Isaac Deutscher 1952

Stalin’s Stake in Mao’s Army

Source: The Reporter, 13 May 1952. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The integration of Russian and Chinese power is still in its initial phases, and it is difficult to foresee how far it will develop; but it is already making itself deeply felt in Russia, China and beyond.

The most powerful impulse towards integration has been the common interest of Moscow and Peking in the Korean War, which has overshadowed the actual and potential differences between the two governments. Two years ago the Chinese Communists were still jealous of the foothold the Russians had obtained in Manchuria under Stalin’s 1945 treaty with Chiang Kai-shek. In February 1950, Mao returned from Moscow with a new pact of friendship and with the promise of a Russian withdrawal from Manchuria.

The Russians have since partly honoured that promise. The Chinese Eastern Railway is back under Chinese control. Some industrial installations and strategic positions, such as Port Arthur, have also been relinquished. Russian influence nevertheless remains strong in Manchuria. But Mao’s government seems now to welcome rather than to resent it. This change of attitude has been dictated more by power calculations than by ideological solidarity. Mao is convinced that as long as the Russians have a stake in Manchuria they are committed to the defence of the whole north-eastern fringe of China and will not strike any bargain with the West at the expense of their Chinese allies.

Since China intervened in the Korean War, the present Red Chinese regime has grown increasingly dependent on Russia, in spite of the fact that it came into existence independently of Russia and even in the face of Stalin’s opposition to Mao’s self-confident revolutionary strategy.

Economic Build-Up: There are many aspects of this new dependence. Soviet diplomacy acts as the mouthpiece for its young and boycotted brother. It is with Russian help that Communist China has been breaking the economic quasi-blockade imposed upon it by the West. Last year, according to Communist figures, 70 per cent of all Chinese imports came from Russia and the Russian bloc, and 78 per cent of China’s exports went to those countries.

A mixed Russo-Chinese company has begun to develop civil aviation in China; and two such mixed companies operate in Sinkiang, concentrating on the development of local mineral resources, which include oil and uranium. Russian heavy industrial equipment is arriving in China and plays its part in the opening of an ambitious industrialisation drive. True enough, Russia cannot spare much equipment. But what it can and does spare is just as much as China, with its limited industrial skill and labour, can immediately absorb and assimilate. At the same time, Russian scientists, engineers and teachers train the Chinese in industrial and administrative jobs. This form of assistance does not amount to much by American or European standards, but it is quite impressive by Asian ones. Both Russian and Chinese propagandists dwell on the contrast between Russia’s economic helpfulness and the treatment which the West, when its influence was predominant, accorded to China.

It is difficult to gauge the real scope of this economic cooperation, and one suspects that there is a lot of window dressing. To give only one instance: we are told that 70 per cent of Chinese imports came from the Soviet bloc in 1951, but no indication is given of the volume of the trade, and we are left to guess what the percentage figure, even if it is accurate, means.

Military Integration: It is not in the economic field, however, that the integration of Russian and Chinese power has made the most significant strides. Because the immediate impulse for it has been of a military nature, the process has been most advanced in the military and strategic spheres. About this aspect of the problem Peking and Moscow have been silent, but the outlines emerge quite clearly from independent reports.

When the Chinese decided to intervene in Korea, Moscow viewed the venture with considerable scepticism. The Politburo was not sure what account the Chinese would give of themselves in a struggle against well-led Western troops with superior weapons. Nor was the Kremlin confident that Mao would be able to keep complete control over his ‘volunteers’. The Kremlin’s scepticism has since been dispelled. The Chinese detachments in Korea have proved their mettle, and Mao and his generals have demonstrated their ability to keep up morale and maintain discipline. From this the Kremlin has drawn the conclusion that it is worthwhile, from the Russian viewpoint, to give the Chinese the heavy modern equipment and the planes, including jets, which the Kremlin had earlier refused to supply to the North Koreans. These weapons have radically changed the fighting in Korea.

Recon Operation: The Korean battles have, for the Russians, become a sort of reconnaissance operation, in the light of which they appear to have made certain decisions concerning the whole relationship between the Russian and the Chinese armed forces.

In the course of nearly two decades the organisation of Russia’s Far Eastern forces was completely separated from that of its western forces. The separation was initiated on Marshal Mikhail N Tukhachevsky’s advice in 1932, when the powerful Japanese Kwantung Army appeared in Manchuria to menace Russia’s Siberian frontier. General (later Marshal) Vasili K Blücher, who was placed in command of the Far Eastern Army, organised it on the basis of complete self-sufficiency in manpower, supplies and arms production. Throughout the 1930s, the Politburo reckoned with the probability that Russia would have to fight simultaneously against Germany and Japan. Since the two fronts would be separated by about six thousand miles and connected only by the Trans-Siberian Railway, everything was done to make the Far Eastern Army independent of any reinforcement from the west.

