This backgrounder is part of a ChinaPower series on China-Russia relations. Click here to view other content in the series.
Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, China’s ruling Communist Party moved quickly to establish official ties with its communist neighbor to the north, the Soviet Union. Throughout the early 1950s, the two countries enjoyed strong ties founded on the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance—a bilateral treaty which established a security alliance and facilitated significant economic, military, and technological aid and cooperation.
The relationship began to sour, however, in the mid-1950s when an ideological rift emerged between Beijing and Moscow after Nikita Khrushchev assumed leadership of the Soviet Union. Escalating tensions resulted in the Sino-Soviet split, which saw the two countries engage in open hostility, including the 1969 military clash at Zhenbao (Damanskii) Island, which nearly escalated to war. The rift between the two countries was so severe that Chinese leader Mao Zedong pursued normalization of relations with the United States to balance against the perceived Soviet threat.
Major Milestones in the China-Russia Relationship
Significant tensions continued to simmer between the two communist powers until the late 1980s. Under Deng Xiaoping, China pursued a more pragmatic, less ideologically driven foreign policy that enabled a détente with the Soviet Union. The relaxing of tensions led to the 1989 Sino-Soviet Summit, in which Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing to meet with Deng and other Chinese leaders. The summit was the first meeting between leaders of the two countries since the 1950s and marked the official resumption of normal state-to-state and party-to-party relations.
Chinese leader Jiang Zemin reciprocated with a visit to Moscow in 1991, during which the two countries agreed to resolve a portion of their long-held border dispute. These developments culminated in the 1996 upgrading of the relationship to a “partnership of strategic coordination,” as well as the multilateral Agreement on Confidence-Building in the Military Field in Border Areas Between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which brought about mutual reductions in military forces along their shared borders.
The years that followed saw steady improvements in the relationship, with a significant acceleration in the 2000s. In 2001, China and Russia inked the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, which “Endeaver[ed] to enhance relations between the two countries to a completely new level.” That same year, Russia joined with China and other countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) as founding members of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which aims to promote cooperation between several countries across the Eurasian continent. A few years later, in 2004, China and Russia achieved a significant breakthrough with the final resolution of their border dispute.
Improvements in political and diplomatic relations were accompanied by major upticks in economic and military cooperation during this period. From 2000 to 2010, China’s total annual trade with Russia (imports plus exports) grew sixfold from $8 billion to $55.5 billion. On the military front, China and Russia held their first joint military exercise, known as Peace Mission 2005, in August 2005. Russian arms sales to China also ballooned over the course of the decade. During the period from 2000 to 2010, China’s arms purchases from Russia were 258 percent higher than during the previous decade.
China and Russia continued to strengthen ties throughout the 2010s. In 2011, the two sides marked the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation by upgrading China-Russia relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation.” In 2019, the countries once again upgraded their relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation for a new era.” During a state visit to Moscow to mark the 2019 upgrading of relations, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated “the China-Russia relationship is seeing a continuous, steady and sound development at a high level, and is at its best in history.”
As China and Russia have bolstered ties with each other, both sides have sought cooperation where it is mutually beneficial while avoiding interfering in the core interests of each other. This approach has been written into many of the joint statements that frame the relationship. The 2019 joint statement upgrading relations listed five basic principles of the relationship, among which was the principle of “mutual understanding and accommodation and win-win cooperation.” This approach, based on shared interests and accommodation, has helped Beijing and Moscow weather multiple shocks and avoid the kind of rigid, ideological alliance that devolved into the Sino-Soviet split of the 20th century. China’s decision to not oppose Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, for example, played a major role in cementing the relationship and shaping it into its current form.
“[R]elations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”February 4, 2022 China-Russia Joint Statement
These same dynamics were at play again on February 4, 2022—less than three weeks before the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—when Xi Jinping met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Winter Olympic Games taking place in Beijing. The visit marked Xi’s first in-person meeting with a foreign leader since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The meeting culminated in a joint statement which reaffirmed that “relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era.” It added, “Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”
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