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China – India Relations in the Contemporary world: Post-Cold war Era – Part I; By Madhum

Image Courtesy: Foreign Affairs

Article 30/2020

Background of the Cold war:

The word today is projected as going through the Asian century, where Asian dominance is projected in areas of politics, culture and economic aspects including other fields. But before the predominance of Asia in the world order, there existed a world order that was bipolar in nature. The bipolar world that dominated the second half of the twentieth century, came about after the end of World War II wherein after defeating Germany, opportunistic allies USA and USSR ended the alliance which emerged into the Cold war period that lasted from 1947 till 1991 until the collapse of the USSR. The tensions between the two then mighty powers (USA and USSR) cast upon an “iron curtain had fallen across Eastern Europe” as said by Winston Churchill. The cause of the Cold war had its root in the fact that both the powers, once allies, were built upon on differing fundamental values like, while the USA was a capitalist society which was based on democracy, USSR, on the other hand, was a communist society a dictatorship with only one political party. The Communist Party was always in control, the economy also was controlled by the government.

The collapse of the Mighty USSR:

As time progressed, there was an end in the cold war that came about by 1989 which was cemented after the disintegration of USSR in the year 1991. With the collapse of USSR, it disintegrated into 15 new states. The collapse of the USSR was inevitable, as the economic and political front had hit a slump and was stagnant for around 20 years even before the leadership was assumed by Mikhail Gorbachev in the year 1985. Gorbachev, came up with two sets of policies to kickstart USSR from the slump, these policies are deemed to be the push that led to the end of the reign of the Soviet Union. The first policy was glasnost or political openness. This rejected remnants of Stalinist repression, allowing freedom to media and releasing books criticizing the government and also gave the opportunity for the first time where parties other than the Communist Party could participate in elections. The second set of policies was perestroika or economic restructuring. Gorbachev felt that revival of the economy would occur only if the government loosened its grip over the economy and promoted innovation perestroika or economic restructuring.

There were other scholars who viewed the disintegration could be seen more than an economic downfall, but rather the downfall of ideologies. One such scholar was Francis Fukuyama, who in his article “End Of History” mentions that the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable given the dominance of the democratic ideology and capitalism or free markets over a totalitarian government with an economy based off communism and centralized planning, which the Soviet Union followed. The Afghan Jihad is also touted to be another reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet involvement in Afghanistan for around a decade caused internal strain between the Soviet Republics and the Soviet Government, in fact, certain Soviet satellite states sympathised with Afghanistan. The Afghanistan War cost the fragile Soviet economy a huge number of dollars country’s deepening their economic crisis owing to the exorbitant defence spending. The army found itself stalemate against the powerful American trained Mujahedeen, and eventually, the Red army who ousted Hitler lost its reputation. Public opposition also increased with surges in anti-war demonstrations, this was fuelled with the media challenging official versions presented by the government to cover up the devastating war reports. The Afghan war added new intensity to the forces of glasnost. Though Gorbachev withdrew the troops, it was too late and the effect it had on the Soviet Union collapse was unavoidable.

Another factor is the policy of non-intervention causing outrage, over the fact that Gorbachev wanted an exit from the arms race and withdrew troops who were stationed in Afghanistan since 1975.  All his efforts torpedoed but first, it caused the Eastern European alliances to, as Gorbachev put it, “crumble like a dry saltine cracker in just a few months.” After a series of revolution on Christmas day of 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev gave up his office and the Soviet Union disintegrated forming 15 new states. The mighty Soviet Union had fallen.

Sino-Soviet relation Pre-Cold war and During the Cold war:

Ideally, Sino-Soviet relations should’ve been one that was cordial and co-operative as both the countries were Communist, however, these countries always had underlying tensions, causing a strained relation between the two. The relationship between Beijing and Moscow can categorically be viewed as a rollercoaster ride, since establishing diplomatic relations in October 1949, subsequently Mao’s establishment of a communist regime after his win against the Nationalist party led by Chiang Kai Shek. In the book “Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945-1963” by Odd Arne Westad he outlines that relations between the two countries were based on the disinterest by the Soviet Union and mistrust by Communist Party of China (CCP).

Even prior to the Cold war as late as the 1920s and China establishing itself as Peoples Republic China (PRC), the instructions and advice for the CCP were being, ordered from Moscow. By the 1930s with Mao Zedong assuming the power of the CCP, he rejected the view of the Soviet who believed that China wasn’t ready for a socialist revolution. But the CCP went along with Mao who believed that China was indeed ready this clearly marked the start of ideological differences between the two Communist powers. With the People’s Republic of China being formed in October 1949 by CCP meant a great feat for global socialism and the establishment of strong relationships was deemed important. Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin met each other in 1949 and signed the bilateral treaty called the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance as a movement of resistance against the opposing powers that were from the West (the especially USA who termed Communism as evil). The treaty provided mutual economic aid, military aid and expertise. The economic model initially (1950’s) was a Stalinist model.

What seemed to be a successful collaboration on the outside, started to feel strains with Mao feeling that Stalin did not treat him as an equal partner. Personal equations of Mao and Stalin were tense and even though Mao understood the importance of the Soviet Union to the then newly independent Soviet Union, Mao felt overlooked and belittled by Stalin. With Stalin’s demise, Mao Zedong viewed himself as the world’s senior communist leader, which was undermined by Nikita Khrushchev who assumed power after Stalin’s demise.

