The Sino-Russian relations is complex in the best of times given the two neighboring global powers size, population, economies, and competing interests. It is said that when Alexi Kosygin, the prime minster of the former Soviet Union, visited China in the sixties at the height of the cold war between the two communist giants. He remarked that the aim of his visit is to improve the relationship between the two countries. Chairman Mao Zedong jokingly responded by saying “we need 10,000 years to do so.” Kosygin, who is well-known for his serious demeanor, responded by saying “we can double our efforts for that purpose”, to which Moa responded by saying “then we will need 9,000 years.!!!”
Mao Zedong with Soviet Premier Kosygin
It is unclear “how many times” Russia (as Tsarist empire and later as part of the former Soviet Union) & China fought against each other, as all the armed conflicts have been small in scale & intermittent. In fact, it’s highly questionable as to whether any historical Sino-Russian skirmishfit the modern definition of “war”, due to their limited scale & casualties. But you can broadly categorize 5 armed conflicts.
1-Qing-Russian frontier skirmishes (1650s-1680s) – there were numerous skirmishes across 3 decades (1650s-1680s) that ended in the Treaty of Nerchinsk. Both Tsarist Russia & the Qing dynasty were empires that lacked fixed borders & had no previous encounters. Neither side ventured that far into Siberia, which was ruled by various indigenous tribes up to that point. Inevitably, this meant border clashes along the frontiers of both empires. Across a span of 3+ decades, over 1 thousand casualties were collectively documented by both sides. while technically people died, it didn’t amount to a “war” in any reasonable sense of the word.
2-The Boxer Rebellion (1900) – Russia was reluctant participant in the European/US coalition that invaded China to suppress the Boxer Rebellion. This was arguably the largest scale Russian incursion into Chinese territory, specifically with the intent of “fighting China”. Nearly 100,000 Russian troops marched into Manchuria to protect Russian workers on the China Eastern Railway, but the scale of the actual fighting was rather limited. ~200 Russian casualties were documented, Chinese casualties were unknown, but the latter clearly wasn’t able & willing to put up much of a resistance given that the other coalition troops were already laying siege to Beijing. Granted the Soviet invasion of Manchuria in 1945 was exponentially bigger in scale, but that was an expedition against Japanese invaders to end WW2, not against China.
3-Sino-Soviet railroad conflict (1929) – Local Chinese warlords, aided by remnants of the Tsarist White Army, fought the Soviet Red Army over control & management of the China Eastern Railroad. Soviet victory in this conflict restored the status quo of joint control (with Russians having a majority stake) over the CER. Full control & management of the CER was returned to China shortly after the founding of the PRC.
4-Xinjiang rebellions (late 1930s) – The Soviets were involved in a proxy war using largely disguised volunteers, where various local Chinese warlords wrested for control over Xinjiang province. The Soviets were able to prevent the emergence of an anti-Stalinist regime from controlling Xinjiang & undermining Soviet control of Central Asia. In 1949, local warlords (who were loyal to the RoC in name) were influenced by the USSR to surrender to the PLA, & Xinjiang was fully absorbed into the newly founded PRC.
5-Sino-Soviet Border skirmish (1969) – this was the last time Russian & Chinese troops fought against each other in battle. The Sino-Soviet Split escalated into armed clashes as old resentments about the border disputes of the 1600s (see above in #1) flared up. Both sides were extremely wary that the other would escalate the conflict, & as a result, a collective total of nearly 1.5 million troops were mobilized by both sides near the border. This was by far the biggest military confrontation Russia & China engaged in against each other, but actual combat was limited to platoon-sized elements (mostly on a couple of small river islands), & no war was declared. The 2 sides collectively suffered ~1K casualties; the skirmish ended in a negotiated settlement, & subsequent Sino-Russian treaties resolved remaining border ambiguities. (Hongda Jiang, recreational scholar of Sino-Russian relations.) This was the most serious border clash, which brought the world’s two largest communist states to the brink of war, and occurred near Zhenbao (Damansky) Island on the Ussuri (Wusuli) River, near Manchuria. And although the conflict resulted in a ceasefire, which led to a return to the status quo, it reflected the deep and bitter Sino-Soviet spilt of the two communist giants and lasted to the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976.
