Sino-Russian Relations: The Worst of Friends

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Russia and China have shared political and ideological similarities for much of the 20th Century. The two were anti-Western, communist, autocratic and geographically proximate. On the surface, a strong relationship between the two seems not only beneficial but obvious. Despite all that should make them allies, however, Sino-Russian relations have more frequently been fractious and hostile.

Following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the KMT (Nationalists) were able to unify the country under its own control. Their nationalist ideology, which detested the undue influence of foreign powers in China, was very much anti-Western. Thus, in the early days of the Soviet Union in 1918, the Bolsheviks, short of allies, were able to find common ground in shared anti-Western sentiment and they became allies. Indeed, the Soviets aided the KMT militarily, providing teaching and finance.

This alliance was only one of convenience, however, and proved to be short lived. The internationalist ideology of communism demanded that the USSR tried to spread their ideology, regardless of pragmatic alliances. Thus, the Chinese Communist Party was instructed to sign a treaty of alliance with the KMT with the hope of infiltrating and taking over from the inside.

However, on 12 March 1925, Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the KMT, died, leading to the dissolution of friendship with both the Soviet Union and the CCP. Soviet advisors were expelled. His successor, Chiang Kai-Shek, was a violent anti-communist. He purged 5000 communists in the 1927 Shanghai Massacre to consolidate his party’s power. Thus, the CCP concluded subterfuge could not be effective in achieving their goals. They rose up against the Nationalist government in August 1927 and the Chinese Civil War began.

The invasion of Japan in 1937 forced the KMT and CCP to cease hostilities, but this never approached a true alliance. The KMT continued to commit atrocities against Communists even during the war. It was clear that, once the Second World War was over and the Japanese expelled, conflict would resume.

As the war was drawing to a close, Soviet Russia declared war on Japan on 8 August 1945. They swiftly seized Inner Mongolia, Manchuria and northern parts of Korea (leading to the creation of a North Korea). Once civil war in China resumed in June 1946, the Soviets were happy to allow the CCP to use Manchuria as a base of operations while providing them with captured Imperial Japanese weapons, despite KMT protests.

With the eventual victory of the Communists in 1949, in no small part due to Soviet aid, it seemed there was a bright future ahead for Sino-Soviet relations. On 14 February 1950, the two countries created the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance. To show the earnestness of the friendship, Mao even travelled to Russia to sign it – it was only the second time he had been outside of China. The pact promised a $300m loan, military aid, and several territories to be restored to China.

China was therefore firmly allied with the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War. However, there was a crucial difference between the relationship of Russia to its Eastern European satellite states and to China: China could not be dominated. Initially, of course, with China in dire financial straits recovering from years of war, Stalin’s USSR held economic leverage, which he used to coerce China into action in the Korean War. But this was not a permanent state of affairs, and China’s ability to act independently would be the source of tension that did not exist between the USSR and other smaller communist powers.

The next inflection point in Sino-Russian relations came with the death of Stalin in 1953. Khruschev, the new Soviet leader, was a very different personality to Stalin and, by extension, to Mao, leading to personal and political tensions. While economic cooperation continued and even increased, divergences emerged on higher-order political and diplomatic issues.

When, in 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalinism, Mao’s worries began, as his leadership very much followed the Stalinist model. When Mao drew up plans to take Taiwan in 1958, Khrushchev felt angry due to the lack of consultation, but also fearful due to the potential threat of nuclear war from the US. He cancelled foreign aid agreements and the delivery of Soviet atomic bombs to China in an attempt to stop Mao’s aggression. Mao, however, saw this as fraternising with the enemy. Mao publicly criticised Khrushchev for deviating from the Marxist-Leninist model by engaging with the West on policy and reform, while he leant into the ideology more with his disastrous, but undoubtedly communist, ‘Great Leap Forward’. These are only some of a litany of disagreements that caused relations to become so frayed that only written communication occurred in the 1960s.

Following Krushchev’s deposition in 1964, China maintained hostility towards the Brezhnev regime. Whereas the Soviet Union was seeking to deescalate the Cold War and seek rapprochement with the west, China was growing yet more introspective and hardened in its ideology. Tensions escalated, and both nations rallied troops on the common border. In 1969, the Chinese army attacked Soviet troops, beginning a series of border clashes. A nuclear war was possible; Russian bombs were brought to airbases within striking distance of Manchuria. The threat was clear, and both sides wanted to deescalate tensions through diplomacy. Despite this, no troops were withdrawn from the border.

Mao fully felt the danger of a war with the Soviets; he turned to the US. This was a complete overhaul of the anti-Western policies he had previously put in place and deteriorated the Sino-Soviet relationship further. To this end, Nixon visit in 1972. To the public, this signalled China’s opening up to the world.

However, Nixon and his foreign policy adviser, Kissinger, flew to China for politically motivated reasons, too. They saw a chance to realign the global balance of power by embracing the one other communist power on which the USSR thought it could rely. Evidently, both countries had solely political interests rather than romantic visions of changing the other’s principles; Nixon spoke harshly about the authoritarianism and violence of Mao’s regime, but when in conversation with Mao, this was not mentioned. Ideological differences did not stop the meeting.

The death of Mao in 1976 brought no immediate change in the simmering Sino-Soviet conflict. However, the reforms of Deng Xiaoping from 1978-1989 led to the gradual opening up of China’s economy and a toning down of the zealously dogmatic policies of Mao. The Soviet Union was therefore no longer perceived as a country that had betrayed the communist cause and damaged Stalin’s legacy, but instead was viewed in more pragmatic terms as a potential trade partner. Relations had gradually appeared to strengthen between the two, until the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989), in which China sided with the US.

Tensions continued to simmer until 1982, when Brezhnev finally took a step towards easing the strain; in a speech, he announced that he was willing to repair relations with China. Deng immediately returned the favour, focusing on overcoming ‘three major obstacles’: Vietnam, Mongolia, and Afghanistan. When Gorbachev came to power, he withdrew troops from the aforementioned areas, signalling his intention to restore relations, and praised China’s recent economic reforms while rejecting the Brezhnev Doctrine of pro-socialist military intervention and affirming that the USSR sought partnership with, not domination over, China in politics and economics. With the efforts made on both sides, all relations were normalised on 18 May 1989.

Despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations have remained warm between the two powers. In 1996, they issued a joint statement pledging an “equal and reliable partnership”. Both countries were united in competition against the US – the undisputed global superpower at the time. Their enmity against the US has only grown as the 21st Century has continued. Nonetheless, the relationship between the two has certainly changed. When Stalin offered support to Mao in 1950, there was no question as to who was the more powerful partner in that relationship. Now, the answer is far less clear.

Friedman, J., 2015, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World. UNC Books.

Garver, J., 1988, The Diplomacy of Chinese Nationalism, Oxford University Press

Heinzig, D., 2004, The Soviet Union and Communist China, 1945–1950: An Arduous Road to the Alliance. M. E. Sharpe.