From Contempt to Camaraderie
Russia’s view of China
Before the Cold War
Despite the fact that three quarters of Russian territory lies in Asia, Russia has historically considered itself a European entity. In 1867, Czar Alexander
At the end of World War
After the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, Russia was reeling from the grievous post-imperial adjustment. During that sensitive time, the leadership of the new Russian Federation received something unexpected from the Chinese, who until then had been their enemy: respect and even the reverence owed to a global power. Throughout the 1990s, each time Russia opposed Western military actions and voted against UN Security Council resolutions (in places like Kosovo and Iraq), Moscow knew it could count on quiet support from Beijing in the form of an abstention vote.
Given this history, Russia esteemed itself the superior of the two countries. But in the 2000s, Russia’s exports to China shifted, becoming mostly energy, metals, timber and other commodities instead of the high-tech machinery the Russians would prefer to be known for. Bobo Lo, a Russia specialist at Chatham House, explains that this reality made the Kremlin squirm: “It’s quite hard being a raw materials appendage to a country you felt superior to for the better part of the past 300 years.” For this reason, Putin’s recent decision to throw his arm around Xi’s shoulder after Crimea caught many unawares.
China’s view of Russia
Before the Cold War
The Great Wall of China was the greatest military defense project in human history. It contains enough earth and stone to create a barrier one meter thick and five feet high all the way around Earth’s equator. For centuries, hordes of invaders crashed against its bulwarks like waves on the seashore, and much of it still stands as testimony of the fact that for millennia, the Chinese prioritized protecting themselves from invaders—especially from the north. Chinese unease with Russia in particular sharpened after the treaties of 1858 and 1860 awarded czarist Russia ownership of a million square miles of previously disputed land. For decades the Chinese said those treaties were unfair.
For a time after the war, the Chinese considered attempting to balance their walk toward industrialization equally between Moscow and Washington; but by 1949, Mao Zedong said China had no choice but to “lean to one side”—the Soviet side. He accepted large amounts of economic and technological assistance from the Soviets to fuel China’s development. In the 1960s, Mao severed ties with Moscow and called for an overthrow of “Soviet revisionism.” For the duration of the Cold War, China looked at the Soviet Union’s brand of communism as watered down and inferior to the Chinese model.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Chinese were relieved at the end of the “threat from the north.” Yet, perceiving Moscow’s sensitivity, the Chinese refrained from public celebration. Leaders carefully avoided heaping any additional humiliation onto Russia, and instead gave it the respect due to a global power. In so doing, China won itself a strategic partner—but one to which China was the junior partner. Just as large sections of the ancient Great Wall had crumbled by this time, so too had China’s closed-mindedness toward its northern neighbor. Beijing seemed to accept that a working relationship with Moscow was necessary in an overall strategy to reclaim China’s “rightful place in the world.”
From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, China was content to play little brother to Russia, but in the last decade, it has assumed a more assertive posture, boldly voting in sync with the Kremlin’s anti-Western line in the United Nations. In modern China’s view, Russia has gone from mentor to rival to strategic partner. Then, just in March of this year, Russia became China’s true comrade—with a chance for alliance.