The Sino-Russian relationship was, for many years, a subject that failed to excite. Very few experts committed time and effort to exploring its ups and downs. Those that did spent their time debating whether the relationship was really a marriage of true minds or a marriage of convenience.
They also argued over when we might expect serious rifts to emerge, and where: in Central Asia, in the Arctic, or perhaps over Beijing’s and Moscow’s divergent approaches to regional conflicts. In any case, Sino-Russian leaf-reading remained the preserve of the few.
Two developments jolted the expert community out of their relative complacency: China’s greater international assertiveness and the related turn to Sino-American strategic rivalry, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly, what the Chinese and the Russians thought of each other, the nature of their interaction, and the direction of their relationship, became a matter of considerable interest to Western observers. However, the level of expertise – perhaps in part due to previous neglect – lags far behind the need to know, which occasionally results in unduly simplistic assessment of the Sino-Russian relationship.
Forming a proper understanding of this relationship requires some familiarity with its tumultuous history. This brief essay reviews its key historical turning points in order to properly contextualise the relationship as it stands today, with its many strengths and its very considerable limitations.
China and Russia interacted continuously since the late 17th century, though the nature of this interaction changed dramatically over time. Whereas early encounters between Russian settlers and the Qing Empire were of more or less equal character (if anything, the Manchus held the upper hand), by the 19th century Russia became the dominant party, ruthlessly exploiting China’s weakness and domestic unrest to annex large tracts of land, including the sizable acquisitions of the 1858 Treaty of Aigun and the 1860 Treaty of Peking, which formed the general outline of the Sino-Russian border in the east. Russian military force was involved in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900–1, and Russia took part in the draconian settlement that followed. Between 1915 and 1921 Russia – though itself in the middle of a war and revolution – played a crucial role in facilitating Mongolia’s exit from under China’s control.
China’s loss, as a result of Sino-Russian interactions in the 19th-early 20th centuries, of a very substantial part of its territory, is something that still weighs on the national memory. It is not an issue that defines the relationship. Instead, it serves as a useful reference point for those periods when Beijing needs to re-appraise its northern neighbour in hostile terms, as happened, for example, in the 1960s, when the Chinese decried previous border agreements as “unequal treaties,” potentially laying claims to vast tracks of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Yet in the 1950s – at the height of the Sino-Soviet alliance – the border issue appeared inconsequential.
That period – from the signing of the Sino-Soviet treaty of alliance in February 1950, to the emergence of visible cracks in the relationship around 1959-60, provides another set of historical lessons for understanding Sino-Russian relations today. Understanding means here not just seeing certain similarities to the present period, but also appreciating the very substantial differences.
Crackings on the Wall
The alliance was not a Soviet imposition but a consequence of a conscious choice by the Chinese leader Mao Zedong, made for clear ideological reasons. In 1949, Mao decided to “clean out the house before inviting guests,” i.e. to effectively cut off China’s relationship with the West and “lean to one side” towards the Soviet Union. These ideological underpinnings – a shared adherence to Marxism-Leninism – seemingly strengthened the alliance but in reality made it weaker. That was because a common ideology required a rigid hierarchy. Any disagreements over the interpretation of what constituted the “truth” could undermine patterns of authority. This is in fact what happened in the late 1950s when, following Stalin’s death in 1953, the Chinese attempted to increase their relative standing in the alliance and challenged the correctness of Soviet ideological conceptions, triggering an angry response from Moscow.
Because the Sino-Soviet treaty of alliance was an actual military alliance, it came with certain obligations, which are not observable in Sino-Russian relations today. For example, the Chinese felt obliged in 1950 to intervene in the Korean War, when Stalin requested such intervention, whether or not they believed it was a good idea. Rejecting Stalin’s demands would have amounted to insubordination in a rigidly-structured hierarchy. Historians have even argued that Stalin deliberately chose to entangle the Chinese in the Korean war as a way of both testing their loyalty and also precluding their turn to the West.
In 1958, when Mao, without consulting with the Soviets, launched the Second Taiwan Strait crisis (bombarding the Taipei-held islands of Jinmen and Mazu), Nikita Khrushchev felt bound to advertise Soviet commitment to China’s security. By contrast, in 1959, when skirmishes broke out at the Sino-Indian border, Khrushchev adopted a neutral position because he did not want to spoil Moscow’s relations with India. This neutrality cost him dearly with the Chinese who accused Moscow of betraying an ally. The ideological underpinnings, and the formalised treaty obligations, made it so.
A Brief Undeclared War
It is perhaps not too far-fetched to argue that the rigidity of the Sino-Soviet alliance was what brought it to ruin. It proved unable to accommodate China’s growing prominence and its considerable ambitions. But there were other reasons, too. Indeed, it is hardly possible to talk of Sino-Soviet relations in the late 1950s and the 1960s and fail to mention China’s domestic ideological campaigns. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) othered the Soviet Union as an enemy of Chinese revolution. Sino-Russian relations were effectively made hostage to the domestic power struggle.
In the meantime, border disagreements led to bloody skirmishes of March 1969, when China and the Soviet Union fought a brief undeclared war. Apprehensive of the Chinese threat, Moscow dropped hints of a pre-emptive nuclear strike, though whether the Kremlin actually contemplated this option remains unclear.
