Daily Archives: 19 December 2010

Interpreting Sino-Soviet Border Clashes, 1969

From: The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill, by Molly Worthen (Mariner Books, 2007), Kindle Loc. 1202-26:

It remained unclear whether Beijing was simply using the Soviet border threat to galvanize internal party unity, or whether genuine geopolitical realignment was in the making.

The answer came in the spring of 1969, on a tiny, uninhabited fragment of land about 250 miles down the Ussuri River from the Soviet city of Vladivostok. Called Damansky by the Russians and Zhen Bao by the Chinese, the island appeared to be of only symbolic worth. Little over a mile in length and a half mile in breadth, Zhen Bao and its environs were mostly swampland and under water for much of the year. The island is closer to the Chinese side of the river, but both countries had long claimed it. According to Soviet press reports from March 2, 1969, that morning 300 Chinese troops on the island opened machine-gun fire on a Soviet patrol of frontier guards, killing 31 and wounding 14. The Soviets sent reinforcements, but these too were ambushed. Chinese accounts of the encounter, predictably, blamed the aggression on the Soviets (counting 70 Soviet dead), and although at first most Western observers jumped at a chance to blame the Chinese, the reality of that cold morning remained foggy. Both sides had withdrawn from the island by the afternoon, but Zhen Bao marked only the beginning of the conflict. As spring turned to summer, violence erupted again on Zhen Bao as well as thousands of miles to the southwest, on the border between Soviet Kazakhstan and China’s Xinjiang province, and along the Amur River. These skirmishes were more prolonged and bloody than the first brief encounter in March. Both sides issued conflicting accounts of the hostilities, but the geography of the battle sites in Xinjiang—easily accessible from nearby Soviet installations, and hundreds of miles from the nearest Chinese railhead at Ürümqi—suggested that the Soviets started the trouble there.

It was Hill’s job to report on the border conflicts in daily cables to Washington. His commentary was circumscribed by lack of trustworthy eyewitness accounts, and as always he relied heavily on careful reading of the rhetoric coming out of Beijing and Moscow. But by 1969, these had become well-worn limitations for Hill. He was used to sorting through fighting versions of the same story and extracting some shadow of the truth. The responsibility was thrilling. The cables required him to draw on all his experience as a China watcher and to write cogently under extreme pressure—a skill that is learned only by necessity.

Once Nixon and his staff had time to reflect on Hill’s anonymous cables, the significance of intensifying conflict between the world’s two Communist giants was clear. As then national security adviser Henry Kissinger reflected in his memoirs, a Soviet invasion of China would capsize “not only the geopolitical but also the psychological equilibrium of the world; it would create a momentum of irresistible ruthlessness.” Moscow’s periodic threats to attack Chinese nuclear installations or employ nuclear weapons to push People’s Liberation Army forces back from the border were particularly disturbing to Washington. On the other hand, an opportunity suddenly existed to soften China’s raving isolation and cultivate a triangular balance among the world’s three great powers. The situation was delicate. Beijing’s propaganda still accused America of colluding with the Soviets in a renewed attempt at “imperialist encirclement.”

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Benefits of Strong, Silent Diplomacy (and Ego)

From: The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill, by Molly Worthen (Mariner Books, 2007), Kindle Loc. 1227-47:

In the months that followed, Kissinger became a prime mover behind a series of symbolic gestures and guarded diplomatic advances toward China. On a late summer world tour, Nixon remarked cautiously about opening channels with the Chinese to intermediaries in Romania and Pakistan, who, it was assumed, would relay the message to Beijing. As the Soviets grew increasingly nervous that autumn, Kissinger authorized the end of the U.S. destroyer patrol in the Taiwan Strait—a signal whose military significance was dwarfed by its symbolic value. What followed, Kissinger wrote, was “an intricate minuet between us and the Chinese so delicately arranged that both sides could always maintain that they were not in contact, so stylized that neither side needed to bear the onus of an initiative, so elliptical that existing relationships on both sides were not jeopardized.”

Those brief clashes in the desolate reaches of southeastern Siberia set off a geopolitical chain reaction that would culminate in President Nixon’s much-vaunted trip to China in 1972. His visit, to those who had been watching most vigilantly, was less a diplomatic coup than an inescapable executive act confirming several years of geopolitical transformation. The shift in the balance among the Soviet Union, China, and the United States was, for those who knew what to look for, well marked along the way—in official editorials’ compromised turns of phrase, in remote clashes over an inhospitable bit of land, and, sometimes, in what was not said at all.

Hill was never bothered that Kissinger, for whom he would be a top speechwriter in a scant few years, had no idea who had written the cables he read with such interest. Although no reasonable junior officer expected to see his name attached to most of his work, Hill was distinct in his attitude. “Others said, ‘We’re working like dogs, but the time will come when we’ll be ambassadors and we’ll cash in,'” he recalled. “I didn’t. I thought this was great—way beyond anything I’d been asked to do before.” Hill’s self-confidence was more valuable for its noiselessness. It was unusual in a profession that attracted ambitious men and women intent on achieving power and making names for themselves. That breed of officer was often frustrated in the Foreign Service—a highly constrained job, bounded by meddlesome supervisors and a lethargic bureaucracy that shuttled its officers around the globe, granting them little notice or say in their futures. Hill was better suited to it than most. Although every telegram he drafted was revised and chewed up by his superiors, his ideas still confined by a system that offered no guarantee that those on high would listen, he felt that the months spent covering the Sino-Soviet border dispute were the apex of his career thus far. He loved the chance to shape information, to tell the story of the border clashes as he saw it. His was a silent ego, not a meek one.

