Normalization represented a major breakthrough in Sino-Soviet relations and culminated in Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing in May 1989, during which he met with Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. While overshadowed by the Tiananmen protests and short on immediate deliverables, the visit was a major success that represented the result of years of effort and negotiations by both sides. Gorbachev played a key role in ushering in this difficult normalization, as evidenced by the history of the period.
By the mid-1980s, when Gorbachev came to power in Moscow, Sino-Soviet relations had thawed slightly but were still far from normalized. Leonid Brezhnev had tentatively proposed an improvement in relations during his 1982 Tashkent speech, a proposal that was met with some interest by Chinese leaders, particularly among party elders nostalgic for the Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s. The larger picture seemed to favor rapprochement. Moscow’s increasingly difficult position in the context of Washington’s escalation of the Cold War under the Reagan administration, its failing economy, its costly quagmire in Afghanistan, and its need to focus on desperately needed domestic reforms favored improving relations with Beijing. So did China’s growing frustration with the United States, particularly with Washington’s policy on Taiwan, and its need for a stable international environment facilitating Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening program. Nevertheless, this background did not necessarily mean full normalization. Beijing still feared Soviet encirclement and saw Moscow more as a threat than as a partner. Thus, China insisted that Moscow remove “three obstacles” to improving relations: the presence of Soviet troops on China’s northern border; Soviet support for Vietnam, particularly in Cambodia; and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Gorbachev played a key role in removing these three obstacles, something that his predecessors had refused, and actively pursued a rapprochement with the PRC. To this end, Gorbachev sought to resolve a fourth issue by making concessions about the alignment of the disputed Sino-Soviet border and agreeing to the resumption of negotiations on the issue. Substantial progress in resolving the Sino-Soviet territorial dispute soon followed, producing an agreement in 1991. Gorbachev also made great efforts to cultivate Beijing by promoting better economic relations (which were mostly unsuccessfully), avoiding any criticism of the Chinese government, such as by refusing to comment on the growing demonstrations in Tiananmen Square at the time of his visit, and adopting a firm stance on the Taiwan issue. Particularly amidst the Tiananmen crisis, this approach solidified the improvement in relations and built mutual trust, despite many Chinese leaders’ personal disregard for Gorbachev whose ideas and policies they partly blamed for the student protests.
Against this background, Gorbachev’s legacy of normalizing relations with China has three long-term implications which continue to shape relations between Moscow and Beijing. First, Gorbachev not only put an end to more than three decades of conflict between China and the Soviet Union but also initiated a process of establishing closer ties with Beijing. A complete break with previous Soviet confrontational policies allowed the two sides to actively pursue better relations. The normalization of Sino-Soviet ties marked the beginning of a different political partnership between Moscow and Beijing. The new dynamics of this relationship were best captured in the warm but businesslike handshake between Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping which differed from the embraces and kisses that communist leaders often used to greet one another.
Source: National Interest