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  • Economic Cold War: America’s Embargo against China and the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1949–1963
  • Tao Peng
Shu Guang Zhang, Economic Cold War: America’s Embargo against China and the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1949–1963. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2001. 416 pp. $55.00.

The approach Shu Guang Zhang adopts in Economic Cold War is the same one he used in his Deterrence and Strategic Culture: Chinese-American Confrontations, 1949-1958 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992). In the earlier book he adapted deterrence theory to analyze Sino-American political and military conflicts in the 1950s, whereas in this book he applies embargo theory to trace the Sino-American economic confrontation of the 1950s and early 1960s and its impact on Sino-Soviet relations.

Drawing on rich archival sources and statistics from the United States, the People's Republic of China (PRC), Russia, and Great Britain, Zhang explores the evolution of the U.S. economic embargo against China and the PRC's subsequent responses. He argues that although the embargo originally stemmed mainly from Washington's frustration with the "loss" of China, the United States—the sender country—intensified its embargo in the 1950s and 1960s largely because of China's military threat and aggression in East Asia, particularly its intervention in the Korean War, its military operations in the Taiwan Strait area, and its continued aid to the North Vietnamese as well as its border conflicts with India. To foil the U.S. embargo, China—the target country—had to seek help from the Soviet "Elder Brother." As a result, China's economic recovery and reconstruction depended heavily on Moscow's economic aid.

In addition to analyzing the bilateral Sino-American confrontation, Zhang examines the "alliance relationship" (p. 267) of each side. He argues that both the U.S. embargo and China's anti-embargo efforts were disturbed by the two countries' respective allies and could not be implemented smoothly. U.S. allies such as Great Britain and Japan had major economic interests in China, and they constantly urged the United States to loosen its embargo. China's alliance with the Soviet Union partly offset the adverse impact of the embargo, but the Sino-Soviet relationship was not always [End Page 144] satisfactory. The large quantity of economic and military aid from the Soviet Union did not mitigate Beijing's dismay and anger when the Soviet Union displayed "haughtiness and rudeness" (p. 235) and a lack of enthusiasm for China's industrialization plans.

The most intriguing part of the book is Zhang's assessment of the effectiveness of U.S. economic sanctions. Although scholars continue to debate whether economic embargoes in general are ever likely to be successful, Zhang draws convincing conclusions in this specific case. On the one hand, he admits that the U.S.-led embargo, despite inflicting considerable damage on China's economy, was unsuccessful in stopping China's military operations or undermining the Chinese Communist regime. The main effect was to arouse greater hostility in Beijing against the United States. Part of the reason the embargo foundered is that the United States was unable to obtain wholehearted cooperation from its allies, especially the ones that were tempted by China's huge market. Because of strong allied opposition and Beijing's vigorous anti-embargo efforts and inducements, the West's collective embargo broke up in the late 1950s. Although the United States persisted with a unilateral embargo, other countries relaxed their controls.

On the other hand, Zhang contends that the "indirect" influence of the embargo (p. 268) was far-reaching. To meet the challenge of the U.S. sanctions, Zhang argues, Beijing was forced to centralize its political system and economy, emulating the Soviet model. He also avers that the embargo contributed to China's radical political and economic campaigns, which plunged the country into disasters. He makes a convincing case that the Great Leap Forward movement was partly inspired by the embargo. The sanctions, he writes, fostered Chinese leaders' determination to "exceed" the British and "overtake" the Americans within a decade and to smash "blind faith" in foreign powers by drastically increasing the output of heavy industry (p. 218).

More important, Zhang...