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 begun to attach itself to the Chinese bank in a defiant act of geographic irony. But during the turbulent spring of 1969 this little islet — called Damansky in Russian and Zhenbao Dao in Chinese — was the stage for a game-changing encounter.
It was on this islet 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 resumed two weeks later. The Soviets deployed tanks and bombarded the Chinese positions with BM-21 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 recognizing 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 its former ally — and, through Soviet diplomats in Washington, probing the American reaction to the idea.
With tensions spiraling 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, Marshal 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 along to 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!”
经过两年的秘密接触，中国实现了这个目标——这是相当快的，毕竟毛要做的是一件不可思议的事情：接受备受挞伐的帝国主义世界领导人。1970年12月，毛要求他的传记作者、有左翼倾向的记者埃德加·斯诺(Edgar Snow)向理查德·尼克松(Richard Nixon)转达访问北京的邀请。对尼克松绝无好感的斯诺大吃一惊。“好！尼克松好！”毛泽东反复地说。“世界第一个好人！”
The Chinese leader then had the transcript of his talk with Snow circulated to lower party organizations 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, with so much tolerance being extended to Americans, China could not improve relations with the U.S.S.R.
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 Western 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 Western 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 recognized 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, which had been 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 characterized by “brutality, perfidy, and hypocrisy.” They were “treacherous and spiteful,” “not honorable,” “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 the Soviets and the Chinese had with each other. Both looked to the United States for help, giving Nixon considerable leverage.
This leverage showed when in the spring of 1972 Nixon briefly escalated the war in Vietnam and triggered only lame responses from Hanoi’s two most important allies. The United States was in an auspicious position, especially after the border war of 1969 showed just how much Beijing and Moscow feared each other.
The game only worked well, however, as long as the fear remained. After a decade of tensions, China and the Soviet Union began to rethink their relationship. Relations were normalized with Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing in May 1989, and China and Russia have become 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/Damansky clash, only faint memories remain of the confrontation that brought China and Russia to the brink of a nuclear war.
然而，这个游戏只在恐惧存在的情况下才有效。经过十年的紧张关系，中国和苏联开始重新考虑两国关系。随着米哈伊尔·戈尔巴乔夫(Mikhail Gorbachev)1989年5月访问北京，两国关系实现了正常化。近年来，在习近平和弗拉基米尔·普京(Vladimir Putin)领导下，中俄关系变得密切了得多。遗留的边境问题在2004年得到解决。在珍宝岛/达曼斯基冲突50周年之际，这场将中俄推向核战争边缘的对峙只剩下模糊的记忆。
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 Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi recognize that a bad Sino-Russian relationship would only benefit the United States, and they 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 and fighting each tiger on his own turf. There is no Chinese adage for this, perhaps because it’s not a viable strategy.
If triangular diplomacy is a game, America has forgotten how to play it.