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Yuan Jiang

PhD student in Media and Communication, Queensland University of Technology, Australia

China and the Soviet Union/Russia, as two geographical neighbours, have interactions with great breadth, depth, and complexity. More concretely, the bilateral relations have a huge impact on the domestic affairs and diplomacy of two countries. In the People's Republic of China (PRC), from its establishment in 1949 to the 1970s, many major events in domestic and foreign affairs have been directly or indirectly linked to Sino-Soviet relations. The October Revolution disseminated China Marxism, the official ideology that China has adopted thus far. The ruling party of China, CPC, was founded and guided by the assistance of the USSR until it gained power. After the founding of the PRC, China and the Soviet Union formed an alliance, and China applied the Soviet Union (USSR) model for socialist construction. Thus, it can be said that the bilateral relations reflect the history of the Chinese revolution and the history of PRC's early development. In USSR, although Sino-Soviet relations did not occupy a dominant position, the importance of Sino-Soviet relations should not be neglected. Especially, China played a role as the third force, swinging between the USSR and the US during the Cold War. After the dissolution of the USSR, China has been involved in a more important way in Russia. The decline of Russia and the strategic pressure of the US have made Russia tend to cooperate more with China. This tendency has culminated in the Western sanctions to Russia after the Crimea Crisis.

In general, the Sino-Soviet/Russian relations can be divided into four periods, drawing on the alterations in the bilateral relations: the alliance from the founding of the PRC in 1949 to the end of 1950s, the confrontation from the 1960s to the 1970s, the rapprochement from the 1980s to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, and the steady development from the formation of Russian Federation in 1991 to the present. Due to the fact that the BRI was proposed in 2013 and has been accepted by the Russian government, this part will emphasize Sino-Russian relations. Another reason to illustrate this layout is that although Russia has inherited the mantle of the USSR, Russia distinguishes from the Soviet Union due to the change of comprehensive power — from one of the bipolar superpowers to a regional power — and national system — from a communist state to a capitalist country.

There are several features in the bilateral relations that are worth clarifying. First, due to the changes of national strength, the Sino-Soviet/Russian relations were dominated by the USSR, whereas currently, China has surpassed Russia in terms of economics. Second, the US and the West have played a crucial role in shaping the Sino-Soviet/Russian relations. Third, the fierce fluctuation of the bilateral relations appeared in the USSR era, while the bilateral relations have been steadily improving since the formation of the Russian Federation.

However, it is difficult to say that Russia and China are allies. The two countries have repeatedly claimed that there is no alliance between them, and their closer bilateral relations are not in opposition to third parties. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that as for relations with China, they have never been at such a high and trusting level in all spheres: in the economic sphere as the basis for our relations safeguarding the interests of our countries on the global arena. However, if allied relations imply a military alliance, then neither Russia nor China are planning to set up such an alliance. By the way, it is committed to paper in documents, including those that were signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Russia this June.

This view summarizes the recent Sino-Russian relations and shows the pragmatism of the leaderships in Russia and China. Reflecting on the bilateral history, the two world powers understand that an alliance might be inappropriate for both. Despite the fact they have reached consensus on many topics globally and domestically, there are still some disagreements between them. For instance, it is impossible for China to shore up “the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia or the reincorporation of Crimea” due to the Xinjiang and Tibet separatism in China. Furthermore, the population disparity in the Far East border between China and Russia concerns the Russian Central and local governments. Additionally, due to the economic ascendance of China, Chinese influence has increased in Central Asia that has been Russia's backyard and traditional influential area since the second half of the nineteenth century, leading to uncertainty in Asian geopolitics.

China and the Soviet Union/Russia, as two geographical neighbours, have interactions with great breadth, depth, and complexity. More concretely, the bilateral relations have a huge impact on the domestic affairs and diplomacy of two countries. In the People's Republic of China (PRC), from its establishment in 1949 to the 1970s, many major events in domestic and foreign affairs have been directly or indirectly linked to Sino-Soviet relations. The October Revolution disseminated China Marxism, the official ideology that China has adopted thus far. The ruling party of China, CPC, was founded and guided by the assistance of the USSR until it gained power. After the founding of the PRC, China and the Soviet Union formed an alliance, and China applied the Soviet Union (USSR) model for socialist construction. Thus, it can be said that bilateral relations reflect the history of the Chinese revolution and the history of PRC's early development. In USSR, although Sino-Soviet relations did not occupy a dominant position, the importance of Sino-Soviet relations should not be neglected. Especially, China played a role as the third force, swinging between the USSR and the US during the Cold War. After the dissolution of the USSR, China has been involved in a more important way in Russia. The decline of Russia and the strategic pressure of the US have made Russia tend to cooperate more with China. This tendency has culminated in the Western sanctions to Russia after the Crimea Crisis.

