Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Jack Scott

Two Roads: The Origins of the Sino-Soviet Dispute

Relations Before 1945

The history of Sino-Soviet relations during the past ten years has been one of open conflict between neighbour nations that, because of the similarity of stated internal social aims and international objectives, were generally thought of as being bound together in unbreakable bonds of friendship and brotherhood. Even as late as January 1962, nearly 4 years after the first indications of difference became evident, W.A.D. Jackson, in “Russo-Chinese Borderlands” was predicting a continuing relationship, with Russia in a dominant position, for decades to come. Jackson wrote:

While there are, reportedly, differences of opinion within and between the Communist parties of the USSR and the People’s Republic of China on methods to be used in the struggle with the West, yet the solidarity between the two states will in all probability remain firm. Certainly the People’s Republic of China will be in no position to challenge Soviet leadership of the bloc – or even to play a role independent of the USSR – for many decades to come.

But China is playing a role independent of the USSR, one that is having widespread repercussions and influencing the policies of peoples and nations everywhere. Not only are China’s foreign policy and international relations independent of the USSR – they are, on most important questions, diametrically opposed to Soviet policy. Why did Chinese foreign policy emerge and become shaped in the manner it did since 1949? What are the basic differences between Chinese and Soviet foreign policy, and how does the practical application of that policy affect border and state relations between the two countries?

Russia and China inherited from previous generations and past political regimes many unsolved and complex problems and disputes. It was thought that the emergence of a revolutionary order, with its declared attitude of renouncing all conquests and unequal treaties inherited from the fallen imperialist systems, would quickly wipe the slate clean and so solve the outstanding questions. But even today, more than 50 years after the establishment of the USSR and nearly a quarter of a century after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, one still hears talk of issues respecting Mongolia, Sinkiang and Chinese Turkestan, the Amur, Ussuri, Sungari River systems, Manchuria, the Chinese Eastern Railway, Port Arthur and Dairen, all of them issues and problems that dominated Sino-Russian relations more than one hundred years ago. Why has so much remained constant between the imperialist and the revolutionary age? And where does the main responsibility for failure lie?

Czarist Russia and Manchu China

The first clashes between China and Czarist Russia occurred in the 1680’s. Fighting continued until 1689, when it was ended by the Treaty of Nerchinsk. This Treaty, which recognized Chinese authority over the territory north of the Amur, and prohibited Russian navigation on the waterway, remained in force until the middle of the eighteenth century.

By the dawn of the nineteenth century, world conditions had brought a radical change in China’s situation. China was internally weak from 2,000 years of feudalism, torn asunder by contending warlords, and divided into spheres of influence by the more powerful Western imperialist powers and Japan. Russia, wanting to expand her borders of empire, found Europe too powerful an adversary to be a likely victim. The Czar turned his eyes eastward and decided to join the condominium of bullies carving up China.

The unequal Treaty of Peking was forced upon the weak Ch’ing Dynasty in 1860, ceding to Russia all territory north of the Amur River, a large area of Chinese Turkestan, and the territory east of the Ussuri River. From this point on Russia pushed her expansion to the realizable limits – and beyond.

In 1895 Russia had joined with other powers in forcing Japan to evacuate Port Arthur. But in 1898 Russia herself seized the Port Arthur naval base and the commercial port of Dairen. Subsequent to the seizure of the two ports Moscow concluded with the local governor a treaty that ceded to Russia virtually all of Manchuria, and a concession to build the Chinese Eastern Railway.

In all the history of railway construction, no railroad has been marked by more international controversies, caused more intense international rivalries and proved more tragic in its results than the Chinese Eastern Railway. Only 1067 miles in length, it not only led to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, but also hastened the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty and the downfall of the Czarist empire. Moreover, the railway, and the commercial and industrial enterprises that went with it, whetted the appetites of other imperialist powers for the spoils of the Far East.

A strip of land, sufficient for construction and operation, was ceded to the railway. As a consequence the Russian controlled corporation was permitted to organize a private police force and to exercise full control within the territory. When the railway started operations in July 1903, the Russians, under the guise of corporation requirements, were allowed to occupy a large and strategic area of Manchuria, including the city of Harbin, which became notorious for corruption. Russia also achieved a long-cherished objective – an ice free port on the Pacific.

