Russia’s border with China has been forming since the 17th century. In the 18th century, Emperor Peter the Great carried out a demonstrative and violent westernization of Muscovy. It did not lead to Muscovy-Russia being immediately perceived in the West as part of European civilization. Instead, it was a large factory for mediating trade with the East. Over time, Russia, due to its active participation in the great European wars of the 18th and 19th centuries and dynastic marriages, gained the perception of a permanent and integral element in European politics. Later, in the nineteenth century, Russia created a myth, presenting itself as a country of “great culture in the European circle.” Thus, it became an exalted member of the European family, akin to a not-so-smart cousin from the provinces in a noble family.
However, the border with China looked like the border between the West and the mysterious and alien East. In this perception, Russia, from the beginning of the twentieth century, was seen in Europe as a guardian against a possible threat from the East.
Interestingly, the illusion of Russia constituting a force that balances the now strong and aggressive rather than mysterious China still exists. Moreover, such a myth makes many in Europe and North America put up with Russia’s crimes, aggression, intimidation, and blatant disregard for international law. Some say Moscow balances China and acts as a force to restrain it. However, an analysis of the situation around the Russian-Chinese border makes it clear that there is no deterrence of China by Russia. Russia is China’s junior dependent partner.
A Border of Insults and Lies
Like any border, the Russian-Chinese border has its mythology and alleged history of injustice, which is mutual. China believes the current border is unjust, with Russia occupying historical Chinese territories, including Vladivostok.
Modern China justifies its claims by Russia’s conquest and annexation of territories that were part of the Qing Dynasty empire. In the nineteenth century, the states drew the border in “unequal treaties,” the Treaty of Aigun and Convention of Peking (Beijing). Under these treaties, China lost the territories that are now the Primorsky and Khabarovsk Territories of the Russian Federation.
The bottom line is that China is, in fact, also an invader. Historically, Chinese lands occupied the territory further north beyond the Great Wall. The northern border provinces of China near the Amur, Argun, and Ussuri rivers were inhabited by other peoples. Even in the 19th century, the ethnic composition of these regions was not purely Chinese. They were mainly inhabited by peoples of the Tungusic group, who now, on both sides of the border, have become relics of the past and are rapidly assimilating.
The Confrontation Between Two Communist Empires
After World War II, the USSR expectedly supported Mao Zedong’s Communists in the Chinese Civil War. They won. However, by the early 1970s, most of the free world questioned the legitimacy of their rule.
Subsequently, the West began to consider the Communists legitimate, as they had acquired nuclear weapons and taken a permanent seat in the UN Security Council with a veto power. On the contrary, the Republic of China on the island of Taiwan has become a partially recognized state entity. The Chinese nationalists defeated by the Communists gained a foothold in Taiwan.
To this day, the United States supports Taiwan. China has been preparing an invasion to annex Taiwan for decades. The situation with the USSR was the opposite. A few years after Stalin died in 1953, Moscow quarreled with Beijing. The consequences of “unequal treaties” and their elimination became highly relevant for China.
The two communist countries began to perceive each other as enemies. During the Cold War, with the United States and NATO as its main enemy, the USSR simultaneously maintained thousands of troops in the Far East. It built and maintained fortified areas and even armored trains there, which it planned to use in maneuverable defense. Some Soviet missiles with nuclear warheads were aimed at China.
Soviet troops in the Far East studied the structures, weapons, and tactics of Chinese forces. The territory of these military units featured posters depicting horrific Chinese soldiers as a reminder that China was a ruthless enemy.
At the Kyiv Combined Arms School, which trained intelligence commanders, they studied Chinese in addition to the languages of the “NATO aggressive bloc”. Needless to say, those who learned it went to the Far East, thousands of kilometers from Europe, as platoon commanders of reconnaissance or infantry.
The service there was intense, including several large-scale hostilities. The most famous battles that almost led to a full-scale war occurred around the Damansky Island in 1969. China cited the Damansky Island (Zhēnbǎodǎo for the Chinese) on the Ussuri River as an example of an imposed agreement.
When the Treaty of Peking was signed in 1860, the island, located across the channel closer to the Chinese coast (then the Qing Empire), was classified as part of the Russian Empire. Such an allocation of land was illogical. It also doesn’t correspond to the rules for drawing borders established later, in the 20th century, although these rules are not indisputable and absolute.
However, the Chinese leadership, which led the so-called “cultural revolution,” used the fighting to unite its population around the idea of a threat from the USSR, which was finally perceived as the heir to the colonial Russian Empire. It was after these battles that China’s relations with the West were established. The fighting stopped, and the island was effectively controlled by China. At the end of the Soviet Union’s existence in 1991, the island finally came under Chinese jurisdiction.
Moscow Is Losing Ground
On October 17-18, 2023, China hosted the One Belt, One Road Forum attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was a significant trip for Putin. After all, the Russian dictator does not risk traveling around the world because of the possibility of arrest due to the International Criminal Court’s warrant for the deportation of Ukrainian children from the occupied territories of Ukraine.
In communist China, which tends to imitate the rule of law in international relations and is indifferent to human rights, Putin is not perceived as a suspect of war crimes.
The day before, Putin gave an interview to a Chinese state media corporation, praising the wisdom of Chinese President Xi Jinping and denting any possible threats from Chinese influence. The interview openly demonstrated Russia’s dependence on China and Putin’s interest in ensuring China does not turn away from Russia amid sanctions and the curtailment of relations with the West.
With this in mind, Putin said Russia had resolved all territorial issues with China. Putin did not elaborate further, as all the compromises complied with Chinese demands. In particular, in 2005, after the demarcation of the border on the Amur River, China received 337 square kilometers on the islands of Tarabarov and Bolshoy Ussuriysky. Tarabarov Island became Chinese, while Bolshoy Ussuriysky became half Chinese. The State Duma of the Russian Federation ratified this agreement at the same time.
Moscow cannot insist on the slightest of its demands.
One should note that in the Russian Far East, the opinion that the transfer of the islands is unfavorable to Russia is widespread, if not dominant. The Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island was used as a summer residence by residents of Khabarovsk. People lived there, and a fortified district was built. In the mid-2000s, the locals even tried unsuccessfully to organize a referendum on the proportionality of the transfer to China and the trust in the Russian president through the signed agreement.
The unsuccessful outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine accelerated the process of Russia’s dependence on China. Since the mid-2000s, Russia has been trying to appease China in disputes. China has not given up on interpreting the existing border with Russia as having developed due to “unfair treaties.” Now, the situation is worse for Moscow. It needs Beijing’s comprehensive support to continue the war. In these circumstances, Russia has ceased to be a factor that poses a threat to China. In other words, the border between Western and Eastern civilizations no longer runs along the Amur and Ussuri rivers. Its “guardian” is backing down and following Beijing’s instructions.
Source: The Gaze