Δευτέρα, 12 Σεπτεμβρίου 2016


A)When the Chinese Stole a Soviet Tank, They Nearly Went Nuclear!

 Shahan Russell

Soviets and Chinese using sticks against each other during the Sino-Soviet split
Soviets and Chinese using sticks against each other during the Sino-Soviet split
Most people believe the world narrowly avoided nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Though correct, that wasn’t the end of it. In 1969, the world stood on the brink of yet another atomic disaster because the Russians and the Chinese screwed up in 1892.
That was the year the Russian Empire and the Qing Dynasty agreed to recognize the Sarikol Range as the dividing line between them. Unfortunately, they never demarcated exactly where China ended and where Russia began.

In 1900, Russia signed the Treaty of Beijing which gave them Outer Manchuria and other Chinese lands. When both countries became communist, their nagging border dispute was swept under the rug, especially since China needed Russian technological expertise.

Artist Ge Wei’s Sino-Soviet propaganda poster from 1962. The characters read: “The Chinese-Russian friendship will last forever.”
Artist Ge Wei’s Sino-Soviet propaganda poster from 1962. The characters read: “The Chinese-Russian friendship will last forever.”
At least till Nikita Kruschev ruined it. In February 1956, he hosted the 20th Congress of the Communist Party and denounced Joseph Stalin as a monster, demanding reforms.
Mao Zedong, China’s head honcho, was shocked. He thought of Stalin as a comrade-in-arms. Worse, he believed that Kruschev was also attacking him, for Mao felt that purges and summary executions were necessary for China’s transition from its feudalist past.
Then in 1958, Kruschev wanted to install long wave radio stations along China’s coast to help guide Soviet submarines. Mao was suspicious but agreed on the condition that China be given nuclear weapons. Kruschev balked, even though Chinese scientists had already received blueprints for an atomic bomb from their Russian counterparts.
The countdown had begun.

Mao (left) and Kruschev (right) together in 1958
Mao (left) and Kruschev (right) together in 1958
When Kruschev visited the US in 1959, Mao accused him of sucking up to capitalists. Things came to a head in 1962 when China used the Cuban Missile Crisis as an opportunity to occupy India’s Aksai-Chin region, and the USSR sided with India. But when Kruschev pulled Soviet missiles out of Cuba, Mao had had enough, and the official friendship between the two nations ended.
In 1964, Mao claimed that the Treaty of Beijing had been unfair. He demanded a return of territories under Soviet control, including Zhenbao (Treasure) Island, which the Russians called Damanski.
To mitigate increasing tensions, Kruschev agreed to hand over Zhenbao and other lands, but Mao screwed it up a few months later. During a speech, he jokingly said that he’d present Russia with a bill for their occupation of Siberia, the Far East, and Kamchatka. Kruschev was furious, so he nullified his agreement with Mao.

Artist Li Binghong's 1950 poster depicting Joseph Stalin and Mao together. The sign reads, "Sino-Soviet mutual aid to promote lasting world peace."
Artist Li Binghong’s 1950 poster depicting Joseph Stalin and Mao together. The sign reads, “Sino-Soviet mutual aid to promote lasting world peace.”
Chinese and Soviet troops began massing on the disputed border. Though technologically inferior to Russia, Mao was convinced that China’s superior numbers would far outweigh Russian technology. He was right.
When Arkady Nikolayevich Shevchenko (former Under Secretary General of the UN) defected to the US in 1978, he admitted that the USSR was terrified of China’s numbers. Shevchenko claimed that if Mao attacked, the Kremlin was going to launch nuclear missiles.
But Nikolai Vasilyevich Ogarkov, Marshal of the Soviet Union, cautioned against it. He knew they couldn’t nuke China without consequences to themselves. But while the Soviets thought of self-preservation, Mao did not.
Mao just couldn’t grasp how dangerous nuclear weapons really were, calling them “America’s Paper Tigers.” He was convinced that China’s vast size and numbers protected it from any possibility of nuclear annihilation. Still, he took no chances, so on October 16, 1964, China detonated its first atomic bomb in their test area)

The Chinese proposal to redefine the Sino-Soviet border with Zhenbao (Damanskii) Island on the Chinese side. "中国" on the left is China, while "苏联" on the right is the Soviet Union
The Chinese proposal to redefine the Sino-Soviet border with Zhenbao (Damanskii) Island on the Chinese side. “中国” on the left is China, while “苏联” on the right is the Soviet Union
Things only got worse from there. According to the official Chinese version, some of their civilians were attacked by Soviet troops in border regions. Others who peacefully protested illegal Soviet occupation were allegedly run over by Soviet tanks.
The Soviets claim that Chinese soldiers began haranguing Soviet border posts, some by waving Mao’s “Red Book” at their faces. To de-escalate tensions, Soviet border guards were ordered to use sticks to push Chinese nationals back across the border.
The Chinese retaliated by using longer sticks, resulting in ridiculous jousts. Later, they sent martial artists and wrestlers to the border, since neither side wanted outright war nor to lose face.