About one-quarter of Russia’s military potential was invested in the Siberian frontier areas. Thirty divisions with strong armoured elements and a self-contained air force confronted the Kwantung Army in 1941. During the war, however, the Soviet Supreme Command was compelled to draw on the Far Eastern Army in order to make up for losses suffered on the German front. The Stalingrad battle was fought mainly by units that had originally belonged to the Far Eastern Army. The wartime establishment of that army was planned at 60 divisions. Stalin brought it up to this strength before he declared war on Japan in 1945.

The emergence of Communist China promised to remove any danger from Russia’s Chinese frontier, and so to render the Far Eastern Army virtually superfluous. From the Russian viewpoint, however, it was risky to draw this conclusion as long as Mao had not consolidated his power and had not fully clarified his attitude towards Stalin. The existence of an ‘unfriendly’ regime in South Korea and the possibility that South Korea might be used as a springboard by hostile Western forces underlined for the Russians the continued need for a large and self-sufficient force in the Far East. This explains, up to a point, the extreme parsimony with which the Russians equipped the North Koreans in the first stages of the Korean War. Munitions for the Koreans (and for the Chinese) could come only from the arsenals of the Far Eastern Army; and these the Politburo and the Russian General Staff seemed unwilling to deplete.

Where the Jets Come From: The lesson that the Politburo and the General Staff appear to have drawn from the Korean campaign is that they can afford to entrust the Chinese armies with the role hitherto played by the Russian Far Eastern Army. In all probability that army is being dismantled, although perhaps a nucleus is being left. Much of its supply seems to have been placed at the disposal of the Chinese, which accounts for the large numbers of Russian tanks and planes that have appeared in Korea and China within the past year. Military observers seem to agree that the Russian supplies have not consisted of obsolescent matériel. In view of the relative stringency of Russian industrial resources, the Russians would not have been in a position to supply their allies with modern weapons in substantial quantities, if by doing so they had not achieved some important economy in their own military strength. What they are saving is nearly a quarter of their manpower, which now goes to provide reserves for their European armies. Thus the combination of Russia’s Far Eastern arsenals with Chinese manpower is likely to have an immediate effect on the balance of military strength in Europe.

The limiting factor in this partnership is China’s technological backwardness. The Peking government is not even in a position to introduce full-scale conscription, for the simple reason that it could not arm such a force even with rifles. Mao also lacks the officers, barracks and other equipment needed for such numbers.

For the time being, military service in China is, at least officially, voluntary. Four hundred thousand men are reported to be receiving regular training. The gradual expansion of training cadres, however, and the building up of a native armament industry may, in the course of time, permit the growth of a truly formidable force.

The prospects for the integration of Russian and Chinese power depend mainly on whether the present friendship between Moscow and Peking remains undisturbed. Stalin obviously relies on Western policy, which has done so much to bring about that friendship, to work towards its perpetuation.

After You, My Dear Mao’: On the other hand, Stalin seems to be applying in China a lesson he has learned from his conflict with Tito. He is trying to spare Chinese national susceptibilities and is making a tremendous show of treating China as Russia’s equal. He has gone so far as to accept with good grace the ‘insolent’ propaganda claim that for the Communist revolutions in ‘colonial and semi-colonial countries’ Mao has played a role comparable to that of Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet revolutions in Russia and Europe. In this connection, the following incident is noteworthy: the Communist Party of India until recently refused to accept Mao’s pretensions and professed pure Stalinism. But Moscow has sharply rebuked the Indian Communist leaders and told them to bow to the new ideological authority of Peking. This gesture on Stalin’s part has made old Comintern people rub their eyes in incredulity: it is almost as if the Pope had recognised another infallible Head of the Church.

Russian and Chinese sources are also making much play of the ‘generosity’ of the trade terms Russia has offered China. It is said that the prices the Chinese pay for Russian goods are 20 per cent below world prices and that Russia pays higher prices for Chinese goods than any other buyer. It will be remembered that the conflict over trade terms was given as one of the main motives for the feud between Tito and Stalin. All this ‘generosity’ may, of course, be a figment of the propagandists’ imagination. But there may be something more to it. The stakes in the Russo-Chinese game are so high that compared with them the balance of trade between the two countries is a minor affair. The Russians may very well be willing to pay a few kopecks more for Chinese tea or rice if Chinese manpower can protect Siberia.

Those familiar with the brutality that Stalinism has shown in the treatment of its smaller dependencies must wonder how far this game will be carried. At present the diplomat in Stalin desperately tries to suppress the bully. But will not the bully reassert himself and sooner or later spoil the game?