So far, this blog has examined China’s relationship with its archrival, its emerging competitor, and its archnemesis. Although China is ringed with nations and increasingly plays a vital role all around the world, there’s 1 other country with which it has a deep and important relationship that takes some explanation to understand: its Eurasian imperial counterpart, Russia.
The historical trajectories of China and Russia share many similarities. Both are vast empires that grew from smaller (but still very big) nuclei along river valleys into 2 of the world’s biggest countries, reaching deep into the Asian continent. Both were historically dominated by warlike nomads who were able to conquer them despite their much smaller numbers; the Mongols, the greatest of these peoples, even conquered both and incorporated them into a giant continental empire. Both managed to eventually turn the tables on them and dominate the nomads in turn thanks to their numbers, their bureaucrats, and the aggressive promotion of their culture and writing systems. Both propped up their empires with absolute emperors who claimed divine backing for their rule.
Despite this, for most of Chinese history Russia was a distant concern. (Asia is BIG.) It wasn’t until the 1600s, when Russian fur traders and explorers (often the same people) headed east across the Siberian expanses, that the 2 empires really came into contact. Part of Siberia was traditionally held by the Manchus, a nomadic people in northeast China who conquered the whole country in the 1600s. Sensitive to Russian encroachments, they attacked a Russian fort on their land and established the Sino-Russian border with the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689). Another treaty (Kyakhta, in 1727) fixed the border with Mongolia, allowed for bilateral trade, and guaranteed Chinese expansion into Xinjiang (the northwest).
These early stages in the relationship might have been peaceful and subdued, but by the late 1800s the tables had turned. Russia was resurgent, powerful and expanding further east. It wanted a warm-water port on the Pacific (most of Siberia’s coastline is frozen). China was weak, technologically inferior and beset by imperialist vultures. The opportunity was ripe, and Russia seized it by annexing the easternmost territory it had long craved in 1858 and 1860. It then built a port, Vladivostok, in its southeasternmost corner near Korea, and a railroad (the famous Trans-Siberian Railway) linking it with Moscow and the rest of Russia. In order to link more conveniently with the corner Vladivostok is lodged in, Russia wrangled concessions from the beleaguered Manchu Empire to extend railways across Manchuria (northeast China). And because the Liaodong Peninsula in that part of China is so strategically situated, it extracted control of Dalian (Dalniy), the port there, and built its own naval base at nearby Port Arthur. By 1900, Manchuria was clearly part of Russia’s sphere of influence, and it began to develop industry and support Russian commerce there. In Chinese eyes, it had become another imperialist vulture — it joined the multinational expedition to suppress the Rebellion of 1900, for example.
This was not to last, though. Another imperialist vulture, Japan, had its eyes on Manchuria, since it was beginning to take over Korea (which lies southeast of Manchuria). It felt threatened by imperial expansion so close to home and coveted Port Arthur in particular. In 1904, it started a war with Russia and beat it. Russia’s defeat helped spark an internal uprising in 1905, since the war was deeply unpopular. Burned by the whole experience, Russia retreated from China and turned its attention back toward Europe. China’s government was also deeply unpopular and discredited by this time, and inspired partly by the Russian example, revolutionaries overthrew the emperor in 1912. Russia would go on to have a successful revolution in 1917, when the Bolsheviks (radical Communists) overthrew a short-lived democratic government.
From this point on, Sino-Russian relations dramatically improved. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, believed that imperialism was the final form of capitalism, and denounced Europeans for preying on weaker, poorer foreign countries. They felt sympathy for the Chinese as another long-suffering peasantry undergoing a painful revolution and reckoning with the modern world. As such, the various imperialist humiliations that Russia had exacted from China were lifted in 1919 (although Mongolia was separated from the Chinese orbit and made the 1st member of the Communist Bloc, that is, a Communist regime under Russian control). Some Chinese revolutionaries looked up to Russia as an exciting, daring experiment in social reform, and as a possible “third way” between Occidental imperialism and Oriental lethargy. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the (mostly ineffectual) Republic of China that claimed to succeed the Manchus, welcomed advice from the Comintern (a Russian-controlled organization that sought to spread Communism around the world), took his party in a much more leftward direction, and praised Lenin.
