The history of Sino-Russian relations is a long and tortuous one between neighbors that eyed each other with suspicion. To this day, the Russian psyche continues to be affected by memories of the Mongol invasion and fear of the “yellow peril,” with images of “barbarian” hordes pouring over the border seared in people’s consciousness. For Chinese, Russia was for a brief period a modernizer and ally, but also a threat, as during the border clashes in 1969, which came close to sparking nuclear war. On one side, Russia sees itself as a great power, one which draws ideologically mostly from Western civilization; on the other, China is rising, but its identity is firmly rooted in the Asian tradition and its focus is on domestic development and regional stability.
The long history of mistrust and ideological differences makes Russia and China the least likely of allies. But since the end of the Cold War, the two countries have grown closer and managed to settle, if only temporarily, a number of territorial disputes such as the contentious Russian Far East. Cooperation has increased dramatically in such fields as military procurement and natural resources, while Moscow and Beijing have helped create regional security bodies — such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — to facilitate coordination and “democratize” international relations.
This is not to say that the process of rapprochement was not without friction. As Bobo Lo, director of the Russia and China programs at the Center for European Reform, argues in Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing and the new geopolitics, the road to convergence was marred by a combination of different expectations, underlying xenophobia and changing global circumstances. Rather than progress smoothly, relations between Moscow and China suffered many setbacks, such as when, in the wake of 9/11, Russian President Vladimir Putin allowed the US to deploy troops in Central Asia without first informing Beijing.