Russia’s foreign minister, Count Witte, who was in favour of a more “liberal” policy in the penetration of Manchuria, condemned the occupation of Port Arthur and Dairen, and expressed strong objections to his country’s policy in relation to China. In his diary he wrote:

The Chinese Eastern Railway was designed exclusively for cultural and peaceful purposes, but jingoist adventurers turned it into a means of political aggression involving the violation of treaties, the breaking of freely given promises and the disregard of the elementary interests of other nationalities.

The agreement was an act of the highest importance. Had we faithfully observed it, we should have been spared the disgrace of the Japanese war – I may say here that we ourselves broke the agreement and brought about the situation which we are now facing in the Far East.

The Russo-Japanese war was fought in Manchuria, on Chinese territory. Russia was soundly beaten, and capitulated to Japanese demands in the Treaty of Portsmouth, signed on September 5, 1905. Under the terms of this treaty Russia ceded to Japan the southern branch of the Chinese Eastern Railway, which ran from Changchun to Dairen and Port Arthur, and also other concessions in Manchuria and Korea. The treaty was forced upon a weak and supine government at Peking.

Defeat at the hands of Japan put a quick end to Russian attempts at exclusive domination over Manchuria, but did not spoil her appetite for the acquisition of vast territories in the Far East. Sinkiang and Chinese Turkestan were penetrated for trading purposes, and special concessions covering trade, travel and exploitation of natural resources were demanded of Peking. Sinkiang was declared exempt from taxation on trade, thus conceding to Russian merchants a privilege rare in international relations, and making Russian trading and exploitation ventures highly profitable, and virtually risk free.

With Russian military aid a Mongol warlord severed part of Mongolia from China. Mongolian troops were equipped by Russia, and trained and commanded by Russian officers. The mines of Mongolia were pledged as security for a two-million rouble loan, the use of Russian bank notes was enforced, and Moscow received a monopoly on trade.

In November, 1912, a Russian envoy arrived in Urga (now Ulan Bator), and secured a special agreement with the now allegedly independent State of Outer Mongolia. The agreement stated that Russia would assist Mongolia in resistance to the Chinese army. In return, the Mongol warlord granted all sorts of privileges to the Russians, including freedom to open banks and to exploit the land and industries, extra-territoriality for Russian subjects, Russian consular and postal service, freedom from customs duties, and the right to purchase land. It was also agreed that Mongolia could not conclude agreements with any other power, including China, without the prior consent of the Russian Government.

Considering the extent of the terms extorted by Russia, it becomes evident that the whole of the economic power of Outer Mongolia was brought under Russian control. Indeed, although it was declared to be an independent state, Outer Mongolia was, in reality, a vassal state of Russia.

Sino-Soviet Relations – 1917-1945

As of 1917 the situation vis-a-vis Russia and China was, in brief, as follows: Russia had incorporated into the Czarist empire vast areas of what had formerly been Chinese territory. In addition, Moscow, under the terms of unequal treaties had occupied Port Arthur and Dairen, and a sizable portion of Manchuria. A vassal state had been established in Mongolia, and economic affairs in Sinkiang and Chinese Turkestan were under the domination of Russian interests.

Within China there was administrative chaos. A National Government existed at Peking, but its authority barely extended beyond the boundaries of the capital. A host of feudalists and warlords were concluding with imperialist powers treaties and agreements that ran counter to China’s national interests, without reference to the Peking Government. A revolutionary-democratic challenge, which had existed in the south for some time, was pressing its claims against Peking, and seeking to unify and modernize the nation. In less than ten years these revolutionary democrats would achieve a measure of success, and replace Peking as the recognized Government of China.

The Bolshevik Revolution had swept Russia, giving rise to expectations of a new balance in world forces, and a radical change in Sino-Russian relations. The Bolsheviks fell heir to Czarist privileges and responsibilities in the Far East, and the Chinese bourgeois revolutionaries, encouraged by the early signs from Russia, entertained high hopes of a better deal. With Peking, Nanking and warlords all fighting for a slice of the body of China, Russia’s task was no easy one. The outcome, for nearly a decade, would be recognition of Peking with simultaneous encouragement and aid to the democratic movement in the South. There would also be some treaties and agreements concluded with independent Provincial Governors and Warlords.

The question of Sino-Russian relations after 1917 is divided into two broad general periods: pre-1949, when China was torn with civil conflict, and penetration by imperialist powers, especially Japan; and post-1949, when most of the nation, for the first time in several centuries, was united under a strong, stable and highly efficient central government established at the traditional capital of Peking.

