A Very Brief History of China-Russia Relations

The response of much western commentary to the Russia China agreements has been scepticism that they can ever burgeon into an outright partnership because of the supposedly long history of mutual suspicion and hostility between the two countries. The Economist for example refers to the two countries as “frenemies”. To see whether these claims are actually justified I thought it might be useful to give a short if rather summary account of the history of the relationship between the two countries.

Official contacts between China and Russia began with border clashes in the 1680s which however were settled in 1689 by the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which delineated what was then the common border. At this time Beijing had no political or diplomatic links with any other European state save the Vatican, which was informally represented in Beijing by the Jesuit mission.

The Treaty of Nerchinsk was the first formal treaty between China and any European power. The Treaty of Nerchinsk was basically a pragmatic border arrangement. It was eventually succeeded by the Treaty of Kyakhta of 1727, negotiated on the initiative of the Kangxi Emperor and of Peter the Great, who launched the expedition that negotiated it shortly before before his death.

The Treaty of Kyakhta provided for a further delineation of the common border. It also authorised a small but thriving border trade. Most importantly, it also allowed for the establishment of what was in effect a Russian diplomatic presence in Beijing in the form of an ecclesiastical settlement there. Russia thereby became only the second European state after the Vatican to achieve a presence in Beijing. It did so moreover more than a century before any of the other European powers. Russia was of course the only European power at this time to share a common border with China (a situation to which it has now reverted since the return to China of Hong Kong). It is also notable that the Treaty of Kyakhta happened on the initiative of Peter the Great. Peter the Great’s decision to launch the expedition that ultimately led to the Treaty of Kyakhta shows that even this supposedly most “westernising” of tsars had to take into account Russia’s reality as a Eurasian state.

For the rest of the Eighteenth Century and the first half of the Nineteenth Century relations between the Russian and Chinese courts remained friendly though hardly close. St. Petersburg was the only European capital during this period to host occasional visits by the Chinese Emperor’s representatives. During the British Macartney mission to Beijing of 1793 the senior Manchu official tasked with negotiating with Macartney had obtained his diplomatic experience in St. Petersburg. As a result of these contacts at the time of the Anglo French expedition to Beijing in 1860 Ignatiev, the Russian diplomat who acted as mediator between the Anglo French expedition and the Chinese court, could call on the services of skilled professional interpreters and was in possession of accurate maps of Beijing whilst the British and the French had access to neither. Russian diplomatic contacts with the court in Beijing during this period do not seem to have been afflicted with the protocol difficulties that so complicated China’s relations with the other European powers and which contributed to the failure of the Macartney mission. This serves as an indicator of the pragmatism with which these contacts were conducted.

This period of distant but generally friendly relations ended with the crisis of 1857 to 1860 when Russia used the Chinese court’s preoccupation with the Taiping rebellion and China’s difficult relations with the western Europeans culminating in the Anglo French expedition of 1860 to secure the annexation of the Amur region. The Chinese continue to see the third Convention of Beijing of 1860 which secured the Amur territory for Russia as an “unequal treaty”. They have however accepted its consequences and formally recognised the border (which was properly speaking part of Manchu rather than Chinese territory). At the time it must have been resented. However it is probably fair to say that Russia would have been seen in China as a marginally less dangerous aggressor during this period than the western powers Britain and France (especially Britain) if only because China’s relations with these two countries were much more important.

As the Nineteenth Century wore on relations between Russia and China seem to have improved with Russia, undoubtedly for self-interested reasons, playing an important role in the Three Power Intervention that forced Japan to moderate its demands on China following China’s defeat in the Sino Japanese war of 1895. Russian policy of supporting China and the authority of the Chinese court against the Japanese however fell by the wayside when Russia forced the Chinese court in 1897 to grant Russia a lease of the Chinese naval base of Port Arthur. This was much resented in China and damaged Russia’s image there. Russia also became drawn into the suppression of the anti-foreign 1900 Boxer Rising, an event which destabilised the Manchu dynasty and which led to a short lived Russian occupation of Manchuria to suppress the Boxers there. This is not the place to discuss the diplomacy or the reasons for the conflict which followed which is known as the Russo Japanese war of 1904 to 1905. Suffice to say that the ground war was fought entirely on Chinese territory and ended in stalemate (though with the balance starting to shift in favour of the Russians), that I know of no good English account of the war or of the events that preceded it, that the war was precipitated entirely by a straightforward act of Japanese aggression and that the popular view that the war was preceded and/or provoked by Russian economic and political penetration of Korea or plans to annex Manchuria are now known to have no basis in fact.

