China and Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord

Image of China and Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord
Release Date: 
April 18, 2023
Yale University Press
Reviewed by: 

The 400-year-old relationship between China and Russia could best be summarized as incessant "frenemies"—sometimes allies, sometimes adversaries, but always in flux as the relative power between them fluctuates. In this new book, author Philip Snow offers a comprehensive history of the constantly changing, always tumultuous, and ever complicated interactions between these two countries that share the world’s sixth largest border. This is an incredibly timely book as the U.S. and other Western powers grapple with the challenge of dealing with an increasingly aggressive Russia and a rapidly developing China, both of which seek to overturn the established international order to suit their own strategic objectives.

Beginning in the 16th century with the first tenuous contacts between Russians and Chinese, the author reviews the political, economic, social, and cultural interactions between these two countries as they both emerge as local, regional, and then global powers. The gradual settlement of the vast spaces in Siberia by first Russian Cossacks and then Russian traders and settlers brought them into direct contact with their Chinese counterparts, beginning nearly 300 years of disputes over borders, rights of river navigation and a competition for the other ethnic groups living in the Central Asia region that were often caught between competing Chinese and Russian interests. As the Romanov and Qing dynasties reach a level of stability, the first great cultural end economic ties begin to be established, first locally and then nationally as each country assesses the economic and military potential of the other.

This waxing and waning of local territorial disputes and overall economic and military dominance continues for the next two centuries until Russia starts to modernize and Westernize as China becomes a prime area of imperial competition between England, Japan, Germany, and eventually Russia as well. This era saw a tremendous increase in the Russian sphere of influence in Central Asia and the Pacific region, leaving the Russians in control of vast regions formally under Chinese control. In the aftermath of a disastrous war with Japan and the calamity of World War I, the fall of the Romanov dynasty in the communist revolution began a critical new phase in the Sino-Russian relationship as an increasingly dominant Russian Communist Party begins to take deeper interest in Chinese affairs.

The relationship during the communist era offers some amazing insights into the tensions between the Russian and Chinese interpretations of communist theory and dogma and the continuing undercurrent of competition between the two countries, now conducted under the aegis of communism and its proper implementation.

Although some readers might be familiar with the Sino-Soviet rift that began in the 1960s and offered the U.S. the opportunity to begin its own complicated relationship with communist China after decades of diplomatic hostility with Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the author provides a compelling narrative showing that the relationship between the two communist powers was brittle for decades before then.

During the decade before the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Stalin, ever the chess master, played off the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong and the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek against each other to maintain Soviet interests in the country, not completely supporting the communists until the end of World War II. The Korean War deepened these tensions as the Soviets pressured the Chinese to save their North Korean clients after the U.S. intervened in the war but did not initially give the material and air support the Chinese felt Stalin should provide.

As the Cold War deepened the author clearly shows that the contemporary view the U.S. had of a monolithic world-wide communist bloc was far different from the testy relationship between the two nations, particularly after Stalin’s death and during Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. The deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam additionally complicated the Sino-Soviet relationship as both countries initially supported North Vietnam, but after the Paris Peace Accords and the conquest of South Vietnam, the Chinese actually launched a military expedition into Vietnam in 1979.

The final chapters dealing with the current Sino-Russian relationship show a deepening strategic relationship that has now decisively tilted in China’s favor. The failed Westernization of Russia after the fall of communism versus China’s nominal communist oligarchy controlling the world’s fastest growing economy through much of the 1980s and 1990s has now established China as the more powerful partner.

Combined with Russia’s failed conquest of Ukraine and the subsequent Western reaction of economic sanctions and military support to Ukraine and Russia now finds itself dependent on China’s military industrial complex, where less than a decade ago Russia was still a major arms supplier to China.

As the author concludes, Western policymakers are now faced with dealing with a militarily aggressive Russia combined with an assertive China wanting to change the balance of power in the Western Pacific. How long this alliance will last is a definite challenge to understand and will likely be the key question for the security and stability of the world order for the next decade. If history is a guide, it could endure or collapse with equal likelihood.