The Historical Complexities of the Sino-Russian Relationship: a barrier to global domination

Analysts have noted a marked improvement in Sino-Russian relations in recent months. In June Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned energy company, agreed a $270bn deal to double its oil supply to China and last month major joint military exercises were held in the Sea of Japan. 

July's exercises were some of the biggest on record
July’s exercises were some of the biggest on record

This growing economic and military interdependence serves a clear purpose in that it hedges both countries’ bets against the American ‘pivot’ towards the Asia-Pacific. With the US embroiled in disputes of cyber espionage with China and the Edward Snowden asylum fiasco and the Syrian crisis with Russia, it seems that we are regressing towards the early stages of the Cold War.

Having said that, the Sino-Russian relationship is far from a simple one. Sharing a 4,000km border across a vast swathe of Central and Eastern Asia, the two states are naturally geostrategic competitors in that they jostle for influence over neighbouring states. Simultaneously, a lack of transparency over missile deployments and border defences means a persisting wariness exists between the two powers.

This mistrust is borne out of recent history which seems surprising given that it was the Russians that founded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – still rulers of the PRC – in 1920.

Grigori Voitinsky, an agent of the Comintern, helped found the CCP
Grigori Voitinsky, an agent of the Comintern, helped found the CCP

Founded during a period of unparallelled turmoil, the CCP was reliant on Soviet patronage to survive its infancy when competing warlords and, ultimately, a Nationalist revolution, sought its swift destruction.

Stalin was keen to see communism spread deep into Asia under his watchful eye yet his major concern was a Japanese invasion of the Soviet east. As such, he financed both CCP and Nationalist (Kuomintang (KMT)) troops during the 1930s, allowing Chiang Kai Shek’s government to solidify its power base.

This led some CCP leaders, particularly Mao Zedong, to distrust Soviet intentions and, rather than forming a “united front” with the KMT, Mao sought its destruction by initiating the Chinese Civil War during the Japanese invasion, putting the whole of China in peril.

The Hundred Regiments Offensive (1940) was the CCP's only real engagement with Japanese forces - the main target was the KMT
The Hundred Regiments Offensive (1940) was the CCP’s only real engagement with Japanese forces – the main target was the KMT

Despite Mao’s belligerence and lack of conformity, Moscow had marshalled the CCP to victory in the Civil War by 1949 and Mao took over the country. Despite a growing rivalry for global communist leadership between Mao and Stalin, a mutual pact was made to the benefit of both countries; Mao engaged America in a brutal war in Korea whilst Stalin began the transfer of military technology to China to aid Mao’s long-held desire to make his country a global superpower.

Mao subsequently exploited Stalin’s death, and Soviet fears of a US nuclear attack, to convince Nikita Khrushchev to part with sacred atomic bomb technology in the 1950s. In return, Mao soured bilateral relations by continuing to pursue global leadership of the communist movement and pursuing a violently rigid Stalinist ideology in contrast to the tempered Khrushchev. His attempts failed, and the Soviet sphere of influence remained unchallenged.

Khrushchev, fed up with Mao’s antics, severed ties with China and this situation remained unchanged until Mao’s death. It took this momentous event, and a joint loosening of communist economic rigidity by Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, to re-engage Russia and China.

Gorbachev and Deng saw the benefits in limiting Sino-Soviet rivalries
Gorbachev and Deng saw the benefits in limiting Sino-Soviet rivalries

Despite a similar development pattern in recent years, and clearly shared undemocratic principles, relations between the two states remain challenging. The mistrust brought about by years of secret deals, snubs, betrayal and military manoevuring, carried out away from public viewing, has yet to diminish.

The world’s two most powerful ‘secretive’ regimes have a lot to fear from one another and therefore increasing interdependence is the safest bet to prevent a further setback in this crucial relationship.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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