The Sino-Soviet conflict
The Sino-Soviet split was the breaking of political relations between the two nations caused by doctrinal divergences that arose from their different interpretations and practical applications of Marxism–Leninism, as influenced by their respective geopolitics during the Cold War of 1945–1991.(Chambers Dictionary of World History, B.P.Lenman, T. Anderson, Editors, Chambers: Edinburgh. 2000. p. 769.) In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Sino-Soviet debates about the interpretation of orthodox Marxism became specific disputes about the Soviet Union’s policies of national de-Stalinization and international peaceful coexistence with the Western Bloc, which Chinese founding father Mao Zedong decried as Marxist revisionism. Against that ideological background, China took a belligerent stance towards the Western world, and publicly rejected the Soviet Union’s policy of peaceful coexistence between the Western Bloc and Eastern Bloc. In addition, Beijing resented the Soviet Union’s growing ties with India due to factors such as the Sino-Indian border dispute, and Moscow feared that Mao was too nonchalant about the horrors of nuclear warfare. (John W. Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic (2016) pp 113–45.) Other communist countries such as Yugoslavia and Albania became engulfed in that split.
For its part, the USA tried to use the split to its benefit, as it is pressuring China now. At that time, and by hoping to curb the arms race, Nixon, and his National Security Adviser (later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger set out to bring the Cold War under control. For Nixon and Kissinger, the goal was not to try and win the Cold War but to manage it. Nixon and Kissinger sought to improve relations between the United States and its two communist opponents: the Soviet Union and China. While Americans viewed all communist nations as a united enemy, the relationship between the Soviet Union and China showed signs of strain by the early 1970s. Kissinger decided to use this widening rift to his advantage. If the United States improved its relationship with China, the Soviets would have no choice but to cooperate with the U.S., or risk become isolated. (The Kissinger Transcripts: Notes and Excerpts.) Kissinger elaborated on this further in a recent interview with George Stephanopoulos in which he remarked “Nixon was a distinguished leader in foreign policy, and he used an approach close to the British approach in foreign policy that is to say an emphasis on balance of power and understanding when you have two adversaries, namely the Soviet Union and China, and effort should be made to separate them and treat them differently and take a position closer to them that closer to each other.” Kissinger agreed with Stephanopoulos when he characterized such policy by “Triangulation.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEXZKg-lQhI)
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon are shown after Kissinger was sworn is as the 56th secretary of state in the East Room of the White House on September 22, 1973. (AP)
Soviet China relations from 1976 to 1991
Even after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, these two former allies remained locked in a miniature cold war, consumed by ideological, political, and economic differences. However, relations began to improve in the late 1970s with a gradual de-escalation of military tensions and a move towards bilateral relations. After years of negotiations, full bilateral relations resumed in May 1989 in the midst of the Tiananmen Square protest. Warmer bilateral relations and mutual understanding would characterize the last two years of the Sino-Soviet relationship, up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December, 1991.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with the Chinese leader Ding Hsiao Ping, 1989
The China-Russian relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union
Diplomatic relations between China and Russia improved after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and establishment of the Russian Federation in 1991. American scholar Joseph Nye states: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, that de facto US-China alliance ended, and a China–Russia rapprochement began. In 1992, the two countries declared that they were pursuing a “constructive partnership”; in 1996, they progressed toward a “strategic partnership”; and in 2001, they signed a treaty of “friendship and cooperation.” (Nye, 2015.)
The two countries share a land border which was demarcated in 1991, and they signed the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation in 2001, which was renewed in June 2021 for five more years (Russia, China extend friendship and cooperation treaty -Kremlin”. Reuters. 2021-06-28. Retrieved 2021-08-22.) On the eve of a 2013 state visit to Moscow by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked that the two nations were forging a special relationship (“AFP: Chinese leader Xi, Putin agree key energy deals”. Archived from the original on 2013-04-11). The two countries have enjoyed close relations militarily, economically, and politically, while supporting each other on various global issues. (Trofimov, Yaroslav; Grove, Thomas (2020-06-20). “Weary Russia Tries to Avoid Entanglement in U.S.-China Spat”. The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2020-06-21.) Commentators have debated whether the bilateral strategic partnership constitutes an alliance (Stent, Angela (2020-02-24). “Russia and China: Axis of revisionists?”. Brookings Institution. Retrieved 2021-08-22) Russia and China officially declared their relations ‘Not allies, but better than allies (“Russia and China: ‘Not allies, but better than allies'”. The Economic Times. Retrieved 15 July 2021.)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping arrive to pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on Feb. 4, 2022. Alexei Druxhinin—Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images
2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine
Xi and Putin met on February 4, 2022, during the run up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics during the massive Russian build-up of force on the Ukrainian border, with the two expressing that the two countries are nearly united in their anti-US alignment and that both nations shared “no limits” to their commitments (Mauldin, Chao Deng, Ann M. Simmons, Evan Gershkovich and William (2022-02-04). “Putin, Xi Aim Russia-China Partnership Against U.S.” Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2022-02-25.) Western espionage reports said that China had asked Russia to wait to invade Ukraine until after the Beijing Olympics ended on February 20 ( Buckley, Chris; Myers, Steven Lee (2022-03-07). “‘No Wavering’: After Turning to Putin, Xi Faces Hard Wartime Choices for China”. The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-03-10.) Shortly before the invasion, Chinese media would repeat Russian statements that Russia’s troops were being pulled away from the border with Ukraine (Aitken, Peter (2022-02-23). “Chinese media accidentally posts CCP rules on Russia-Ukraine coverage, hint at Taiwan takeover”. Fox News. Retrieved 2022-03-10.)
