China is seen as Russia's woman


Soeren Urbansky

Dr. Sören Urbansky is a historian with a focus on Russia and China in modern times, specializing in imperial and ethnic issues, emigration and the history of borders.

Since the end of the Cold War, Russia and China have gradually improved their relations. Rivals have become strategic partners. Both Beijing and Moscow are striving to further strengthen their economic, military and diplomatic cooperation, which, however, is not free from contradictions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of a joint press conference in Beijing's "Great Hall of the People" on Saturday, June 25, 2016. (& copy AP)

Relations before 1991

In its four hundred year history, Sino-Russian relations have seen light and shadow. In the course of the expansion of the tsarist empire to the east, Russia came across the sphere of influence of China in Northeast Asia in the 17th century. In the Treaty of Nerčinsk (1689), both empires established their common border for the first time. The agreement was preceded by confrontations between Cossacks of the Tsarist Empire and troops of the Qing Empire. Russia defied the treaty in the mid-19th century when it advanced a military expedition into the left bank of the Amur region. At that time St. Petersburg took possession of large pieces of land north of the Amur and east of the Ussuri River.

The tsarist empire pursued an expansive policy towards its populous neighbor over the next few decades. The commissioning of a section of the Trans-Siberian Railway across Chinese Manchuria in 1903 was another disgrace for Beijing. Just a year later, the region was the main battlefield of the Russo-Japanese War.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik leadership in Moscow gave itself an anti-imperial face, but it was short-lived. The Soviet Union quickly followed in the footsteps of the tsarist empire and again asserted influence. Finally, Stalin's diplomatic triumph at the Yalta Conference in 1945 included restoring the situation in Manchuria to 1904.

Only a few months after the founding of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin signed a friendship treaty in early 1950. The Soviet Union renounced its special rights in northeast China, but its technological and economic aid was formative for the development of the young communist brother country. The Soviet economic aid for the People's Republic agreed in the treaty took shape in the course of the Korean War (1950-1953). As a result, China became the Soviet Union's most important trading partner.

On the XX. The 1956 Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in Moscow, however, revealed the first cracks in the alliance between the two communist states. Decisive for the increasing alienation were the ideologically conflicting policies of the new Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev and Maos, as well as their diverging positions on geopolitical issues. China also said goodbye to the economic development model of the Soviet Union - with devastating consequences for its own people.

The climax of the Sino-Soviet confrontation was the skirmishes on the Ussuri river in 1969. Beijing's departure from Moscow went hand in hand with a move towards Washington. In 1972 US President Richard Nixon made a state visit to Beijing. The People's Republic of China had already been awarded a permanent seat on the UN Security Council the year before.

Despite signals from Moscow, a tentative rapprochement between the two states was not achieved until the mid-1980s. The demise of Mao Zedong and Khrushchev's successor Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982 chairman of the CPSU) had softened ideological differences. Mikhail Gorbachev, from 1985 chairman of the CPSU, also showed concession on foreign and security policy issues which, in Beijing's opinion, had hitherto prevented bilateral relations from easing. A state visit by Gorbachev to Beijing in May 1989 heralded the normalization of bilateral relations. After the tanks rolled into Beijing less than a month later, China was isolated in terms of foreign policy. Russia, which emerged from the collapsed Soviet Union, was now a welcome partner and willing supplier of armaments technology.

Diplomatic relations

Since the end of the Cold War, Beijing and Moscow have gradually upgraded their diplomatic relations. A "constructive partnership" (1994) became a "strategic partnership" (1996), which was expanded into a "comprehensive, deepening strategic partnership" within the framework of the Treaty on Good Neighborhood, Friendship and Cooperation signed in 2001.

Important obstacles had already been removed: In the 1990s, for example, Beijing continued negotiations on the border line with Moscow and the other neighboring states that had emerged from the Soviet Union, and resolved all disputed territorial issues with the Kremlin. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded in 2001, emerged from this format of the "Shanghai Five". The main task of this international organization is the security cooperation of the member states in order to improve stability in the region.

Today there is extensive overlap between Beijing and Moscow in terms of their own role and that of the other in solving global political issues. There is also broad agreement on the design framework in the respective main spheres of influence - Eurasia and Asia-Pacific.

