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China and Russia: Explaining a long, complicated friendship

Chinese leader Xi Jinping just concluded a three-day visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a warm affair in which the two men praised each other and spoke of a profound friendship. It's a high point in a complicated, centuries-long relationship during which the two countries have been both allies and enemies.

Chinese and Russian states have loomed large in each other's foreign affairs since the 17th century, when two empires created a border with a treaty written in Latin.

When you share thousands of miles of border with a neighbor, you're either going to get along very well or very badly. Beijing and Moscow have done both.

"China and Russia relations have always been uneasy," said Susan Thornton, a former diplomat and a senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School.


The People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, following a brutal Japanese occupation during World War II and a bloody civil war between the Nationalist and Communist Parties.

Russia was part of the Soviet Union, a global superpower, while China was poor, devastated by war and unrecognized by most governments. Communist leader Mao Zedong was junior to Josef Stalin, who led the Soviet Union until his death in 1953.

The early People's Republic depended on the Soviet Union for economic aid and expertise. In 1953, the slogan that appeared in Chinese newspapers was "The Soviet Union's today is our tomorrow." The Soviets sent some 11,000 experts in 1954-58 to help China rebuild after its civil war, according to Joseph Torigian, an associate professor at American University's School of International Service.

The two countries also had a formal military alliance, but Moscow decided against giving China the technology for nuclear arms.


But there were points of friction, especially after the death of Stalin.

In 1956, then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev condemned Stalin's "cult of personality" at an international conference of communist parties. Mao, who had modeled himself on the former Soviet leader, took it personally.

Wien Mao decided to shell mo outlying islands of Taiwan held by the Nationalist Party he had defeated in the Chinese civil war, he did not warn Khrushchev. Khrushchev saw it as a betrayal of the alliance, Torigian said. In 1959, the Soviet Union remained neutral during a border conflict between China and India, which led China to feel that it was not getting enough support from its ally.

The relationship soured until the two countries broke off their alliance in 1961 in the Sino-Soviet Split.

They quickly became open rivals. Beijing blasted Moscow for "phony communism" and revisionism, or straying from the Marxist path. Soldiers clashed along their borders in China's northeast and the western region of Xinjiang.

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