Review the 70-Year Journey and Usher in a New Era

— Commemorating 70th Anniversary of China-Russia Diplomatic Relations

By Sun Linjiang

There is no doubt that the buzzword for China-Russia relations in 2019 is “seventy”. This year marks 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Russia. A recent report on indicators of connectivity with China shows that Russia ranks among the highest in the 90-plus Belt and Road partners surveyed, scoring way above average in all five key areas, namely policy, infrastructure, trade, financing and people-to-people connectivity. The report encapsulates the high standard of China-Russia relations. Thanks to 70 years of tireless efforts, the relationship between the two countries is at its best. We are now at an important juncture and it is time for us to review the past seven decades from a historical perspective and look into the future. This helps us to gain a deeper understanding of the significance, vitality and potential of the relationship, and gives us every confidence to look forward to an even brighter future.

1. Historic transformations.

The Soviet Union was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. And Russia is the only country that has forged a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination with China. In the past 70 years, along with China’s development, China-Russia relations have experienced a series of historic transformations and gained greater maturity and strength in the process.

From political alliance to a new type of major-country relationship. When the PRC was just founded, faced with the special historical and international circumstances defined by the acute confrontation between the two camps, China adopted the lean-to-one-side foreign policy and gave priority to developing relations with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. The signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance between China and the Soviet Union marked the beginning of the “honeymoon” in the bilateral relationship. In the late 1950s, the relationship shifted from alliance to confrontation. In the post-Soviet Union era, the two sides have grasped the general trend of the time and developed, through persistent exploration, a new type of major-country relationship featuring non-alliance, non-confrontation and not targeting any third party. The bilateral relationship has come a long way, marked by four milestones: In 1992, the two countries recognized each other as friendly nations. Two years later, a constructive partnership was established. In 1996, it was upgraded to a strategic partnership of coordination. And in 2011, it was further elevated to a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination. In recent years, under the strategic guidance of President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin, the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination has entered a new era of high quality and significant progress.

From ideological disputes to alignment of development strategies. In the 1960s, due to domestic and international factors, differences loomed large between the two countries on how to develop socialism, which evolved into a fierce debate. Ideological disputes led to the final breakdown of the relationship. After normalizing the relationship, the two sides learn from the history, respect each other’s choice of development approach and philosophy, firmly support each other in following the development path suited to one’s national conditions and seek complementarity of development strategies and visions. In 2015, President Xi and President Putin reached strategic consensus on forging synergy between the Belt and Road Initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union. This marked a comprehensive alignment of development strategies of the two countries. Currently, bilateral cooperation is proceeding smoothly. Major early harvest includes the agreement between the Chinese side and the Eurasian Economic Union on economic and trade cooperation and the list of cooperation projects, and the joint feasibility study on an agreement on Eurasian economic partnership. Highly complementary development strategies provide strong underpinning for further convergence of interests.

From single-direction assistance to mutually beneficial cooperation. Since the 1950s, the Soviet Union has provided generous assistance to China by offering loans, undertaking key projects and sending experts to China. Its assistance laid a solid foundation for the establishment of a preliminary industrial system in China. In the post-Soviet Union era, China and Russia have conducted practical cooperation in many areas on the basis of equality, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation. In 1996, the mechanism of regular meetings between the Chinese Premier and the Russian Prime Minister was established. Under the mechanism, deputy prime ministerial level committees, sub-committees and working groups for energy, investment, culture, economy and trade, and subnational cooperation were established to coordinate practical cooperation in different areas. Major strategic projects including the crude oil pipeline, the east section of the natural gas pipeline, long-haul wide-body passenger jet and nuclear cooperation have seen breakthroughs. Fruitful cooperation in areas such as agriculture, science and technology, finance and connectivity has delivered tangible benefits to the two countries and peoples.

2. Principles tested by experience.

A review of the major changes in China-Russia relations in the past 70 years, especially the past 30 years, reveals that the transformations of the relations can be attributed to the two countries’ adherence to the set of basic principles that are fully tested by experience, and confirmed by important bilateral documents. Acting on these principles, the two sides have overcome enormous challenges and difficulties and taken the bilateral relations to a new level.

