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Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2001

A convenient but fragile liaison

Staff writer
BROTHERS IN ARMS: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance 1945-1963, edited by Odd Arne Westad. Cold War International History Project Series, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Stanford University Press, 2000, 404 pp. (paper).

At least once a year, the leaders of China and Russia get together to denounce U.S. hegemony and reaffirm their commitment to a multipolar international system. Both resent U.S. strength and status, and they are convinced that Washington is determined to keep them in the second rank of nations. Don't dismiss those declarations as railing against the gods, argue geopolitical realists: They allied before, they could do it again.

Yet according to this collection of papers, which is an assessment of the rise and fall of the Sino-Soviet alliance, the partnership was doomed almost from the start. Ideology proved too weak to override nationalism. Monumental egos -- Mao Zedong's and Josef Stalin's -- and domestic political imperatives crushed the bonds created by fraternal communism.

Editor Odd Arne Westad, a reader of international history at the London School of Economics, unfurls an impressive list of problems. "During the 40 years of collaboration, the two parties had disagreed on organization structure, military strategies and class analysis; they had suspected each other of betrayal; and they had misunderstood each other's aims because of personal rivalries and cultural differences. Both sides had, at times, been led astray in their policymaking by their belief in a shared ideology."

During World War II, Stalin's chief concerns were the protection of his regime, the defense of the homeland, and then territorial expansion. In his world, the Chinese Communists were supposed to subordinate their interests to that of Moscow, the guiding light of the revolution.

Needless to say, Mao had little time for that idea. Yet he understood the way the world worked. He needed Soviet material support and, for ideological reasons, the Chinese had to defer to their "elder brother," even though it rankled to do so.

The Korean War began the re-balancing of the equation. Mao was ready to intervene and confront American-led U.N. forces to save the revolution. Stalin feared nuclear war. Chen Jian, an associate professor of history at Southern Illinois University, and Yang Kuisong, a senior fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argue: "Mao's decision to rescue the Korean and Eastern revolutions at a time of real difficulties strengthened his sense of moral superiority, of being able to help others out, even if the Soviet 'elder brother' could not." They conclude that, ironically, "a seed for the future Sino-Soviet split was sown during the first test of the Sino-Soviet alliance."

Strains intensified after Stalin's death, despite Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's efforts to court Mao and other Chinese leaders. His 1956 speech denouncing the excesses of Stalinism was a double blow: It shook the foundations of communist doctrine -- infallibility justified democratic centralism -- and the Chinese had no warning it was coming.

As Constantine Pleshakov, a Russian researcher and Japan Times contributor, explains in his chapter, Khrushchev's faith in the ultimate victory of socialism over capitalism clashed with Mao's desire for perpetual revolution. Westad concurs, noting that "the failure to agree on strategy in the global confrontation with Washington fueled the disintegration of the alliance from 1958 on."

Which brings us back to today -- sort of. Nowadays, there are no illusions about the Russo-Chinese relationship. The cloak of ideology has been lifted. Moscow and Beijing are bound by a common dislike of U.S. supremacy.

According to Westad, it's deja vu all over again. "It makes sense to understand the content of Sino-Soviet friendship primarily as an anti-American alliance -- or, at the global level, as an anti-systemic alliance -- directed against the postwar U.S. presence in Asia and the world capitalist system in which the U.S was the dominant power."

Old strains persist. Both sides are suspicious of the other's intentions and ambitions. Influence over Central Asia and the Soviet Far East is still up for grabs; China's new economic dynamism compounds the uncertainties. If the two governments are capable of creating an "alliance" -- use that word loosely, at best -- it is because each expects the other to be more concerned with internal affairs than foreign policy. The Sino-Soviet alliance scared much of the world when it was formed, but it died long before it was buried. Remember that the next time the scaremongers go to work.

Brad Glosserman can be contacted at brad@japantimes.co.jp.

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