The 1850’s and 60’s were some of the bloodiest in China’s history. The combination of European intervention and the Taiping rebellion had stretched the Qing government to the breaking point. In this chaos, the weakly governed border regions of China were up for the taking. Starting in 1850, Russian governor Nikolas Muraviev began to send expeditions into the Amur region. Over time, these expeditions became trading outposts. And of course, these trading outposts needed protection in the form of local military forces. In 1858 Russia was able to use this leverage to pressure the Qing government into ceding all lands north of the Amur.
Facing a joint Anglo-French siege of Eastern China, the Qing government resulted in the Convention of Peking. Playing power broker in this conference, Russian General Nikolai Pavlovich Ignatyev was able to secure Russian annexation east of the Ussuri River. Thus we more or less get the current border around Vladivostok. Overlooked was the fact that there were little islands in the middle of these rivers. Sovereignty over these tiny islands would obviously never be a problem.
By the beginning of the 1950’s, both Tsarist Russia and Qing China were merely memories. In their place stood the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics under Stalin ,and the People’s Republic of China under Mao. Mao was an ardent supporter and follower of Marxist-Leninist teachings, and possibly even more so of it’s Stalinist variant. In this context, the USSR and PRC grew closer to one another in the nascent Cold War.
Declassified Soviet documents show that Stalin was in personal communication with Mao about his thoughts on the strategic calculus of the United States in East Asia. Likewise, Mao was in communication with Stalin about the modernization of the Chinese Navy. The frequent exchange of communiques, going so far as to ask advice in matters of state, show a Mao Tse Tung that was willing to show vulnerability at this point in time. This is not to imply Mao and Stalin were skipping hand in hand on an adorable rainbow of totalitarianism.
State interest ultimately took priority. Stalin ultimately worked with Mao when it played to the interests of the Soviet Union. For instance, with the Indian government being outside of the Communist bloc, the annexation of Tibet was condoned. A similar occurrence happened in Xinjiang, where Stalin saw it as being in the greater interests of opposing the “imperialist” West for China to extend governance there (likely reason being the USSR was overextended and could not provide governance to the area themselves). But Stalin stood in opposition to Mao over the reclamation of Taiwan, a course of action see saw as inviting a military response from the already paranoid Eisenhower administration.
Nevertheless, Sino-Soviet relations took a nosedive about the same time that Khrushchev succeeded Stalin as leader of the Soviet Union. Depending on your scholarship of choice, the Secret Speech denouncing Stalinism either undermined the legitimacy of the Stalinist system Mao had constructed, and therefore his legitimacy. Or a shift in national development and goals put the PRC in a position to challenge Moscow as the center of the Communist movement. The truth likely lies somewhere between these two extremes. The former argument fits in the lens of ‘great man theory’ where decisive and interesting personalities decide the course of history. In contrast, the latter argument fits a more in a ‘realist’ or national interest understanding of statecraft. The truth likely lies somewhere in between.
One of the most colorful characters Kang Sheng, was a key figure within the intelligence services. Sheng had studied in Russia and wholeheartedly embraced the Stalinist method of domestic intelligence. In February of 1960 Kang Sheng insulted Nikita Khrushchev to his face. Khrushchev told Sheng that “You don’t have the qualifications to debate with me, I am the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR…”. Sheng responded with more backtalk and a wrote a series of widely published articles questioning Khrushchev’s commitment to Marxism-Leninism. Maoism was put forward as the ‘true’ form of Marxism, and was exported to the third world, contesting the legitimacy of Soviet ideology.
By March 1969, Sino-Soviet relations had reached their nadir. The “eternal friendship” of Beijing and Moscow was rudely disrupted by a violent exchange of fire along the Ussari River where over 50 Soviet soldiers and border guards were killed. While responsibility for the violence ultimately lay on the side of Chinese border guards it should be noted that Japanese intelligence relayed to their American partners that the Soviets had been practicing river crossings and harassing Chinese vessels on the river. While claims of innocent Chinese fishermen being harassed fits a pattern of provocation and propaganda in the PRC, it still doesn’t account for the tanks. What does account for the tanks is that in December 1968 Soviet troops drove armored vehicles onto one of the disputed river islands, and beat Chinese soldiers with sticks. They did this about 5 more times before the end of February.
Likewise, Soviet diplomats in 1966-67 are on record multiple times speaking about inciting a border conflict. So while yes, the Chinese border guards showed up armed for a fight in March 1969, responsibility is heavily influenced by your views on school yard brawls. And as with school yard brawls. Things escalated quickly. Like artillery fire and laying mines in disputed territory escalated. The tit-for-tat eventually reached a point where Soviet hardliners had the embassy in Washington DC politely ask the State Department what their reaction would be if Russia unilaterally struck Chinese nuclear facilities from the air.
The subsequent war scare horrified Chinese leaders. Rumors of surprise nuclear strikes and fake peace delegations ramped the crazy up to 11. It says a lot about the mental state that a senior official suggested emptying a dam north of Beijing so Moscow couldn’t blow up the dam and flood the city (yes, this happened). On a positive note the chaos/borderline civil war of the Cultural Revolution was brought almost to a complete halt. While this rally around the flag effect may have been the reason the Chinese leadership let the crisis escalate to that point in the first place, although it is almost impossible to know. Under normal conditions, and in another country, I can’t imagine the Red Guards deciding to calm down their search for traitors and fifth columnists in this environment. But Mao’s cult of personality was able to do just this.
Realizing he may have made a few mistakes (and a few enemies), Mao proceeded to throw his lot in with Henry Kissinger thus changing the core dynamics of the Cold War. And to think, if they had just accounted for those stupid little islands in the treaty.