22 NOVEMBER 1969, Page 20

Dire threat


The Coming War Between Russia and China Harrison E. Salisbury (Seeker and Warburg 42s)

The manner of Mr Salisbury's book does not belie its sensationalist title. It is written in the breathless, suspenseful style that is presumably aimed at the inhabitants of an airport lounge, who, while wishing to be absorbed for a while, are neither well informed nor even particularly interested in the subject under discussion. If such books diffuse understanding they are doubtless justified, but the style inevitably saps the confidence of the more purposeful reader.

At the end of his book Mr Salisbury, not surprisingly, retreats from his title. In a chapter entitled 'Is War Inevitable?' he replies, true to his style, 'The quick answer is: No'. This answer, though undoubtedly wise, may arouse some sense of grievance in the reader whose appetite has earlier been whetted by the assertion that 'once the ground has been sown with the seeds of con- flict each minor crisis, even if resolved, merely makes more certain, sooner or later, the great, the inevitable, the inescapable war.'

If Mr Salisbury cannot honestly assert inevitability, he certainly thinks a Sino- Soviet war quite likely. He discusses four or five distinguishable tendencies to that end. Much of his book is devoted to sketching the long history of conflict between Russia and China and the overtones of racial antag- onism accompanying it. A second tendency

arises from the Sino-Soviet competition for leadership of the Communist camp and of the underdeveloped nations to which that camp hopes to appeal. Thirdly, Mr Salisbury adduces the disputes that have broken out between Russia and China in the last few years, dating particularly from the late 'fifties when Russia failed to support China in its campaign against Quemoy and began the precipitate withdrawal of technical and particularly military assistance.

Arising from those events is the current delicate state of the military balance between Russia and China, in which the Chinese are on the verge of acquiring a degree of nuclear power with which they may safely defy the worst the Russians may threaten. In this situation, thinks Mr Salisbury,- lies the great temptation for Russia to launch a preven- tive war. His solution for all this comes as something of an anticlimax, for it is a massive programme of food supplies for China, device which, however worthy, seems oddly disproportionate to the inexorable trend of centuries-old conflict which Mr Salisbury has been tracing for us.

Scarcely anyone denies that the makings of a Sino-Soviet war exist. The boundary disputes as such are manageable ; Mr Salk- bury quotes the Chinese statements relin- quishing the more extreme Chinese juridical claims. Less tractable is the tension that such a long, common frontier typically breeds between great powers. For the moment military superiority lies overwhelmingly with the Russians. The Chinese position should improve, however, and as it does the Rus- sians will have to reflect on two dangerous possibilities: one, Chinese seduction of the non-Russian minorities in Eastern Russia. the other the prospect of what might be called demographic aggression by the migratory pressure of the growing hordes of Chinese, soon to number .a full thousand million.

Thus there is a good deal of merit in the view that, if there is to be a Sino-Soviet war, now is a good time for the Russians to have it. Mr Salisbury believes the Russian 'military' want it now and that they would wage it in an all-out nuclear fashion. But even today the risks are surely very high and Russian leaders are likely to cling to the hope that the full-scale collision may be avoidable. Russia might annihilate the Chinese armed forces but she would then face the spongy mass of Chinese popular resistance that has baffled so many would- be conquerors. It is true that history demon- strates that, if the task of conquering China is unmanageable, nations do make the attempt. Today, however, the Russians would have to reckon with the stigma of aggression, redoubled if The aggression were nuclear, and with all the attendant risks pre- sented by the unpredictable course of events in a world of other nuclear powers.

Nevertheless the Russians have put them- selves into a position of overwhelming military strength on their Chinese frontier and, if all-out war seems excessively risky. they might well launch punitive conven- tional airstrikes on China if renewed fight- ing broke out. The most recent military encounters seem to have been sought by the Russians, but their motives remain obscure. They may hope to teach the Chinese a timely lesson, they may be serving factional purposes within the Russian government. or they may hope to exploit similar divisions among the Chinese leaders. The Russians may also believe that their account of the border clashes will enhance the Chinese repu-

n for belligerance and thereby enlist the United States more firmly on the Russian side.

If a major, nuclear war were to break oni between Russia and China, the American reaction would be vitally important. The nightmare of a nuclear power in a multi- uclear world must be that, after suffering damage at the hands of one enemy, it would be pounced on by the unscathed forces of another. It may well be one Russian purpose In the strategic arms limitation talks that began this week to secure at least tacit assur- ances on this score. How far it is in the interest of the West to enrol on the Russian de of the Sino-Soviet quarrel is a question

yet, perhaps, sufficiently debated.