In general, the Sino-Soviet/Russian relations can be divided into four periods, drawing on the alterations in the bilateral relations: the alliance from the founding of the PRC in 1949 to the end of 1950s, the confrontation from the 1960s to the 1970s, the rapprochement from the 1980s to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, and the steady development from the formation of Russian Federation in 1991 to the present. Due to the fact that the BRI was proposed in 2013 and has been accepted by the Russian government, this part will emphasize Sino-Russian relations. Another reason to illustrate this layout is that although Russia has inherited the mantle of the USSR, Russia distinguishes from the Soviet Union due to the change of comprehensive power — from one of the bipolar superpowers to a regional power — and national system — from a communist state to a capitalist country.

There are several features in the bilateral relations that are worth clarifying. First, due to the changes of national strength, the Sino-Soviet/Russian relations were dominated by the USSR, whereas currently, China has surpassed Russia in terms of economics. Second, the US and the West have played a crucial role in shaping the Sino-Soviet/Russian relations. Third, the fierce fluctuation of the bilateral relations appeared in the USSR era, while the bilateral relations have been steadily improving since the formation of the Russian Federation.

The Alliance from the Founding of the PRC in 1949 to the end of the 1950s

The day after the founding of the PRC, the Soviet Union officially announced diplomatic recognition, as the first country to establish diplomatic relations with China. During this period, China “leaned to one side” to follow the Stalin-led Soviet Union as the “elder brother” in terms of diplomacy, economic development and system design, with a hierarchical characteristic. Besides the aforementioned same political ideology and bipartisan history between China and the USSR, this strategy was determined by the objective environment at that time. With the support of the USSR, China joined the Korean War to oppose the US-led United Nations forces, leaving Beijing with the impossible task of establishing any official relations with the US-led Western camp.

In February 1950, the two sides signed the 30-year Sino-Soviet Friendship Alliance Mutual Assistance Treaty against the aggression of Japan and its allies. This treaty regulated that the USSR needs to “transfer the Manchurian railway to China by 1952 to the Chinese administration of Dalian and noted the eventual removal of Soviet troops from Lüshun”. Economically, this treaty stipulated a loan of USD $300 million to China and promised to send Soviet technicians in order to establish a modern industry in China. As a result, during this period, especially during China's first “Five-Year Plan”, the Soviet Union shored up the development of China, and meanwhile, the two countries also cooperated on many international issues. In public, Mao Zedong repeatedly praised the great friendship and alliance between the two countries, indicating the positive bilateral relation at this stage.

However, despite the comprehensive contributions of the USSR to China, former ambassador to Russia and Chinese expert on Russia Li Fenglin argues that the Sino-Soviet relations and the treaty are unequal. Some reasonable requests from China were neglected by the USSR, foreshadowing the incoming disagreements of the two sides. The fundamental reason is the asymmetric status and strength between China and the USSR, due to their different stages of development.

The Confrontation From the 1960s to the 1970s

After Nikita Khrushchev took the reins, the policy transformations in the USSR caused a divergence of the two countries. Jeanne Wilson summarizes that Nikita Khrushchev’s speech criticizing Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s renunciation of its agreement to provide nuclear technology to China, and Chinese criticism of Khrushchev for his overly slavish obeisance to the West all contributed to the worsening of the relationship.

At the beginning of this period, the bilateral confrontation was ideological. Khrushchev criticized that the CPC only mechanically repeats what Lenin said decades ago, while Mao Zedong condemned the Soviet Union for deviating from socialism and became revisionist. Furthermore, their disagreements also appeared in different views regarding some international issues. For example, in 1968, Soviet troops sent Czechoslovakia to suppress the Prague Spring, which was characterized by the CPC as Soviet revisionist social-imperialism.

At the end of the 1960s, the Sino-Soviet quarrel escalated into border skirmishes. In 1969, large-scale battles took place between Chinese and Soviet forces on Zhenbao Island, bringing the allies of the past to the brink of war. At that time, China considered the USSR to be the main threat of the PRC, pushing China to reevaluate its foreign policy and lean to the US. In 1972, the strategic conversion reached a climax in Richard Nixon's historic visit to China. In 1976, the Brezhnev-led Soviet government attacked China as an important reserve force for imperialism against socialism.