A radical improvement in Russian Chinese relations took place following the October 1917 revolution caused by the decision of the new Bolshevik government to renounce the extra territorial privileges Russia had obtained in China as a result of the unequal treaties. The USSR became the strongest supporter during this period of Sun Ya-tsen’s Chinese nationalist republican movement and of the Guomindang government in Nanjing that Sun Ya-tsen eventually set up. Sun Ya-tsen for his part was a staunch friend and supporter of the USSR. Though many are aware of the very close relationship between the USSR and China in the 1950s few in my experience know of the equally strong and arguably more genuine friendship between their two governments in the 1920s.

In the two decades that followed the USSR became China’s strongest international supporter in its war against Japanese aggression, a war which has defined modern China and of which the outside world knows lamentably little. During this period the USSR had to balance its support for China’s official Guomindang led government that was supposedly leading the struggle against the Japanese with its support for the Chinese Communist Party (originally the leftwing of the Guomindang movement) with which the Guomindang was often in armed conflict. The USSR also had to balance its support for China with its need to avoid a war in the east with Japan at a time when it was being threatened in the west by Nazi Germany and its allies. The skill with which the government of the USSR performed this difficult feat has gone almost wholly unrecognised.

Following the defeat of Japan in 1945 the USSR’s military support was (as is now known) crucial though obviously not decisive to the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in the civil war against the Guomindang, which led to the establishment in 1949 of the People’s Republic. A decade of extremely close political, military and economic relations followed during which the two countries were formally allies. As is now known this relationship in reality was always strained and eventually broke down in part because of mutual personal antagonism between the countries’ two leaders, Khrushchev and Mao Zedong, but mainly because of Chinese anger at the USSR’s failure to support a war to recover Taiwan and above all because of China’s refusal as the world’s most populous country and oldest civilisation to accept a subordinate position to the USSR in the international Communist movement. The rupture was made formal by Khrushchev’s decision in 1960 to withdraw from China the Soviet advisers and economic assistance that had been sent there. Supporters of sanctions may care to note that on the two occasions Russia has used sanctions (against Yugoslavia in 1948 and against China in 1960) they backfired spectacularly on Russia resulting in consequences for Russia that were entirely bad.

The Sino Soviet rupture of 1960 resulted in a decade and a half of very strained relations. An attempt to restore relations to normal following Khrushchev’s fall in 1964 was wrecked, possibly intentionally, by the Soviet defence minister Marshal Malinovsky who encouraged members of the Chinese leadership to overthrow Mao Zedong through a coup similar to the one that had overthrown Khrushchev. Relations with the USSR during this period also increasingly became hostage to Chinese internal politics with Mao and his supporters during the period of political terror known as the Cultural Revolution routinely accusing their opponents of being Soviet agents. This period of difficult relations eventually culminated in serious border clashes in 1969, an event that panicked the leadership of both countries and which led each of them to explore alignments against each other with the Americans.

This period of very tense relations basically ended in 1976 with the death of Mao Zedong who shortly before his death is supposed to have issued an injunction to the Chinese Communist party instructing it to restore relations with the USSR. Once the post Mao succession disputes were resolved with the victory of Deng Xiaoping a process of outright rapprochement began the start of which was formally signalled in the USSR by Leonid Brezhnev in a speech in Tashkent in 1982 which he made shortly before his death. By 1989 the process of rapprochement was complete allowing Gorbachev to visit Beijing in the spring of that year when however his visit was overshadowed by the Tiananmen disturbances.

