President Vladimir Putin's visit to China in March 2006 was in many respects a spectacular success. The Russian delegation was the largest and most diverse in post-Soviet times. The number of agreements, 29, represented a record in the history of the relationship. And the atmosphere was the most positive of any of Putin's overseas trips. Surveying the landscape of the relationship, there seems nothing not to like. The 4,300 km common border has finally been demarcated in its entirety; Moscow and Beijing agree on practically every regional and international issue of consequence--Chechnya, Taiwan, Iraq, Iran. Official trade has multiplied nearly six-fold during Putin's presidency; and the first ever Sino-Russian joint military exercises took place in August 2005.
The future of the relationship looks bright. China's energy needs and Russia's desire to increase oil and gas exports point to further substantial growth in economic ties. The current international environment appears to offer abundant opportunities for Sino-Russian cooperation in countering American 'hegemonic' ambitions. Indeed, so warm is the bilateral climate that there is mounting speculation that the 'strategic partnership' may evolve into a formal political-military alliance.
And yet, scratch a little below the seemingly smooth surface and there is much to challenge the official optimism. The first indication that all is not quite as it seems is the evident concern in Russia about China's rapid rise as the next global superpower. The second point is that, notwithstanding all the fanfare, the Russia-China relationship is still relatively small beer compared to the two countries' ties with the West. Third, for two such apparently warm strategic partners, both sides are surprisingly suspicious and wary of each other. Although they retain many interests in common, Russia and China view their relationship from very different perspectives and in very different ways.
Nevertheless, for all its tensions the Russia-China relationship is a pragmatic, even cynical affair, in which common interests frequently compensate for the lack of shared values and perceptions. This makes it something less than the grandiose 'strategic partnership' advertised in official communiques, but also far from the fragile enterprise its critics disparage. It is, in sum, much like many great power relationships of the past-full of weaknesses, mutual suspicions and 'empty spots', but effective and mutually beneficial in many respects, and surprisingly resilient.
The psychology of the relationship
The Russia-China relationship is characterized by several fundamental dichotomies. Perhaps the most influential of these is the Russian notion of China as the embodiment of both the 'good' and 'bad' East. On the one hand, China is a valued 'strategic partner' whose rise challenges smug Western assumptions of strategic, economic and normative superiority. On the other hand, China represents to many Russians the most serious long-term threat to national security. For them, the question is not 'if' but 'when' Beijing will move against Russian interests.
The good/bad East dichotomy is also evident in another, very different form. Despite the dizzying pace of Chinese modernization over the past 30 years, many Russians still think of China as backward. This partly reflects the lingering influence of outdated Sovietera stereotypes, but it is also arises out of Russian perceptions of the Chinese military numerically massive but low-tech--and the more contemporary connection between Chinese border traders and shoddy consumer goods. Although these assumptions are being undermined by new realities, China is still seen as second-class compared to Japan and even South Korea. Developments such as the toxic spill of benzene in the Songhua River in November 2005, which briefly threatened the water supply of the Russian border city of Khabarovsk, only confirm such perceptions.
This raises the question of Russia's inferiority/ superiority complex. Traditionally, this dichotomy has been applied to describe its attitudes towards the West, when discomfiture in the face of Western rationalism and prosperity was offset to some extent by a feeling of spiritual superiority. In relation to China, the dichotomy works somewhat differently. Russia may belong to Western civilization and consider itself more advanced and sophisticated. However, this scarcely softens growing concerns that China is overtaking- indeed, has overtaken-Russia as a modern international power.
During the Stalin-Mao era of 'unbreakable friendship' (see Section 2), the Sino-Russian relationship was portrayed in fraternal terms- 'older brother', the Soviet Union, helping 'younger brother' China to grow up. Half a century later, the tables have been turned. Although Moscow and Beijing speak of 'equal partnership', there is a sense that China is increasingly the senior partner. Whereas once it relied overwhelmingly on Soviet technology, this dependence is diminishing all the time; these days Beijing's prime interest is in Russia's natural resources, principally oil and gas. Thus, one of Moscow's long-standing fears vis-a-vis the West- of being relegated to a raw materials appendage--is coming to fruition in its relationship with China.