On February 22, two days prior to the invasion of Ukraine, a leaked post The Beijing News‘ Horizon News on Weibo detailed instructions on how to report on a crisis in Ukraine; the post asked editors to monitor unfavorable comments, to only use tags shared by Chinese state media and stated “Do not post anything unfavorable to Russia or pro-Western. Let me review your words before posting” (Conrad, Jennifer. “The War in Ukraine Is Keeping Chinese Social Media Censors Busy”. Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. Retrieved 2022-03-10.) On February 25, 2022, one day following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin told Xi during a phone call that Russia is eager to engage in high-level negotiations with Ukraine, according to China’s foreign ministry ( Stonestreet, John (25 February 2022). “Putin tells Xi that Russia willing to hold high-level talks with Ukraine, China says”. Reuters. Reuters. Reuters. Retrieved 26 February 2022)
As early as February 2022, according to US authorities, Russia asked China for advanced military weaponry armed drones for use in their invasion of Ukraine. (Alberto Nardelli and Jennifer Jacobs. (14 March 2022). “U.S. Warns Europe That Russia Wants Armed Drones from China”. Bloomberg News website Retrieved 18 March 2022.) China and Russia have both denied these allegations ( “Beijing denies Russia requested military equipment for Ukraine invasion as U.S., China meet”. Retrieved 15 May 2022.)
Many social media users in China showed sympathy for Russian narratives due in part to distrust of US foreign policy (Repnikova, Maria; Zhou, Wendy (11 March 2022). “What China’s Social Media Is Saying About Ukraine”. The Atlantic.) Chinese company NetEase has published videos critical of Russia from Chinese in Ukraine and Ukrainians in China ([Ukrainian Chinese cried bitterly after receiving the bad news: good friends sacrificed for the country, classmates and younger brothers rushed to the battlefield]. NetEase. 2022-02-27.
The trajectory of these relations between the two nations is unmistakable. In early February, Xi Jinping inked a joint statement with Putin which can rightly be labelled an authoritarian manifesto. The two powers are as close now as they were last in the Communist camp back in the 1950s. The statement contained a joint critique of NATO-enlargement as a Cold War approach, a novel out-of-area step for the Middle Kingdom, which professes non-interference. This Chinese meddling in NATO affairs raised eyebrows in Brussels.
Furthermore, the Chinese government speaks of the Ukraine crisis, not acknowledging there is war of aggression going on. Its state-censored social media, after some initial wobbling in the first days, now favors Russian narratives. That includes spreading the unfounded claims that there are dangerous pathogens in US-led biological facilities in Ukraine.
China has also stated publicly that it continues normal trading relations with Russia. The biggest European and US worry is that China could continue to supply or increase military supplies to Russia. On this, China remains vague. The government is also remaining silent on whether their companies will backfill from European companies departing due to sanctions.
Against this backdrop, the EU’s leadership went into the EU-China Summit on April 1 with low expectations. In the preparation for the Summit, the Chinese leadership suggested a “focus on the positives” approach with an agenda based on economic cooperation, basically ignoring the war in Ukraine.