The 1920s and ’30s were a complicated time for Sino-Soviet relations (the Soviet Union being the successor to the Russian Empire). On the plus side, the Republicans managed to seize control of most of China by 1928 under Sun’s successor, the general Jiang Jieshi. On the minus side, Jiang was much more conservative than Sun, and in 1927 he turned on the Communists that had allied with his party and massacred as many as he could. While the Soviet Union remained loyal to the battered Communists, it didn’t want to alienate the Chinese regime either, and tried to placate both sides, giving military advice to the Communists while urging them to seek reconciliation with Jiang. The Communists refused and kept on fighting. They finally reconciled during the Japanese invasion (1937-45), but went right back to fighting again afterward. And this time, the Communists won, startling their Soviet patrons by pushing the Republican government out of China altogether (it remains to this day in Taiwan).
With a giant part of the Eurasian landmass under Communist control, the 1950s were a glorious time for Sino-Soviet relations. The USSR showered China with economic, military and technical aid and advice on how to carry through a Communist revolution. They teamed up to support Communism in China’s neighborhood (Korea and Vietnam). China’s new dictator, Mao Zedong, paid a visit to Moscow in 1949 and treated his Soviet counterpart, Iosif Stalin, as a wise uncle. Thousands of Chinese students followed him, visiting the USSR to study the principles of a Communist state apparatus.
But strains quickly developed. The Chinese were annoyed that Stalin had taken advantage of China’s postwar disarray to reimpose some of the old imperial Russian restrictions on Chinese sovereignty, strip Manchuria of valuable industrial assets, and occupy part of Xinjiang. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchyov, struck Mao as a boorish, ignorant bumpkin with no right to treat him as the junior partner in the relationship. The Chinese were incensed at Khrushchyov’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes and annoyed at Soviet reforms under his rule, seeing them as backpedaling and going soft. For their part, the Soviets were unnerved by fanatical Chinese programs like the Great Leap Forward (which ruined Chinese agriculture and industry) and China’s belligerence against Taiwan, America and India. The battle-hardened Chinese leadership was willing to risk nuclear war; the Soviet Union saw no need to jeopardize its new relationship with India over some faraway mountains.
By the ’60s, the new Communist giants were enemies. The rift widened as China tried to pry other Communist countries away from the Soviet orbit (it only got 1 taker, Albania, although other Eastern European countries took advantage of the dispute to extract concessions). Chinese rhetoric only grew more heated during the Cultural Revolution, which fired up Chinese society behind a Mao personality cult and slavish adherence to his doctrine. The Soviet Union moved troops to its long border with China, sparking a battle along the Amur River in Manchuria. China began to fear the Soviet Union as the expansionist power other countries saw it as. To knock it off balance somewhat, Mao met with America’s president, Richard Nixon, and mended China’s frosty relations with America (and, thereafter, America’s allies like Japan). It worked: the Soviets backed away from their confrontational posture and rhetoric.
Thereafter, Sino-Soviet relations settled to a cool, guarded state. After Mao died in 1976, China undertook its own reforms carrying it away from rigid adherence to Communist orthodoxy. Both countries lost interest in exporting revolution. The Soviet Union’s reforming dictator, Mikhail Gorbachyov, was interested in mending relations and paid a visit to Beijing in 1989. He was received warmly, but the Chinese thought he was going way too far with his reforms, which combined economic restructuring (good) with liberalization of the political climate (bad). They showed him what they thought of the demonstrators in Beijing that marred his visit by murdering them. Gorbachyov refused to take similar ruthless measures, and as a result, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
The collapse of the Soviet Union ultimately led to a dramatic improvement in Sino-Russian relations. The new Russia is a much smaller, weaker, and politically less important country. Meanwhile, China has left behind the era when it depended on foreign aid and has steadily accumulated power and influence. The tables have turned: China is now the emerging superpower, while Russia is a Great Power that sees China as a source of economic vitality.