During the early months of the revolution the Soviets concentrated their attention on Western Europe, in the hope and expectation that there would be a rapid spread of the Bolshevik revolution in that direction, resulting in a mobilization of the European industrial proletariat. But Europe at that time proved to be as impervious to the spread of Bolshevik revolution as it had to penetration by the Czars at an earlier date. With the defeat of the German revolution, in the spring of 1919, hopes of an early victory for the revolutionary cause receded and Russia, hard-pressed by enemies on all sides, looked elsewhere for allies, particularly to China and the Far East.

In this first period of the turn toward China the Soviets adopted a two-pronged policy. On the one hand, they recognized, and sought recognition from, the Government of Peking. On the other hand, the Soviet Government officially aided Sun Yat-sen, and the Canton Government he then led, in their avowed determination to overthrow the Peking administration. Joffe, official representative of the Soviet Government, issued a joint statement with Sun Yat-sen, in January 1923, which clearly stated Soviet policy toward China in this period. The statement declared:

Dr. Sun Yat-sen holds that the Communist order, or even the Soviet system cannot actually be introduced into China, because there do not exist here the conditions for the successful establishment of either Communism or Sovietism. This view is entirely shared by M. Joffe, who is further of the opinion that China’s paramount and pressing problem is to achieve national unification and attain full national independence, and regarding this task he had assured Dr. Sun Yat-sen that China had the warmest sympathies of the Russian people and can count on the support of Russia.

In this statement Joffe also reiterated earlier declarations of Soviet policy toward China, claiming that “the Russian Government is ready and willing to enter into negotiations with China on the basis of the renunciation by Russia of all the treaties and exactions which the Czardom imposed on China, including the treaty or treaties and agreements relating to the Chinese Eastern Railway.”

The Soviets in Manchuria and the Chinese Eastern Railway

Constructed on orders of the Czar, financed by funds borrowed in France, and built by Chinese labour, the railway opened Manchuria to exploitation and domination by Russian capitalists supported by Russian armed force. There was a clear-cut case of imperialist aggression and exploitation, where the Soviets had an obvious responsibility to adopt a policy of revolutionary change, and at first, it appeared as though the Soviets would indeed follow such a course.

On the outbreak of the revolution anti-Bolshevik White Guards, led by General Horvath, tried to assume control of the railway and organize counter-revolutionary actions against the Soviets. Failing to accept an order to desist from political activity, Horvath was forced to resign his position, and the Chinese declared that henceforth no Russian party or individual would be allowed to use the road for political purposes. Russian authority over the railway and its subsidiary enterprises began to disintegrate, while Chinese control increased in direct ratio to the Russian decline.

In July 1919, eyes now turned toward the East in search of allies, the Soviets, in the person of Vice-Commissar for Foreign Affairs, issued a declaration to the governments of both North and South China, (Peking and Canton), that appeared to ravaged China like a new Magna Charta. Here appeared to be a truly revolutionary approach to the solution of outstanding problems between Russia and China. The Karakhan declaration read in part:

. . . the workers’ and peasants’ Government proclaimed that all the secret treaties concluded with Japan, China, and all the former allies were annulled; these were treaties by which the Czarist Government. . . by force and bribery enslaved the peoples of the East, and in the first place the people of China, in order to provide profits for Russian capitalists, Russian landlords, and Russian generals...The Soviet Government has renounced the conquests made by the Czarist Government which deprived China of Manchuria and other areas...

The Soviet Government returns to the Chinese people, without any compensation, the Chinese Eastern Railway, and all the mining, timber, gold and other concessions seized by Russian generals, merchants and capitalists...

The Soviet Government renounces the receipt from China of the 1900 Boxer rebellion indemnity . . .

The Soviet Government abolishes all special privileges ana gives up all factories owned by Russian merchants on Chinese soil. Not one Russian official, priest, or missionary shall be able to interfere in Chinese affairs . . . In China there should be no authorities and no courts except the authorities and courts of the Chinese people....

The Soviet Government is ready ... to wipe out once and for all the acts of coercion and injustice committed in regard to China by former Russian Governments...

