Relations between China and the Soviet Union were cool and distrustful from the mid-1950s until the demise of the Soviet Union. Joseph V. Stalin (in office 1927-53) fostered an alliance when communists took over mainland China in 1949. When Khrushchev announced his de-Stalinization policy in 1956, Chinese leader Mao Zedong sharply disapproved, and the alliance was weakened. In 1959 and 1960, the Sino-Soviet rift came to full world attention with Khrushchev's renunciation of an agreement to provide nuclear technology to China, the Soviet withdrawal of all economic advisers, and mutual accusations of ideological impurity. Leonid Brezhnev attempted to improve relations, but serious border clashes and Brezhnev's proposal of an Asian collective security system that would contain China were new sources of hostility. In the 1970s, China began to improve relations with the West to counter Soviet political and military pressure in Asia. After Mao's death in 1976, the Soviet Union again sought to improve relations with China. But polemics were renewed in 1977, and tension between two Southeast Asian client states, Cambodia and Vietnam, further damaged relations. In 1979 China invaded Vietnam to defend Cambodia from the Vietnamese incursion of 1978. The Soviet Union condemned the invasion and increased arms shipments to Vietnam. Competing goals in Southeast Asia remained a key issue for nearly a decade.
A new set of bilateral negotiations began in 1979, but the Chinese ended talks shortly after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in late 1979. Thereafter, China added withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan to its conditions for renewing the two nations' 1950 friendship treaty. Talks on the Sino-Soviet border situation finally resumed in late 1982, but relations remained static until Gorbachev began making conciliatory gestures in 1986 and 1987. In 1988 two major obstacles were removed when the Soviet Union committed itself to removing troops from Afghanistan, and Vietnam did likewise for Cambodia. The Sino-Soviet summit meeting of June 1989 was the first since the Khrushchev regime.
Russia's foreign policy toward China generally has had two goals: to preserve a counterweight against United States influence in the Pacific and to prevent Chinese regional hegemony and a Sino-Japanese alliance that could exclude Russia. This balancing act appeared in Russia's 1993 foreign policy concept in its call for weighing the benefits of increased Russian arms sales to China against the danger of re-creating a Cold War arms race in which the respective proxies would be Taiwan and China. Accordingly, the concept endorsed neighborly and substantive relations with China while ensuring that "third countries," such as the United States or Japan, would not be able to use China as an ally against Russia.
In the early 1990s, relations got a boost from China's interest in renewed weapons imports from Russia and other forms of military cooperation. In 1992 an exchange of visits by high defense officials established defense ties and included the signing of a major arms technology agreement with a reported value of US$1.8 billion. In 1993 another series of defense exchange visits yielded a five-year defense cooperation agreement (see Foreign Arms Sales; China, ch. 9). A strategic partnership, signed in early 1996, significantly strengthened ties.
In December 1992, Yeltsin went to China and signed a nonaggression declaration that theoretically ended what each called the other's search for regional hegemony in Asia. Another treaty included Russian aid in building a nuclear power plant, the first such provision since Sino-Soviet relations cooled in the late 1950s. Chinese party chairman Jiang Zemin visited Moscow in September 1994 and concluded a protocol that resolved some border disputes and generally strengthened bilateral ties. During Yeltsin's visit to China in April 1996, both sides described their relationship as evolving into a "strategic partnership," which included substantially increased arms sales. At the April meeting, new agreements made progress toward delineating and demilitarizing the two countries' 3,645 kilometers of common border. Although border security and illegal Chinese immigration into the Russian Far East were controversial issues for Russian regional officials, Yeltsin demanded regional compliance with the agreements. Russia has respected China's claim that Taiwan is part of its territory, although Russia's trade with Taiwan increased to nearly US$3 billion in 1995 and Russia planned to open trade offices on the island in 1996.
In 1994-96 China emerged as a major market for Russian arms, having bought several dozen Su-27 fighter aircraft and several Kilo-class attack submarines. Russia also had a positive trade balance in the sale of raw materials, metals, and machinery to China. A series of high-level state visits occurred in 1994 and 1995. Both countries pursued closer ties, in each case partly to counterbalance their cooling relations with the United States. In March 1996, Russia announced that it would grant China a loan of US$2 billion to supply Russian nuclear reactors for power generation in northeast China, and further cooperation was proposed in uranium mining and processing, fusion research, and nuclear arms dismantlement.