Since then there has been a steady strengthening of relations. Gorbachev refused to involve the USSR in the sanctions the western powers imposed on China following the Tiananmen disturbances. Yeltsin, despite the strong pro-western orientation of his government, remained a firm advocate of good relations with China and worked to build on the breakthrough achieved in the 1980s. In 1997 in a speech in Hong Kong Jiang Zemin already spoke of Russia as China’s key strategic ally. In 1998 the two countries acted for the first time openly in concert on the Security Council to oppose the US bombing of Iraq (“Operation Desert Fox”). Subsequently both countries strongly opposed the US led attacks on Yugoslavia in 1999 and on Iraq in 2003.  Since then their cooperation in political, economic and security matters has intensified. Whilst their relations have had their moments of difficulty (eg. over Russian complaints of illicit Chinese copying of weapon systems) and the development of their economic relations has lagged well behind that of their political relations (inevitable given the disastrous state of the Russian economy in the 1990s) it is difficult to see on what basis they can be considered “frenemies”.

The reality is that Russia and China have for obvious reasons of history, culture and above all geography faced through most of their history in different directions: China towards Asia (where it is the supreme east Asian civilisation) and Russia towards Europe. That should not however disguise the fact that their interaction has been very prolonged (since the 1680s), – longer in fact than that of China with any of the major western powers – and generally peaceful and mostly friendly. Periods of outright hostility have been short lived and rare. Despite sharing the world’s longest border all-out war between the two countries has never happened. On the two occasions (in the 1680s and 1960s) when it briefly appeared that it might, both drew back and eventually sought and achieved a compromise. For China Russia’s presence on its northern border has in fact been an unqualified benefit, stabilising and securing the border from which the greatest threats to China’s independence and security have traditionally come.

Western perceptions of the China Russia relationship are in my opinion far too heavily influenced by the very brief period of the Sino Soviet conflict of the 1960s and 1970s. Across the 300 or so years of the history of their mutual interaction the 15 or so years of this conflict represent very much the anomaly not the rule. Given this conflict’s idiosyncratic origins in ideological and status issues that are (to put it mildly) extremely unlikely to recur again, to treat this conflict as representing the norm in China’s and Russia’s relations with each other seems to me frankly farfetched. The past is never a safe guide to the future. However on the basis of the actual history of their relations, to argue that China’s and Russia’s strategic partnership is bound to fail because of their supposed long history of suspicion and conflict towards each other is to argue from prejudice rather than fact.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Good setting up for a debate. You’ve omitted Mongolia to which Communist China laid some claims.

    The bigger difficulty in a “swing to the East” is infrastructure. To fulfill a gas contract the size of Ukraine’s 5000 km of pipeline needs construction. It won’t be remotely as profitable as supplying Europe; an argument which applies to almost everything Russia has to offer China. The roads to the Far East are full to capacity already as is the railway, at least from China. Although a major block is Chinese customs which are in a class of their own. Trains full of coal can spend days waiting to cross. Politics is mostly irrelevant.

    • When discussing financial issues it would help to look at some numbers. Russia is supposed to spend $55 billion on the pipelines to China. This is one year of Russia’s total natural gas export revenues. They get $400 billion in return (with current oil prices, if the oil prices go up then so does the gas price according to the European style formula that Russia has negotiated with China and why these negotiations took so long). Russia can clearly afford to sell the same amount of gas for $345 billion since extraction costs are low. So your claim that the deal is “not remotely profitable” has no basis in fact.

      • Philip Owen says

        I did a long reply to this discussing the Chinese pipeline to Turkmenistand, Japan and the UK’s ability to revesre the gas flow to pump gas from Qatar and Malaysia.. It hasn’t made it? This will have to do ” It won’t be remotely as profitable as supplying Europe”.

