China and Russia have a long history of political and ideological differences. Territorial disputes, especially concerning the Far Eastern frontier, also have strained relations. China’s economic growth and Russia’s economic decline have shifted the balance of power between the two countries.

Differences deeply embedded in a long history of conflict and territorial disputes complicated China-Russian relations long before Communist regimes came to power in either China or Russia. Political and ideological differences exacerbated this relationship during the Soviet era. Russian Cossacks pushed into Siberia in the seventeenth century as hunters and trappers. In the later 1600s these settlers moved into the Amur River basin to establish agricultural settlements. This 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 advance into the Far East. Concluded in 1858, the Treaty of Aigun redrew the boundary between the two countries along the Amur and Ussuri rivers, but left territory east of the rivers in “joint possession” for future negotiations to settle. Two years later Russia prevailed on China to negotiate the Treaty of Peking (Beijing). This treaty granted the territory between the Amur and Ussuri rivers and the Sea of Japan to Russia.

Russia also advanced into Central Asia, where China claimed control over the area that is today China’s autonomous region of Xinjiang. The 1864 Chuguchak Protocol and the 1881 Treaty of Saint Petersburg (Treaty of Ili) defined generally the boundary between Russian Central Asia and Chinese Central Asia. Following the 1881 treaty, many boundary commissions worked to demarcate precisely the China-Russia boundary in Central Asia. This work was completed, except for one sector in the Pamir Mountains that was delineated by the 1884 Protocol on the Sino-Russian Boundary in Kashgaria (modern Chinese Turkestan, in Xinjiang) but was never demarcated. Russian troops occupied the area in the early 1890s, and the Qing court protested by sending Russia a note stating that it retained its claim to the region even if it did not maintain a garrison there.

Following the Japanese defeat of China in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, Russia prevailed on a weakened China to grant it the right to build a railroad across Manchuria to Vladivostok, with a southern spur running southward through Manchuria to the Chinese port city of Lushun (Port Arthur), which eventually became Russia’s principal naval base in East Asia. Just days before the fall of the Qing dynasty, Russia compelled China to sign the 1911 Qiqihar Treaty, which ceded to Russia several hundred square kilometers near the eastern trijunction of Russia, Mongolia, and China. This legacy of Russian encroachment into regions that the Chinese consider their territory continued to plague China-Russia/Soviet relations until the final decade of the twentieth century.

The Sino-Soviet Alliance of the 1950s

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China and Russia signed a treaty of friendship and alliance. For the next decade, China followed the Soviet development model, adopting a centrally planned economy with state-owned factories emphasizing heavy industry. Thousands of Russian advisers went to China to train Chinese technicians, and Chinese students were sent to the Soviet Union to study. With time, however, China’s growing resentment of Soviet domination, ideological differences between the two countries, and boundary disputes left over from the past sowed the seeds of conflict that led to the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, and eventually a border war in 1969.

Territorial Issues in China-Soviet Relations

Following the 1917 October Revolution, the new Soviet government issued the Karakhan Manifestos of 1919 and 1920, which renounced all the treaties concluded by the czarist government with China. However, 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, while he was in Moscow negotiating the Sino-Soviet alliance. The two nations discussed the status of the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR) during this first Sino-Soviet summit. Mao stated his desire for the eventual reunion of Mongolia with China and raised the boundary issues as well. The Soviet Union was apprehensive about China’s ambitions in Mongolia and Stalin insisted on a Chinese declaration acknowledging the MPR’s independence. Several times during the next ten years China raised the boundary question with the Soviet Union and in 1960, with the open split in the Sino-Soviet alliance, the boundary dispute became a major source of tension.

As ideological and political tensions escalated between the Soviet Union and China, the Soviets grew concerned that the boundary question had become so salient an issue in Sino-Soviet relations. In May 1963 the Soviet Union proposed holding boundary consultations. At the talks, which began in February 1964, Mao blocked progress toward an agreement when he raised historical issues. He contended that during the czarist period, China had ceded more territory to Russia than to any other imperialist country and that czarist Russia had expanded its borders at the expense of China. Mao stated that the list of “lost” Chinese territory was long and the Chinese had not yet “presented their bill” for it. Russia accused China of betraying socialist internationalism, fostering a Maoist personality cult, and adopting radical Maoism. China accused Russia of Soviet imperialism and abandoning Marxism. After this polemical exchange, the two powers made no progress on boundary questions.

