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Collateral Damage: Sino-Soviet Rivalry and the Termination of the Sino-Vietnamese Alliance (review)
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Reviewed by
Nicholas Khoo, Collateral Damage: Sino-Soviet Rivalry and the Termination of the Sino-Vietnamese Alliance. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. x + 267 pp.

A political scientist by training, Nicholas Khoo approaches his topic with typical political science methods. He begins by laying out competing theoretical interpretations and then proceeds to assess the relative weight of competing explanations according to explicit methodological standards. Although he is effective in demonstrating the importance of the Soviet factor in the meltdown of the Sino-Vietnamese alliance, he tends to inflate and over-rehearse his argument. In striving for theoretical parsimony and monocausality, he loses sight of complexity, contingency, nuance, and multicausality in historical processes.

Khoo calls his explanation of Chinese foreign policy “principal enemy theory.” He contends that 1964 marked the de facto termination of the Sino-Soviet alliance and that after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the declaration of the Brezhnev Doctrine in 1968 the Soviet Union became China’s principal foe. Beijing’s designation of the Soviet Union as its principal opponent determined Chinese policy toward other countries. The breakdown of the Sino-Soviet alliance, according to Khoo, led to the termination of the Sino-Vietnamese partnership. “The increasing Sino-Vietnamese conflict from 1964 through the mid-1980s,” Khoo writes, “was one of the multiple effects of the de facto termination of the Sino-Soviet alliance” (p. 16). Khoo views the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia as a proxy war between China and the Soviet Union. This emphasis on the Soviet role in the decline of Sino-Vietnamese relations is not new. Scholars like Robert Ross have made similar arguments. Although Khoo breaks no new historical ground, which is not surprising for a political scientist, he effectively adduces historical evidence to buttress his theoretical contentions.

Bucking the trend in security studies in recent years, Khoo dismisses the role of ideology as an explanation of how China chose a principal enemy. Instead, he considers Maoist China “an archetypal neorealist state.” He believes that China’s international conduct after 1949 was in keeping with Kenneth Waltz’s neorealist theory of international relations. Under the structural condition of anarchy, Khoo asserts, China lived in a situation of uncertainty and sought to maximize its security “by adopting internal and external strategies to balance against the most powerful state in the international system, defined in terms of material capabilities” (p. 155).

Khoo’s explanation of Deng Xiaoping’s policy toward Vietnam in 1979 is simplistic. By privileging the Soviet factor over other developments such as Sino-Vietnamese bilateral issues, domestic politics, and the personal preferences of individual leaders, Khoo tends to simplify the complex causes for the fraying of Sino-Vietnamese ties. It is true that Deng Xiaoping saw the Soviet Union as posing a major [End Page 125] threat to China’s security. But can his fear of the Soviet Union alone satisfactorily explain his decision to “teach Vietnam a lesson” in 1979? In accounting for Deng’s choice of attacking Vietnam, Khoo makes no mention of Deng’s domestic considerations and desire to establish his authority and control over the party and the military after his return to power in 1978. Khoo implies that the geostrategic condition of Soviet power and hostility at the time meant that whoever was in the leadership position in China in 1979 would have launched a military strike against Vietnam. But if Hua Guofeng had stayed in power in 1979, it seems very doubtful that he, like Deng, would have chosen to attack Vietnam. Attributing Deng’s war against Vietnam solely to his apprehension of Moscow’s plan to encircle China is simplistic and reductionist.

Khoo’s volume exemplifies some typical problems of a dissertation turned into a book. It is earnest and informed, but also repetitive and burdened by long quotations from his sources. Khoo also has an annoying tendency to refer to Chinese and Vietnamese officials sometimes by their last names and sometimes by their first names, with no attempt at consistency. Finally, the publisher cannot take pride in the production of a book that is so full of typographical errors. In a volume that has gone through the editorial process...