  2. 1) Manchuria is an integral part of China, according to the Manchu themselves. The Han Chinese tolerate Russian occupation of Northern Manchuria (and Tuva, and the Sakha Republic) but it is something that must be addressed in the coming centuries. Manchu and Mongols in China are a different story; they’re far more hostile to white occupation of one of their homelands.

    2) Japan attacked Russia in Manchuria because of competing imperialist ambitions. Russia claimed it would withdraw from Manchuria once the Boxer “situation” was calmed. It did not, and if not for the (despicable and delusional) Japanese Manchuria would still be in the hands of whites today.

    3) Russia also dismantled almost the entirety of Northeast China’s industrial base, and raped, looted and pillaged indiscriminately in the region as they allegedly “liberated” Manchuria and Sakhalin.

    4) Russia has engaged in a campaign of forced migrations and pogroms over the centuries to drastically alter the demographics of Siberia, Tuva and Northern Manchuria, inundating Northeast Asian lands with Caucasoids who do not seem to be tolerating the cold too well.

    The general rule of thumb is that when China has the ability to negotiate the terms with foreign powers there is peace. As soon as China is weak and not necessary to balance a third power, other nations move in to extract bloody concessions – usually attacking civilians directly or imposing treaties that severely harm their interests. Russia has historically been an opportunist that has, at every turn, victimized Chinese civilians with no provocation whatsoever and completely disregarded Chinese interests and the personal dignity of individual Chinese and other East Asians (of various ethnic groups), not unlike the Japanese or the Americans.

    But overall I’d agree, China and Russia aren’t frenemies because China is not keen on making enemies and never really has been. They rightfully see America is a greater problem. Russia is for its part unlikely to be so adventurous with China these days as it has secured more than enough lebensraum and is really in no position to strip away any more territory from the Chinese and other East Asians, as much as it would like to.

    • “4) Russia has engaged in a campaign of forced migrations and pogroms over the centuries to drastically alter the demographics of Siberia, Tuva and Northern Manchuria, inundating Northeast Asian lands with Caucasoids who do not seem to be tolerating the cold too well.”

      Care to provide some links to back up this ridiculous claim? None of the indigenous populations in Siberia were driven into reservation ghettos like in the USA and Canada. Northern Manchuria is an absurd fiction. I have heard this chauvinist BS before when some Han Chinese was claiming all of Mongolia was part of China. Some Chinese cannot accept the fact that Mongols ruled China.


      But not all Chinese are national chauvinists just like not all Europeans.

      • Ah, the little boy screams chauvinism. Manchuria belongs to the Manchu, not to Russians. The Han Chinese for their part have done everything they can to revive their language and protect their culture despite every reason in the world to exterminate them as a people. Same goes for the Mongols.

        • Dear Huax,

          Your opinion about Russian intentions towards Manchuria though still widely believed is now known to be wrong. Now that the Russian archives have been fully opened it is now known that the Russian government had no intention of persisting with the occupation of Manchuria. There were some people in Russia who did advocate annexing Manchuria for economic reasons but the Russian military were adamantly opposed and the tsar and the government agreed with them. The Russian occupation of Manchuria was more protracted than the Russian government expected or wanted because of problems putting down resistance in Manchuria itself and coping with a widespread collapse of order there but the Russian government had already taken the decision to withdraw from Manchuria and was about to carry out the withdrawal before the Japanese attacked and both the Chinese and the Japanese knew it. In fact the Japanese attack was timed to pre empt a Russian withdrawal from Manchuria the Japanese knew was going to happen, which would have deprived the Japanese of the pretext they needed for starting a war they intended to launch anyway.

          • “and was about to carry out the withdrawal before the Japanese attacked and both the Chinese and the Japanese knew it.”

            I highly, highly doubt this. There would be no reason whatsoever to believe that the Russians did not want to annex Manchuria given their past behavior and the behavior of white Russians in Xinjiang, the province where Han Chinese predate the modern Uyghur by nearly 2,000 years.

            But on what evidence do you claim that the Japanese knew about an impending Russian withdrawal?

