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China and Russia’s Long Dance

The long history of Sino-Russian relations since the 1600s suggests that bilateral ties can flourish only while there is a semblance of military, political, and economic balance between the two sides. With China's star rising while Russia sinks into a quagmire of its own making, the writing may be on the wall.

HONG KONG – Since around the start of this century, Chinese leaders visiting Moscow and Russian leaders visiting Beijing have spared few superlatives. Sino-Russian relations, they have proclaimed, have entered “their best period ever,” soared to “unparalleled heights,” and attained an unprecedentedly “high level of mutual trust.”

Such claims tell us something about the Sino-Russian relationship as it is today. But to understand how it evolved to this point, and how it might change in the future, we must examine the past, starting with the two powers’ first encounters in the seventeenth century.

After the Qing (Manchu) dynasty conquered China in 1644, it was confronted with what it saw as two distinct types of Russians: members of trade and diplomatic missions who arrived from the west; and Cossacks who had crossed Siberia and started marauding along the northeastern fringe of Qing territory, in the Amur River valley. The Qing called the first cohort Eluosi (an attempt at “Rus”) and the second one Luocha (“flesh-eating demons”).