Will Russia be happy as China’s junior partner?

For the Chinese leadership, Russia is understood as a place too important to be complacent about – but also as the lesser force in a partnership in which Beijing wants to take a leading role.
An English-language book about the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin translated into Chinese
An English-language book about the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, translated into Chinese, is sold at a news kiosk in Beijing in 2014. Credit: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo
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From the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, the Russian and Qing Chinese empires of the time had relations important enough for them to need, via this agreement, to clarify their borders, where none had formally existed before. But it was only in the twentieth century that links intensified. Before this, it was the Western Europeans and North Americans with their advanced technology and greater wealth who had, largely with negative results, the greater impact on the early modern Chinese world.

The combination of the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912, the Russian Revolution in 1917 bringing the Bolsheviks to power, and the end of the First World War a year later served to intensity the relationship. Communism as a political movement started to have traction beyond the Soviet Union. The convening of the tiny Chinese branch of the party in July 1921 in Shanghai was an inauspicious beginning, but through technical, financial and moral support over the coming decade, Moscow’s mentoring of its junior political ally meant China’s communist movement survived, and eventually thrived.

Had Stalin had his way, China’s communists would have been led by people mostly trained in the USSR, making it a faithful servant of the senior party back in Moscow. But Mao Zedong, rising slowly but surely to dominance, indigenised Marxism-Leninism, creating a rural-led movement rather than one rooted in the cities. Following the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, and the eventual defeat of Japanese fascism, the Chinese communists via a final civil war confrontation with the nationalists, unexpectedly emerged as the rulers of China. The People’s Republic of China was founded under their rule in 1949.

Despite relations which were initially conveyed through the language of a close alliance and comradely fraternity, the People’s Republic and the USSR were never, even in their years of relative harmony in the early 1950s, easy bedfellows. Mao was regarded as an unorthodox maverick in Moscow, and the dialogue between the two was haunted by suspicion and rivalry. This did not stop China taking technical and monetary aid. To this day, those who visit the vast Friendship Hotel, highly Soviet in style, in the north-west of Beijing can see a monument to this period – a hotel which once housed the many Soviet experts sent to assist China in its development.

By 1960, however, that hotel was empty, the experts recalled. The process of de-Stalinisation in the Soviet Union since the dictator’s death in 1953 was regarded negatively by Mao. On top of this, irritation over the Russian failure to transfer technology for the hydrogen bomb strengthened the desire to go it alone. By the 1960s, once China had created its own nuclear weaponry, relations deteriorated to such an extent that by 1969 there were clashes on the north-eastern border. Sino-Russian relations were so poor that they inspired Mao to look to America, a sworn enemy for almost two decades, to be a counterweight. That culminated in the 1972 Nixon visit, a recognition that while the US and China might not care much for each other, they cared even less for the USSR.

Things did improve over the coming decades. With China’s own reforms from 1978, a new dynamic was introduced. The USSR still had resources, technology and markets which interested China. And with the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, visiting Beijing in May 1989, a détente was achieved. All of this, however, was short lived, swept away by the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

That event, more than any other in recent decades, has impacted on Chinese elite strategies and made it clear that the Russian experience did not offer a model for what they needed to do. For some years in the 1990s, the People’s Republic looked like it was an isolated outlier, just waiting to meet the same fate. We know now, of course, that did not happen. But Chinese leaders and their advisors watched the chaos of the Yeltsin years in the new Russian Federation with a mixture of horror and astonishment. Their once formidable ally (and then foe) became a dysfunctional, increasingly poor state. Oligarchs carved up the national riches. Wealth and welfare went into reverse. Yeltsin’s replacement, Vladimir Putin, at least restored some stability when he was appointed in late 1999. But as I remember one Chinese official acidly commenting to me around that time: ‘We don’t know why you Europeans are so relaxed about the Russians and their problems. We aren’t.’ It was a prophetic observation.

With one of the world’s longest shared borders, China and Russia today, like all neighbours, have little option but to work with each other. Increasingly under Xi Jinping, the rhetoric has grown warmer. They share an antipathy to the US-led world order. They both want to correct what they see as the iniquity of the American ‘unipolar’ moment. The dramatic shift is that now it is China, not Russia, that now stands best placed to deliver this historic change. With an economy six times the size of Russia’s, and with a larger navy and military, it is China rather than its neighbour, which is talked of as a superpower in waiting. 

China does see its current ambitions as global ones. It regards Russia as a junior, and a regional power, rather than as an equal. Beyond the leader-to-leader links between Xi and Putin, the dialogue is far less rosy. Caroline Humphrey and Frank Bille, in an excellent recent study of the Russo-Chinese border (On the Edge, Harvard University Press, 2021), note how only one bridge spans the Amur River that divides the two nations, and that this was only built recently, with Chinese money, and is currently closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. That seems an apt symbol of the wariness between the two countries. On the Russian side, sparsely populated Siberia with its old-fashioned border towns largely dominated by Soviet-era architecture faces signs of modern urban explosion and rapid development and wealth on the Chinese side. Despite the evidence from their own eyes, interviews with Russians reveal that they regard the achievements of the Chinese as fake, unstable and temporary. The disdain is mutual. Chinese migration to the far east of Russia is now down to a trickle. Life offers too many opportunities back home.

This history might give a clue to Xi’s real attitude to Putin and the country he leads. Russia is well understood as a place too important to be complacent about – but also as the lesser force in a partnership in which China wants to take a leading role. These are two partners under no illusions, having known and dealt with each other for far too long. It is necessity that binds them together. And at the moment, the greater need is Russia’s. There is no reason to think that this situation will change any time soon. Indeed, the brutal and reckless invasion of Ukraine has perhaps served to make it permanent.

Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King​'s College London, and Associate Fellow of the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of over 20 books on modern China, the most recent of which is China: A History​ (Polity Press, Cambridge).

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