“China’s relations with the USSR and the US were largely shaped by increasing mistrust and suspicion.” Discuss with reference to the period between 1947 and 1979.

 From the May 2019 IBDP History Paper 2 exam

Throughout the years 1947 to 1979, China navigated through a turbulent period on the international stage, establishing and dismantling relationships with two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. This was a period of extraordinary change, not only within China itself but also in the dynamics of global politics. It was a time in which the political doctrine of communism clashed with that of capitalism on a worldwide scale, intensifying the Cold War's tensions. The statement suggesting that China's relations with both the USSR and the US were largely shaped by an atmosphere of mounting mistrust and suspicion holds considerable weight. This essay will examine this assertion in the light of key historical events, focusing on the alliances, conflicts, and ideological clashes that defined Sino-Soviet and Sino-American relations during this period.

The early post-war years marked an initial period of alignment between the People's Republic of China, established by Mao Zedong in 1949, and the Soviet Union. Both countries shared a commitment to communism, which formed the basis of their relationship. The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance, signed in 1950, reflected this. However, this initial sense of unity was misleading. Mao felt resentment at being treated as a junior partner and his aspiration for China's unique brand of communism to be recognised as a model for global revolution added to the underlying tensions. Moreover, Stalin's hesitation in supporting the Chinese Communists during their civil war with the Kuomintang was not forgotten easily by Mao. John Lewis Gaddis argued that Sino-Soviet relations were more complex and less predictable than they seemed on the surface. From Gaddis's perspective, ideological similarities didn't necessarily lead to harmonious relations; indeed, he viewed them as a source of competition. Further complicating the relationship was Khrushchev's policy of "peaceful coexistence" with the West, introduced in the mid-1950s, which Mao perceived as a betrayal of the communist cause. The ideological rift deepened with the USSR's refusal to support China's nuclear ambitions, contributing to the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s. Thus, the sense of mistrust and suspicion shaped their relations significantly.

Conversely, Sino-American relations were strained from the outset. The US was staunchly anti-communist and was the main supporter of the Chinese Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War. Following Mao's ascension, the US refused to acknowledge the People's Republic of China and instead recognised Taiwan as the legitimate Chinese government. American involvement in the Korean War from 1950-1953, fighting against the Chinese-backed North Koreans, further intensified the animosity. Robert McMahon suggested that the Cold War policy of containment, aimed at limiting the spread of communism, drove US foreign policy towards China. McMahon's assertion is supported by the fact that the US placed a comprehensive trade embargo on China following the outbreak of the Korean War. This policy not only fuelled anti-American sentiment within China but also solidified Mao's resolve to chart an independent course for the country's development, further distancing China from Western capitalist influence.

Despite these initial antagonisms, by the late 1960s, the geopolitical landscape had shifted enough for a reevaluation of Sino-American relations. Mao saw an opportunity to break China's international isolation by exploiting the strategic rift between the US and the Soviet Union. On the other hand, President Nixon saw engaging with China as a means to put pressure on the Soviets and extricate the US from the Vietnam War. Zhang Baijia noted that mutual strategic interests were the driving force behind the rapprochement between the US and China. He claimed that Mao's desire to counterbalance the Soviet threat and Nixon's ambition to exploit Sino-Soviet discord for American advantage formed the basis of their détente. The visit by Nixon to China in 1972 symbolised a historic shift in their relationship, breaking more than two decades of diplomatic silence.

However, even this rapprochement was fraught with suspicion and mistrust. The US maintained its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, and China was sceptical of the US's long-term intentions, suspecting it of attempting to undermine the Chinese Communist Party's rule. Warren Cohen argued that the normalization of relations between the US and China was more of a strategic manoeuvre than a genuine effort to foster mutual understanding and trust. He stressed the ongoing ideological differences and political mistrust between the two countries, which meant that the détente was always based on shaky ground. This underscores the statement that China's relations with both the USSR and the US during the period in question were, to a significant extent, shaped by growing suspicion and mistrust.

The highly publicised 'Ping Pong Diplomacy' in 1971 and Nixon's visit the following year were crucial steps in normalising relations, but they were not solutions to deeply rooted ideological differences and historical animosities. Consequently, the détente was limited and circumspect. The Shanghai Communique, signed during Nixon's visit, delicately avoided contentious issues such as Taiwan and merely expressed a shared desire for peaceful coexistence. Historian Chen Jian echoed this sentiment, noting that while the Nixon visit marked a turning point, it did not immediately dissolve longstanding mistrust. He argued that both nations, driven by strategic calculations, were willing to compromise their ideological principles temporarily. Chen stressed that the convergence of strategic interests, rather than a genuine sense of trust, dictated the course of Sino-American relations during this period. 

In conclusion, the assertion that China's relations with the USSR and the US between 1947 and 1979 were characterised by growing mistrust and suspicion is well-founded. These relationships, deeply intertwined with Cold War politics, were highly dynamic, impacted by both ideological disputes and strategic interests. While there were periods of apparent cooperation, such as the initial Sino-Soviet alliance and the Sino-American détente in the 1970s, these were underscored by suspicions and strategic manoeuvring. As historians like Gaddis, McMahon, Zhang Baijia, Cohen, and Chen have noted, this era's complexities reveal the intricacies of foreign relations in the global chessboard of the Cold War. As such, these relations illustrate the interplay of ideology, power dynamics, and national interests in shaping international politics. It is a testament to the profound influences of suspicion and mistrust on the course of history.