  3. CaoMengDe says

    As a person of Chinese heritage, I almost feel obligated to respond to this post so that Huax doesn’t become the sole representative of my people here. Unfortunately standard normal distribution leaves few nutcases in every group, sad to say, even among descendants of the Middle Kingdom.

    Having been born in China in the immediate aftermath of the death of Mao, I have always been eager to learn about the Sino-Russian relation thru the ages.

    But after moving to United States in 1990, there was so little information in the Western media about the current Sino-Russian relationship. so it was with great interest that I picked up February 2000 edition of National Geographic to read Simon Winchester’s article “On the Edge of Empires: Black Dragon River” which reports back from the bank of Amur/Hei Long Jiang river on the Sino-Russian border.

    Let’s just say, I was sorely disappointed.

    Simon Winchester, a British-Born American, even got the name of the River wrong. Amur, he claims the named after Love. OMG! No, He Didn’t! Even with my limited knowledge of Russian, I knew instinctively Amur is not phonetic translation of Latin amor! I am surprised that an Oxford educated world traveling author/journalist did not know that. It was only years later I learn that “Amur” was indeed derived from Indigenous Daur language meaning “black water/black river” , Chinese name Heilongjiang “black dragon river” must have derived from similar roots.

    Then there is Simon Winchester’s conclusion that Amur river is one of the world’s most dangerous potential flashpoint!

    I could NOT believe that this was written in 2000!

    I was born in 1976, even as I was growing up in China, Sino-Soviet relation was on the mend. When I learned to read in the early 80s, I would somtimes be surpised to read in some earlier books and magazine published in late 70s (78-79) , the harsh and strident language used against aggression of the “revisionist Soviet hegemon”. By mid 80s, such langauge already seem outdated and ideological if not down-right silly.

    Throughout 80s up to 89 when Gorbachev visited China, the relationship thawed. In fact Sino-Soviet and then Sino-Russian relationship, at least among government level, was quite good in the 90s. For Simon Winchester to invoke the specter of Sino-Russian war in 2000 just seem as silly and as outdated as 70s’ anti-Soviet propaganda seemed to a Chinese elementary school kid in the 80s.

    Fundamentally the Western Commentariat, either because of ideological blinders or sheer ignorance, just don’t get it.

    • Thank you for your input. I am originally from St. Petersburg and never perceived any serious anti-Chinese sentiment (of the sort, for example, that westerners hold towards Russians). Western narratives would have everyone believe that Russians are worried about China seizing Siberia. This is more about the wishful thinking of western opinion-makers than about reality.

      When I learned that Harry Truman used to sneer at Russians as “those Asiatics” I found it silly. “Those Asiatics” did not harass the world like the perpetual Crusaders from the west. I am glad to see that China is pursuing an independent foreign policy that is not beholden to the west in spite of the fact that western markets are important for the Chinese economy.

      • I remember this one. The anti Chinese xenophobia peaked around 2001 before the census blew it into bits. It was revived before the 2012 census mostly using old quotations. It was mostly driven by the governors of Far Eastern Provinces using it to claim extra funds. Their most influential backer was Alexander Shaikin, Head of Border Control for the Federal Border Service who claimed 1.5 million Chinese entered China in the previous year mostly illegally (1 in 4 people in the Far East) and 237,000 were legally registered. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/chinese-migration-alarms-border-patrol/261282.html (This is the only link I can find now. There were more sensationalist portrayals in Russian). He was deliberately counting each shuttle trader arrival or short term permit to stay as immigration without accounting for exits. The real story is more like Sergey Pushkarev’s but it didn’t get exposure for a long time. Even the figures of 100,000 Chinese in the Far East are exaggerated. The numbers are in the 1000’s. Most Chinese in Russia live in Moscow. The figures of millions were Russian politicians exploiting xenophobia. 100,000, still more than 10 times too many for the Far East came from a Carnegie funded, Russian staffed, institute in Moscow. Any foreigner in the Russian Far East at the time would have come across the anti Chinese promotions of the governors. The Far East does now have special attention and funds, as much as it can absorb. The “Yellow Peril” is no longer needed. In fact, it has become counter productive.