This declaration constituted the first major effort of the Soviets to win the sympathies of the Chinese people and to establish contact with Chinese administrations, unless one counts a general statement by Foreign Affairs Commissar Chicherin in mid-1918 which, in broad terms, outlined the official note quoted above. Chicherin said:

We notified China that we renounce the conquests of the Czarist government in Manchuria and we restore the sovereign rights of China in this territory, in which lies the principal trade-artery – the Chinese Eastern Railway, property of the Chinese and Russian people.

There is one significant difference between the Chicherin statement and the Karakhan Declaration. The former speaks of the railway as being the joint property of Chinese and Russian people, while the latter clearly defines it as wholly Chinese.

The Soviets apparently repented their “generous” offer. A month after Karakhan made his declaration, Izvestia published a version that excluded the paragraph on the Chinese Eastern Railway, and significantly altered the portion on the Boxer indemnities. This amended version was communicated to China in September 1920, in the form of an eight-point proposed agreement. Point six, instead of reiterating definite renunciation of the Boxer indemnities, stipulated that the renunciation would rest on China’s refusal to pay the indemnities to other claimants – a difficult condition for China to comply with in its weakened condition.

More important was the Point Seven proposal regarding the Chinese Eastern Railway. This point totally negated both the letter and spirit of Point One, and stood in direct contradiction to all previous declarations made by Soviet officials. Point One stated:

The Government of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic . . . renounces all the annexations of Chinese territory, all the concessions in China, and returns to China free of charge, and for ever, all that was ravenously taken from her by the Czar’s Government and by Russian bourgeoisie.

But between Point One and Point Seven the Soviets executed a rapid retreat from revolutionary generosity and international solidarity, to narrow national interests. On the Chinese Eastern Railway the proposed agreement said:

The Russian and the Chinese Governments agree to conclude a special treaty as for the rules and regulations of exploitation of the Chinese Eastern Railway for the needs of the RSFSR. In the making of said treaty, besides China and Russia, the Far Eastern Republic shall also participate.

Here we have two significant and critical alterations from the original:

  1. The Treaty provided expressly for Russian needs
  2. The Far Eastern Republic, a Russian creation, and represented by a Russian national, was to be a major party to the Treaty, thus giving the RSFSR a two to one majority over administration of the railway that ran through Chinese territory. Russian influence began to decline in China from this point on.

In the summer of 1922, while the railway and other problems were being hotly debated, Adolph Joffe arrived in Peking as special representative of the Soviets. Confronted with a request to redeem the Karakhan pledge of 1919, Joffe replied:

Russia has denounced the predatory and violent policy of the Czar’s Government and promised to renounce those rights which had accrued to Russia from this policy. But, first, until all these questions shall have been settled by a free accord between Russia and China, Russian rights in China shall not have lost their force; and, secondly, these declarations do not annul Russia’s legal and just rights in China. In particular, for instance, even if Russia vests in the Chinese people her title to the Chinese Eastern Railway, this will not annul Russia’s interests in this line, which is a portion of the Great Siberian Railway and unites one part of Russian territory with another.

Joffe disavowed the 1919 declaration and, further, accused the Chinese of having for five years interfered in the administration of this railway which ran through China. Finally, Joffe’s credibility was completely destroyed and his every word regarded with suspicion in China, when the contents of an address he had prepared for the fifth anniversary of the revolution became known. Referring to the CER, Joffe declared:

As the Russian people, exhausted as they are by their sacrifice in the world war and the struggle against imperialist intervention, lack the means to build just now a new railroad in Russia’s own territory, it must inevitably accept this only heritage of the Czar’s regime, which is gone forever. But in this issue also, all that Russia hopes for is that her interest in the question of the Chinese Eastern Railway will be understood and satisfied by China, and that necessary guarantees will be given.

Here was an open and astonishing admission that the Soviets, because of a unilaterally declared “necessity”, proposed to hold on to the spoils of imperialist conquest. As will be seen it was not the “only heritage of the Czar’s regime” claimed by the Soviets.

