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Sino-Russian relations
Russia   People's Republic of China
Map indicating location of Russia and China
     Russia      China

China-Russia Relations: China and Russia first came into direct contact about 1640 in far eastern Siberia. From 1640 to 1729 they gradually worked out tenuous but stable diplomatic and commercial relations (Treaties of Nerchinsk and Kyakhta). Their relations became a serious problem after 1858 when Russia annexed the Amur River basin and Vladivostok. The People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation currently maintain close and cordial diplomatic relations, strong geopolitical and regional cooperation, and significant levels of trade.


Before the Nineteenth Century

Sixteenth-century maps of Russia often showed "Chumbalik Kingdom" as Russia's southeastern neighbor, which could be reached by traveling from Yugra up the Ob River toward "Lake Kythay". (Map by Giacomo Gastaldi, 1550)

Lying at opposite ends of Eurasia, the two countries had little contact before about 1640.[1] Both had to deal with the steppe nomads, Russia from the south and China from the northwest. Both were ruled by the Mongols (Golden Horde in Russia (1240-1480), and Yuan Dynasty in China (1271-1368)), but this led to little contact. Russia became a northern neighbor of China when in 1582-1643 Russian adventurers made themselves masters of the Siberian forests. There were three points of contact: 1) south to the Amur River basin (early), 2) east along the southern edge of Siberia toward Peking (the main axis) and 3) in Turkestan (late).


South to the Amur (1640-1689)

About 1640 Siberian cossacks spilled over the Stanovoy Mountains to the Amur River basin. This land was claimed by the Manchus who at this time were just beginning their conquest of China (Qing Dynasty). By 1689 the Russians were driven back over the mountains and the Stanovoy Mountains remained the Russo-Chinese frontier from the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) to the Treaty of Aigun in 1859. For a full account see Russian-Manchu border conflicts.

Eastward along the southern edge of Siberia

Russian expansion in Siberia was confined to the forested area because the Cossacks were skilled in forest travel and were seeking furs while the forest natives were weak and the steppe nomads warlike. In the west, Siberia borders on the Kazakh steppe. North of what is now Mongolia, there are mountains, Lake Baikal and more mountains until the Argun River separates Trans-Baikalia from Manchuria. West of Siberia, Russia slowly expanded down the Volga, around the southern Urals and out into the Kazakh steppe.

Early Contacts: From the time of Kievan Rus' there was trade (fur,slaves) down the Volga to the Caspian Sea and Persia. Later trade extended southeast to the main Asian trade routes at Bukhara. Under the Mongol Yoke, Russian princes would regularly travel to Sarai for investiture. When Marco Polo returned from China he mentioned Russia as an obscure country in the far north. In 1466/73 Afanasy Nikitin made a journey southeast to India and left an interesting account. After the English reached the White Sea, Anthony Jenkinson travelled through Muscovy to Bukhara. In 1608 the Voivode of Tomsk tried and failed to reach China via the Altan Khan in western Mongolia. In 1616 a second attempt got as far as the Khan (Vasilly Tyumenets and Ivan Petrov). The first Russian to reach Peking was probably Ivan Petlin in 1618/19.

After the Russians reached Trans-Baikalia in the 1640s, some trade developed, but it is poorly documented. At this point there were three routes: 1) Irtysh River and east across Dzungaria and Mongolia, 2) Lake Baikal, Selenga River and southeast (the shortest) and 3) Lake Baikal, east to Nerchinsk, and south (slow but safe).

Early Russo-Chinese relations were difficult for three reasons: mutual ignorance, lack of a common language and the Chinese wish to treat the Russians as tributary barbarians, something that the Russians would not accept and did not fully understand. The language problem was solved when the Russians started sending Latin-speaking westerners who could speak to the Jesuit missionaries in Peking.

In 1654 Fyodor Baykov was sent as the first ambassador, but his mission failed because he was unwilling to comply with the rules of Chinese diplomacy. Setkul Ablin, a Central Asian in the Russian service travelled to Peking in 1655,1658 and 1668. It was apparently on his third trip that the Manchus realized that these people from the west were the same as those who were raiding the Amur. In 1670 the Nerchinsk voyvode sent Ignatiy Milovanov to Peking (he was probably the first Russian to cross Manchuria). The next ambassador, Nicholae Milescu (1675-78) was also unsuccessful. After months of fruitless arguments, he was given a blunt lecture about the proper behavior of tributary barbarians and sent home. After the capture of Albazin in 1685, a few Russians settled in Peking ('Albazinians').

Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689): After their first victory at Albazin in 1685, the Manchus sent two letters to the Tsar (in Latin) suggesting peace and demanding that Russian freebooters leave the Amur. The resulting negotiations led the Treaty of Nerchinsk. The Russians gave up the Amur valley but kept the land between Lake Baikal and the Argun River. The treaty said nothing about what is now Mongolia since that area was then controlled by the Oirat Zunghar Khanate.

After Nerchinsk regular caravans started running from Nerchinsk south to Peking. Some of the traders were Central Asians. The round trip took from ten to twelve months. The trade was apparently profitable to the Russians but less so to the Chinese. The Chinese were also disenchanted by the drunken brawls of the traders. In 1690 the Qing defeated the Oirats at the Great Wall and gained complete control over the Khalka Mongols in Inner Mongolia. In 1696 the Oirats were defeated and driven back to the Altai Mountains (Kangxi Emperor in person with 80,000 troops in a battle near Ulan Bator). This opened the possibility of trade from Baikal southeastward and raised the problem of the northern border of Outer Mongolia. In March 1692 Eleazar Isbrant Ides, a Dane in the Russian service, was sent from Nerchinsk as ambassador. The Manchus raised the question of the border west of the Argun. Ides returned to Moscow January 1695. From this time it was decided that the China trade would be a state monopoly. Four state caravans travelled from Moscow to Peking between 1697 and 1702. The fourth returned via Selenginsk (near Lake Baikal) in 90 days and bore a letter from the Li-Fan Yuan suggesting that future trade use this route.

A 1720 letter from Russian officials to Kangxi's court

In 1712 Tulishen became the first Manchu or Chinese official to visit Russia (not counting earlier visits to Nerchinsk). He was mainly interested in the Kalmyks along the Caspian Sea and how they might be used to deal with their cousins, the Oirats. He left Peking in June 1712 and reached Tobolsk in August 1713. Here he learned that he could not see the Tsar because of the Swedish wars. He went to Saratov and down the Volga to visit Ayuka Khan of the Kalmyks. He returned to Peking in April 1715. His report, 'Yiylu' of 'Record of Strange Regions' was long the main source of Chinese knowledge of Russia.

About this time the Kingxi Emperor began to put pressure on Saint Petersburg to delineate the Mongolian border west of the Argun and several Russian caravans were held up. In July 1719 Lev Izmailov was sent as ambassador to Peking where he dealt with Tulishen, but the Chinese would not deal with the trade problem until the border was dealt with. Izmailov returned to Moscow in January 1722. Lorents Lange was left as consul in Peking, but was expelled in July 1722. He returned to Selinginsk and sent reports to Petersburg.

Treaty of Kyakhta (1729): Just before his death, Peter the Great decided to deal with the border problem. The result was the Treaty of Kyakhta. This defined the northern border of what is now Mongolia (except for Tuva) and opened up the Kyakhta caravan trade southeast to Peking.

The needs for communication between the Russian and Chinese traders at Kyakhta and elsewhere resulted in the development of a pidgin, known to linguists as Kyakhta Russian-Chinese Pidgin.[2]

The treaties of Nerchinsk and Kyakhta were the basis of Russo-Chinese relations until the Treaty of Aigun in 1858. The fixed border helped the Chinese to gain full control of Outer Mongolia and annex Xinjiang by about 1755. Russo-Chinese trade shifted from Nerchinsk to Kyakhta and the Nerchensk trade died out by about 1750. (Local trade in this area shifted east to a border town called Tsurukhaitu on the Argun River)


Having reached Tobolsk in 1585, it was natural to continue up the Irtysh River to the Kazakh steppes north of Lake Balkhash to Dzungaria and western Mongolia. This was the route used by Fyodor Baykov to reach China. In 1714 Peter the Great sent Ivan Bukholts with 1,500 troops including Swedish miners who were prisoners of war up the Irtysh to Lake Zaysan to search for gold. Next year he ascended the river again with 3,000 workers to build a fort. Tsewang Rabtan (or Tseren-Donduk) of the Zunghar Khanate attacked them and drove them back to Omsk. In 1720 an expedition under Ivan Likharev ascended the river and founded a permanent settlement at Ust-Kamenogorsk just west of the lake. At just this time the Zunghars were severely defeated by the Manchus and driven out of Tibet. In 1721/23 Peter sent Ivan Unkovsky to discuss an alliance, but this failed. A major reason was that Lorents Lange at Selenginsk had turned over a number of Mongol refugees to the Manchus as part of the buildup to the Treaty of Kyakhta. In 1755 the Qing destroyed the remnants of the Zunghar Khanate, creating a Russo-Chinese border in Xinjiang.