Ultimately, the most striking dichotomy in the Russia-China strategic partnership lies in their contrasting attitudes to one another. Russia regards China with profound suspicion and anxiety, even while it seeks to broaden cooperation with it. For all the positive noises and the imperative of pragmatic engagement, there is a nagging undercurrent of mistrust. The Chinese approach to Russia is much more self-confident. There is little doubt in Beijing that China holds the stronger cards in the relationship, even though it is Russia that has the energy resources and the vast nuclear arsenal. Chinese policy-makers have few illusions that the Russians have much affection for them. Nevertheless, whatever temporary setbacks and disappointments may occur, they believe that the longer and deeper the relationship develops, the more the balance of power within it will swing towards China- and the more the Russians will come to realize this themselves.
The ebb and flow of history
In order to understand the psychology of the relationship, we need to refer back to the historical record, focusing in particular on several landmark 'moments'. These have been critical in shaping the strategic partnership, and will continue to exert a powerful influence on its future course.
Russia's Mongol complex
The first of these seminal historical moments is the Mongol invasion of Russia in the thirteenth century and subsequent rule in the following three centuries. Although there is little obvious connection between the Mongols and today's (overwhelmingly Han) Chinese, the invasion established in the Russian mind a lasting image of the East as a prime source of threat. Crucially, there were no countervailing positive currents, which meant that the East became synonymous with barbarism and backwardness as well as destructiveness. Current Russian fears about a Chinese demographic tide engulfing the Russian Far East are born of this 'Mongol complex'.
Such Sinophobia may seem all the more illogical given that it was the Tsars who expanded eastwards in the seventeenth-nineteenth centuries, with the Manchus attempting to restrain Russian imperial expansion. Nevertheless, this clash of empires established a territorial, political and civilizational fault-line where previously there had been nomadic tribes and lots of empty space.
Matters came to a head with the Aigun (1858) and Peking (1860) treaties, under which the decaying Qing dynasty ceded most of the present-day Russian Far East (RFE). The loss of these vast territories created a lasting 'territorial question' between Moscow and Beijing. Russians are well aware that these lands were transferred to them under duress, a fact that makes them permanently suspicious of Chinese irredentist ambitions. These concerns have been sharpened by the Chinese insistence on describing the 1858 and 1860 agreements as 'unequal treaties' imposed by the foreign imperialist powers on a helpless China.
The 'unbreakable friendship'
When officials describe today's strategic partnership as the high-point in Sino-Russian relations, they are implicitly comparing it to the previous benchmark- the 'unbreakable friendship' between Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) and Mao Zedong (1893-1976). In fact, the relationship between the two supreme leaders was uncomfortable. Stalin played both sides (Nationalists and Communists) in the Chinese civil war and his support of Mao was often lukewarm and conditional. Even after the Communists' final victory in 1949, the relationship remained difficult. Although Soviet assistance was critical to China's industrialization and its development of nuclear weapons, Stalin disliked Mao's ideological and political independence, while Mao resented patronizing Soviet behavior. The People's Republic might have called itself 'younger brother', but this in no way implied satisfaction with its subordinate status.
The tensions between Moscow and Beijing, incipient under Stalin, flared up under his successor, Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). Ideological disputes, personality clashes between two leaders of vast egos, disagreements over the common border and China's international role all contributed to a spectacular deterioration in bilateral relations. By 1960, the unbreakable friendship had collapsed completely, graphically illustrated by the overnight withdrawal of 1,390 Soviet advisors from China in June that year.
Armed confrontation along the Sino-Soviet border
Although Khrushchev's removal in a Party coup d'etat in 1964 led to a temporary relaxation of …