        In my personal experience, Russians are the most xenophobic and racist people I have met. A third of the adverts for flats in Saratov specify “Russian family only”. The medical students from Kenya and Cameroon are routinely called обезьяной or бандельог (although that word means something else now). Gypsies are always thieves and Jews run the world in a parasitic fashion. Regularly there are people who refuse to meet me or less formally in the street, refuse to talk to me, because I am a foreigner. Babushkas follow me around in the market shouting Немец to warn the other shoppers! There are whole new religions (Nikolai Levashov’s for example) dedicated to the idea of the Slavs as the true Aryan race superior to all others. http://www.ruska-pravda.com/main.html (This is more xenophobia – the Aryan superiority one has a similar name. It talks about Slavic Vedas). There are jokes about Ukranian yokels that emphasize concerns with female fertility and money. There are such xenophobes everywhere, American racists seem the most systematic, but I do not meet them in the USA a fraction as often as in Russia and almost never in the UK. Although they clearly exist in the UK. There is a vote for the BNP. The vote for the LDPR in Russia is rather larger. Saratov is more representative of ordinary Russia than St Petersburg which makes a living from foreigners (some people speak English in St Petersburg). Go back to the 1950’s and you would find a lot of the above in British cities. And some otherwise decent people in the UK still get unhinged about Gypsies. Russia is in more than economic catch up mode. Harry Truman is dead. His era with him. And he had just finished a war against Japan. What was the Russian comment about Germans at the time, you suppose? Or the Japanese?

        • aj the Ukrainian Maniac says

          yeah finished a war weith ukraine, thats a poor anology of russian views of the invader nazi germans

    • I just read a whole lot of nothing. See Philip’s second paragraph.

  4. I would just say that it is not so important what Russian-Chinese relations have been through the centuries, but what the Chinese (and the Russians) believe they were. How is the history of Russian-Chinese interaction taught in Chinese schools? This is even more important than what these relations had been in reality.

  5. With much anticipation I can’t wait to hear your take on the downing of a Malaysian airliner in Eastern Ukraine.

    Granted you were not a gung-ho supporter of Russia’s actions in Ukraine like others in the Russian blogosphere like Vineyard Saker but no one who is a Russia supporter seemed to think that Putin policy in Ukraine or any others he has enacted since his official 3rd term as president Ukraine being the worse that directly lead to the downing of the Malaysian airliner.

    Transcription posted online that is alleged to be Russian backed separatists discussing the downing of the Malaysian plane.


    Perhaps you should rename the title of the Putin book you are working on to The Rise and Fall of Vladimir Putin. 🙂

    • Amendment

      ..but no one who is a Russia supporter are critical of Putin’s policy in Ukraine or any others he has enacted since his official 3rd term as president with Ukraine being the worse that directly lead to the downing of the Malaysian airliner.

  6. The Russia Debate forum seems to be down with a message that it has exceeded its bandwidth limit.

    Another RT correspondent Sarah Firth resigns giving an interview to RFE/RL.


  7. aj the Ukrainian Maniac says

    Hey Anotoly Karlin, what do you make of the fact that Alexander Dugin, the founder of Neo-Eurasianism, and is very influential on the russian elite and army officers thru his books the 4th politcal theory, and The Foundations of Geopolitics, calls China a great threat, and says Russia should help China extend influence to the south except Vietnam, so Australia, Philipenes, and Indonesia to compete with USA naval power. but beside that he wanst a Moscow-Tokyo Axis and return the kuril islands.

    He says russia and china are not true allies, and Russia should only support CHina against the US, but not against Japan or Vietnam.

    China is a threat.

  8. And now the Yukos devil that Putin so wonderfully turned loose is coming…coming for all-out REVENGE. Now we can witness the brutal slaughter of millions of slavic Russians…starving them to death might take too long…US needs the oil and Germany needs cheap and reliable gas.