H-Diplo Article Review 1158: Fu on Tagirova, “From Crisis Management to Realignment of Forces"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1158

17 January 2023

Alsu Tagirova, “From Crisis Management to Realignment of Forces: The Diplomatic ‘Geometry’ of the 1969–1978 Sino-Soviet Border Talks,” Journal of Cold War Studies 24:1 (Winter 2022), 116-154. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1162/jcws_a_01027

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Thomas Maddux | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Xue Fu, East China Normal University

Based on the latest declassified documents from the Russian Archives,[1] Alsu Tagirova’s article makes an important contribution to our understanding of the Sino-Soviet border negotiations that stretched through almost a decade from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. The existing body of literature on border negotiations does not make use of fundamental historical documents, such as minutes of the conversation between the head of the Russian delegation, Leonid Fyodorovich Il’ichev, and his Chinese counterparts—Qiao Guanhua and Yu Zhan. Tagirova reviewed eight drafts of the status quo agreement submitted by China and the Soviet Union (four drafts from each party); she explores how the Chinese and Soviet delegations perceived the terms ‘disputed areas,’ ‘undisputed areas,’ ‘status quo agreement,’ ‘treaty on the non-use of force,’ and other concepts, and also describes how both sides renegotiated the terms of the agreement in several exchanges. The author highlights the difficulty in obtaining documents from Chinese archives and acknowledges the unbalance in terms of sources used. It remains extremely difficult to appreciate the Chinese leaders’ perspective on border negotiations in the absence of related historical documentation. However, the author addresses this issue by incorporating some of the memoirs and oral testimonies from the Chinese diplomats who engaged in border negotiations.[2]

Most academic work views the Sino-Soviet border negotiations as a process aimed at easing tensions and resolving crises in the border area.[3] Tagirova’s article takes a non-traditional approach. Based on her analysis of the documents, she divides the border negotiation process into three phases:

The first witnessed both sides preoccupied with addressing immediate security concerns. The second revolved around a long-term commitment to maintaining peace on the border and working out the basic principles for further negotiation. In the third phase, discussions stalled and reached an impasse, but the two sides preserved the negotiation format, presumably to solve other diplomatic issues (117).

Tagirova argues that the first phase of the border negotiations was mainly to contain the crisis, with both sides at that time easing the tension in the border area through the meeting of the two premiers at the Beijing airport and peacefully discussing the border disputes. She contends that the second and the third phases were a tool for realignment of forces, and in the course of border negotiations, China and the Soviet Union rebuilt their ‘geometric’ alliances. China and the Soviet Union competed with each other in an attempt to improve their respective relations with the United States. Sino-Soviet border negotiations played an important role in this. Border negotiations during this period were beneficial to China and the Soviet Union in the implementation of their respective foreign policies and the formation of new ‘geometric’ alliances.

Tagirova devotes much of the article to describing the historical background and delving into a number of significant historical details. It is structured to prioritize the second phase of negotiations on the Sino-Soviet border. Few scholars have analyzed the historical background of border negotiations during this period as carefully as Tagirova. The second phase, lasting from October 21, 1969 to June 14, 1973, was the most heated phase of the border negotiations. The two countries submitted eight draft agreements on maintaining the status quo on the border, but the goal of reconciling the views and positions of the two sides remained unattainable. During this period, the United States pursued a policy of triangular diplomacy, seeking a parallel, coordinated relationship of simultaneous normalization with Beijing and Moscow. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev pursued a policy of ‘détente’ with the West, all the while increasing his military presence on the Sino-Soviet border and trying to normalize Sino-Soviet relations. As the US-Soviet relations improved, Sino-Soviet border negotiations stalled. At the same time, other political factors directly interfered with the process of border negotiations.

After 1973, Sino-Soviet border negotiations prompted China to realign its diplomatic strategy. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong replaced the theories of the horizontal line and big terrain with the theory of the three worlds. At a time when some changes were taking place in the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, border negotiations continued to see significant delays. The main topic for negotiations between the two delegations drifted from the border delimitation issue towards the issues of the border regime. The atmosphere of the negotiations also grew exceedingly unpleasant. The situation in Vietnam further complicated Sino-Soviet relations. Taking advantage of the stalemate in the border negotiations, China achieved a further improvement in its bilateral relations with the US; the two formed a quasi-alliance. It is important to note that when analyzing China’s foreign policy of this period, the article could have benefitted from a deeper dive into the Chinese-language literature on Chinese foreign policy.