Soviets armed with sticks to minimize damage against the Chinese
Soviets armed with sticks to minimize damage against the Chinese
It all came to a head on March 2nd, 1969. In supposed revenge of murdered Chinese civilians, members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attacked Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island – killing 59 and injuring 94. The Soviets counter-attacked on March 15th by shelling the PLA on the Chinese side of the Ussuri River.
To take Zhenbao back, they sent in four of their newest weapons – the still-secret T-62 tanks. As they crossed the narrow frozen river, one ran over a landmine. The other three didn’t bother turning. They simply reversed back to the Soviet side.
A PLA soldier approached the damaged tank, opened the hatch, and found himself staring at the barrel of a pistol held by an injured Russian. The man fired, but his gun jammed, allowing the Chinese soldier to throw a grenade in. The Chinese wanted to tow the tank away, but sniper fire from the Soviet side prevented that.

Chinese border guard (on the right) waving Mao's "Red Book" in front of a Soviet border guard
Chinese border guard (on the right) waving Mao’s “Red Book” in front of a Soviet border guard
The following day, the Soviets returned to claim their dead, which the Chinese allowed. But when they tried to retrieve their tank, the Chinese fired, forcing them to retreat. On March 21st, the Soviets sent over a demolition team but were again beaten back by the Chinese.
With the Soviets gone, the Chinese navy was called in to help pull the tank onto the Chinese side. They arrived on March 28th, but were shelled, so the Chinese tried another tactic.
Using the tank and sniper fire as cover, engineers began dismantling the T-62. They were still at it on April 2nd when the ice began to melt. The Soviets took advantage of this by firing at the ice around the tank till it sank. Satisfied, they retreated.

A T-62 tank at the Museum of The History of Ukraine in WWII in Kiev, Ukraine
A T-62 tank at the Museum of The History of Ukraine in WWII in Kiev, Ukraine
They ignored the Chinese navy who continued their efforts to salvage the tank but whose suits were ill-equipped for the freezing temperatures, causing many to die of hypothermia. By April 29th, the Chinese pulled the rest out and sent it to a tank factory in Lyshuen.
But the Soviets hadn’t given up on their tank. In mid-May, a Chinese saboteur was caught near the factory with a bag full of explosives. Under questioning, he admitted to working for the Soviets who wanted him to destroy the factory and the T-62. He was executed, of course.

The PLA capturing the T-62 tank
The PLA capturing the T-62 tank
The tank didn’t turn the balance of power in China’s favor, but it accomplished something far more important. Mao realized that he couldn’t fight the Capitalist West and the Soviets at the same time, which led to a thaw in Chinese-US relations.
Only in 1991 was Zhenbao Island returned to China, but it was only in 2003 that the two nations finally delineated their borders.

B)How the Soviet Union and China Almost Started World War III
After weeks of clashes, war between the two nuclear powers seemed right around the corner.

Americans tend to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis as the most dangerous moment in Cold War brinksmanship. Despite some tense moments, Washington and Moscow resolved that crisis with only the death of U.S. Air Force pilot Maj. Rudolph Anderson Jr.
Seven years later, in March 1969, a contingent of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers raided a Soviet border outpost on Zhenbao Island, killing dozens and injuring scores. The incident brought Russia and China to the brink of war, a conflict that might have led to the use of nuclear weapons. But after two weeks of clashes, the conflict trailed off.
What if the brief 1969 conflict between China and the Soviet Union had escalated?

The incident on Zhenbao Island, where the initial ambush and the bulk of the fighting occurred, represented the nadir of Soviet-Chinese relations. Just ten years earlier, Beijing and Moscow had stood hand in hand as bulwarks of the Communist world. Struggles over ideology, leadership and resources, however, resulted in a sharp split between the allies that had global repercussions. The split exacerbated territorial disputes that had existed since Tsarist and Imperial times. The long, poorly demarcated border left numerous gray zones in which China and the USSR both claimed sovereignty.
After a few minor incidents, the Zhenbao Island incident drove tensions through the roof. A Soviet counterattack incurred serious casualties, as did a similar incident in Xinjiang in August. A consensus has emerged on both sides that the Chinese leadership prepared for and orchestrated the clash. Why would the Chinese provoke their much more powerful neighbor? And what if the Soviets had responded more aggressively to the Chinese provocation?

