Mending Fences: The Evolution of Moscow's China Policy from Brezhnev to Yeltsin

By Kuchins, Andrew | Demokratizatsiya, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Mending Fences: The Evolution of Moscow's China Policy from Brezhnev to Yeltsin


Kuchins, Andrew, Demokratizatsiya


Mending Fences: The Evolution of Moscow's China Policy from Brezhnev to Yeltsin, Elizabeth Wishnick. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. 320 pp. $45.00 hardcover.

Elizabeth Wishnick's Mending Fences provides a concise and clearly written history of Sino-Russian relations going back nearly forty years. The study is richly documented with ample use of Soviet period archival material, the growing Soviet memoir literature, and extensive interviews with many scholars and advisers involved in the development of Soviet and Russian policy toward China during this period. Wishnick has also spent a good deal of time reviewing materials and conducting interviews in the Russian Far East as well as on the Chinese side of the border, and this gives the study a great deal of insight about regional perspectives on the relationship. That and the use of Chinese-language materials adds very useful depth and perspective on the relationship on the Chinese side. Mending Fences is the first major study of the Sino-Russian relationship that takes the relationship well into the first post-Soviet decade, and it will be required reading for students, scholars, and analysts trying to better understand Russia's complicated relations in Asia. For this the field of Russian studies is thankful, and Wishnick is to be applauded.

Although the author describes a chronology of the relationship that is full of important and useful information, there is no overarching argument about the relationship. Wishnick advances a framework for the study, at least the Soviet part, by suggesting three key audiences for China policy: the international communist movement, the policy community in Moscow, and regional officials in the Far East. But the reader does not explicitly get a sense of how the author prioritizes the importance of those policymaking groups nor how they may have interacted over the Soviet period.

We know that the Soviet Union's rigid containment strategy for China after the 1969 border incidents had the counterproductive effect of driving the PRC into the arms of Moscow's greatest adversary, the United States. The bungling of relations with China stands as one of the most monumental failures of Soviet foreign policy after World War II. This is the puzzle that demands explanation. Wishnick astutely points out that the Soviet Union already enjoyed a large military advantage over China before Brezhnev embarked on a massive military build-up in the Far East in the latter part of the 1960s. As she points out, the Soviet leadership seemed blind to the most elemental dynamics of the security dilemma: that the absolute increase of party A's security comes at the expense of party B, and that party B will then respond. Was the reason that the Soviet leadership feared Mao was a reckless and irrational leader with little regard for human life? Was it a deep-seated "yellow peril" mentality? Was it that the Russians tend to overestimate the capabilities of China? Was it that the institutional and bureaucratic wiring of the Soviet Union favored drastically militarizing the China relationship? The author points to various Soviet and Russian sources that suggest all of those factors and more, but the narrative does give us an idea about which ones are most salient. In that regard Mending Fences is more a work of history than social science.

Undoubtedly the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations in 1989 and the continuing rapprochement between China and Russia in the 1990s stand as an important achievement for both Moscow and Beijing. …

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