During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the boundary dispute flared up again. In March 1969 a military confrontation at Zhenbao (Damansky) Island in the Ussuri River proved that the boundary dispute could easily spark 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. Both China and the Soviet Union understood the real possibility of escalation and agreed to renew boundary negotiations.

Boundary Settlement

During the 1970s and early 1980s the two countries made no progress toward a boundary settlement. But 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, showed a clear willingness to improve China-Soviet relations and 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. This significant leadership change, and Russia’s new position on a boundary settlement, resulted in renewed negotiations.

Coupled with Gorbachev’s Vladivostok ini
tiative 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, formally ending the thirty-year-old Sino-Soviet split.

Mutual interest in improving bilateral relations as both Russia and China pursued economic and political reform led to a quick resolution of the boundary dispute. At the outset of new negotiations, both sides agreed to use the old treaties as the basis for determining the border and to delimit the boundary according to internationally accepted principles of international law. In June 1990 China and the Soviet Union agreed to sign a treaty covering areas on which they had reached a compromise. They signed the boundary treaty when Chinese president Jiang Zemin traveled to Moscow in May 1991. The newly established Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation ratified the accord on 3 February 1992, and the Standing Committee of the Chinese National Peoples Congress ratified it on 25 February. Russia and China concluded a treaty delimiting the short fifty-three-kilometer boundary to the west of Mongolia in September 1994. In April 1999 demarcation of the entire Chinese-Russian boundary was finally completed with the exception of a few islands along the eastern border and a remote mountainous area in Central Asia; the detailed maps and comprehensive documentation weighed more than thirty kilograms.

The areas that remained unsettled were a never-before-demarcated region in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia and the islands at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri rivers. Moscow was willing to accept the watershed principle in establishing the boundary in the Pamirs; that is, it was willing to draw the boundary along the highest peaks of the mountains. Nevertheless the issues remained complex, and both sides agreed to postpone a final settlement until after negotiations were completed for the eastern sector of the boundary. However, with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, China was faced with negotiating boundary settlements with the newly independent Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. China negotiated boundary settlements with the three Central Asian states relinquishing approximately seventy percent of the territory Beijing claimed historically belonged to China. Ownership of the controversial islands was eventually resolved and a supplementary boundary treaty was signed in November 2004.

Post–Cold War Relations

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, China-Russia relations entered a new phase. This sudden and fundamental shift in the global balance of power made it imperative for China and Russia to develop closer relations. In the mid-1990s, Chinese and Russian leaders formed a Sino-Russian “strategic partnership” to counterbalance American unilateralism in world affairs. These closer military and strategic relations between China and Russia are due in part to both countries’ intensely nationalistic response to American power in the post–Cold War world. China and Russia, both undergoing a difficult transition from Communism to a market economy, have bruised national identities that make them natural allies against America’s global cultural, economic, and military influence.

In 1992 President Boris Yeltsin of Russia and President Jiang Zemin of China both began promoting a strategic partnership between China and Russia. This new focus on China-Russia cooperation resulted in several high-level meetings and agreements. The two leaders formally announced the strategic partnership during a summit meeting held in April 1996 in Shanghai. The two countries now have a thriving military relationship, with Russia’s cash-strapped military industries supplying China’s technologically backward military with sophisticated jet fighters and naval vessels. China is one of Russia’s major military equipment customers. Besides military hardware, 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.

The present China-Russia strategic partnership is unlike the Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s. China and Russia do not have a formal military alliance. Nevertheless they cooperate closely to improve military-to-military relations and to develop confidence-building measures. Closer relations have reduced tensions along the border, as well as over nuclear weapons, and made both countries more secure in the face of the threat they perceive from the United States.

Economic relations have improved more slowly than the military relationship. Trade over the past several years has grown reaching $48.16 billion in 2007, a 44.3 percent year-on-year increase, and they have a goal of increasing bilateral trade to between $60 billion and $80 billion by 2010. A robust border trade has developed over the past decade, and several border towns have become “open cities” to facilitate this dynamic local trade. The slow development of economic and trade relations was due largely to the problems Russia was experiencing with the transition from a centrally planned command economy to a market economy.

