China and the Cold War

The Cold War was characterised by the tension between the two contending superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet the position of Communist China under Mao Zedong in the Cold War, in many respects, was not minor but of great importance especially with regards to its relationship with the Soviet Union.

China’s importance in the Cold War was primarily determined by its enormous size. With the largest population and occupying the third largest territory in the world, China was a factor that neither superpower could ignore. In the early stages of the Cold War, when China entered a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union, the United States immediately felt seriously threatened.

The possibility of facing offensives by communist states resulted in the US responding with the most extensive peacetime mobilisation of national resources in American history. In keeping with the policy of “containment” in the Truman Doctrine the US became involved in the Korean and Vietnam wars in an effort to “roll back” the communist threat.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the situation took a turn for the worst for the USSR following the Sino-Soviet split. China’s leverage in the Cold War though went far beyond changing the balance of power between the two superpowers. Its emergence as a unique revolutionary country in the late 1940’s also altered the orientation of the Cold War by shifting its arena from Europe to East Asia. Thus making East Asia the main battlefield of the Cold War, while crucially also helping the Cold War to remain ‘cold’.

Following the Chinese communist revolution achieving nationwide victory in 1949, the global Cold War was at crucial stage. The 1948-49 Berlin blockade and the Soviet Union's first successful test of an atomic bomb in August 1949 combined to pose a serious challenge to the two superpowers. If either tried to gain a strategic upper hand against the other the Cold War could have evolved into a global catastrophe, one that might have involved the use of nuclear weapons. Against this backdrop, Moscow's vision turned to East Asia.

On the eve of the victory of the Communist Chinese revolution, Liu Shaoqi, the second in command of the Chinese Communist Party, secretly visited Moscow to meet Joseph Stalin. Both concluded that a “revolutionary situation” now existed in East Asia. In an agreement on “division of labour” between the Chinese and Soviet Communists for waging the world revolution, they decided that while Soviet Union would remain the centre of international proletarian revolution, China's primary duty would be the promotion of the ‘Eastern revolution’.

The implementation of this agreement resulted in China's support for Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh and, in October 1950, massive intervention in the Korean War, making Mao's China a "front-line soldier" fighting against the US. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, East Asia continued to be a main focus of the Cold War. While China was playing a central role in the Vietnam War, the longest "hot" war during the Cold War period, the attention of the United States, following the assumption that China was a more daring enemy than the Soviet Union, became more focused on East Asia.

The active role China played in East Asia turned this main Cold War battlefield into a "buffer" between the US and the Soviet Union with China and East Asia in the middle, it was less likely that the United States and the Soviet Union would become involved in a direct military confrontation.

Communist China’s crucial role in the Cold War was further demonstrated by its actions during the period of deepening discord in Sino-Soviet relations known as the Sino-Soviet split. The Sino-Soviet split was not caused by conflicts in national interests but rather by different understandings and interpretations of the same ideology. Following Stalin’s death Mao increasingly perceived the Chinese Communist Party and particularly himself to be qualified to claim leadership in the “world Revolution”.

Eventually leading to eavh of the Communist states branding the other as a “traitor” to true Communism. When serious disagreements began to emerge between China and the USSR in the mid- and late 1950s, China and the Soviet Union had more shared national interests than ever given the hostility of the United States and other Western countries had toward the two. The USSR’s strategic alliance with China significantly enhanced the Soviet Union's position in a global confrontation with the United States. As China's emergence as a Communist country dramatically enhanced the perception of the Cold War as a battle between "good" and "evil" on both sides, making the conflict more explicitly framed by ideological perceptions.

Following the souring of relations between China and the Soviet Union and China’s rapprochement with the United States the tide of the Cold War shifted the way of America. As a result of having to confront the West and China simultaneously, the Soviet Union overextended its strength, which contributed significantly to the final collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In conclusion, the enormity of the role of Communist China’s and the Soviet Union’s relationship were paramount in shaping the events of the Cold War. China’s role as a major Cold War actor does by no means argue that China’s overall position was more important than that of the of the Soviet Union or the United States or change the bipolar nature of their Cold War conflict although rest assured China’s influence as political scientists Andrew J. Nathan and Robert S. Ross put it “during the Cold War, China was the only major country that stood at the intersection of the two superpower camps, a target of influence and enmity for both”


  • Chang, 'Friends and Enemies: the United States, China, and the Soviet Union, 1948-1972' (1990)
  • Chen Jian, Mao's China and the Cold War (The New Cold War History), (2001)