This area did not become active again until about 1880 (Russian Turkestan).

After Kyakhta


Meeting in Central Asia

As the Chinese Empire established its control over Xinjiang in the 1750s, and the Russian Empire expanded into Kazakhstan in the early and mid-19th century, the two empires' areas of control met in what is today eastern Kazakhstan and Western Xinjiang. The 1851 Treaty of Kulja legalized trade between the two countries in this region.

Russian encroachment

In 1858, during the Second Opium War, China grew increasingly weaker as the "Sick man of Asia", while Russia strengthened, eventually annexing the north bank of the Amur River and the coast down to the Korean border in the "Unequal Treaties" of Treaty of Aigun (1858) and the Convention of Peking of 1860. See Amur Annexation. Russia and Japan gained control of Sakhalin Island. By 1899, the Chinese Boxer Rebellion challenged the encroachment by the British, French, and Russians.

Xinhai and October Revolutions

Both countries saw their monarchies abolished during the second decade of the Twentieth century, the Qing Dynasty in 1912, following the Xinhai Revolution, and the Russian Tsarist Dynasty in 1917, following the February Revolution.

Soviet Union, Republic of China, People's Republic of China

Russian Civil War and Mongolia

The Beiyang government in north China joined the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. They sent forces in Siberia and North Russia beginning in 1918.

Mongolia and Tuva became contested territories. After being occupied by the Chinese General Xu Shuzheng in 1919, and then by the Russian White Guard General turned independent warlord, Ungern von Sternberg in 1920, Soviet troops with support of Mongolian guerrillas led by Damdin Sükhbaatar, defeated the White warlord and established a new pro-Soviet Mongolian client state, which by 1924 became the Mongolian People's Republic.

KMT, CPC, and the Chinese Civil War

In 1921, the Soviet Union began supporting the Kuomintang, and in 1923, the Comintern instructed the Communist Party of China to sign a military treaty with the KMT. But in 1926, KMT leader, Chiang Kai-shek abruptly dismissed his Soviet advisers, and imposed restrictions on CPC participation in the government. By 1927, after the Northern Expedition was concluded, Chiang purged the CPC from the KMT-CPC alliance, resulting in the Chinese Civil War which was to last until 1950, a few months after the People's Republic of China, led by Mao Zedong, was proclaimed. During the war, some Soviet support was given to the CPC, who in 1934 were dealt a crushing blow when the KMT brought an end to the Chinese Soviet Republic, beginning the CPC's Long March to Shaanxi.

Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II

In 1931, the Empire of Japan invaded Manchuria and created the puppet state of Manchukuo (1932), which signalled the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War. In 1937, a month after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the Soviet Union established a non-aggression pact with the Republic of China. During the World War II-period, the two countries suffered more losses than any other country, with China (in the Second Sino-Japanese war) losing over 30 million people and the Soviet Union 40 million.

Joint-victory over Imperial Japan

On August 8, 1945, three months after Nazi Germany surrendered, and on the week of the American Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 and 9), the Soviet Union launched the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, a massive military operation mobilizing 1.5 million soldiers against one million Kwantung Army troops, the last remaining Japanese military presence. Soviet forces won a decisive victory while the Kwantung suffered massive casualties, with 700,000 having surrendered. The Soviet Union distributed some of the weapons of the captured Kwantung Army to the CPC, who would go on to battle the KMT in the Chinese Civil War.

Independence of Mongolia

China, Soviet Union: Treaty of Friendship and Alliance was signed by Soviet and ROC,which stated the possible Independence of Mongolia in the premise of Soviet not supporting the Communist China.

