital in case the Soviet plane ostensibly carrying negotiators instead brought nuclear destruction. Mao fled to Wuhan. The panic did not subside until the 20 October negotiations successfully concluded—but not before China’s own limited nuclear force was put on high alert for the first and only time,[16] proving the seriousness with which the threat was perceived. It seems very likely that the Mao leadership would not have tempered its border provocations, at least as early as it did, had the top leadership not been so personally threatened by fears of nuclear destruction. Likewise, while Moscow wanted its nuclear threat to be received and believed by Beijing, it probably did not foresee the extreme paranoia that its threats set off. So this specific success may have been less of a Soviet approach and more of an unintended side-effect that aided Moscow’s goals.

In conclusion, the Soviet Union understood the dangerous enemy it faced in 1969, but chose to implement an effective strategy of superior but measured demonstrations of force and persistent communications across numerous channels—including through foreign interlocutors. This triggered the CCP’s fears of a decapitation strike of its top leadership. Thankfully, de-escalation followed.
 

[1] Michael S. Gerson, “The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict: Deterrence, Escalation, and the Threat of Nuclear War in 1969,” Center for Naval Analyses, November 2010,https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/d0022974.a2.pdf.

[2] The Outline of Military History of the PRC [中华人民共和国军事史要 军事科学出版社], ed. Deng Lifeng 邓礼峰 (Beijing, China: Military Science Press, 2005), p.474-475

[3] “Soviet Note of Protest, March 2: TASS International Service in English, 1322 Hours GMT, March 3 1969,” Studies in Comparative Communism, Vol. 2, Iss. 3-4 (July-October 1969): 150-151.

[4] “Editorial: Down with the New Tsars!” [打倒新沙皇!], People’s Daily, March 4, 1969

[5] Record of Major Events of the People’s Liberation Army, Volume 2 [中国人民解放军大事典 (下)], ed. Jiang Siyi 姜思毅(Tianjin, China: Tianjin People’s Press, 1992), 1603.

[6] “Intelligence Report: The Evolution of Soviet Policy in the Sino-Soviet Border Dispute,” Central Intelligence Agency, April 28, 1970, 65,https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/esau-44.pdf.

[7] Michael Gerson, p. 28-29

[8]  “Soviet Statement of March 29 to the C.P.R.: TASS International Service, March 30, 1969,” Studies in Comparative Communism, Vol. 2, Iss. 3-4 (July-October 1969), 181-187.

[9] “The 9th National Congress,” News of the Communist Party of China, March 29, 2013,http://english.cpc.people.com.cn/206972/206981/8188364.html

[10] “Intelligence Report,” p. 53.

[11] “Intelligence Report,” p. 54-60

[12]  “Is the Soviet Union afraid of China?: Radio Peace and Progress in Mandarin to China, March 15, 1969” Studies in Comparative Communism, Vol. 2, Iss. 3-4, (July-October 1969): 373-374.

[13] Record of Major Events in the People’s Republic of China [中华人民共和国大事日志], ed. Wang Yihua 王一华, Bai Shui 白水, and Zhao Chengyuan 赵呈元 (Jinan, China: Jinan Press, 1992) p.608

[14] Michael Gerson, “Sino-Soviet Border Conflict,” p. 40-46.

[15] Ashitha Nagesh, “Li Rui: The old guard Communist who was able to criticise Xi Jinping” BBC News, February 16, 2019,https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-47265411

[16] “Record of Major Events in the People’s Republic of China,” p. 618

David Gitter is the president and CEO of the Center for Advanced China Research, where he specializes in research and analysis of authoritative open source Chinese language materials. He previously worked in various analytical capacities in the private, public, and non-profit sectors, including the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (OUSDP), Project 2049 Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), focusing on Chinese foreign policy and broader Asian security issues. Gitter received his MA in Asian Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He has lived, worked, and studied in Beijing, China and has working proficiency in Mandarin.

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