History in nutshell

History of China-Russia relationship in a nutshell (years 1650 – 1990)

“Who controls the present controls the past. Who controls the past controls the future.”                   

  • Georg Orwell

1600 – 1700

Practical and official contacts between two empires – China and Russia – began with border clashes in the 1680s which however were settled in 1689 by the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which delineated what was then the common border. The treaty was a pragmatic border arrangement.

At this time China had no political or diplomatic links with any other European state except for the Vatican, which was informally represented in Beijing by the Jesuit mission. The Treaty of Nerchinsk was the first formal treaty between China and any European power.

An interesting “cooperative” curiosity between these countries may be found, when China stood at the height of its imperial greatness. The Qing Dynasty had managed to turn China into a major military and political power in 18th century in Asia. In 1715 the Qing Dynasty permitted Moscow to establish a Russian Orthodox mission in Beijing. It eventually took on the role of a de facto embassy, the only foreign mission of its kind in China for over a century. The Treaty of Kyakhta of 1727, provided for a further delineation of the common border. It authorized as well a small but thriving border trade allowing also a treaty-based procedure for the establishment of a Russian diplomatic presence in Beijing. Russia thereby became only the second European state after the Vatican to achieve a presence in Beijing. 

1800 – 1945

For the rest of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century relations between the Russian and Chinese courts remained friendly though hardly close. St. Petersburg was the only European capital during this period to host occasional visits by the Chinese Emperor’s representatives. Russian diplomatic services were used by all Western countries when being in contact with Chinese Emperor’s court. This period of distant but generally friendly relations ended with the period of general crisis, wars and years of turbulence from the late 1850s forwards till the early 20th century and finally both empires collapsed.

An abrupt improvement in the relationship took place following the October 1917 revolution in Russia. The USSR became the strongest supporter during this period of Sun Ya-tsen’s Chinese nationalist republican movement and the Guomingdang government in the 1920s (originally Chinese Communist Party was the leftwing of the Guomingdang movement). Quite few researches in the West seem to be aware of this friendship period between the Sino-Russian governments in the 1920s.

1945 – 1980

After the WWII, the USSR’s military support was crucial to the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in the civil war, which led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance was signed in 1945 and renewed in 1950. The People’s Republic of China, formed in 1949, was first recognized by the USSR. At that time China initially conceded the Soviet global leadership within the communist movement. The alliance helped China a lot, especially after the UN-sponsored trade embargo against it. The Sino-Soviet cooperation, even in military sphere, was close during the Korean war.  A decade of close political, military and economic relations followed as formal allies.

The Sino- Soviet rupture of 1960 resulted in a decade and a half of very strained relations. An attempt to restore relations to normal following Khrushchev’s fall in 1964 was wrecked, possibly intentionally, by the Soviet defense minister Malinovsky who encouraged members of the Chinese leadership to overthrow Mao Zedong through a coup similar to the one that had overthrown Khrushchev. Relations with the USSR during this period also increasingly became hostage to Chinese internal politics with Mao and his supporters during the period of political terror known as the Cultural Revolution routinely accusing their opponents of being Soviet agents. This period of difficult relations eventually culminated in serious border clashes in 1969, an event that panicked the leadership of both countries.

This period of tense relations basically ended in 1976 with the death of Mao Zedong who shortly before his death is supposed to have issued an injunction to the Chinese Communist party instructing it to restore relations with the USSR. Once the post-Mao succession disputes were resolved with the victory of Deng Xiaoping a process of mutual rapprochement began.

1980 ->

This process was formally signaled by Leonid Brezhnev in a speech in Tashkent in 1982 which he made shortly before his death. In 1985 the American CIA reported China as “maneuvering in the triangle” by cultivating closer ties with the Soviet Union through a series of high-level meetings and inter-communist party exchanges of a protocol level and frequency not seen since the Sino-Soviet split. During a week- long visit by the Chinese vice premier Yao Yilin to Moscow in 1985, the two sides signed a historic agreement on bilateral trade and economic cooperation. By 1989 the process of rapprochement was complete allowing Gorbachev to visit Beijing in the spring of that year when however, his visit was overshadowed by the Tiananmen disturbances.

Since then there has been a steady and accelerating strengthening of relations. Gorbachev refused to involve the USSR in the sanctions the western powers imposed on China following the Tiananmen disturbances. Yeltsin, despite the strong pro-western orientation of his government, remained a firm advocate of good relations with China and worked to build on the breakthrough achieved in the 1980s.

Western perceptions of the China-Russia relationship are far too heavily influenced by the periods of the conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s. Across the nearly 400 years of the close history of their mutual interaction, only some 25 years of the dissonance represent more an anomaly than the rule. On the basis of the actual history of their relations, such an argument that China’s and Russia’s strategic partnership is bound to fail because of their supposed long history of suspicion and conflict towards each other is an argument from misunderstanding and prejudice rather than fact.