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The border agreement signed by Putin in Beijing in October 2004 was important inasmuch as it settled the last of the border disputes, which had led to armed clashes in the Sixties and Seventies especially along the extensive riverine border where islands were claimed by both sides.
The backdrop, though, was China's claim to 1.5 million square kilometers taken from China under what it called "unequal treaties" dating back to the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. This irredentism, a staple of Chinese anti-Soviet rhetoric in those days, has disappeared.
In the late Sixties, the USSR reinforced its ground forces near China from 13 to 21 divisions. By 1971, the number had grown to 44 divisions, and Chinese leaders began to see a more immediate threat from the USSR than from the U.S. Enter Henry Kissinger, who visited Beijing in 1971 to arrange the precedent-breaking visit by President Richard Nixon the next year.
What followed was some highly imaginative diplomacy orchestrated by Kissinger and Nixon to exploit the mutual fear that China and the USSR held for each other and the imperative each saw to compete for improved ties with Washington.
The Soviet leaders seemed to sweat this situation the most. Washington's clever exploitation of the triangular relationship was consequential; it helped facilitate major, verifiable arms control agreements between the U.S. and USSR and even the challenging Four Power Agreement on Berlin. As for Vietnam, the Russians went so far as to blame China for impeding a peaceful solution to the war.
It was one of those rare junctures at which CIA analysts could in good conscience chronicle the effects of the Nixon-Kissinger approach and conclude that it seemed to be having the desired effect vis-a-vis Moscow. We could say so because it clearly was.
In early 1972, between President Nixon's first summits in Beijing and Moscow, our analytic reports underscored the reality that Sino-Soviet rivalry was, to both sides, a highly debilitating phenomenon. Not only had the two countries forfeited the benefits of cooperation, but each felt compelled to devote huge effort to negate the policies of the other.
A significant dimension had been added to the rivalry as the U.S. moved to cultivate simultaneously better relations with both. The two saw themselves in a crucial race to cultivate good relations with the U.S.
The Soviet and Chinese leaders could not fail to notice how all this had enhanced the U.S. bargaining position. But we analysts regarded them as cemented into an intractable adversarial relationship by a deeply felt set of emotional beliefs, in which national, ideological and racial factors reinforced one another.
Although the two countries recognized the price they were paying, neither could see a way out. The only prospect for improvement, we suggested, was the hope that more sensible leaders would emerge in each country. At the time, we branded that a vain hope and predicted only the most superficial improvements in relations between Moscow and Beijing.
On that last point, we were wrong. Mao Zedong's and Nikita Khrushchev's successors proved to have cooler heads, and in 1969 border talks resumed. It took years to chip away at the heavily encrusted mutual mistrust, but by the mid-Eighties we were warning policymakers that we had been wrong; that "normalization" of relations between Moscow and Beijing had already occurred -- slowly but surely, despite continued Chinese protestations that such would be impossible unless the Russians capitulated to all China's conditions.
For their part, the Soviet leaders had become more comfortable operating in the triangular environment and were no longer suffering the debilitating effects of a headlong race with China to develop better relations with Washington.
Economics now is clearly an important driver from both Moscow's and Beijing's point of view, but the sweeping $400 billion natural gas deal, including provision for exploration, construction and extraction is bound to have profound political significance, as well. If memory serves, during the Sixties, annual trade between the USSR and China hovered between $200 million and $400 million. It had grown to $57 billion by 2008 and hit $93 billion in 2013.
Growing military cooperation is of equal importance. China has become Russia's arms industry's premier customer, with the Chinese spending billions on weapons, many of them top of the line. For Russia, these sales are an important source of export earnings and keep key segments of its defense industry afloat. Beijing, cut off from arms sales from the West, has come to rely on Russia more and more for sophisticated arms and technology.