Taipei, Taiwan — Chinese leader Xi Jinping just wrapped up a three-day visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a warm note in which the two men praised each other and spoke of a deep friendship. It is the culmination of a complicated relationship spanning centuries, during which the two countries have been both allies and enemies.
Starting from the 17th century, the Chinese and Russian states placed great emphasis on each other’s foreign affairs, when two empires created a border with a treaty written in Latin.
If you share a border of thousands of miles with a neighbor, you’re either going to get along very well or very badly. Beijing and Moscow have done both.
“The relationship between China and Russia has always been uneasy,” said Susan Thornton, a former diplomat and senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.
“USSR TODAY IS OUR TOMORROW”
The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, following a brutal Japanese occupation during World War II and a bloody civil war between the Nationalist and Communist parties.
Russia was part of the Soviet Union, a global superpower, while China was poor, war-torn, and unrecognized by most governments. Communist leader Mao Zedong was younger than Josef Stalin, who led the Soviet Union until his death in 1953.
The early People’s Republic depended on the Soviet Union for economic assistance and expertise. In 1953, the slogan in Chinese newspapers was: “Soviet Union today is our tomorrow”. According to Joseph Torigian, an associate professor at the American University School of International Service, the Soviets sent about 11,000 experts to China in 1954-58 to help it rebuild after the civil war.
The two countries have also entered into a formal military alliance, but Moscow has decided not to transfer nuclear weapons technology to China.
But there were points of friction, especially after Stalin’s death.
In 1956, the then Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev condemned Stalin’s “cult of personality” at the international conference of communist parties. Mao, modeled after the former Soviet leader, took this personally.
When Mao decided to blow up two remote Taiwanese islands held by the Nationalist Party, which had been defeated in the Chinese Civil War, he did not warn Khrushchev. Khrushchev saw this as a betrayal of the alliance, Torigian said. In 1959, the Soviet Union remained neutral during the border conflict between China and India, which made China feel that it was not getting enough support from its ally.
The relationship soured until the two countries severed their alliance in 1961, in the Sino-Soviet Split.
They quickly became open rivals. Beijing accused Moscow of “false communism” and revisionism, as well as deviating from the Marxist path. Soldiers clashed along their borders in northeastern China and the western region of Xinjiang.
The Sino-Soviet split left Beijing isolated, but laid the foundation for action toward the United States. In 1972, the revolutionary communist state welcomed President Richard Nixon with a visit that paved the way for global recognition of Mao’s government and tacit action by the United States and China against Moscow.
The 1990s led to a rapprochement between China and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two countries have officially settled their border dispute.
In the years that have passed since then, the world has changed a lot, as has the fate of the two countries. China is currently the world’s second largest economy, while Russia’s economy stagnated long before last year’s invasion of Ukraine. Today, China faces the US in a strategic competition fueled by fierce nationalism on both sides.
Moscow and Beijing find common ground again. Under Xi Jinping, “repairing the damage and nurturing the relationship has gone much faster than ever before,” said Thornton, the former diplomat.
LEADERS SEE FACE TO FACE
Meanwhile, the similarities between the two leaders, as well as their personal relationship, facilitated the growth of relations.
Both Xi and Vladimir Putin see Western attempts to spread democracy as attempts to delegitimize themselves, and believe that authoritarian regimes are better suited to the challenges of the modern world. Russia supplies energy and China exports manufactured goods to Russia.
And while some analysts and commentators say that China is currently the leading partner in relations, given history, this is not necessarily the case in China.
Russia’s dominance over China is not only historical but also cultural. Students read translated Russian stories and poems in their literature classes, while many educated Chinese of the older generation learned Russian instead of English.
“Many Chinese people, including the elite, have yet to notice the historic reversal of China’s overall national power vis-à-vis Russia,” Feng Yujun, a prominent Russian scholar at Shanghai’s Fudan University, wrote in an article published last month that was widely shared. Feng declined an interview.
“Although China’s national power today is ten times that of Russia, the biggest challenge is that many Chinese are still ideologically subordinated to Russia,” he wrote.
AP news researcher Wanqing Chen contributed to this report from Beijing.