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The Loo-Choo Naval Mission, 1846–1861

From: American Missionaries, Christian Oyatoi, and Japan 1859–73, by Hamish Ion (UBC Press, 2009), pp. 9-11:

Although Britain was loath to open trade relations with Japan, British naval officers were instrumental in beginning what is now considered by many (especially Japanese Anglicans) to be the first Protestant mission to the Japanese, the Loo-Choo Naval Mission. Bernard Jean Bettelheim and his English wife were associated with the British Anglican Church Missionary Society and were the Loo-Choo Naval Mission’s resident medical missionary couple in Naha between 1846 and 1854. A miserable time Bettelheim had of it, for he was beaten and ostracized by the Ryūkyūans and held in contempt by commanders of Royal Navy gunboats that infrequently visited them. In early February 1852, Bettelheim wrote to Commander Charles Shadwell of HMS Phoenix complaining about his treatment at the hands of Japanese soldiers and arguing that British settlers would never be safe until gunboat diplomacy was used to teach the Japanese a lesson. Shadwell strongly disagreed about the need for gunboat diplomacy and thought Bettelheim exaggerated his complaints about the Ryūkyūan authorities. In his report on his visit to the Ryūkyūs, Shadwell wrote that Bettelheim’s enthusiastic zeal was undoubted but that he was narrow-minded in his view of the world and that his isolation in Naha had led to “an idiosyncratic turn of mind which renders him an unsafe guide in matters which might involve grave political consequences.” The charge that Bettelheim was narrow-minded was a common criticism of evangelistically minded missionaries, but there is no doubt that he had developed in Naha an idiosyncratic turn of mind.

Bettelheim fared little better when Commodore Perry first visited Naha in May 1853. He had a long conversation with Perry soon after his arrival, very likely giving him a full report of his frustrations with the Ryūkyūans and what he saw as their negative characteristics. McOmie has suggested that as a result of his meeting with Bettelheim/ Perry was prepared to match the chicanery and duplicity that Bettelheim saw in the Okinawan authorities with “a little Yankee diplomacy.” By the end of Perry’s visit to Naha, however. Perry’s relations with Bettelheim were not good, and the commodore rejected Bettelheim’s offer to join the expedition to Japan as an interpreter. This was much to the relief of Samuel Wells Williams, the expedition’s missionary interpreter, who had developed a real dislike for Bettelheim while Perry’s flagship was anchored off Naha. Part of the problem was Bettelheim’s acting as an agent for the American warships in the purchase of provisions during their extended visits in 1853 and 1854, leading to suspicions that he was lining his own pockets. Yet, the officers of USS Plymouth thought his services had been so valuable to them during the winter of 1853 that they presented him with a silver goblet worth $80. Attitudes toward Bettelheim among Americans with Perry’s squadron were mixed. Lieutenant George Henry Preble of the USS Macedonian was generally sympathetic, but he thought that despite Bettelheim’s sincerity and enthusiasm, he was the worst kind of person to be a missionary to the Ryūkyūans: his great contempt for them meant that he knew less about the Ryūkyūans after eight years than some knew after eight months. William Heine, the official artist with Perry, clearly liked Bettelheim. Heine was very impressed when he became, by chance one night in February 1854, an unseen onlooker at the Bettelheim family’s evening prayers. The German-speaking Heine was a young man and possibly a little homesick, which might account for why he found the prayers of a close-knit family so touching. His overall generosity of feeling toward Bettelheim might also be a reflection that the polylingual missionary’s German was better than his English. On 15 January 1854, Bettelheim preached aboard the Macedonian; Preble recorded that “it was an ingenious and animated discourse to which his foreign accentuation and broken English gave additional force. Reading the Hymns was rather a stumbling block to him but he showed he conceived their sense.” Since Bettelheim was unable to convert the Ryūkyūans to Christianity, Preble thought his chief contribution was the translation of the Scriptures into Ryūkyūan language and the construction of a Ryūkyūan dictionary. A linguist said to have mastered thirteen languages, Bettelheim managed to translate four chapters of the New Testament into the Ryūkyūan language. This work was probably the most positive and lasting legacy of his sojourn in Naha. Under pressure from the Ryūkyūan authorities. Perry agreed to evacuate the Bettelheims from Naha.

In March 1854, Perry’s supply ship Supply took Bettelheim’s family to Shanghai, and later in June Bettelheim himself left Naha for good aboard USS Powhatan. He left behind his replacement, C.H. Moreton, formerly of the London Missionary Society, and Moreton’s wife, who had arrived in Naha that February, to continue on the mission alone. Bettelheim made the first step toward establishing Protestant missions in metropolitan Japan, which the northward movement of American warships under Perry from the Ryūkyūs presaged. Unfortunately, in December 1855, his successor, Moreton, fell ill and left Naha to return home. There was difficulty finding another missionary, and in 1861 the Loo-Choo Naval Mission was formally ended. What monies were left over were given to the British Anglican Church Missionary Society for the development of its future Japan mission, which eventually began in 1869.

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