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Nigel Harris

China and the Russian Offensive

(December 1969)

From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.41,December 1969/January 1970, pp.2-4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Coudert (Rep.): ‘Did I correctly understand you to say that the heart of the present policy towards China and Formosa is that there is to be kept alive a constant hope that at some point there will be an internal threat of military action vis-à-vis Red China in the hope that at some point there will be an internal breakdown?’

Robertson: ‘Yes, sir, that is my conception.’ (Testimony by the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, Walter Robertson, to the House Appropriations Committee, US Congress, January 26, 1954.)

From March 2 of this year, both Russia and China have decided to publicise the occurrence of armed border clashes between their respective forces. The clashes are certainly not new, but the fact that they are now publicised indicates a change in the political strategies of the powers involved. In particular, it shows a new phase in the Russian attempt to take over the former role of the United States in Asia.

The British withdrawal from Malaysia and the likelihood of American withdrawal from Vietnam, Thailand, and possibly, at some later date, from Okinawa, is leaving according to the conventional wisdom, a ‘power vacuum’ in Asia. And it is this supposed vacuum Moscow is seeking to fill. It is doing so in ways identical to those used by Washington. On the one hand, Moscow proposes a collective security pact of the anti-Chinese Asian powers – a revived form of SEATO and CENTO, with the proposed addition of what the US failed to achieve, a North Pacific Treaty Organisation. On the other, bilateral military agreements between Moscow and individual Asian powers will provide the teeth to an Asian pact, and incidentally secure Russian hegemony within it. The pact will crown the efforts of Russian foreign policy over the past five years. Moscow has withdrawn from too close an association with particular powers (an association created in opposition to US patronage of other powers) and opened up relations with all of the formerly American client-States.

The two pivots of the new alliance are to be India and Japan. In the Tashkent settlement with India and Pakistan, Russia withdrew from support solely of India against US-supported Pakistan, but simultaneously increased its aid to India and also to Pakistan. India is now firmly locked into Soviet economic policy, without Russia being bound to fight Pakistan in the event of Indo-Pakistan hostilities. Mrs Gandhi has this year duly had talks throughout south-east Asia on possible regional collaboration. For Japan, Russia has reserved the richest bribes – the Siberian contract. Russia has been consistently pressing Japanese capital to invest in a £1,000 million project in Siberia – for natural gas, for timber, for mineral resources (copper, iron, coal), for road, rail and port development. As perks, Japan has been offered more extensive rights for private business trading in the Soviet Union than any other Western power, and also valuable overflying rights from Tokyo via Moscow to Europe (a concession which will give Japanese Air Lines a valuable edge in the airline war on the Far Eastern run). If these are the two whales for which Moscow anglers are fishing, they are not neglecting the minnows. This year alone Kosygin has visited Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, inviting all three to a Kabul meeting with Iran and Nepal; Podgorny has made a quick visit to North Korea; other Russian emissaries have made official trips to Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines; the Russian missions in Indonesia and Burma are already in entrenched positions; and finally, an unofficial visitor has had talks with the Kuomintang regime on Taiwan.

This elaborate noose is designed to encircle China, and it needs, to make it credible to all the powers, a tangible demonstration of undying Chinese hostility. On the Sino-Soviet border the Russian Army has been seeking to provide this demonstration, to trade on the US legacy of anti-Chinese hysteria. Over the past three years, the very thin population of the eastern Soviet Union has been stiffened with possibly up to 30 army divisions, with new major air bases built or expanded at four sites (adding to the existing four major bases). Tactical air units, including 300 combat aircraft are said to have been moved into Outer Mongolia (itself now transformed into a Russian garrison State). Mobile rocket units with tactical nuclear warheads are said to have been sited on the Sinkiang, Manchurian and Outer Mongolian border (in the last case, only 340 miles from Peking). And when the clash was finally achieved on March 2 on Chenpao Island on the Ussuri, the entire propaganda machine of the Soviet Union was ready to swing into action both to ignite an outburst of hysterical chauvinism in Russia and to line up the virtuous Russians with the world’s policemen. Not only was the ‘sacred Motherland’ raped on the Ussuri; with a ‘bandit-like stab in the back’; but Russia must take rapid action to clean out the rats before they attacked again – ‘only by means of a resolute offensive can one defeat the enemy’s forces, break his will to resist and achieve final victory’. [1] It was from Moscow that through until September came the urgent rumours of an immediate Russian pre-emptive strike on Lop Nor and the nuclear installations of north-western China. The scaremongering, the sabre-rattling, were all part of the act to create a Chinese shark with which to frighten the Asian fish into the Russian net.