His credibility destroyed, Joffe was replaced by Karakhan in September, 1923. The change was welcomed by the Chinese, who expected a much better deal from the author of the 1919 Declaration. But Karakhan lost little time in dispelling the illusion of friendly and easy talks. In November, in the text of a lengthy memorandum, he said of the 1919 Declaration:

Never and nowhere could I have said that all the rights on the Chinese Eastern Railway belong to China . .. But even now I can confirm what was said four years ago, namely, that the sovereignty of China in the territory of the railway is fully recognized by us and that we shall not insist on any one of those privileges which the Czarist Government had . .. in the railway zone...[1]

Unable to reach any agreement with the Peking Administration, the Soviets proceeded in the traditional imperialist fashion of reaching an accord with a weak and corrupt provincial governor and confronting the Central Government with an accomplished fact. This separate agreement, concluded in September, 1924, contained the following points:

  1. All police, municipal and other administrative offices along the Chinese Eastern Railway should engage Soviet citizens as high advisers, and the Municipal Council should be made up of fifty percent Soviet membership.
  2. The paper currency issued by the Soviet Government should be allowed to circulate.
  3. North Manchuria as far as the Sino-Soviet boundary should be protected by both Soviet and Chinese troops.

Even these terms, so onerous to China, were not respected by Soviet representatives. A stipulation that there should be equal numbers of Soviet and Chinese directors, with equal executive power, was ignored. The Soviets held an overwhelming share of the administrative power. The heads of fourteen out of eighteen railway divisions were Soviet citizens. All Chinese proposals for redress of balance were answered evasively, or rejected outright.

In this situation the Manchurian provincial government seized advantage of the fact that Moscow had arranged the holding of a Comintern conference in the Soviet consulate. The Chinese dismissed and deported the Soviet manager and assistant manager, together with fifty-nine of the higher Soviet executives of the railway.

A special envoy was named to negotiate the dispute. But even as he was on his way Karakhan handed China the following ultimatum:

  1. A conference should be called without delay to settle all questions pertaining to the Chinese Eastern Railway.
  2. All illegal actions against the Chinese Eastern Railway perpetrated by the various Chinese Government Departments should be stopped.
  3. All citizens of the Soviet Union in detention should be released immediately and the Chinese Government should stop all oppressive action against Soviet citizens and organizations.

The Government of the Soviet Union hopes the Mukden Government and the Government of the Republic of China will carefully consider the serious consequences of opposing these proposals made by the Soviet Government. The Soviet Government expects a reply from the Chinese Government to the above mentioned items within three days, and wishes to state in advance that, failing to receive a satisfactory reply, the Soviet Government will be forced to adopt other measures to safeguard the rights and privileges of the Soviet Union.

The Chinese Government made a lengthy reply restating Chinese complaints of Soviet failure to live up to the terms of the existing agreement. Also noted was China’s opposition to “illegal propaganda” threatening peace and order in the country.

Some negotiations were initiated during July and early August 1929, but these were aborted when the Soviets presented China with a second ultimatum containing three demands:

  1. The personnel of the Chinese Eastern Railway to be reinstated, and the prevailing system of management restored.
  2. Soviet troops to enjoy the right to protect the railway.
  3. Chinese supervision over the Far Eastern Bank to be removed.

Karakhan informed China that the Soviet Union would negotiate only if China accepted the ultimatum as a basis for discussion. Relations reached a crisis point and the USSR mobilized troops and occupied a number of points inside Manchuria. Both France and Germany offered to mediate the crisis, but these offers were rejected by the Soviet Government with the statement that no Soviet national would be permitted to negotiate with China, nor would third party mediation be acceptable unless the Soviet demands were met.

China issued a manifesto in English, but it elicited little sympathy among the other powers who could scarcely challenge Russia’s right to protect her interests in China when they claimed the same right for themselves. Joining in protest against Soviet actions might well have served to further expose their own expansionist policies.

The Soviet forces, much better equipped than the Chinese, easily overran Chinese positions, killing and capturing large numbers of the defending troops. China capitulated, acceding to all the Soviet demands, and Russian monopoly over the Chinese Eastern Railway, and its industrial and commercial subsidiaries, was re-established.

Suddenly, from an unexpected source, the Sino-Russian dispute was brought to a temporary solution, although not in a manner favorable to China.

In a lightning attack, launched in September 1930, Japan scored initial success in the occupation of South Manchuria. In a note to Moscow, the Japanese reminded the Soviets that Japan had observed strict neutrality in the 1929 Sino-Soviet crisis, refusing to allow use of the South Manchurian Railway for the transport of Chinese troops. In addition, Japan offered assurances that Soviet interests would be protected and respected. In reply, Soviet Commissar Litvinov expressed satisfaction that the interests of the Chinese Eastern Railway would be protected, and, in turn, assured Japan that the Soviets would maintain strict neutrality in the current crisis.

