Uneasy neighbors even when both were fervent Communist states, Russia and China are perhaps closer now than ever before, drawn to one another by common regional conerns, shared suspicion of the United States and trade. But reaching this point has not been easy.

Political and ideological differences and a long history of conflict and territorial disputes complicate China’s relations with Russia. In the seventeenth century, the expansion of czarist Russia into regions claimed by China’s Qing dynasty (1644–1912) eventually resulted in confrontation along the Far Eastern frontier. The two powers concluded the Treaty of Nerchinsk in August 1689, delimiting the Far Eastern sector of the China-Russia boundary in an effort to avoid further conflict. The 1727 Treaty of Burinsk delimited the middle sector (roughly the current Mongolian-Russian boundary).

During China’s decline in the nineteenth century, Russia continued to make territorial gains at China’s expense, and this legacy of Russian encroachment continued to plague the two nations’ relations until the final decade of the twentieth century.

Territorial Issues in China-Soviet Relations

Following Russia’s October Revolution of 1917, the new Soviet government renounced all the treaties the czarist government had concluded with China, but new boundary treaties were not a high priority in subsequent negotiations, which dealt with the issues of Outer Mongolia and the Chinese Eastern Railway controlled by Russia.

Mao Zedong raised territorial issues in early 1950 during his visit to Moscow to arrange a Sino-Soviet alliance. Several times during the next ten years China raised the boundary question, and in 1960, with the open split in the Sino-Soviet alliance, the boundary dispute became a major source of tension.

In May 1963 the Soviet Union proposed holding boundary consultations. The talks began in February 1964, but Mao prevented progress toward an agreement when he raised historical issues. The talks deteriorated into recriminations, with Russia accusing China of betraying socialist internationalism and fostering a Maoist personality cult, and China accusing Russia of Soviet imperialism and abandoning Marxism.

In March 1969 a military confrontation at Zhenbao (Damansky) Island in the Ussuri River proved that the boundary dispute had the potential to flare into a larger military conflict. In the wake of the March clashes, tensions also rose along the border in Xinjiang, and during the summer of 1969 several other military incidents occurred. Moscow became increasingly alarmed and even contemplated a preemptive strike against China’s nuclear facilities. Despite mutual anxiety over the possibility of escalating conflict, China and the Soviet Union made no progress on boundary negotiations during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Boundary Settlement

With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s, Chinese-Soviet relations began to improve. A significant breakthrough came when Gorbachev, speaking in July 1986 in Vladivostok, publicly stated that Russia was willing to adopt the international standard and draw its eastern boundary with China by using the main channel of the Amur and Ussuri rivers rather than China’s shoreline, as it had previously insisted.

Coupled with Gorbachev’s Vladivostok initiative was the Soviet Union’s growing willingness to withdraw its military from Afghanistan, which it had invaded in 1979, end its support for Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, and dramatically reduce its troop strength along the Chinese-Russia border and in Mongolia. Progress in satisfying these three Chinese preconditions for normalization of relations resulted in the first Sino-Soviet summit in twenty years in May 1989, when Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping met in Beijing. Mutual interest in improving bilateral relations as both Russia and China pursued economic and political reform led to quick resolution of the boundary dispute; in April 1999 demarcation of the entire Chinese-Russian boundary was finally completed, except for two small islands at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri rivers, but the dispute over those islands was settled in early 2005 by dividing sovereignty over the larger island and recognizing Chinese sovereignty over the smaller island.

Post–Cold War Relations

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War created a sudden and fundamental shift in the global balance of power that made it imperative for China and Russia to develop closer relations. China and Russia, both undergoing a difficult transition from Communism to a market economy, have bruised national identities that make them natural allies against the United States’ global cultural, economic, and military influence.

  • In 1996 Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin formally announced a strategic partnership between their two countries during a summit meeting held in Shanghai. Russia and China now have a thriving military relationship. China is Russia’s largest weapons market, with 30 to 40 percent of Russia’s total arms sales going there. Russia has also sold China production technologies and has helped China develop new weapons systems by sending Russian scientists to work in China’s defense industries.

China’s increasing appetite for energy and Russia’s considerable oil reserves have led to more extensive economic relations in the first years of the twenty-first century. By some estimates, China’s current proven reserves of oil will be depleted as early as 2020. Anticipating this eventuality, China has doubled its oil imports over the past five years. Beijing has a pipeline connecting China and Russia on the drawing board, but has not secured Moscow’s approval to begin construction. Siberian oil is currently transported into China at great expense in trains and trucks. Once constructed, the pipeline could supply as much as 15 percent of China’s imports.

One factor hindering closer relations between China and Russia is the demographic imbalance in the Far Eastern regions of Russia and northeastern China. The Russian Far East has a population of roughly 8 million, while northeastern China has a population of approximately 100 million; the Russians fear Chinese in-migration will cause them to become a minority in their own country.

Looking Forward

The past still haunts the future of Russian-Chinese relations, but in recent years the two countries have cooperated closely on common security concerns such as the North Korean nuclear issue. North Korea is an immediate concern to both Beijing and Moscow, and China has taken the lead in a multilateral effort to deescalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. To underscore these common security concerns, in 2005 China and Russia held the largest joint military exercises they have yet conducted, involving land, sea, and air forces.

Further Reading

Burles, Mark. (1999). Chinese policy toward Russia and the Central Asian republics. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Garnett, Sherman W. (2000). Rapprochement or rivalry? Russia-China relations in a changing Asia. New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Lukin, Alexander. (2003). The bear watches the dragon: Russia’s perceptions of China and the evolution of Russian-Chinese relations since the eighteenth century. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Nemets, Alexander. (1996). The growth of China and prospects for the Eastern regions of the rormer USSR. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Voskressenski, Alexei D. (2003). China and Russia: A Theory of Inter-State Relations. New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

Source: Hyer, Eric. (2006). The Middle Kingdom: A short history of China’s relationship with Russia. Guanxi: The China Letter, 1, 7.