The principle of “putting aside the past and shaping the future”. This was an important common understanding between Comrade Deng Xiaoping and the then leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in their historic meeting in 1989. The two sides agreed to let bygones be bygones, be forward-looking and take more concrete steps to develop bilateral relations. The meeting demonstrated the extraordinary political wisdom and vision of the two leaders. It ended the tension and standoff between the two countries that had lasted for more than 20 years, normalized the bilateral relationship and laid an important foundation for its smooth development. It is precisely by drawing on the lessons of history that we can grasp the essence of our relationship, see the bigger picture, understand the position and role of the two countries in the changing international landscape, and be realistic and keep abreast of the time as we explore and pursue the pathways to developing the bilateral relationship. It is exactly because of our keen understanding of history that we can thoroughly solve the border issue left over from history, delimiting a boundary of more than 4,300 km in a clear-cut and dispute-free manner, thus turning the border areas into a bridge of friendship and cooperation. The principle is still of high relevance when it comes to how the two sides should approach historical issues.

The principle of good-neighborliness and friendship. In December 1992, the two sides signed the Joint Declaration on the Basis of Mutual Relations, putting forward the principle of good-neighborliness and friendship for the first time. In 2001, the two sides signed the landmark Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. The treaty established in legal terms the idea and principle that “China and Russia are friends forever and will never be enemies” and the firm determination to be good neighbors, good friends and good partners forever, and charts the course for the long-term development of the bilateral relations in the 21st century.

The principle of non-alliance, non-confrontation and not targeting any third party. The two sides confirmed in the Joint Declaration by the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation in September 1994 that the two countries seek to develop a relationship of non-alliance, non-confrontation and not targeting any third party. This important guideline is based on the experience and lessons we have gained in the course of the bilateral relations. The two sides are keenly aware that, for neighbors and major countries with global influence, like China and Russia, neither alliance nor confrontation serves our fundamental and long-term interests. In addition, alliance and confrontation are against the trend of the time and unsustainable. Experience shows that the new type of relations between China and Russia characterized by non-alliance, non-confrontation and not targeting any third party is vibrant and full of potential. It sets a good example for the international community and is a meaningful experiment for building a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice and win-win cooperation.

The principle of equality, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation. The Joint Declaration on the Basis of Mutual Relations and the Joint Declaration signed in December 1992 and September 1994 respectively established the principle of equality, mutual benefit and complementary strength. In the 21st century, the practical cooperation between the two countries has been guided by the principle of win-win cooperation, under which the two sides encourage and enhance cooperation in various areas, and consider and accommodate each other’s concerns. Such cooperation has expanded the shared interests of the two sides, delivering tangible benefits to the two countries and peoples. It has also brought huge dividend to the world at large.

The principle of strategic coordination. In April 1996, the two sides released the Joint Declaration which established the principle of strategic coordination. This is what sets China-Russia relations apart from other state-to-state relations. “Strategic” means that the relationship is long-term, stable and comprehensive. “Coordination” shows that the cooperation is multi-faceted, coordinated and complementary, and reflects the two countries’ joint aspiration for good faith, friendship and justice as genuine friends and good partners. The principle also serves as the guidance for the close and effective strategic coordination between China and Russia in international affairs, which has become a bedrock for regional and world peace and stability.

3. New breakthroughs in the new normal.

Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core has attached great importance to developing China-Russia relations. After President Putin’s re-election in 2012, Russia has continued to prioritize relations with China in its foreign policy. Under the strategic guidance and planning of the two leaders, the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination between the two countries has made unprecedented progress. It has already become a new normal for China-Russia relationship to move forward at a high standard. A host of tangible results show that the bilateral relationship has broken new ground.

Top-level engagement charts the strategic course for the relationship. Russia was the first stop of President Xi’s first foreign visit after he took office in March 2013. President Xi visited Russia again in February 2014 for his first trip abroad that year. This shows clearly that China puts Russia high on its diplomatic agenda. President Xi and President Putin have had 27 meetings since 2013 and established close working relations and deep personal friendship. During President Putin’s visit to China in June last year, President Xi presented him with the first Friendship Medal, the country’s highest state honor to foreigners. During President Xi’s visit to Russia in July 2017, President Putin awarded him the Order of St. Andrew, the Apostle of the First-Called, which is the highest order of Russia. Mutual presentation of medals showcases the special bilateral relations and the deep friendship between the two leaders. There were many “firsts” in the top-level exchanges, remembered as stories and highlights like celebrating birthday together at Bali, talking about friendship and cooperation on a high-speed train, watching an ice hockey friendship match between Chinese and Russian youth teams and making and tasting traditional food of the two countries together. These in-depth interactions covered many aspects of bilateral relations and international affairs, and achieved fruitful outcomes and remarkable consensus. Steered by the two leaders, the giant ship of China-Russia relations will sail toward an even brighter future.