However, there are limits to cooperation on sensitive diplomatic issues. An example of this is Russia's annexation of Crimea and the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, which runs counter to China's commitment to the inviolability of states' sovereignty and territorial integrity. Beijing, however, held back with criticism. Moscow's stance on Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea is similar. The Kremlin is trying to avoid further alienation between China and Vietnam and other neighboring countries.

The increasing competition in Central Asia, however, harbors potential for conflict. Both sides failed to coordinate their economic strategies in the region. China is increasingly binding the region's economies to itself through its trade and investment activities within the framework of the Silk Road Initiative. The decisive factor will be whether Beijing's growing economic role will inevitably lead to its security-political weight in the region increasing equally - and how Russia will react to this.

Economic Cooperation

Economic relations between Russia and China have grown steadily over the past two decades, albeit at a slower pace than either side had hoped. For Russia, China is now the most important country of origin of imports and the second most important export market. By contrast, Russia's importance as a trading partner remains limited for the People's Republic. Despite the long common national border, economic relations in the regions remain poorly developed. Nevertheless, China's interest in more extensive economic cooperation with Russia continues, as its northern neighbor is an important supplier of raw materials and a market for industrial goods.

The western sanctions against Russia in the wake of the Ukraine conflict gave the two countries a new impetus. Forced to compensate for its economic losses, Russia lowered the barriers to Chinese investment. Since then, companies from the Middle Kingdom have been investing in the Russian railway and telecommunications sector, among other things, and Russian banks have intensified their cooperation with Chinese institutions.

The preferential treatment is most evident in the Chinese purchase of and investment in Russian energy resources. Russia has been one of China's most important oil suppliers since the 1990s and has been its most important exporter since 2016. Chinese politicians and business leaders are familiar with the risks of investing in Russian energy projects. The country has also secured itself through sustainable diversification of its energy imports.

As a result, the asymmetry of economic relations has increased further as a result of the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia. China has been gaining better access to the Russian market since 2014 and at much more favorable terms than before the crisis - without Russia being able to do much about it.

Security cooperation

Since the normalization of their bilateral relations, cooperation in defense cooperation has deepened. Russia has been China's most important arms supplier for more than two decades. But the way guns are sold has changed over the years. Instead of buying generally available systems from the Soviet era that China has long been able to manufacture itself, Beijing is now demanding technology transfers and state-of-the-art weapons systems from Moscow. Since Russia's need for foreign currency has increased, Moscow has given up its refusal to give China access to the highly sensitive technology of its state-of-the-art warplanes, air defense systems and submarines. For example, at the end of 2016, Moscow delivered the first four SU-35 combat aircraft to China under an agreement that provides for the purchase of 24 aircraft of this type.

In addition to the new quality of armaments cooperation, the two militaries have increased the pace of their joint exercises and defense dialogues. Strategic military maneuvers now take place several times a year. In July 2017, the two countries organized a large-scale joint exercise between the two war fleets in the Baltic Sea. These joint naval maneuvers, which have been taking place annually since 2012, are a strong sign of the growing Chinese and Russian presence on the world's oceans - also beyond traditional areas of operation. Despite the intensive cooperation on security issues, the mutual defense obligations lag far behind those of a traditional military alliance.


Sino-Russian relations have intensified in all areas since the end of the Cold War. At the same time, bilateral relations are increasingly asymmetrical. Unlike the "big brother" Soviet Union of the 1950s, Russia is China's junior partner today. In Moscow there is growing skepticism about the motivations of the neighbors. China's politicians are doing everything they can to meet their Russian partners on an equal footing and to dispel fears.

Notwithstanding this imbalance, Beijing and Moscow are likely to move even closer together in the years to come. Because both China and Russia view the United States as a strategic adversary. On this foundation, the two countries have established a stable strategic partnership based on a geopolitical reality and numerous convergences in economic, diplomatic and military issues.


Margarete Klein, Kirsten Westphal: Russia's turn to China, in: SWP-Aktuell, No. 78, September 2015

Sören Urbansky: Border in the river. China-Russia. The historical echo of the Sino-Russian territorial dispute, Eastern Europe, vol. 65, no. 5-6, 2015, pp. 125-136

Gudrun Wacker: Sino-Russian Relations under Putin, in: SWP Study, No. 19, Berlin 2002