What is clear is the degree of Moscow’s fear and resentment of China, best expressed in then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s frequent rants about how the Chinese were “treacherous and spiteful,” “not honourable,” and “exceptionally sly and perfidious.” In his time – in the early 1970s – Brezhnev attempted to form a united front between the United States and the USSR directed against China. He did not succeed, largely because the Nixon Administration, far from embracing Soviet fears of China, sought to exploit them while reaching out to Beijing in a bid to improve relations.
Another important period in Sino-Soviet relations was the early 1980s, because it was precisely then that Beijing and Moscow set out to repair their difficult relationship. The road was long and painful, and it was not until 1989 that relations were finally normalised. What were the underlying reasons for this rapprochement? On the Soviet side, the matter was straightforward. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979) and the crisis in Poland (1980-81), Moscow found itself isolated in the West. President Ronald Reagan publicly condemned Soviet aggression and unleashed crippling economic sanctions against the USSR. The sorry state of Soviet relations with the West prompted a rethink of the relationship with China especially that with Mao’s death in 1976, the Soviets lost their chief nemesis in Beijing.
Neither Allies nor Enemies
The new Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, was quite anti-Soviet in outlook but, unlike Mao, otherwise highly pragmatic. He was above all interested in creating a peaceful environment for China’s economic development. Improving relations with the USSR served that purpose. But there was more to Deng’s calculus. He strategically played the Soviet card to gain leverage vis-à-vis the United States that, he believed, were not sufficiently committed to China’s modernization and were double-dealing in the question of Taiwan.
Thus, for reasons of their own, the two sides drifted closer together, a tendency that continued well past the Soviet collapse, and has presently led us to what both Russia and China describe (probably correctly) as the best relationship they had had in history. It is, however, a relationship that has been shaped by difficult legacies of imperial conquest, bitter ideological rivalries, a complex interplay between domestic politics and foreign policy, and memories of a once “unbreakable” alliance that did not last even a decade.
What are some of the lessons of this difficult historical relationship? The first important lesson is that Beijing and Moscow are neither natural allies, nor natural enemies. Their shared history saw periods of very close cooperation but also periods of intense confrontation.
Both sides learned that conflicts are easier made than resolved, and have taken care to navigate disagreements on the reasonable understanding that a conflict between the two of them – if it does arise – will only benefit third parties. A good, working relationship between the two is beneficial to both.
The two countries share many interests, including in Central Asia (where they are both keen to maintain stability). They have complementary economies. In short, a good relationship is in the national interest of both, and this understanding is shared by the political elites in Beijing and Moscow, so much so that it is wholly inconceivable that even a pro-Western Russia would turn its back on China.
At the same time, there are still relatively few signs that the Sino-Russian alignment of today is coming to resemble the Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s. The rigid Sino-Soviet alliance, it turned out, was not so much an asset as a liability, constraining each side from acting in the way that it deemed fit. Thus, today, China can choose to support or not to support Russia’s war in Ukraine. It is not obliged to do so by a treaty of alliance, and has instead opted to play a careful game of bolstering Russia but with clear reservations.
It is entirely inconceivable today that China would send “volunteers” to fight on Russia’s behalf in Ukraine (as it did in Korea), much as it is inconceivable that, should China invade Taiwan, Russia would provide more than just token assistance. Russia has also acted with caution in not offering China too much support, for instance, in China’s border quarrels with India, and, in contrast to Beijing’s position in the late 1950s, today China is more accepting of such divergence.
The real question is whether the ever-closer relationship between Beijing and Moscow will create new expectations, constraining or committing each party in ways that it would not want to be constrained and committed. Historical lessons would weigh strongly against such a relationship, but leaders do not always heed historical lessons.
The seemingly increasing attention to shared ideological (anti-Western) conceptions in the Sino-Russian relationship (that really came to light in their joint February 2022 “no limits” statement and has since stayed prominent in official rhetoric) is a worrying sign that historical lessons are being ignored. Sino-Russian relations are, after all, most durable when kept free of ideological garbage.
Finally, what does all of this mean for the West? Some observers highlight the importance of playing on Sino-Russian divergences, or, indeed, driving a wedge between Beijing and Moscow, repeating Nixon’s and Kissinger’s feat of the early 1970s. But there are dramatic differences between where Beijing and Moscow find themselves today and where they were in the 1960s and the 1970s.
An Equidistant Position
While it is correct to keep in mind the potential sources of conflict between China and Russia (including the difficult legacy of imperialism and border conflicts), these problems are unlikely to exercise much influence on the relationship while both sides see a close relationship between them as in the interests of both sides. And while the relationship remains positive, the West will have few levers of influence. The main hope for the West is that Russian policy makers will eventually understand that drawing too close to China is not in the country’s interest, and move Russia towards a more equidistant position between China and the West. Such an equidistant position – a new form of “non-alignment” – would be Russia’s best answer to the emerging realities of Sino-Western rivalry that will shape the 21st century.
Yet, for now at least, Russia continues to drift seamlessly in China’s direction, becoming ever more dependent on Beijing, and, in some ways, replaying the mistakes of the early years of the Sino-Soviet alliance by “leaning to one side.”
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2023 special edition of the ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.