Learning that no interference against military operations was contemplated by the Soviets, Japan began to transport troops along the railway, even requesting of the local Soviet authorities a special fifty per cent reduction in fare. The Soviet Government assured Japan that troops would continue to be permitted transportation, by way of exceptional and temporary measures in view of special circumstances. Such generosity on the Soviet side enabled Japan to carry out large-scale military operations in Manchuria, eventually bringing the whole of the province under control. And when Japan created the puppet state of “Manchukuo,” Moscow agreed to hoist its flag over the CER, ignoring the fact it was supposed to be a Sino-Soviet project.

Now operational disputes began to arise between the Soviets and Japan, and rumours spread rapidly that Moscow, apparently more impressed with power policies than with principles, was prepared to sell the railway to Japanese interests. China confronted Karakhan with these rumours, but the Soviet representative flatly denied that any such deal was contemplated. However, almost simultaneous with the denial, Litvinov issued a statement on the sale reports as follows:

During the negotiations between Ota, the Japanese Ambassador, and myself, I did mention that the actions of the ’Manchukuo’ Authorities caused serious difficulties to the Chinese Eastern Railway and aggravated controversies between Japan, ’Manchukuo’ and the Soviet Union. In order to arrive at some possible solution, I therefore suggest that there may be a chance for ’Manchukuo’ to redeem the Chinese Eastern Railway, that is to say, the Soviet Government would sell the interests of the Chinese Eastern Railway to ’Manchukuo,’ which is considered as one of the radical methods of solving the present difficulties.

Karakhan now switched gears and attempted to save face by actually accusing China of bearing responsibility for the proposed sale. He declared:

The Chinese Government or the powers under its control have ceased to be actual partners with the USSR in the Chinese Eastern Railway since over eighteen months ago. They have been deprived of this possibility by causes not dependent upon the USSR, and are unable to exercise their rights or discharge their undertakings in terms of the Peking and Murkden agreements. On the strength of these agreements, the Government of China is obliged to maintain representatives on the board of the railway, but no such representative has been on the board for the past eighteen months.

The sale was protested, and Litvinov tried to argue that the sale was, in fact, favorable to China. Also, in Izvestia of May 2nd, 1933, Karl Radek offered a “theoretical” defence of the sale. He wrote:

The Soviet is not deceiving China when offering to sell the Chinese Eastern Railway to Japan. The Chinese bourgeoisie, which are losing one region after another without attempting to resist the invaders, think that the Soviets should preserve the Chinese Eastern Railway for them, thereby suffering material losses, risking the lives of her employees and hazarding international conflicts.

Radek draws his conclusions by simply ignoring the facts of the dispute. China did not ask the Soviets to “preserve” the railroad. They did ask on numerous occasions, that Moscow redeem the Karakhan pledge of 1919, in which China, not the USSR, would have had to confront Japan in Manchuria. But, then, the Soviets would not have collected the 140,000,000 yen which Japan paid for the railway. A disadvantage accruing to the Soviets from sale of the line was the fact that Japanese troops were now deployed along the Soviet-Manchurian border. But the contentious railway problem was removed from Sino-Soviet relations, not to reappear until the Yalta agreement.

Soviet Activities in Sinkiang, Turkestan, and Mongolia

The Chinese Eastern Railway was only one of the many vexing problems disturbing Sino-Soviet relations. Part of the heritage of Czarist conquest was the penetration of Chinese Turkestan, and in this area also Moscow had some hard and disquieting decisions to make.

Unable to suppress a revolt in 1931, the Governor of Sinkiang called on Moscow for aid. In return for the aid Moscow demanded and received major commercial concessions and the right of free movement throughout the province. A Russian dominated Soviet-Sinkiang Trading Agency immediately established agencies in eighty key centres in the province.

Similarly, as a result of assistance afforded a local governor in suppressing a British-supported revolt of Turkic-speaking Muslims, a Russian dominated Republic of East Turkestan was proclaimed. The Governor, General Sheng, declared himself to be a Moscow-oriented communist, and afforded the USSR many important economic concessions, including a monopoly of raw materials exports, as well as the right to maintain army garrisons in the area. During 1936 and 1937 several popular revolts were suppressed with the aid of Soviet troops.

A 1940 revolt of Kazakhs, lasting several years, weakened the Soviet hold, a situation further aggravated by the German attack in 1941. In these changed world conditions the erstwhile Communist, General Sheng, turned against his Russian allies and deserted to the camp of Chiang Kai-Shek. Kuomintang forces suppressed the Kazakh revolt and Russia was ousted from its favored position.

