There was once an uninhabited islet lying close to the Chinese side of the Ussuri River, which marks the border between Russia and China in the Far East. “Was,” because it has since attached itself to the Chinese bank in a defiant act of geographic irony. But during the turbulent spring of 1969 this little islet — called Damanskii in Russian and Zhenbao Dao in Chinese — was a stage for a game-changing encounter. It was here that on March 2 the Chinese set up an ambush, killing 31 Soviet border guards.
The daring provocation was an effort to deter the Soviets from invading China, something that seemed only too possible after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. The fighting renewed two weeks later. The Soviets deployed tanks and bombarded the Chinese positions with BM21 rockets, killing (in their estimate) up to a thousand Chinese troops. After several months of uneasy quiet, another skirmish broke out on Aug. 13, this time along the Western section of the border, in present-day Xinjiang.
Twenty one Chinese and two Soviets lost their lives. The conflict was not entirely a surprise. Relations between the two communist giants had been tense for a decade, with each accusing the other of betraying Marxism. The ideological quarrel obscured a more fundamental divergence: Mao Zedong was unwilling to subordinate himself to the Soviets in the rigid hierarchy of the communist world. The Soviet leaders accused Mao of “great power chauvinism” without recognising that the label suited them equally well.
At least until 1969, the Soviets and the Chinese had avoided shooting at each other. Now, Moscow was weighing harsher retaliatory measures, even contemplating a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the former ally — and, through their diplomats in Washington, probing the American reaction to the idea. With tensions spiralling out of control, Mao called together a group of senior military officials to work out what China should do in response to the crisis. The head of the group, Marshall Chen Yi, came up with an unorthodox conclusion: Facing an implacable enemy in the North, China had little recourse but to consider mending fences with the United States, after two decades of mutual nonrecognition and deep hostility.
It took two years of secret contacts to get there — a short time, considering that Mao was about to do something unthinkable: embrace the vilified leader of the imperialist world. In December 1970 Mao asked Edgar Snow, his biographer and a left-leaning journalist, to pass Richard Nixon an invitation to visit Beijing. Snow — by no means a Nixon fan — was taken aback. “A good fellow! Nixon is a good fellow!” Mao reiterated. “The No. 1 good fellow in the world!” The Chinese leader then had the transcript of his talk with Snow circulated to lower party organisations for discussion and debate.
The record of these discussions showed that even the Chinese party faithful were dumbfounded by the chairman’s stand, with many wondering why Mao would call “reactionary” Nixon “the No 1 good fellow in the world,” and why, if the Americans were so good, China could not improve relations with the USSR. The rank-and-file party members did not understand the chairman’s global strategy, nor his abiding fear of the Soviet Union. He repeatedly compared the Soviets to Nazi Germany, and felt that both the Americans and the West Europeans had been weak in the face of Moscow’s expansionism. Mao now proposed to build a united front — a horizontal line, he called it — against the Soviet Union.
The line would join the United States, Japan, China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Europe in a quasi-alliance aimed at frustrating Moscow’s global ambitions. Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in February 1972 fit in with that vision. Some (though not all) of China’s allies appreciated Mao’s stratagem. The North Korean leader Kim Il Sung thought that having Nixon in Beijing was a brilliant move. “China did not go looking for them,” he told Mao. “This is an enormous victory. Your victory is our common victory. We should celebrate.” What mattered to Mao was that Nixon recognised that China was indispensable in the Cold War against the Soviets. The Americans, he thought, needed China more than the other way around.
Or, as a senior Chinese leader, Geng Biao, put it at one internal meeting in 1975, “The American imperialists want to take advantage of us to deal with the Soviet revisionists. They are unable to use us. Rather, we can use them.” The Soviet leaders were shocked to learn of Nixon’s visit to Beijing. They had long suspected the Chinese of duplicity, but they had not expected Mao to pull such a trick. In response, the Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev tried to defrost the Soviet-American relationship, plagued by tensions over the American war in Vietnam. He invited Nixon to Moscow in May 1972, and then traveled to the United States in June 1973 to foster a new spirit of rapprochement between the two Cold War rivals.
Brezhnev tried his best to convince Nixon that the Chinese were the wrong crowd to mingle with. The Chinese, he told Nixon in San Clemente, Calif., were characterised by “brutality, perfidy, and hypocrisy.” They were “treacherous and spiteful,” “not honourable,” “exceptionally sly and perfidious.” Instead of courting the Chinese, the Americans needed to team up with the Soviets. “I want to talk to you privately — nobody else, no notes,” he told Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, in May 1973. “Look, you will be our partners, you and we are going to run the world.” Nixon and Kissinger weren’t buying it. They were in a position to play the Russians and the Chinese against one another.
Washington now had a much better relationship with the Soviets and the Chinese than they had with each other. The Soviets and the Chinese in turn looked to the United States for help against one another, giving Nixon considerable leverage over both. This leverage showed when in the spring of 1972 Nixon briefly escalated the war in Vietnam, triggering only lame responses from Hanoi’s two most important allies. It was a profitable game to be in, especially after the border war of 1969, which showed just how much Beijing and Moscow feared each other. That game only worked well for as long as the fear remained. After a decade of tensions, China and the Soviet Union began to rethink their relationship.
Relations were normalised with Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing in May 1989, and became much closer in recent years, under Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. The remaining border issues were settled in 2004. On the 50th anniversary of the Zhenbao/Damanskii clash, only faint memories remain of the confrontation that brought China and Russia to the brink of a nuclear war. Russia may no longer be a communist country, the Cold War may be over and China may now be an economic powerhouse, but the old Beijing-Moscow-Washington triangle is still in place. China and Russia have not become allies, and there is lingering mistrust in the relationship, punctuated by Moscow’s worries over Beijing’s growing economic clout.
But Putin and Xi recognise that a bad Sino-Russian relationship would only benefit the United States, and are trying hard to avoid putting themselves at a strategic disadvantage. In this sense, both have learned the lessons of 1969. But what, if anything, did the American policymakers learn? In 1969, Nixon and Kissinger were acting in line with the ancient Chinese adage: “sitting on a mountaintop, watching two tigers fight.”
Fifty years later, the American strategists are getting off the mountaintop, fighting each tiger on his own turf. There is no Chinese adage for this, maybe because it’s not a viable strategy. If triangular diplomacy is a game, America has forgotten how to play it.