The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
A powerful study of the fractious friendship That could have incalculable consequences for the world
CHINA & RUSSIA: FOUR CENTURIES OF CONFLICT AND CONCORD
by Philip Snow
624pp, Yale University Press, £19.99 (0844 871 1514), RRP£25, ebook £20
Such is the trend of international affairs that Westerners may be tempted, argues Philip Snow, to imagine China and Russia together comprising a “Eurasian Mordor”. Covering vast swathes of territory and wielding extraordinary power between them, the two countries are united by opposition to Western hegemony and by an autocratic form of politics. How the 2020s turn out may well hinge on what happens in this relationship. Will China and Russia be drawn closer by the war in Ukraine? This week, as Vladimir Putin hosted China’s foreign minister for a series of joint military drills, he suggested that Moscow and Beijing might jointly “stabilise” the world. Or, in the event, will they drift apart?
China & Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord,
Snow wisely keeps his crystal ball stowed. What is needed, he says, is “a panoramic view of the entire four centuries of Sino-Russian contact”. This is a welcome project, given the tendency of so much writing on China and Russia to take the formation of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s as its starting point. Snow’s story begins 300 years earlier, with Russians in the 1620s weighing the benefits of befriending an all but unknown people to their far east. The journey from Moscow to Peking was around 5,000 miles: “trackless forest, grassland and desert”.
One of the joys of the early parts of this book, for anyone familiar with the history of western Europe’s attempts to woo imperial China, is discovering how the Russians fared at that notoriously tricky task. Europeans began arriving off the coast of southern China in the early 1500s, and frequently found themselves
lumped in with local pirates who occasionally ravaged the Chinese empire’s shores. The result was that some of the earliest European accounts of China were written from the inside of prison cells: the unplanned, unhappy final destination for diplomatic expeditions begun in great hope.
The Europeans were a minor annoyance. By contrast, Snow shows, the Russians were potentially a security threat. So while the former often struggled to get a hearing, the latter got a treaty: agreed at Nerchinsk in 1689, and the basis for almost 200 years of relatively peaceful and profitable trading relations. When European views of the Chinese shifted, beginning in the early 1800s, into dismissiveness, enmity and racism, Russian respect for China remained largely intact.
Snow guides us through manoeuvrings, calculations and fractious personal relationships, none more consequential than that of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. The former famously kept the latter waiting in a rural dacha for days in 1949–50, when Mao visited the Soviet Union. Mao later claimed (untruthfully) that Stalin had failed to supply him with weapons during the Chinese civil war – “not even a fart”, in Mao’s memorable phrase (Snow makes wonderful use of quotation in sketching key figures). The Sino-Russian relationship eventually went into deep freeze, and began to recover only in the era of Boris Yeltsin. It has since deepened again under Putin and Xi, as the two countries have become, as Snow puts it, “Leaders of the Opposition in a world dominated by the United States.” Snow sees little sign of this partnership weakening substantially: while China is asserting itself in Mongolia and
Central Asia, it and Russia have never fought a major war.
Snow brings to this account the sureness of touch that one would expect from a writer who has been travelling around Russia and China since the 1960s, and written extensively on Chinese politics. Towards the end of the book, he observes a degree of nervousness in both countries about the warmth in which their populations hold one another. Greater attention might have been paid throughout the book to popular dimensions such as these. But Snow does give us an extensively researched and compelling account, from which we are free to draw conclusions of our own as to where this most consequential of relationships may be taking us all.