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China: The Soviet Union
Country Study > Chapter 14 > National Defense > Perception of Threat > The Soviet Union


Despite common ideological roots, considerable Soviet assistance in the past, and warming relations since 1982, China in 1987 regarded the Soviet Union's military strength and foreign policy as the major threat to its security. Tensions in relations between the two countries had begun to escalate in the mid-1950s on which China claimed the right to navigate. Border provocations occasionally recurred in later years -- for example, in May 1978 when Soviet troops in boats and a helicopter intruded into Chinese territory -- but major armed clashes were averted.

In the late 1970s, China decried what it perceived as a Soviet attempt to encircle it as the military buildup continued in the Soviet Far East and the Soviet Union signed friendship treaties with Vietnam and Afghanistan. In April 1979 Beijing notified Moscow that the thirty-year Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance -- under which the Soviets aided the PLA in its 1950s modernization -- would not be renewed. Negotiations on improving Sino-Soviet relations were begun in 1979, but China ended them when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan late that year. In 1982 China and the Soviet Union resumed negotiations on normalizing relations. Although agreements on trade, science and technology, and culture were signed, political ties remained frozen because of Chinese insistence that the Soviet Union remove the three obstacles to improved Sino-Soviet relations. Although Chinese leaders publicly professed not to be concerned, the Soviet base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, Soviet provision of MiG-23 fighters to North Korea, and Soviet acquisition of overflight and port calling rights from North Korea intensified Chinese apprehension about the Soviet threat. Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev's 1986 offer to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan and the Mongolian People's Republic (Mongolia) were seen by Beijing as a cosmetic gesture that did not lessen the threat to China.

In the mid-1980s the Soviet Union deployed about one-quarter toone-third of its military forces in its Far Eastern theater. In 1987 Soviet nuclear forces included approximately 171 SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which China found particularly threatening, and 85 nuclear-capable long-range Backfire bombers. Approximately 470,000 Soviet ground force troops in 53 divisions were stationed in the Sino-Soviet border region, including Mongolia. Although 65 percent of these ground force divisions were only at 20 percent of full combat strength, they were provided with improved equipment, including T-72 tanks, and were reinforced by 2,200 aircraft, including new generation aircraft such as the MiG-23/27 Flogger fighter. Chinese forces on the Sino-Soviet border were numerically superior -- 1.5 million troops in 68 divisions -- but technologically inferior. Although the PLA units in the Shenyang and Beijing military regions were equipped with some of the PLA's most advanced weaponry, few Chinese divisions were mechanized. The Soviet Union held tactical and strategic nuclear superiority and exceeded China in terms of mobility, firepower, air power, and antiaircraft capability. Chinese leaders reportedly did not consider a Soviet attack to be imminent or even likely in the short term. They believed that if the Soviets did attack, it would be a limited strike against Chinese territory in north or northeast China, rather than a fullscale invasion.

Data as of July 1987

Last Updated: July 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for China was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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