JThe troops gathered at the border. The Supreme Leader decided it was time to invade, to teach the other side a lesson. Soon after, the troops crossed the internationally recognized border and clashed with local forces.
Not Ukraine 2022, but Vietnam 1979. In January of that year, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping told US President Jimmy Carter that he wanted to “slap the buttocks” of his neighbors. For a month, Chinese and Vietnamese forces clashed, killing tens of thousands. Chinese troops withdrew in March 1979, when, unlike Vladimir Putin, Deng sensibly decided to declare a famous victory and return home. Since then, there has been no unequivocal violation of an international border by Chinese troops.
China’s brief invasion of Vietnam is not talked about much today during the Ukraine crisis. None of the Western actors want to talk about it when trying to pressure China for its general fixation on the sanctity of national sovereignty. And Moscow won’t mention it, because it brings back an awkward memory to their friends in Beijing: the Chinese adventure of 1979 was not really about Vietnam, but about Russia.
Sino-Soviet relations had turned toxic since the split between the two communist superpowers in 1960. Vietnam, with Soviet support, invaded and occupied Cambodia in 1978, ousting the Khmer Rouge. In the strange Cold War politics of the time, the United States and China supported Pol Pot’s genocidal regime because his enemy Vietnam was backed by Moscow.
On February 4, during the Winter Olympics in Beijing, Xi Jinping and Putin declared “boundless friendship”. Shortly after, Russia invades Ukraine; most analysts judge that Beijing had an idea that Russia would try to seize other Ukrainian territories, but certainly did not realize that there would be a full invasion.
China is genuinely concerned about Russia’s destruction of Ukraine’s sovereignty, though it does not say so in public, instead calling on the UN for vaguely defined humanitarian gestures and censoring pro-Ukrainian sentiment on Chinese social networks. But Beijing appears to see little point in mediating the conflict, judging that many of its southern partners, such as Pakistan and South Africa, do not see a European crisis as an existential test for them or for China. .
China’s main motivations in seeking peace between Russia and Ukraine are pragmatic. Ukraine is an important, though not crucial, source of grain for China and having to quickly find new suppliers of cheap grain for its middle-class population could fuel inflation. There are advantages for China in a settlement that leaves Putin in charge but weaker and still sanctioned. China could become the only major market for Russia’s wheat and fossil fuels, available at bargain prices, although traditional Russian allies such as India have not taken as hard a line against Moscow as the West and could also provide markets.
Russia also remains China’s preferred partner in creating semi-formal military groupings (rather than binding NATO-style alliances) against the West. Beijing has repeatedly suggested that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization should be used as a mediator in Ukraine; the SCO is a so-called NATO dominated by China and Russia, with India and Central Asian states as members.
However, the Russian-Chinese relationship is not just a matter of outright power. Somewhere in today’s pragmatic relationship is the muscle memory of a more emotional connection between China and Russia, not just the Soviet Union, but a longer tradition of Russian literature and culture that shaped the modern Chinese revolution.
One of China’s greatest modern authors, Ba Jin, derived his pseudonym from the syllables of the transliterated Chinese names of the revolutionaries Bakunin and Kropotkin. Young Chinese women, leaving their families to take part in the communist uprising of the 1940s, quote Turgenev’s poem Seuil (1878). The work is written with the voice of a man addressing a young woman about to join the anti-tsarist movement; he says she will experience “alienation” and “loneliness”, to which she replies, “I know, and I still want to come in.”
The height of this Russian influence came in the 1940s, when Soviet ideology and the lure of Soviet technology also influenced Chinese visions of Moscow as a future, and in the 1950s, when the country was isolated from the United States. It was emotionally distinct from the anti-foreign Cultural Revolution Xi grew up with, but it was very much the world of his father, veteran revolutionary general Xi Zhongxun.
From the 1960s to the end of the Cold War, love turned to hate as ideological differences brought the two countries to the brink of war on the border islands of the Ussuri River in 1969, sparking Chinese enthusiasm for opening up to the United States that took place just over 50 years ago.
Over the past few decades, the relationship has warmed as Moscow and Beijing realize that it gives them both cover against Western encroachment.
Yet the post-Cold War trajectory of Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China is not the same. China has seen its economy and global influence soar, while Russia’s purchasing power and life expectancy have declined. In some regions, such as Central Asia, cooperation masks mutual mistrust. Russian residents of Siberia are increasingly unhappy with Chinese investment in their region. China has created one of the most powerful civilian and military economies in the world, but Russian elites still look west, with many seeing China as rich but “uneducated” (nekulturnya much stronger insult in Russian than in English).
China feels a bit superior because Russia never invented a Huawei; Russia is a bit contemptuous because China has never produced Dostoyevsky. In this ambivalence, as well as in unmentioned episodes such as the 1979 proxy war between them, lies a shared history of respect and resentment. This still seems to flavor the relationship today between Xi and Putin.