But Brussels has a new-found sense of leadership after using its economic muscles through unprecedented sanctions and stepping up – a novelty – with military aid for Ukraine. For the EU there is clear world of difference from before and after February 24, 2022. Accordingly, Brussels’ leadership refused the Chinese playbook and leveraged the Summit to signal their expectations for Chinese responsibility. The take-away was that it met unreceptive ears with successively Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Premier Li Keqiang, and Xi Jinping. (Jonas Parello-Plesner, GMF, April 13, 2022)
Following the implementation of international sanctions during the Russo-Ukrainian War, China provided economic relief to Russia. China refused to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, repeated Russian propaganda about the war, opposed economic sanctions against Russia, and abstained or sided with Russia in UN votes on the war in Ukraine (“China rejects ‘pressure or coercion’ over Russia relations”. AP News. 14 April 2022.
In return, and in 2022, Russia added Taiwan to a list of foreign states and territories that commit “unfriendly actions” against its military invasion of Ukraine, (Measures to improve the resilience of the economy in the face of sanctions, No. 430-r”. Russian Government. 5 March 2022, despite Russia recognizing Taiwan as a part of China. Xi Jinping has assured Vladimir Putin of China’s support on Russian “sovereignty and security” in May.( US says China’s support for Russia over Ukraine puts it on ‘wrong side of history'”. (The Guardian. AFP in Washington. Retrieved 15 May 2022)
China’s strategic narrative for the war in Ukraine
Iliya Kusa of the Wilson Center (June 21, 2022) summarized China’s stance on the war in Ukraine as the following “Like many non-Western countries, China has formulated its stance on the Russia-Ukraine war in keeping with its general foreign policy approach and its perception of the value and purpose of international alliances. In general, China’s public pronouncements on the war have been confined to a few key messages, repeated from the first day of the invasion:
Not only Russia but also the West, in particular the United States, are to blame for what has happened in Ukraine because the West has constantly ignored Russia’s security concerns.
It is very important to establish a common security concept in the region and the world that takes into account the interests and concerns of all parties and is not dominated by the West.
Key inflection points of China’s thinking in this matter include the following:
- The West should recognize the principle of the indivisibility of security, which holds that the security of one country shall not be fulfilled at the expense of the security of other countries; and that this principle must become the basis of a new international security architecture.
- China, like Europe, wants the war in Ukraine to end as soon as possible, but the conflict drags on because of U.S. involvement.
- It is important to drop the Cold War mentality and the notion of blocs and shift to a multipolar, pragmatic international system in which non-Western countries play a more decisive role.
- The situations in Ukraine and in Taiwan are not comparable because Ukraine is a sovereign country that was attacked by another country, while Taiwan is part of China and is recognized as such by the world.
- China does not support unilateral Western sanctions against Russia because the United States uses these sanctions as a way to expand its influence and geoeconomic reach.”
Iliya Kusa also summarized the risks and opportunities for China as the following “It is difficult to assess at this point whether the war in Ukraine has weakened or strengthened China’s hand in international relations. It has created certain opportunities as well as risks, which Beijing is still trying to evaluate and address properly.
Among the risks are the following: the toxic political situation is threatening China’s reputation and image abroad because of China’s close ties with Russia; political and ideological polarization in Southeast and South Asia is increasing; the war adds complexity to China’s relationship with Russia; and the Western economic sanctions enacted in response to the war have created challenges for Beijing in carrying out the Belt and Road Initiative as the sanctions and related financial restrictions are likely to imperil the transport of goods through Russia and Belarus.
In addition, the war in Ukraine has established grounds for the further consolidation of the NATO alliance, which China sees as aiding U.S. geopolitical goals. Both Moscow and Beijing perceive NATO not as a defensive alliance but as an instrument of American expansionism.
On the other hand, the war has opened up some major opportunities for China. A weakened Russia may drive Moscow away from the West and closer to Beijing as China’s “junior partner,” which is exactly how China has seen the relationship over the years. Furthermore, the war has triggered political, economic, and financial reactions from Europe and the United States, sometimes in unprecedented ways.
This exposure of Western sanctions capabilities, the West’s limits and “red lines,” provides valuable information to China on U.S. and EU response mechanisms and on their will to go beyond traditional diplomacy and use unconventional means of exercising pressure. This information is particularly vital for China in determining how it might respond in the event of a massive confrontation with the West, for example over Taiwan.
Finally, the war in Ukraine has pushed China to become more active in expanding its influence in Oceania and Central and South Asia, while the United States and the EU are burdened with hawkish policies toward Russia and domestic social and economic difficulties.” He also went on to state that “China’s position on and response to Russia’s war in Ukraine amounts to a careful balancing act. China is not interested in a long-term, high-intensity conflict because of the political, reputational, and economic risks such a war would bring. At the same time, Beijing doesn’t want to see Russia’s total defeat, which could lead to the installation of a pro-Western democratic regime in Moscow or, in a worst-case scenario, to the country’s disintegration as a result of a domestic political crisis.”