In all respects, Mongolia at least equalled Manchuria and the Chinese Eastern Railway as a source of Sino-Soviet friction. This, too, was a part of the heritage of Czarism, with which the Soviet Government had to contend. At first, as in the case of Manchuria, it appeared that a revolutionary change in Russian attitudes was in prospect. However, the deed fell far short of the revolutionary perspective outlined in the theory.

In March 1925, Foreign Affairs Commissar Chicherin, speaking at Tiflis, made a somewhat ambivalent statement in regard to the status of Mongolia, declaring:

The Soviet Government recognizes Mongolia as a part of the whole Republic of China, enjoying, however, autonomy so far-reaching as to preclude interference in the internal affairs and established independent relations of Mongolia. It ought to be noted that after several crises the internal situation in Mongolia has settled down and been consolidated on a basis somewhat similar to the Soviet system.

Much more direct and clear-cut was the Mongolian clause in the Soviet agreement with Peking, concluded in 1924, which said:

The Government of the USSR recognizes Outer Mongolia as an integral part of the Chinese Republic and respects China’s sovereignty therein. The Government of the USSR declares that. . . it will effect the complete withdrawal of all the troops of the USSR from Outer Mongolia.

However, the Soviets were already contravening their declarations on Mongolia. Under the guise of suppressing Russian White Guard activities, Soviet troops moved into Mongolia, and established the Mongolian People’s Party which, with Red Army support, laid claim to administrative control over Outer Mongolia: The Russians also established a youth movement which was brought directly under Moscow control, rather than being responsible to the Mongolian People’s Party.

The Outer Mongolian Government predictably requested Soviet troops to remain in the area – a request accommodated by Moscow. Between the two parties a secret agreement was arrived at, the following being a few of the highlights:

  1. Unclaimed lands in Outer Mongolia to be distributed to Soviet citizens and the Mongolian proletariat.
  2. The stationing of Soviet troops in Outer Mongolia to be permitted.
  3. Gold mines in Outer Mongolia to be developed by Soviet labor.

Government posts were occupied by three administrative officers – a Mongol, a Buriat and a Russian. The Mongol member was nominal head of departments, but in this sort of administrative set-up it was the Russian who wielded real power, and the Buriat invariably became his adjutant. Foreign trade became a virtual Russian monopoly, and an embargo was placed on the circulation of all foreign currency except Russian.

In 1921, the Soviets detached a section of Outer Mongolia, named it Tannu-Tuva, and linked the detached member to Soviet Siberia. Later, in 1944, it was attached directly to Moscow as the Tunivian Autonomous Oblast – a development of which the world was totally unaware for many months.

In 1936, a Soviet-Mongolian defense alliance was agreed to. This treaty placed Mongolian defence in the hands of the Soviets, and, together with the economic and other concessions already granted, made of Outer Mongolia a virtual vassal state.

In the years of crisis and war that lay ahead, Outer Mongolia like Manchuria was to recede into the background, to emerge again in the Yalta Agreement.

Sino-Soviet Relations During the Japanese War

Following the launching of the Japanese attack into North China, Sino-Soviet relations were once more established on a friendly basis. A partial explanation can be discovered in the real danger of a Japanese thrust into Soviet Siberia. In such a situation any Chinese resistance was a bonus for the Soviet Union. Besides, loans for the purchase of Soviet goods, in addition to helping Soviet industry, returned a respectable profit of three per cent. Nevertheless, it must be noted that Soviet aid to China in this period was considerable, extremely important, and much greater than similar British and American aid, which, let it be added, was more than balanced in their trade with Japan.

But the period of amicability that resulted from the Japanese campaign lasted less than four years. The Soviets, interested in relieving tension on their eastern border because of an expected attack from Germany, in April 1941 concluded a neutrality pact with Japan which, among other things, recognized all Japanese claims against China. The pact, essential from Russia’s viewpoint, achieved its purpose. But it also permitted Japan to re-direct 100,000 troops against China. This Russo-Japanese agreement remained in force for four years, the USSR denouncing it in April 1945, on entering the war against Japan.