War of Liberation and the People's Republic of China

Between 1946 and 1950, the CPC was increasingly enjoying massive support from the Chinese people in the "War of Liberation," effectively implementing a People's war, while the KMT became increasingly isolated, only belatedly attempting to stem corruption and introduce popular reforms. On October 1, 1949 the People's Republic of China was proclaimed by Mao Zedong, and by May 1950 the Civil War was brought to an end in the Battle of Kuningtou, which saw the KMT expelled from Mainland China but in control of Taiwan. With the creation of the People's Republic of China, the supreme political authority in the two countries became centered in two communist parties, both espousing revolutionary, Marxist-Leninist ideology: the Communist Party of China and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

From camaraderie to the Sino-Soviet Split

Thus, in the immediate years after the PRC was proclaimed, the Soviet Union became its closest ally. Soviet design, equipment and skilled labour was set out to help industrialize and modernize the PRC. But the extent of actual support, while not insignificant, fell well below Chinese expectations. In the 1960s, relations became deeply strained following the Sino-Soviet Split, culminating in the Sino-Soviet border conflict. Increasingly, the PRC began to consider the Soviet Union, which it viewed as Social imperialist, as the greatest threat it faced, more so than even the leading capitalist power, the United States. In turn, overtures were made between the PRC and the US, such as in the Ping Pong Diplomacy and the 1972 Nixon visit to China.

Post-Mao era and stabilizing relations

In September 1976, Mao died. A month later, the Gang of Four were overthrown by his successor, Chairman Hua Guofeng, with the support of Deng Xiaoping, who was to soon implement pro-market economic reform. With the PRC no longer espousing the anti-revisionist notion of the antagonistic contradiction between classes, relations between the two countries became gradually normalized. In 1979, however, the PRC launched the Sino-Vietnamese War, an invasion of Vietnam (a Soviet ally) in response to Vietnam's invasion and subsequent occupation of Cambodia which overthrew the Dengist government-backed Khmer Rouge from power. Even though Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev went on to criticize the post-Maoist CPC when it allowed for PRC millionaires as having lost the socialist path, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 90s, Russia itself turned to privatization.

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

But unlike in the PRC, this was a much more extreme, highly unregulated form of privatization which resulted in asset grabs by Russians in a highly unregulated fashion, resulting in deep socio-economic inequalities within Russia and the collapse of the economy as well as various Russian institutions. Thus, in the post-Cold War period, the PRC emerged in a far more favourable and stable financial position. While the PRC is undergoing rapid economic growth, Russia is experiencing massive demographic problems, including low birthrate, low life expectancy, an high levels of preventable diseases [3] Today, much of Russia's economy depends on the export of natural resources, resulting in strong trade relations with China.

Russian Federation, People's Republic of China

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with Hu Jintao whilst on a state visit to China in May 2008.
SCO and CSTO members

Refound common interests

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, relations with Russia have dramatically improved, both countries found common interests and a common free market orientation, and related to these, a common opponent: the United States as the sole superpower. In 1991, the Sino-Russian Border Agreement was signed apportioning territory that became contested during the Sino-Soviet border conflict.

Settling the disputes

The Russian government agreed to transfer Tarabarov Island as well as one half of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island to China in 2004, ending a long-standing border dispute between Russia and China. Both islands are found at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers, and were until then administered by Russia and claimed by China. The event was meant to foster feelings of reconciliation and cooperation between the two countries by their leaders. The transfer has been ratified by both the Chinese National People's Congress and the Russian State Duma. The official transfer ceremony was held on-site 14 October 2008.

A strategic alliance

In 2001, the close relations between the two countries were formalized with the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, a twenty-year strategic, economic, and controversially, (arguably) an implicit military treaty. A month before the treaty was signed, the two countries joined with junior partners Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The PRC is currently a major Russian customer of imports needed to modernize the People's Liberation Army, and the foremost benefactor of the under construction Russian Eastern Siberia – Pacific Ocean oil pipeline.


  1. ^ The section down to the Treaty of Nerchinsk is largely a summary of G. Patrick March, 'Eastern Destiny: Russia in Asia and the North Pacific, 1996, who in turn summarizes Mark Mancall, Russia and China: Their Diplomatic Relations to 1728,1971.
  2. ^ International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies (1996). Atlas of languages of intercultural communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas, Volume 2, Part 1. (Volume 13 of Trends in Linguistics, Documentation Series).. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 911-912. ISBN 3110134179.  
  3. ^

See also


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