The Rapprochement From the 1980s to the Dissolution of the USSR in 1991

Negotiations between the two countries, the Soviet Union and China, restarted at the beginning of the 1980s. After Deng Xiaoping took power, the Chinese government set out to improve relations with various countries to create a peaceful environment for economic reform. In 1980, the Chinese leadership abandoned its accusation of the Soviet Union as a “revisionist” nation. On the Soviet side in 1982, Brezhnev issued an address suggesting Sino-Soviet collaboration in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Deng argued that there were three demands or obstacles for the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations. First, the Soviet Union should stop supporting Vietnam’s aggression against Cambodia. Second, the Soviet Union should restore Soviet forces on the Sino-Soviet border to the condition in 1964, while withdrawing its troops from Mongolia. Third, the Soviet Union should remove its army from Afghanistan. The three problems were solved “until the ascension of Gorbachev to the Soviet leadership”. In May 1989, Deng and Gorbachev met in Beijing and announced that the relations between China and the Soviet Union were normalized, and the normalization of relations was not aimed at any third parties. As Deng Xiaoping pointed out, the purpose of the meeting is to end the past and open up the future.

However, the Sino-Soviet rapprochement was overshadowed by a variety of domestic and international issues. Domestically, Gorbachev faced the “economic collapse, the rise of Boris Yeltsin in Russia, the advent of separatist movements in other republics,” while Deng dealt with Tiananmen Protest and subsequently rebuilt the political authority of CPC and relations with other countries after suppressing the protest. Internationally, the two countries were troubled by the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Although Gorbachev responded to the Tiananmen protest with discretion and restrainment, Chinese leaders identified Gorbachev as ultimately responsible for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. After Gorbachev discarded the power monopoly of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Jiang Zemin condemned Gorbachev as a “traitor to communism” in 1990.

The Steady Development from the Formation of the Russian Federation in 1991 to the Present

Overall, Sino-Russian relations have gradually improved during this time. Nowadays, both countries claim that their relations are at their best in history. There are four reasons to explain this. The fundamental reason is that China and Russia have similar views towards domestic tasks and global issues. Domestically, the main aims of both are economic construction and political stability, requiring the “harmonious ties with a large contiguous neighbour». Globally, the most important perspective is that the two countries both advocate the multipolar world order and oppose the hegemony of any other country. The external rationale is that the deteriorating relations of China and Russia with the West have brought the two countries closer. For example, the Crimea Crisis in 2014 has pushed Russia's pivot to Asia, the Sino-American trade war since 2018 has promoted China to strengthen its cooperation with Russia. Economically, Russia seeks to benefit from the booming Chinese economy. Furthermore, the economic complementarity of Russia and China is beneficial for the two countries: China offers capital, consumer goods and labour to Russia, and Russia provides China with resources and military technology. Another influential factor is that after several decades of ups and downs in the Soviet period, the two countries have increasingly abandoned ideological battles and become more pragmatic, focusing on their own national interests.

Yeltsin Era From 1991 to 1999

At the end of December 1991, China officially recognized the Russian government as the legal successor to the USSR, and both sides reasserted the previous agreement between the Soviet Union and China. However, the onset of the bilateral relations was not smooth initially. The Yeltsin-government implemented pro-Western diplomacy at the beginning, following Western countries to criticise China for the violation of human rights in Tibet at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1992. It is possible to say that Yeltsin started to attach importance to Sino-Russian relations when his West-centered policy did not achieve the expected results.

In December 1992, as the first Russian president, Yeltsin, visited Beijing and Sino-Russian relations entered a new era. The two governments signed “the Joint Statement on the Basis of Mutual Relations between the PRC and the Russian Federation” and declared each other as “friendly countries” and further mutually beneficial cooperation. This document essentially initiates pragmatism in bilateral relations. More precisely, by recognising the reality after the collapse of the USSR and the difference of two sides in terms of political systems and ideologies, Russia and China still endeavour to develop good-neighbourly relations formulated on international law.

The rapid development of the bilateral relations has occurred since 1994, representing the leading transformation of Russian leadership from “pro-Western” to “looking simultaneously toward both the West and the East”. In September, Jiang Zemin was the first senior Chinese leader to be invited to visit Russia and agreed on the “Sino-Russian Joint Declaration”, “Sino-Russian Agreement on the Western Boundary” and a consensus on “no-first-use of nuclear weapons against each other” with the Yeltsin administration. The China-Russia Joint Statement announced that they have established a “constructive partnership posited on the principle of nonalignment and not directed against any third country”.

Internationally, this statement advocated multipolarity as a new world order and disagreed with “expansionism, hegemony, power politics, and the establishment of antagonistic, political, military, and economic blocs”. From 1994, the high-level exchanges between China and Russia have been frequent, and cooperation in the political, economic, technological, military, and cultural fields has continued to expand. In 1996, the top leaders of both sides decided to upgrade the bilateral relations to a “strategic partnership of coordination». Since then, the two countries have decided to institutionalize and regularize meeting procedures, laying the foundation of the future Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the main security institution in Eurasia.