Avenues of Escalation

In the immediate wake of the conflict, both the USSR and China prepared for war, with the Red Army redeploying to the Far East and the PLA going into full mobilization. The Soviets enjoyed an overwhelming technological advantage over China in 1969. However, Beijing had constructed the largest army in the world, much of which mustered within reach of the Sino-Soviet border. The Red Army, by contrast, concentrated its strength in Eastern Europe, where it could prepare for a conflict with NATO. Consequently, at the moment of the clash, the Chinese could plausibly claim conventional superiority along much of the border.
However, China’s manpower advantage didn’t mean that the PLA could sustain an offensive into the USSR. The Chinese lacked the logistics and airpower necessary to seize substantial amounts of Soviet territory. Moreover, the extremely long Sino-Soviet border gave the Soviets ample opportunity for response. With a NATO attack unlikely, the Soviets could have transferred substantial forces from Europe, attacking into Xinjiang and points west.
The most critical avenue of potential advance lay in Manchuria, where the Red Army had launched a devastating, lightning quick offensive in the waning days of World War II. Despite its size, the PLA of 1969 had no better hope of stopping such an offensive than the Kwantung Army had in 1945, and the loss of Manchuria would have proven devastating to China’s economic power and political legitimacy. In any case, Soviet airpower would have made short work of the Chinese air force, subjecting Chinese cities, communication centers and military bases to severe air attack.
After conquering Manchuria in 1945, the Soviets looted Japanese industry and left. A similar scenario might have ensued in 1969, but only if the Chinese leadership could bring itself to face reality. With the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the very recent rear-view mirror, and competing factions still trying to ideologically out-radicalize one another, Moscow might have struggled to find a productive partner for peace negotiations. Continued Soviet advances might have resembled the Japanese main advance of 1937, albeit without the naval dominance that the Imperial Japanese Navy enjoyed. Expecting such attacks, the PLA might have withdrawn to the interior, conducting a scorched earth campaign along the way.

China tested its first nuclear device in 1964, theoretically giving Beijing an independent deterrent capability. However, their delivery systems left much to be desired—liquid-fueled missiles of uncertain reliability that required hours to prepare, and that could only remain on the launch pad for a limited amount of time. Moreover, Chinese missiles of the era lacked the range to strike vital Soviet targets in European Russia. China’s bomber force—consisting of an extremely limited number of Tu-4 (a Soviet copy of the U.S. B-29) and H-6 (a copy of the Soviet Tu-16 Badger)—would have fared very poorly against the USSR’s sophisticated air defense network.
The Soviets, on the other hand, were on the verge of achieving nuclear parity with the United States. The USSR had a modern, sophisticated arsenal of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, easily capable of destroying China’s nuclear deterrent, its core military formations and its major cities. Sensitive to international opinion, the Soviet leadership would have resisted launching a full scale nuclear assault against China (U.S. and Chinese propaganda would have had a field day), but a limited strike against Chinese nuclear facilities, as well as tactical attacks on deployed Chinese forces might have seemed more reasonable. Much would have depended on how the Chinese reacted to defeats on the battlefield. If the Chinese leadership decided that they needed to “use or lose” their nuclear forces in anticipation of decisive Soviet victory, they could easily have incurred a preemptive Soviet attack. Given that Moscow viewed Beijing as abjectly insane, Moscow could very well have decided to eliminate the Chinese nuclear force before it became a problem.

U.S. Reaction
The United States reacted to the clashes with caution. While the border conflict reassured Washington that the Sino-Soviet split remained in effect, officials disagreed over the likelihood and consequences of broader conflict. Through various official and non-official channels, the Soviets probed U.S. attitudes towards China. Reputedly, the United States reacted negatively to Soviet overtures in 1969 about a joint attack on Chinese nuclear facilities. However, even if Washington did not want to see China burn, it would not likely have engaged in any serious, affirmative effort to protect Beijing from Moscow’s wrath.

What Comes Next?
A decade before, Dwight Eisenhower had outlined the Soviet Union’s biggest obstacle in a war with China: what to do after you win. The Soviets had neither the capacity, nor the interest, in governing another continent-sized territory, especially one that would likely have included masses of disaffected resisters. And the United States, husbanding a “legitimate” government on Formosa, would eagerly have supported a variety of resistance elements against a Soviet occupation. Indeed, if a rump Beijing had survived the war, the United States might still have considered “unleashing Chiang,” in an effort to restore parts of China to the Western column.
The most likely outcome of war would have been short Chinese success, followed by a sharp, destructive Soviet rebuke. Such an outcome would have served to drive Beijing even more fully into the arms of the United States, which is likely one reason that the Soviets decided not to risk it.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and the Diplomat.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/ U.S. Government

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