As a reward for its brief, and relatively cheap, intervention in the war against Japan, Moscow demanded a number of concessions in the Far East. Those demands were all conceded at the Yalta Conference, some of them seriously affecting China, despite the fact that no Chinese representative was present. It was left to Roosevelt to inform China of the conditions affecting her sovereignty. Yalta provided for the following:

  1. Recognition of the Mongolian People’s Republic (Outer Mongolia).
  2. Southern Sakhalin and the adjacent islands to Russia.
  3. Russian control of Dairen and Port Arthur.
  4. The Chinese Eastern Railway and the Southern Manchurian Railway to be operated by a joint Sino-Soviet company, with the pre-eminent interests of the Soviet Union recognized and safeguarded.
  5. The Kurile Islands to Russia.

The third and fourth items meant a return of the old contentious Manchurian question to Sino-Soviet relations.

Pre 1949 – A Summary

The exciting news of the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and its message of peace and friendship to all peoples, encouraged high hopes and expectations of change among wide circles in China. Whatever may have been the hidden thoughts and fears of official and administrative bodies, millions of common people in China felt themselves in tune with the stated aspirations of the Bolsheviks. The Karakhan Declaration of 1919 appeared to the Chinese to be a firm promise of better things to come. Soviet influence became particularly strong among the students and intellectuals, who viewed Sino-Soviet friendship as a factor that would unify and strengthen China, making it a more potent force in the struggle against feudal exploitation and foreign aggression.

When the critical content of the Karakhan Declaration was disavowed, and the Soviets began presenting demands that appeared to the Chinese to be suspiciously akin to those of the Czars, increasing numbers of people felt betrayed, lost heart, and were easily persuaded that no real change had been effected in Russian foreign policy.

In explanation, and possibly in excuse for Soviet attitudes, it can be said that China was used by White Guard elements as a base from which to launch attacks against Soviet Siberia. China was also used by imperialist powers for encirclement of the Soviet Union, and many corrupt Chinese officials lent themselves to these anti-Soviet activities.

It was for these, and seemingly for other less obvious and less defensible reasons, that the Soviet Government adopted toward China policies that undoubtedly resulted in alienating a vast reservoir of potential support in China. Particularly ill-considered, especially in view of earlier refusals to accept Chinese control, was the sale of the Chinese Eastern Railway to Japan, and the later recognition of Japan’s “rights” in China. An immediate result was to fertilize the soil of anti-Sovietism in China. A long-term result would appear to be built-in attitudes on foreign policy that seriously affected Sino-Soviet relations for many decades.

In retrospect, it appears that had the Soviets unilaterally abandoned all Czarist claims and conquests in the Far East, they would have lost little of later material or strategic value, unless one puts an exceptionally high value on a few million Japanese yen. They would have stood to gain the everlasting friendship of hundreds of millions who eventually liberated themselves from the burdensome yoke of feudalism and imperialist oppression. It is conceivable that they would also, as a result of a revolutionary act, have cultivated a foreign policy vastly different from the one in evidence today.

But whatever the reasons, acceptable or otherwise, for Soviet Far East policies in this period, there was almost universal expectation that once a political power, sharing the proclaimed world views of the Soviets, rose to a pre-eminent position, there would almost automatically take place a revolutionary change in Sino-Soviet relations. There is some evidence that this view had wide acceptance in Chinese Communist circles before liberation. In Red Star Over China, Edgar Snow reports Mao Tse-tung replying to a question in these words:

The relationship between Outer Mongolia and the Soviet Union, now and in the past, has always been on the principle of complete equality. When the people’s revolution has been victorious in China the Outer Mongolian Republic will automatically become a part of the Chinese federation, at their own will. The Mohammedan and Tibetan people, likewise, will form autonomous republics attached to the China federation.

The people’s revolution in China is now approaching the quarter century mark and Outer Mongolia is still not a part of the Chinese federation. In fact, Soviet troops, in large numbers, are in Outer Mongolia and Sinkiang, posing a threat to the peace and security of the People’s Republic of China. Why the wide chasm between promise and reality?


[1] Note: The Soviets offered a variety of explanations, from “misinterpretation” to “imperialist tampering with the Declaration in transmission” in an effort to dispose of this embarrassing question. However, there is no longer any doubt about the authenticity of the 1919 Karakhan Declaration. In an enlightening article in Far Eastern Quarterly, Vol. 10 No. 4 August 1951, Pp 355-364, Allen S. Whiting has marshalled a wealth of evidence that makes inescapable the conclusion that the Declaration was issued, quickly repented of, and withdrawn within a month.