March 2 marks half a century since Chinese troops opened fire on Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island, a disputed but strategically irrelevant parcel of land in the Ussuri River, which divides the two countries along their far eastern border. The Chinese assault left several dozen soldiers dead and set off months of hair-trigger alerts and violent clashes along the Soviet-Chinese border.
As wars go, the Sino-Soviet clash of 1969 was mercifully contained, with probably no more than a couple hundred soldiers killed. Yet this small conflict transformed the Cold War. As a result of it, both communist powers decided that they needed to improve ties with the United States to counter each other. Over lunch in Washington, a Soviet diplomat asked a U.S. official how the White House would respond if Moscow attacked and destroyed China’s small nuclear arsenal. China, still reeling from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, began exploring how to improve ties with the United States as a hedge against Soviet power.
Fifty years later, the situation has reversed. China and Russia have settled their border disputes and have become fast friends. Their main area of agreement: opposition to the United States, which both see as a geopolitical and ideological threat. This year’s anniversary offers a warning: The last era of partnership between China and the Soviet Union lasted scarcely a decade before descending toward war in 1969. But for several reasons, today’s Russia-China entente may prove more durable.
Since Russia and China conducted their first major diplomatic negotiation in 1689, the two countries have often been at odds. Russia seized a large chunk of northern China in the late 1850s. It invaded China’s Xinjiang borderland in 1871 and seized Chinese Manchuria in 1900. The 20th century was no more peaceful, as the Soviet Union funded and armed revolutionaries in China and invaded Manchuria and Xinjiang once again in the 1920s and 1930s. China’s assault on Soviet border guards in 1969, in other words, was one in a long, long series of Russian-Chinese wars.
Yet today Russia and China are working together more closely than at any time since the Korean War. They cooperate at the United Nations, seeking to thwart Western priorities. Russia is selling China advanced military kit, including S-400 surface-to-air missiles. They support authoritarianism in Central Asia and further afield. The two countries conduct joint military drills from the Baltic to the South China Sea. Russia’s 2018 Vostok military exercise on its eastern border included 3,200 personnel from China—a clear signal that Russia’s military does not see China as a near-term threat. And Russia recently shifted a big chunk of its foreign currency reserves into Chinese currency as a hedge against U.S. sanctions.
Is this friendship likely to continue? Many in Washington doubt it. It is easy to identify possible areas of disagreement between Moscow and Beijing. Russia has traditionally seen Central Asia as its own sphere of control, but China is pushing in, with Belt and Road-linked investment projects springing up across the region. Status concerns matter, too. In the past, Moscow was the senior party in the relationship. Today, China is more powerful, although Russians don’t like to admit it. No wonder, then, that then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis argued last year that there is “little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.”
But how long is the long term? Possibly quite short. In the course of only a decade after the mid-1950s, the Soviet Union and China went from close allies to bitter rivals, after Beijing accused Moscow of imperialism and of betraying socialist principles. The reversal was a shock: The Soviet Union had helped set up Mao Zedong’s Communist Party government in 1949. The Soviets supported China’s economy amid crash industrialization efforts in the 1950s. It assisted Beijing’s early stage nuclear development efforts only 15 years before sounding out the U.S. about a joint strike against Chinese atomic facilities. As late as 1960, the Soviet Union was training the Chinese army. Nine years later, the Soviet Union was fighting it.
Yet for all the surprise turns toward conflict, there are as many examples of rapid rapprochement and apparently successful stabilization. China and Russia have often gone to war, but more often they have been at peace. Anyone expecting a full rupture in relations between Beijing and Moscow needs to explain what will upend this dynamic. Many oft-cited concerns have little basis in fact. Some say that millions of Chinese from the country’s densely populated north will begin flowing into Siberia. With Russians moving out of Siberia, and with hundreds of millions of Chinese to the south, might this threaten Moscow’s hold on the territory? Yet there is no evidence of such a flood of Chinese immigrants into Russia, and it is not clear why Chinese citizens would do so, given that wages are often higher at home.
The same is true of suggestions that China’s rapacious demand for resources might complicate relations with resource-rich Russia, perhaps even inspiring China to grab territory to guarantee access to resources. China can already buy Russia’s mineral riches for favorable prices. In exchange, Russia gets access to one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing markets. What incentive does either side have to change the arrangement?
Nor will Russia-China cooperation in Central Asia inevitably turn toward conflict. True, both countries have long-standing interests in the region, many of which are contradictory. But Beijing and Moscow have found ways to manage divergent interests, in part because both countries agree that their primary goal is to maintain political stability and keep existing elites in power. An unexpected shock, such as a contested succession in Kazakhstan after that country’s aging president departs, could conceivably spark disagreement between Russia and China. But neither side wants a drastic change, so they have plenty of incentive to cooperate.
Many of the most unexpected turns in Russian-Chinese relations have been driven less by foreign policy than by domestic politics. Ideological shifts at home were a key driver of Sino-Soviet conflict in the 1960s, as Mao looked for a foreign enemy while he ramped up the Cultural Revolution. Russia’s aggressive drives into Chinese territory in the 1800s often stopped and started based on the firing of a prime minister or the death of a tsar.
Today, too, domestic politics is key to China-Russia friendship. The current rulers in Moscow and Beijing have redoubled their commitment to authoritarian stability at home while setting their countries on a confrontational path with Washington abroad. The growing similarity between China and Russia’s political systems makes friendship easy. Their competition with the world’s superpower makes it a necessity.
Should this worry the United States? It certainly does not make foreign policy easier. China and Russia are an imposing duo when they want to confront the United States in international organizations or amid crises like that in Venezuela. Yet derailing Beijing and Moscow’s friendship would not be simple, although America’s confrontation with Russia and China would limit the two countries’ incentive to align. It is more likely that Washington will choose to wait, hoping that that Beijing or Moscow change course first.
We may be waiting for a while. Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have invested heavily in their relationship. It is possible to imagine a domestic political swing as large as those that have historically forced changes in the Russia-China relationship. Yet as both countries edge ever closer to having presidents-for-life, it is not a good time to bet on sharp shifts. Xi and Putin are guarantors of their countries’ friendship. Neither president looks inclined to change his mind—or to leave his post.
Chris Miller is Assistant Professor at The Fletcher School and author of Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia. Twitter: @crmiller1