Neither country is Communist anymore, China having altered its economy to a freewheeling capitalism with heavy state influence. The Cold War is over. Yet the outlines of the Cold War dynamic are still visible in international politics. Both China and Russia resent the West for winning the conflict and spreading its world order everywhere. Both see it (and America especially) as arrogant and cocky and see a need for a counter-balance to keep it from growing too powerful and confident. This has had the discernible effect of driving the 2 countries back into each other’s arms, and they regularly block Western initiatives at the UN that they see as hindering dictatorship or enabling imperialism.
That being said, China and Russia have taken different approaches to the post-Cold War world. China has opened itself up, welcoming foreign investment and becoming a growing investor abroad in turn. It has a major role in international institutions and global supply chains. It is challenging America for supremacy in East Asia but is so far a minor player elsewhere. Russia seemed to be taking a similar path at first, although its energy-based economy and clientelist networks kept it from being as dynamic as China. But under its secret-agent-turned-dictator Vladimir Putin, it is much more suspicious and contemptuous of the West. It defied Western objections in 2014 by annexing Crimea, a part of Ukraine, and harassing that country with a separatist insurgency, and it still works against American interests in Syria by propping up its dictatorship. It antagonizes its western neighbors by holding war games on their borders and flying planes unnervingly close to NATO’s. Its propaganda is much more overtly anti-Western and portrays America as a corrupt, hypocritical wannabe imperialist and Europe as its spineless has-been lackey.
China isn’t quite willing to go this far, but it has historic resentments against the West as well. It has always seen itself as the center of the world (the Chinese term for China is “middle country”), but is acutely aware that it doesn’t always have international affairs under control. It’s nervous about Western countries and their allies like Japan who emphasize democracy, human rights and a free media and tends to see the masses as a fearsome, threatening force for chaos. (Both China and Russia have seen their fair share of revolutions.) It’s much more comfortable with dictatorship and a controlled political environment in general. This means it is much more likely to trust Russia than the West.
… But bilateral tensions remain. Lingering resentments about Russia’s imperial role, stinginess after the 1949 Revolution, and its “betrayal” within a decade continue to shape Chinese perceptions. Russian architecture throughout Manchuria is a visible reminder of Russia’s role in shaping that region. China also isn’t quite ready to antagonize the West as blatantly as Russia is. Annexing parts of other countries is the kind of old-fashioned imperialism China hates; intervening in foreign wars isn’t much different. For Russia’s part, it is perennially nervous about the massive population disparity between Manchuria (109 million) and Siberia (36 million; note that Manchuria is much smaller too). Buffer countries like Mongolia and the ‘stans of Central Asia have already shifted from Russian control to Chinese patronage; there is a worry that southeast Siberia might be next. Its history as part of Manchuria long ago doesn’t help.
The future of Sino-Russian relations remains uncertain, but by and large China is friendly with Russia, certainly more so than with any of the other countries I’ve covered so far. With Western sanctions biting into Russia’s economy, China is a vital market for its gas — the 2 countries reached a $400 billion deal right after the Crimea annexation in 2014 — and its most important trading partner ($95 billion in 2014). There is plenty of room for Sino-Russian cooperation: they oppose global freedom of information over the Internet, NGO activity, and Western meddling in general. State-sponsored hackers may have different methods (China cares more about industrial espionage, while Russia focuses on sowing discord and confusion), but the 2 countries share the goal of undermining Western dominance. They held a joint naval exercise in the Baltic Sea, in European waters, a month ago. China is a major market for Russian weapons and military technology. Given the similarities in China’s and Russia’s pasts, their shared national interests, and China’s growing power and confidence, it seems unlikely to expect another Sino-Russian rift anytime soon.