On 1 October 1949, the People's Republic of China was founded. The Soviet Union immediately granted diplomatic recognition and established formal diplomatic ties with China. Over the following 40 years, Sino-Soviet relations went through alliance, disagreements, open debates, formal split, border conflicts, and full confrontation until the normalization of party-to-party and state-to-state relations in 1989. Former State Councilor Dai Bingguo summed up the experience into 4 decades: the honeymoon decade (1949–1959), the polemic decade (1959–1969), the confrontation decade (1969–1979), and the negotiation decade (1979–1989).
A smooth transition from Sino-Soviet to China–Russia relations
In December 1991, the Soviet regime founded after the October Revolution and the socialist union founded in 1922 exited the historical stage. The Russian Federation, committed to joining the club of Western civilization, took its place. Whether the relations between China and the Soviet Union, the two major socialist countries, can be smoothly transitioned to a new type of China–Russia relations, was under a major test.
The Chinese side naturally had its own judgment on the role played by the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the USSR disintegration process. The loss of the ruling position by the Soviet Communist Party and the disintegration of the Soviet Union put considerable pressure on China's reform and opening up. These, plus Yeltsin's one-sided pro-western policy, fueled concerns for the direction of China–Russia relations.
Fortunately, determined to seek an external environment conducive to the country's reform and opening up, pursue peaceful coexistence with neighbors, and avoid alignment based on ideology and social system in state-to-state relations, the Chinese leadership did not openly criticize the foreign and domestic policies of Yeltsin in his early years in office and responded fairly constructively to Russia's primary concern with regard to becoming the successor to the Soviet Union in international law. In December 1991, the two countries signed an inter-governmental meeting minutes and smoothly transitioned from Sino-Soviet to China–Russia relations. The minutes confirmed China's support for the succession of the Russian Federation to the status of the Soviet Union under international law, and stressed the continued validity of principles governing bilateral relations established in the two joint communiques signed by the heads of states in 1989 and 1991 respectively, including the one-China position. There were rumors in the spring and summer of 1992 that the Moscow–Taipei Economic and Cultural Coordination Committee might be regarded as a diplomatic mission and that its employees might be granted diplomatic immunity. However, in September 1992, President Yeltsin signed theRegulations on Relations between the Russian Federation and Taiwanand the matter was clarified.
In December 1992, President Yeltsin visited China, albeit with certain hesitancy in comparison to his visits to the capitals of all G7 countries except Japan in the first half of the year. It is also very clear from the state of mind described in the autobiography by the then Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev that both he and President Yeltsin went to Beijing with much ambivalence.
In a departure from the uneasy mood of Russian leaders, the Chinese received President Yeltsin, who was visiting China for the first time, with great courtesy. The president had a background in architecture and was brought to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. A dinner was hosted in his honor at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. And he had cordial conversations with several Chinese leaders who had studied in the Soviet Union.
During Yeltsin's visit, the two heads of states signed theJoint Statement on the Basis of Mutual Relations between the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation, declaring that the two countries “regard each other as a friendly country”. Although Yeltsin cut short his visit for some reason, his confidence in China was growing and his doubts were disappearing.
Upgrading of bilateral relations
In a letter to President Jiang Zemin delivered by Foreign Minister Kozyrev during his visit to Beijing in January 1994, President Yeltsin proposed to upgrade the bilateral relationship to a constructive partnership. The announcement was then made in the joint statement signed during Jiang's official visit to Russia in 1994: “The two countries enjoy a new type of constructive partnership, which features good-neighborly, friendly and mutually beneficial cooperation as full equals on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and is neither aligned nor directed against third countries”.
The bilateral relationship was upgraded to a strategic partnership of coordination, as agreed during Yeltsin's visit to China in April 1996, to reflect its nature of being strategic, collaborative, and institutionalized. As known to all, in the 40 years from 1949 to 1989, there were only five state visits, which were quite unusual for two neighboring major powers. With the strategic partnership of coordination, the two sides gradually developed regular (at the least once a year) dialogue mechanisms in all areas of cooperation at all levels, from the head of state to the prime minister, deputy prime ministers, ministers, and expert working group. These were reliable institutions for deeper political mutual trust, greater strategic coordination, and further practical cooperation.
In July 2001, China and Russia signed theTreaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, designed to pass on the friendship between the two peoples from generation to generation and based on mutual respect for each other's political, economic, social, and cultural development paths chosen in accordance with their respective national conditions and mutual support for each other's policies on national unity and territorial integrity. The two further undertake not to participate in any alliance or group which undermines the sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity of the other contracting party, take any such actions, including the conclusion of such treaties with any third country, or allow any third country, organization, or group to use their respective territory for activities undermining the national sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity of the other contracting party. The treaty also reaffirms Russia's position on national unity and sovereignty, including on the Taiwan question.