Such scholars who work on the political history of Sino-Soviet border tend to focus on the first round (1964) and the third round of border negotiations (1987-1991),[4] and rarely study the second round of border negotiations. Most view the second round of border negotiations as a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ and ‘marathon negotiations’.[5] In fact, the importance of these border negotiations exceeded the settlement of the border issue itself, or removing the hostility between China and the Soviet Union. Instead, Tagirova argues, the negotiations helped both the USSR and China create new alliances and shift their position internationally. As a bonus, the border talks became one of the few remaining communication channels for the Soviet Union to convey to China its views on the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations and other international issues during this period. Tagirova demonstrates that ideological disputes often covered up the real issues and allowed the diplomats an opportunity to avoid the fundamental resolution.

On September 11, 1969, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai held talks with Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union Alexei Kosygin at the Beijing airport, during which Kosygin proposed the concept of ‘normalizing Sino-Soviet relations.’ During the 1970s, the Soviet Union repeatedly sought to normalize relations between the two sides and put forward many proposals, including the signing of a non-aggression pact, an agreement on the non-use of force, and holding a summit meeting. Meanwhile, China believed that the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations would only be possible if the Soviet Union eliminated nuclear and military threats.[6] In the process of border negotiations, the Soviet Union even emphasized that its relations with China should not be built on the basis of ‘proletarian internationalism,’ but on the basis of ‘peaceful coexistence.’ It also set the tone for the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations in the 1980s, that is, the building of a new type of interstate relations based on the ‘five principles of peaceful coexistence.’[7]

Tagirova’s article places the border negotiations in the context of international politics and views them from a perspective that ranges far beyond the bilateral diplomatic statements and territorial demands. While the article is an important contribution to the field, it opens new lines of inquiry that need to be further pursued by fellow scholars especially when Chinese archival materials become available for academic use.


Xue Fu is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at East China Normal University. Her main research interests lie in the history of Sino-Soviet relations.


[1] Russian State Archive of Recent History (RGANI), the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), and Khabarovsk Krai State Archive.

[2] Shen interviewed border negotiator Ambassador Li Fenglin to learn about border negotiations.

[3] Michael S. Gerson, The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict: Deterrence, Escalation and the Threat of a Nuclear War in 1969 (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analysis, 2010), 6–53; and M. Taylor Fravel, Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China’s Territorial Disputes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 214.

[4] Lu Guicheng, “Qinli Zhongsu Bianjie Tanpan,” Eluosi Yanjiu, No.4(2019): 16-29Ma Xusheng, “Shuli Zhongsu Bianjie Bianqianshi - Zhaohui Shiluo De Guojiexian (Zhiyi),” Shijie Zhishi, No.11(2001): 40-41; Ma Xusheng, “Takan Bianjie, Tanpan Jiaofeng - Zhaohui Shiluo De Guojiexian (Zhier),” Shijie Zhishi, No.12 ( 2001): 42-43; Zhou Xiaopei, “Zhongsu Bianjie Tanpan: wode waijiao shengya qidian,” Shijie Zhishi, No.22(2007): 52-54; Vorobyov V. On the settlement of border issues with the PRC. (Notes inspired by the memories of Chinese diplomats), Problems of the Far East, No. 3 (2012): 105-113.

[5] Zhou Xiaopei, Zhongsu Zhonge Guanxi Qinliji (Beijing: Shijie Zhishi Chubanshe, 2010): 13-14; Li Fenglin, “Mosike Ershinian Pianduan (Xuyi),” Shijie Zhishi, No.5 (1996): 24-25; Ye Shuzong, Bolieriniefude Shibanian (Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 2013), 277.

[6] Sun Yanling, “Zhongsu Guanxi Zhengchanghua Yu Deng Xiaoping Duisu Waijiao Juece,” Lengzhan Guojishi Yanjiu (Summer 2009): 187-222.

[7] G. V. Kireev, Neizvestnye stranitsy pogranichnyh peregovorov (Moscow: Rosspen, 2006), 158.