Last Monday (28), Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin exchanged jokes during a video conference during which the friendship treaty between China and Russia was renewed.
“As the world has entered a period of upheaval and change, and humanity faces various risks, the close Sino-Russian cooperation brings positive energy to the international community,” said the Chinese leader, in power since 2012.
The treaty of good neighborliness and friendly cooperation between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, said the Kremlin chief, has “a stabilizing role in world affairs, in a context of geopolitical intensification.” The text was first signed 20 years ago by Putin himself, a young president, and then Communist Mandarin Jiang Zemin.
As the NATO document pointed out last week, the US-led military alliance, Beijing and Moscow are closer than ever, including in the area of security, which Putin and Xi are strengthening to every round of recent talks. It wasn’t always like that.
One of the strengths of the Cold War was the split between the Soviet Union, a superpower alongside the United States, and China which emerged socialist from the Civil War in 1949.
The Sino-Soviet schism is a grain of salt that analysts always remember about the now friendly relations between Russians and Chinese, which in any case aim to confront Washington’s actions at the global level.
It originated in a long-standing mistrust, which referred to border disputes dating back to the 17th century. Part of the founding myth of the Chinese Communist State, under the command of Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976), was that of a past popular struggle against the humiliations imposed by foreign powers on the dynasties that ruled China .
Russia had been one of them, asserting its borders in Siberia and extending its empire to the Pacific Ocean. Even already in its Soviet incarnation, when China was still fragmented, there were two ad hoc armed interventions from neighboring Moscow, in 1929 and 1934.
But Mao was also a radical Marxist-Leninist and a faithful follower of the designs of dictator Josef Stalin (1878-1953), having enjoyed Soviet support for his now century-old Chinese Communist Party. Thus, initially, the founding of the People’s Republic was a geopolitical goal of Moscow-led communism, a union that would soon be tested during the Korean War (1950-1953), in which both supported the socialist north.
Stalin’s death in 1953 changed the rules of engagement. During the next three years, after consolidating his power, successor Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) worked to initiate the so-called de-Stalinization of the regime. In 1956, in a famous speech, Stalin’s brutal crimes were finally exposed by the new ruler of the world. Mao did not like him: he regarded such a movement as a betrayal of revolutionary principles and historical revisionism.
Gradually, the two countries moved away. Despite his fiery rhetoric and the moments of serious crisis he experienced with the West, such as during the clash over the missiles deployed in Cuba in 1962, Khrushchev worked for so-called peaceful coexistence.
A veteran of Stalingrad, he knew the cost of war. There are several accounts of his horror of the position of Mao, who suggested that a global nuclear conflict would be useful in wiping out the capitalist half of the world.
In addition, the new ruler sought a policy going beyond “revolution for revolution” and sponsored scientific advances such as the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and better access to consumer goods for the Soviets.
Mao, commander of millions of impoverished peasants, had other priorities. In 1960, at a meeting of communist leaders in Bucharest, Romania, the leaders exchanged public accusations about the direction of their revolutions – Moscow was challenged in its role as a beacon of socialism.
The Chinese leader rightly suspected that the Soviets wanted to see China weakened and tried to keep it away from the nuclear club. By negotiating a treaty against atmospheric testing of atomic warheads, Khrushchev and the West indeed wanted to thwart the Chinese.
Beijing had been helped to develop its bomb at the hands of Stalin in 1951, in exchange for a supply of uranium, the raw material for weapons. Finally, with great effort, the Chinese bomb did not explode until 1964, and today the country has the third largest arsenal in the world, far behind the Russians and the Americans.
In 1959, Moscow began supporting India in its border skirmishes with the Chinese, which degenerated into war in 1962 – won by Mao but unfinished, as shown in last year’s Himalayan clashes.
In 1961, Moscow and Beijing severed their relations. Mao would qualify Khrushchev as a coward and an accomplice for not having entered into nuclear war in the Cuban crisis.
Animosity subsided somewhat after the overthrow of the Soviet leader in a palace coup in 1964, but the radicalization of the Maoist regime with the Cultural Revolution of 1966 prevented a recovery.
The quarrel has had a strong impact on leftist intellectual circles around the world, especially in Europe. The May 1968 movement in France had Maoist China as its inspiration, and Mao’s late defense of Stalinism led to conflicts in places as far away as Brazil.
There were cracks throughout the Communist world. Albania broke with Moscow to join Beijing, which in turn criticized Yugoslavia and its non-alignment. Anti-colonial conflicts were sometimes financed by the Soviets, sometimes by the Chinese.
By 1969, however, the dispute had almost degenerated into all-out war. For over six months, there have been mutual attacks at points along its long border, over 4,380 km. But Chinese attention has turned elsewhere. Mao and the United States saw an opportunity in the quarrel with Moscow. China needed capital and Washington needed to open a second front to compete with Moscow.
Richard Nixon’s (1913-94) visit to Mao in 1972, which led to a diplomatic resurgence between countries seven years later, ended up changing the world: it led to the integration of the Chinese economy into world capitalism, spawned by the de facto successor, Deng Xiaoping (1904-97).
Mao’s death in 1976 and Deng’s pragmatism eventually cooled the conflict with the Soviets, who were already entering their agonizing superpower phase.
There was another hiccup in 1979, when China invaded Soviet-backed Vietnam and aided Muslim rebels against Moscow’s occupation of Afghanistan.
The countries did not resume full relations until Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the fall of the regime in 1917 in 1989.
In the reincarnation of Russia, China was already on its way to becoming the world’s second economic power. So the past was left behind and a treaty in 2004 put an end to border disputes for good.
Chinese military re-equipment, now much more independent, was based on Russian material. There are limits to the perceived alliance, however, and Putin is a conscientious student of its history: The two times he signed a treaty with powerful rivals, in 1807 and 1941, Russia ended up being invaded.
Shifting from the military to the economic realm, with Xi bursting with geopolitical daring, it doesn’t take much imagination to predict who would be the majority partner in such a marriage.