Between Russia and China, a Demographic Time Bomb

With numbers, power and history, could Beijing press to revise the "unequal treaties" with Moscow?

In his recent commentary, “The Avoidable Russia-China Romance,” Nikolas Gvosdev provides a strong case that despite recent examples of teamwork between the two powers, a sustained collaboration is hardly inevitable. Gvosdev focuses on the ways in which the United States can limit the risk that a “Eurasian entente” will arise in the near term, refuting the notion that such an alignment is historically determined.

Regarding the Sino-Russian relationship through a wider temporal lens not only reinforces Gvosdev’s conclusion, but suggests that the tide of history may begin to drag the two nations towards contention rather than conspiracy. Recent instances of tactical and diplomatic cooperation between Beijing and Moscow show why Washington should remain open to working with each, yet these initiatives also hide an obstacle in the path to partnership. Set when Russia acquired a portion of Manchuria in the nineteenth century, a demographic time-bomb may bring any marriage of convenience to an unhappy end.

In the grand scope of Chinese history, Russia’s presence in Northeast Asia is a recent development. Until the reign of Ivan III, which ended in 1505, Muscovy held less than 3 percent of present-day Russia, and it was not until 1639, at the end of the European Age of Discovery, that Russian explorers would first reach the Sea of Okhotsk. Russia arrived in the region in an era of tumult, as the sinking Ming Dynasty tried to contain a peasant rebellion and stave off waves of incursions by Manchu horsemen, who finally captured Beijing in 1644, establishing the dynasty that would become known as the Qing.

During the late seventeenth century, Cossacks would clash with Manchu forces along the Amur River, which today separates the Russian Far East from the northeastern Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin. The Manchus mostly got the best of the interlopers, and the first Sino-Russian treaty, signed in 1689, awarded the Qing territory north of the Amur in exchange for Russian traders’ access to Chinese markets. Henceforth, Moscow would adopt a canny strategy of free-riding, slowly advancing when the Qing faced other external or internal threats, but it would need to wait nearly two centuries, until China’s final imperial dynasty had entered its death spiral, to capture all of coastal Manchuria.

In contemporary China, it is known as the “century of humiliation”: the period starting with Britain’s victory in the First Opium War in 1842 and lasting at least until Mao Zedong’s declaration of the People’s Republic in 1949. Beginning in the 1850s, Russians seized advantage of Chinese disarray to pressure the Qing’s northern frontier, from restive Muslim Xinjiang in the west to the Amur River in the east. Two “unequal treaties” in 1858 and 1860 gave Russia more land than it had conceded to the Manchus two hundred years earlier, including the vast region then called Outer Manchuria. The southern part of this concession would become Russia’s maritime province, Primorsky Krai, where the city of Vladivostok (“Ruler of the East”) was chartered in 1880.

The century that followed Moscow’s “Amur annexation” introduced dramatic changes to Northeast Asia’s political landscape, but did not erase Chinese resentment over this lost territory, which was to become a significant irritant during the Sino-Soviet split. What started as an ideological dispute between the world’s two largest communist states led to a set of border clashes, the most explosive of which occurred along an Amur River tributary in 1969. Five years earlier, Mao had infuriated Moscow when he told visiting Japanese reporters that much of the Russian Far East was stolen land; now, he instructed Chinese premier Zhou Enlai to press this inflammatory line in emergency talks with his Soviet counterpart. The risk of war passed despite Beijing’s provocative rhetoric, but Chinese bitterness did not—as Henry Kissinger would learn during his first meeting with Deng Xiaoping in 1974, when the topic of a U.S.-Soviet arms summit in Vladivostok prompted the future Chinese leader to lecture him on Russian rapacity.

Considering this background, as well as China’s unresolved boundary disputes with other neighbors, it is remarkable that Beijing and Moscow have since been able to settle all their territorial differences. Although the decisive round of border talks started before the formal disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin’s unfamiliar weakness vis-a-vis Beijing helped to shape their outcome. Some western spats were removed from the table by the independence of the Central Asian states, but disputes over small pieces of land along the Manchurian frontier were generally resolved in China’s favor. Beijing, for its part, did not contest the basic validity of the “unequal treaties” of 1858 and 1860, leaving the Russian Far East untainted by controversy.