Putin Era from 2000 Until Now

The Putin era, including the short-term presidency of Medvedev, is a period that has seen Sino-Russian relations progress remarkably. During this period, Russia and China concurred with the view that their relations are at their best in history. Putin took power in 2000, mainly inheriting the China policy of the Yeltsin era, but his leadership has a more positive influence on Sino-Russian relations than his predecessor. Putin streamlined the Russian bureaucratic system and consolidated the authority of the Russian central government, improving the efficiency of the bilateral contacts. Furthermore, the concentration of diplomatic power in the central government has effectively avoided the confusion and contradiction of foreign policy. Personally, compared to Yeltsin, Putin is more sensible and pragmatic. All these factors have increased the stability, credibility, continuity, and predictability of Sino-Russian relations.

In July 2001, Russia and China signed “the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation between the PRC and the Russian Federation,” laying the foundation for the next twenty-year development of a strategic and cooperative partnership between China and Russia. A crucial point to consider is that the cautious wording of the treaty of 2001, a careful attempt to refrain from ideological declarations or knowingly unrealizable obligations, indicated that the leaders of the two countries were thinking long-term and tried to avoid mistakes made fifty years earlier. In fact, the treaty of 1950 was formally in effect when Moscow and Beijing considered each other enemies and armed skirmishes were taking place on their common border.

However, it is arguable to say that the prudence and pragmatism in the treaty have given the future Sino-Russian relations more vitality and sobriety. Besides, the fluidity of the international environment has also facilitated closer Sino-Russian relations. In the early 2010s, the outbreak of the Arab Spring concerned China and Russia because of the potential instability and regime subversion the tide of revolutions may bring to the two countries. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Russia and China have agreed, using the possibilities of our two states, to coordinate our actions in order to facilitate the speedy stabilization of the situation, and the prevention of continuation of negative, unpredictable consequences.

Furthermore, the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Cold War has driven more political and military cooperation between China and Russia. The Crimea Crisis in 2014 exacerbated the Russo-Western relations, and in fact, accelerated the development of Sino-Russian relations. Likewise, the current Sino-American trade war has pushed China to deepen its cooperation with Russia.

Therefore, it is well-grounded that Sino-Russian relations are at their best in history now by summarizing the following three aspects. First, bilateral political and strategic relations have been achieved at an in-depth level. More precisely, China and Russia have established institutional political cooperation, including the mechanism of mutual visits between the heads of states, the system of regular visits between the prime minister, and the strategic security consultation, intergovernmental cooperation committees. For instance, over the past six years, President Xi met President Putin more than 25 times.

Second, the two countries completely resolved the border issue. China and Russia have a long border of 4,374 kilometers. Border disputes were a major problem affecting the normal development of relations between the two countries. In October 2004, China and Russia signed “the Supplementary Agreement between the PRC and the Russian Federation on the Eastern Section of the Sino-Russian Boundary”, which resolved all the remaining border issues. In 2005, the exchange of ratifications between the two countries put a complete end to this long-to-solve historical issue, eliminating the thorny issues that damaged the bilateral relations for centuries.

Third, based on similar positions on major international issues, Russia and China keep close coordination and collaboration in global affairs, such as the North Korean nuclear crisis, the Iraq issue, and the role of the United Nations. Both countries actively advocate multi-polarity in the world, and the development of a fair and reasonable new international political and economic order. For instance, in 2001, China and Russia jointly established the SCO with some Central Asia countries. To some extent, the SCO has expanded the Sino-Russian cooperation to Eurasia and has shaped the regional security structure.

However, it is difficult to say that Russia and China are allies. The two countries have repeatedly claimed that there is no alliance between them, and their closer bilateral relations are not in opposition to third parties. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that as for relations with China, they have never been at such a high and trusting level in all spheres: in the economic sphere as the basis for our relations safeguarding the interests of our countries on the global arena. However, if allied relations imply a military alliance, then neither Russia nor China are planning to set up such an alliance. By the way, it is committed to paper in documents, including those that were signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Russia this June.

This view summarizes the recent Sino-Russian relations and shows the pragmatism of the leaderships in Russia and China. Reflecting on the bilateral history, the two world powers understand that an alliance might be inappropriate for both. Despite the fact they have reached consensus on many topics globally and domestically, there are still some disagreements between them. For instance, it is impossible for China to shore up “the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia or the reincorporation of Crimea” due to the Xinjiang and Tibet separatism in China. Furthermore, the population disparity in the Far East border between China and Russia concerns the Russian Central and local governments. Additionally, due to the economic ascendance of China, Chinese influence has increased in Central Asia that has been Russia's backyard and traditional influential area since the second half of the nineteenth century, leading to uncertainty in Asian geopolitics.


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