For the actual basis of the dispute is too trivial to be considered. On the one hand, Tsarist Russia seized enormous areas of formerly Chinese territory, and compelled the ailing Ch’ing dynasty to ratify this theft in a series of treaties (two of the most notable being those of Peking and Aigun, 1858 and 1860). On the other, the Russians have subsequently seized other bits of territory beyond these frontiers. Following Lenin’s declaration in 1917, the Soviet Government in 1920 declared null and void all treaties between China and Russia, and renounced Russian territorial seizures and concessions in China itself. The Kuomintang were never able to cash the promise, and Stalin never positively took the initiative in annulling the borders. Yet now the Russians argue that all the territory they hold is rightfully theirs, and, by implication, the territory they seize is also theirs. What is more, they now positively defend the Tsarist acquisitions, saying that they were territories not historically part of China, inhabited by non-Chinese peoples historically oppressed by Peking, etc., etc. In furtherance of this definition of the problem, the Russians have sought to foster minority movements in Sinkiang, particularly in 1962.

Nor is it the case that Peking has been demanding the return of the Tsarist thefts. At every stage, the policy has been reiterated that the ‘unequal’ treaties should be the basis for the border, and marginal changes made by negotiation. Thus, on October 7 of this year, Peking repeated that ‘The Chinese Government has never demanded the return of the territory Tsarist Russia had annexed by means of the unequal treaties. On the contrary, it is the Soviet Government that has persisted in occupying still more Chinese territory in violation of the stipulations of these treaties and, moreover, peremptorily demanded that the Chinese Government recognise such occupation as legal’. Peking is reduced to plaintive repetition in the face of Soviet aggression and world-wide hostility: The Chinese Government has consistently held that the Sino-Soviet boundary question should be settled peacefully. Even if it cannot be settled for the time being, that the status quo should be maintained ... there is no reason whatsoever for China and the Soviet Union to fight a war over the boundary question’. Meanwhile, Moscow – like President Johnson throughout 1966 – pleads earnestly for a ‘negotiated settlement’, protesting all the time its peaceful intentions and the impossibility of negotiating with the ‘Mao clique’.

Of course, Peking has no more than a nationalistic perception of the border clash. No analysis of Russia emerges other than abuse – ‘Fascist white terror reigns in Soviet Society today’ [2]; Lin Piao compares the Soviet Union’s ‘socialist community’ to Hitler’s ‘New Order in Europe’; capitalism reigns at home through a Fascist dictatorship, and ‘social imperialism’ abroad. But this rhetorical froth demonstrates only that the Chinese government has no bearings whatsoever in Marxism (Moscow itself has similarly virtually no analysis of China at all, and what it has, does not distinguish China from, say, North Vietnam). In Peking, the demands of immediate policy dictate the social analysis, rather than the other way round. It is also true that the Chinese Government responds to the border clash not by arming the people with guns that may be turned upon itself but with all the panoply of chauvinism – ‘China’s sacred territory brooks no violation’.

That two gigantic powers should seek to murder each other over a barren island in a distant river (a barren island which, incidentally, disappears in certain seasons) might be taken as a basis for rejecting both sides. Socialism has been crucified on Chenpao: let both sides do their damnedest. To argue thus would be the worst kind of abstentionism. In the long history of the oppression of the mass of mankind by a minority, socialists can never stand aside when the oppressors and the oppressed nations clash. Unconditional support for China in its clash with the Soviet Union is an absolute obligation on all socialists, whatever their view of the possible evolution of China itself. As Lenin put it – ‘if tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, or India on Britain, or Persia or China on Russia, and so on, these would be “just” and “defensive” wars, irrespective of who would be the first to attack; any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory over the oppressor, slave-holding and predatory “great” Powers’. Socialists cannot treat with equality an unequal relationship – we are for the oppressed whoever they are.


1. Defence Minister Andrei Grechko, May 9.

2. Peking Review 14, April 4, 1969.

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