With the Soviets non-intervention and lack of support for the PRC in the Korean war though it was the Soviet Union who encouraged Chinese intervention. Mao felt betrayed by Stalin who didn’t concur with his assurances, due to which China though politically succeeded backtracked economically.  The feelings of tension between the two only intensified. With the death, of Stalin in 1953, the leadership was passed on to Nikita Khrushchev who started working on the process of “destalinization” he also firmly believed that there could be a possibility “peaceful coexistence” between communist and capitalist nations. This view was unacceptable to Mao whose foreign and domestic policy was centred around anti-Western, anti-American and anti- Imperialist propaganda. Khrushchev’s visits to China didn’t bear any fruit in terms of their relationship and by 1962 their treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance was all but dead. Moscow also showed their displeasure against PRC by supporting India when both India and China went to war over border disputes. By 1968 both these countries were almost in the brink of war over a contested border in Xinjiang province in China’s remote north-west.

By the 1980’s Sino- Soviet relations began improving and this period is termed as the “Sino- Soviet normalization” under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping. The restoration of harmony between these two was restored only a year prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, where Deng Xiaoping welcomed Gorbachev to Beijing to “close the past and open the future”.

China’s concerns after the Soviet Union collapse:

After, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, China felt it was critical to examine the cause of the collapse and were paranoid as China also was a socialist country like the soviet. China employed copious scholars and think tanks to study on the fall of the Soviet Union. The common pointing out was towards the governance of Gorbachev. As mentioned in the article in The Diplomat by A. Greer Meisels, the viewpoint of Chinese scholars was “Blame the Man” where Gorbachev’s revisionist policies that were against Communist ideals were the cause of the downfall. This fact also was supported by a four-part DVD documentary the video, “In Memory of the Collapse of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union”, is jointly produced by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and its affiliated Research Centre of World Socialism. The video highlights how Mikhail Gorbachev’s Western-style reforms and Boris Yeltsin’s economic disaster of rushing to privatize state-owned enterprises were further determinants for the fall of the might Soviet.

China learned, from the Soviet an important lesson as mentioned by Minxin Pei’s article “Two lessons for China on how to avoid a Soviet-style collapse in its new cold war with the US” featured in South China Morning Post and that was the fact that ‘economic performance was essential for political legitimacy’. Based off on the lessons learned from the Soviet collapse China brought about certain changes if not very radical in their policies to avoid the fate of the Soviets.

Changes in China’s policies:

The beginning of the decade of 1990 China saw two systemic changes: First, marked by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the second, was the expansion of economic globalization in a steady manner. These two important changes influenced Chinese foreign policy in many ways. China belied that internal stability was a keyword for the domestic political order, which was critical for the continuation of economic modernization. It also brought about a shift in Chinese strategic orientation. With the fall of the Soviets, the international system changed and made many other countries realize the need to revise their outlook. The same led to change is seen in the approaches to foreign policy in the international system.

Quansheng Zhao in “Chinese Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era” brought about three keywords to describe the course of China’s foreign policy. The three key aspects were Modernisation, Nationalism and Regionalism. By Modernization, the reference was towards economic reforms that started even before the Soviet collapse when China opened (foreign investment, export development) it’s market in 1979 under Deng Xiaoping which was a high-risk experiment of state-controlled capitalism. Disintegration only proved the importance of economic development. China after the Cold war decided to expand its economy and made the economy more liberalized something that wasn’t existent pre-Mao. The country also started establishing strategic relationships with neighbouring and foreign countries cementing economic relations and didn’t blur the economic and ideological factors. China currently is a major economic power today and energy sources, overseas direct investment, Chinese MNCs and technological policy are some of the areas that they worked on in the economic sector in the post-cold war world. ASEAN and SCO also played a pivotal role in ensuring economic development. China successfully used Nationalism as a driving force to propagate the Process of Modernization. The play of Regionalism can be seen in the fact as to how China remains a regional superpower, especially in the region, despite its global aspirations. Deng’s introduction of the “28-character strategy” also is critical because it helped China coast when it’s economy faced turbulence after Western economic sanctions as a result of the Tiananmen incident.

Another new orientation of China’s foreign policy included forging diplomatic ties or relations, the same can be seen in the China- USA relation one of love and hate. During the Mao era, bilateral relations were that of importance while Deng pressed the vitality of bilateral relations. China used soft power as well as an overseas direct investment to extend its diplomatic ties.


After the collapse of the USSR, the balance of power in the world has changed in favour of the US. The post-Cold War international system brought about continuities and changes in the Chinese foreign policy with objectives of foreign policy during this phase was mainly to promote multilateralism in both economic and military aspects. China used the soviet disintegration to its benefit wherein it saw the world to be more harmonious and free of war without the Soviets and also had a fair chance to move out of the Soviet Union’s communist shadow. The leaders of the country found the collapse of the Soviet Union as a conducive environment and allowed them to build their economy. They rethought their foreign policy in terms of peace and independence, one that was anti-imperialistic and anti-hegemonic in nature.

(Madhumitha Kamalan is a research intern at Chennai Centre for China Studies. She is pursuing her second year  M.A in International Studies at Stella Maris College, Chennai. The views expressed are personal)



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