In keeping with the spirit of the 2001 treaty, while strengthening regular consultations between their functional departments and the legislative and judicial bodies, the two sides also dedicated efforts to consolidate the public will and social foundation for long-term good neighborliness and friendship. For example, in accordance with theOutline for the Implementation of the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation (2005–2008)signed in 2004, the two countries started the China/Russia year programs in 2006. For example, China hosted the Russia year in 2006 and Russia hosted the China year in 2007 with rich events and opening ceremonies attended and addressed by the president. There were also the Year of Russian Language in China (2009), the Year of Chinese Language in Russia (2010), and the Year of Russian Tourism in China (2012).
China–Russia cooperation in the military, economic, and energy fields yielded fruitful results. The Peace Mission joint military exercise was first held in 2005 and has continued to this day, with growing number of participants and equipment, arms of the services, and drill items. The exercises have taken place at the sea, in the air and across vast land. From the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea, the two countries and other Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states have demonstrated higher levels of military cooperation.
As a contrast to the high-level political and security cooperation, the growth of bilateral trade was not stable and the size of bilateral investment was not large enough. In this connection, the two sides approved in 2009 theOutline of Cooperation between the Northeast of China and the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia (2009–2018)to support the development of the adjacent areas with favorable policies and institutions. Moreover, in February 2009, after long and arduous negotiations, China and Russia finally signed the long-term crude oil supply contract and pipeline construction agreement. Russia began to supply oil to China on 1 January 2011. Cooperation in areas such as nuclear power was advanced steadily.
In September 2010, leaders of the two countries jointly signed a joint statement to comprehensively deepen the strategic partnership of coordination, promising to elevate cooperation in investment, infrastructure, and between regions in a pragmatic manner to a level consistent with the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.
When the Wenchuan earthquake hit China, the Russian side sent medical teams and rescue teams with heavy helicopters to the stricken area. Russian President Medvedev invited nearly 1000 young quake survivors from affected areas in Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi provinces to convalesce in Russian sanatoriums. The Ocean All-Russia Children's Care Center in Vladivostok received the largest number of children and received the best feedbacks. The story of Xi Junfei and his drift bottle moved many people. Xi first visited the center in 2010, giving encouragement to the children and expressing gratitude to local teachers.
Of course, the friendship and sincerity moved not only the children in China's disaster areas but also the bereaved families of Soviet soldiers falling in battle in China. Unlike some other countries that use historical topics to vilify the image of the Soviet Army on the European battlefield, the Chinese side has properly maintained the cemeteries, memorials, and tombs of the Soviet Union Red Army at Qiqihar, Dalian, Harbin, Shenyang, Changchun, Ulan Hot, Manzhouli, Tumen, and Wuhan. Together with Russian archaeologists in places like Mudanjiang, remains of Soviet martyrs were searched for, and collected and properly buried with tombstones erected at local martyrs' cemeteries.
Cooperation on multilateral platforms
Changes in international and regional situation at the turn of the century brought new contents to the strategic coordination between the two countries. In the face of new circumstances such as the unipolar American hegemony, the accelerated NATO's eastward expansion, the strengthening of US security relations with Japan and ROK and the rise of terrorist, splittist, and extremist forces in the hinterland of Eurasia, out of their own security interests and for the purpose of maintaining regional peace and stability and advocating a new security concept, China and Russia initiated a series of multilateral cooperation mechanisms, such as the “Shanghai Five”, the China–Russia-India trilateral dialogue, the SCO and the BRICS, expanding the scope of their strategic coordination to a new level.
In June 2001, China and Russia joined forces with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to set up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and put forward the “Shanghai Spirit”, namely, mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diverse civilizations, and pursuit of common development. The organization enjoys growing influence and increasing members, observers, and dialogue partners.
Under the active promotion and coordination of China and Russia, the BRICS mechanism involving emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China was launched in June 2009. It made a unique contribution to shaking off the negative effects of the financial crisis (2007–2008) that began in the US and moving global governance in a more just and equitable direction. South Africa joined in 2011. The G20 mechanism launched at the Pittsburgh Summit is an important platform for the BRICS cooperation mechanism to expand its international influence.
In addition, China and Russia have conducted intensive consultations and collaboration within the framework of the reform of the United Nations, the World Health Organization-led fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, and the six-party talks mechanism on peace-related issues on the Korean peninsula.