Unlike Iliya Kusa vision of “mixed results” for, some see the conflict in the Ukraine more of bad news to the China’s economy. For instance, Alicia Garcia-Herrero, Bruegel wrote on the 18th of April of this year; “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the unprecedented sanctions imposed against Russia by the United States, Europe and other countries are negatively impacting the global economy. The European economy is under strain due to its dependence on Russian energy and the huge flow of refugees it is absorbing. The direct impact on the Chinese economy is expected to be relatively muted though still negative, at least in the short run.
The jump in global energy prices stemming from the war is bad news for China given its dependence on energy imports. To meet its carbon reduction goals set within the current Five Year Plan, China planned to transition away from coal through additional natural gas imports. One of the outcomes of the Chinese leaders’ ‘Two Sessions’ in early March 2022 was to pause annual carbon emission targets — while keeping the overall 2025 targets — to gain some flexibility amid soaring energy prices.
Beyond the temporary delay in China’s reduction in carbon emissions, there is also a potential risk of China increasing its energy imports from Russia, especially in the event of a total embargo on Russian energy imports by the EU.
The other immediate downward pressure on the Chinese economy is the Western sanctions imposed on Russia. Chinese corporations and financial institutions need to be careful when trading with or investing in Russia. Chinese banks are no longer offering letters of credit for trade with Russia and Chinese energy companies, including Sinopec, and are putting aside their projects with Russian counterparts.
But given the size of China’s economy, the impact of this retrenchment from Russia should only be moderate. Rather than fully cut ties with Russia, China just needs to avoid hard currency payments and certain targeted entities, such as the Russian central bank and the Ministry of Finance. Several large Russian banks are still allowed to use SWIFT, evidence that the sanctions are not tight enough to force China to stop all economic relations with Russia.
While the direct impact of the war on China seems limited, the key to better gauging its impact is China’s position on the conflict. On the one hand, China’s rhetoric is anti-US and anti-NATO. Beyond holding the United States responsible for the conflict, China has repeatedly opposed Western sanctions against Russia. But such language runs counter to the actual decisions taken by Chinese financial institutions and companies, which confirm China’s adherence to Western sanctions.” (Alicia Garcia-Herrero, Bruegel, The Russia–Ukraine crisis is bad news for China’s economy, April18, 2022, East Asia Form.)
Many things have taken a place since April 18th, such as the relative military gains scored lately by the Russians in the Donbas region, the loosening of some of the sanctions in the dealing with Russia (such as the latest move by Canada to allow delivery of Russia-Germany gas pipeline equipment, which angers the Ukrainians, CTV News July 11, 2022), the fall of Boris Johnson who was a staunch ally of Ukraine (some suggests he was using the conflict to divert attention to his domestic troubles), the general “Ukraine fatigue” among the public evident by the fall of the news about the war from first to fourth or fifth, the recent visit of Biden to Saudi Arabia to pleads for more oil to lower prices which had a major negative impact on the consumers, etc. This means, as this writer believes, the situation is fluid and changing, and the outcome and the determination of who is the biggest winner and biggest loser is far from over and is yet to be seen.
This writer, however, believes that the Chinese need the Russians in the face of pressing `international challenges (the status of Taiwan, instability in Hong Kong, the rivalries with the countries of the south China sea, tension with Japan and the USA over North Korea, relations with Australia, etc.) as much as the Russians need the Chinese in the face of their challenges. And the current conflict in Ukraine, which was the focus of this article, is a marked example of such a need. The writer also believes that as the war enters its fifth month and with no end in sight and the Russians are not achieving their objectives at the desired speed, the two will become more dependent on each other. The Russians, who are becoming more and more isolated in Europe, will turn east for support, and as was reported Russia asked China for military support prior to its war in Ukraine (Aljazeera, March 14, 2022), and more friendly nations. In addition, Russia most certainly will be looking for secured markets for its oil given the problems with its European markets. This is what Reuters reported on June 20, 20222 as China May oil imports from Russia soar to a record, surpass top supplier Saudi. The Chinese, for their part are happier to find a reliable oil source with huge reservoirs to service their growing industries.
*Nadum Jwad is a freelance political commentator who lives in Windsor, Ontario, Canada