Mutually beneficial cooperation across the board lays the material foundation for the relationship. In 2018, the bilateral trade made the historic breakthrough of exceeding US$100 billion, registering the fastest growth among China’s 10 largest trading partners. China sits comfortably as Russia’s largest trading partner, source of imports and destination of exports. Likewise, Russia remains China’s largest supplier of crude oil and electricity. The China-Russia crude oil pipeline is so far the biggest and most secure channel of strategic energy supply for China. The Yamal LNG project heralds energy cooperation between the two countries in the Arctic region. The package of nuclear cooperation documents signed between the two sides covered the largest number of nuclear energy cooperation programs. Apart from state-owned enterprises and major projects, the private sector and small and medium-sized companies are also active players in bilateral cooperation. For Russians, many Chinese brands, including Huawei and Alibaba, have brought convenience and benefits to them. It is fair to say that after decades of growth and hard work, the practical cooperation between China and Russia has been significantly enriched and expanded. Operating at a high standard and bringing benefits to the ordinary people, such cooperation has laid a solid foundation for the development of the bilateral relations. 

People-to-people cooperation is aimed to forge a stronger bond between the two peoples. The China-Russia Committee on Humanities Cooperation, established in 2000, is the first mechanism of people-to-people cooperation at the deputy prime ministerial level. The China-Russia Committee of Friendship, Peace and Development was set up in 1997 as the main channel for coordinating the exchanges between the two peoples. For every year since 2006, large-scale national cultural exchange events have been held under themes such as the year of China or Russia, the year of Chinese or Russian language, the year of friendly youth exchange, the year of tourism, the year of media exchange and the year of subnational cooperation and exchange. These events greatly facilitated people-to-people exchanges in various areas and promoted mutual understanding and friendship between the two peoples. China is now the largest source of tourists to Russia. About 100,000 Chinese football fans and tourists went to Russia during the 2018 FIFA World Cup alone. The Shenzhen MSU-BIT University, the first university jointly established by China and Russia, was opened and started enrollment in 2017 and is expected to have more than 5,000 students. In Russia, China is one of “the friendliest states” according to surveys and mandarin is gaining popularity and has become a subject of college entrance examinations. In China, people’s knowledge about Russia no longer stops at nesting dolls, Vodka and Katyusha, as Russian food, TV series, songs and trips to Russia have become a new fashion and Russian elements can be found in many Chinese entertainment programs. For the two peoples, the young generation in particular, both China and Russia are charming countries with a mixture of tradition and modernity and longstanding neighbors infused with new vigor and vitality. 

Upholding fairness and justice is the responsibility of China-Russia international collaboration. China and Russia are both permanent members of the UN Security Council, major emerging economies, staunch supporters for world peace and stability, and important forces for fairness and justice in the world. The two countries have close collaboration under multilateral frameworks including the UN, APEC and G20, and have jointly founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, the China-Russia-India cooperation mechanism and the China-Russia-Mongolia cooperation mechanism. The two sides have worked together for the political settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue, the Korean Peninsula issue, the issues of Syria and Afghanistan and other regional hotspots, and championed multilateralism and a more just and equitable international order. Since the 1990s, the two heads of state have issued five joint declarations on the world situation or major international issues and joint declarations on such key international concerns as protection of the victorious outcome of the Second World War, anti-missile issue, maintenance of strategic stability, and development of cyberspace. These endeavors demonstrate that as two responsible major countries, China and Russia have the vision and commitment to maintain world peace and stability, and uphold international fairness and justice.

4. A New Journey in the New Era.

In 2019, multipolarity, economic globalization, IT application and cultural diversity have advanced in tandem; transformations of the global governance system and the international order are speeding up; countries are more interconnected and interdependent and the trend of peace and development remains irreversible. That said, however, the international community is faced with more and more common problems and challenges, such as the lack of drivers for global growth, rising bullyism, protectionism and unilateralism, and intertwining and spreading traditional and non-traditional security threats.