The greatest potential for cooperation is in the developing energy sector. China’s rapid economic development during the past several decades has increased its demand for imported oil and gas. Estimates are that China will import 1.3 million barrels of oil a day by 2010. In October 2008 China and Russia reached agreement to construct a pipeline connecting Russia’s oilfields to China. The Russian Far East has vast undeveloped oil and gas fields. However, Russians living in the Russian Far East are reluctant to develop closer relations with China because of their apprehension about the socioeconomic consequences of a stronger Chinese presence in the region. This apprehension is rooted in the deep historical differences and the history of conflict along the long mutual boundary. The demographic imbalance in the Far Eastern regions of Russia and northeastern China is also a point of concern. 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. Regional leaders in the Russian Far East have been more skeptical than leaders in Moscow about developing closer economic relations with China. They would rather develop closer relations with Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

Future Concerns

Although in the post–Cold War world China and Russia share common strategic concerns and some complementary economic interests, they will not easily overcome the deeply rooted historical and geopolitical legacy of conflict. Many inherent tensions are simply due to the fact that China and Russia share a long border. More fundamental causes of friction are the result of China’s dynamic economic growth and Russia’s economic decline, resulting in a shift in the balance of power between the two countries over the long term. Russian anxiety, especially in the Russian Far East, over what is perceived as a demographic time bomb just across the border in northeastern China will stymie closer economic cooperation and integration for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, if China and Russia effectively manage the inherent tensions in their bilateral relations, closer military and economic cooperation is possible. One factor that will determine the closeness of Russia-China relations is the relationship between t
he United States and China and between the United States and Russia. Certainly for economic reasons, both countries would value a better relationship with the United States more than a closer relationship with each other. But concern over American “hegemony” or unilateralism could cause a closer China-Russia strategic relationship that may form the cornerstone of an anti-American coalition seeking to undermine U.S. influence in important regions of the world, including the Middle East and Northeast Asia.

Further Reading

Burles, M. (1999). Chinese policy toward Russia and the Central Asian Republics. Santa Monica: Rand.

Chen, Vincent (1966). Sino-Russian relations in the seventeenth century. The Hague, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.

Clubb, O. E. (1971). China and Russia: The “Great Game.” New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Garver, J. (1993). Foreign relations of the People’s Republic of China. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Jacobson, C. G. (1981). Sino-Soviet relations since Mao. New York: Praeger.

Lattimore, O. (1962). China’s inner Asian frontiers. Boston: Beacon Press.

Leong, Sow-Theng (1976). Sino-Soviet relations, 1917–1926. Canberra, Australia: Australian National University Press.

Low, A. D. (1976). The Sino-Soviet dispute: An analysis of the Polemics. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Nemets, A. (1996). The growth of China and prospects for the eastern regions of the former USSR. Lewiston, NY: Mellen.

Paine, S. C. M. (1996). Imperial rivals: China, Russia, and their disputed frontier. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Schwartz, H. (1964). Tsars, Mandarins, and the Commissars: A history of Chinese-Russian relations. London: Victor Gollancz.

Voskressenski, A. D. (1996). The difficult border: Current Russian and Chinese concepts of Sino-Russian relations and frontier problems. Commack, NY: Nova Science.

Source: Hyer, Eric. (2009). Russia-China Relations. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1912–1917. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Shanghai Exhibition Hall (formerly the Palace of Sino-Soviet Friendship). In 1992 President Boris Yeltsin of Russia and President Jiang Zemin of China both began promoting a strategic partnership between China and Russia. This new focus on China-Russia cooperation resulted in several high-level meetings and agreements. The two leaders formally announced the strategic partnership during a summit meeting held in April 1996 in Shanghai. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The People’s Theatre in 1983, in Urumchi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The neoclassical motifs came to China via various Soviet-influenced states. In the mid-nineteenth century Russia advanced into Central Asia, where China had claimed control over the area that is today. It took several treaties and the work of many boundary commissions to demarcate precisely the China-Russia boundary in Central Asia. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

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