Amid the profound changes unseen in a century and the complex developments in the world, how will the China-Russia relationship continue to evolve? Together, the two sides have given a clear and firm answer. As agreed by the heads of state, the two sides will continue to firmly support each other in safeguarding core interests, in pursuing the development path suited to national conditions, in achieving development and revitalization, and in managing their own affairs well. The two sides will ensure that the guiding principle of consolidating and deepening the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination, the commitment to common development and revitalization, and the determination to uphold fairness, justice, peace and stability in the world will remain unchanged. We hope and believe that the China-Russia relationship will shoulder new historic missions, take on a new look, gain new vitality and score new achievements in the new era. The relationship can grow stronger in the following ways.

Strengthening communication to consolidate mutual trust. The high standard of China-Russia relations today is built on solid mutual trust. In the context of complicated external environment, it is all the more important for us, as the partners of comprehensive strategic coordination, to strengthen communication, and preserve and solidify mutual trust. This year, the two heads of state will keep in close contact. President Putin will attend the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. President Xi will pay a state visit to Russia. The two presidents will also meet on important multilateral occasions as they did in the past. The regular meetings between the Chinese Premier and the Russian Prime Minister, the committee on parliamentary cooperation and the mechanisms of high-level exchanges across the board will be in smooth operation. We believe that, under the exchange mechanism between leaders and a whole set of cooperation platforms, the strategic guidance of the heads of state in particular, the two sides will have candid and in-depth exchange of views on governance, development strategies and other major issues, enhance understanding and endorsement of each other’s development paths and ideas, and increase mutual support on issues of core interests. These efforts will consolidate the foundation of the bilateral relations, reduce misgivings and bring our mutual trust to a higher level.

Expanding cooperation for greater convergence of interests. Guided by the consensus reached by the two heads of state on aligning the Belt and Road Initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union, the two sides will better allocate and synergize the resources, capital, technology, and work force through major-project cooperation, and drive cooperation in other areas. On the one hand, the existing major projects with strategic significance on energy, resources, aviation, space and connectivity will be fully preserved and advanced as scheduled. On the other, the cooperation potentials in finance, technology, agriculture, digital economy and other emerging areas will be fully tapped. Participation of small and medium-sized companies and private capital in bilateral cooperation should be encouraged to form a comprehensive and multidimensional cooperation structure. The two sides will also facilitate more integrated cooperation among different stages of production and engage in joint manufacturing, production and sales to expand common interests. At the same time, the two sides will pay attention to the independence of bilateral cooperation and exploit internal driving forces to make sure that the cooperation will not be affected by any third party.

Carrying on friendship with constant efforts. As neighbors, the two countries enjoy the advantages of geographical proximity and a long history of exchanges. This year marks 20th anniversary of the China-Russia Committee on Humanities Cooperation and the conclusion of the years of China-Russia subnational cooperation and exchange. The two sides will take this opportunity to fully leverage the role of the China-Russia Committee of Friendship, Peace and Development as the main channel of deepened humanities cooperation and people-to-people exchanges to deliver benefits to the people and gain their support. The two countries will also redouble efforts to strengthen youth interactions by increasing the number of exchange and bringing Mandarin and Russian classes to more people, so as to pass on the tradition of friendship to future generations. In addition, traditional and new media organizations from the two countries will be encouraged to have closer exchanges to better present the bilateral relations and cooperation outcomes in various fields, and help more people in our two countries and the world at large know more about China-Russia friendship. Competent authorities of the two countries will also introduce more policies and measures to create more opportunities for and facilitate people-to-people exchanges.

Forging closer collaboration to fulfill missions. The world is presented with unprecedented opportunities and challenges in development. As two major countries and permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and Russia undertake more important responsibilities and missions. No global issue cannot be addressed without our joint efforts. We both will continue to firmly uphold international law and the basic norms of international relations, safeguard multilateralism, and resolutely oppose unilateralism, bullyism and trade protectionism. We will work with the vast number of emerging economies and developing countries and strive for greater voice and representation in international affairs. We will play a bigger and more active part in the UN and other multilateral frameworks by strengthening collaboration on international and regional hotspots, and calling on all parties to minimize differences and build consensus. We will work tirelessly to build a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind, and contribute more Chinese-Russian perspectives and wisdom to peace and tranquility in the region and the world at large.
President Xi Jinping pointed out, “The relationship between China and Russia is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. It is also the best relationship between major countries.” The 70th anniversary of our diplomatic relations is an important juncture for us to review the past and embrace a new era. I am confident that the two countries will continue to work together, usher in a better era for the bilateral relations, and inject more positive energy into world peace, stability and development.

Sun Linjiang is Director-General of the Department of European-Central Asian Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.