Imperial Rivals: China, Russia and Their Disputed Frontier: Russia, China and Their Disputed Frontier, 1858-1924 Hardcover – 30 May 1996
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The heart of the book begins with the events leading up the 1858 Treaty of Aigun, and covers the period through Mongolian independence in the early 1920s. An introduction and an initial chapter provide some historical background to set the stage, after which the events spanning the period of interest are described and analyzed. A concluding chapter evaluates the implications of this relationship’s history for modern times.
The book is well-researched and footnoted, and draws upon Russian, Chinese, and English-language sources. Although it was published in 1996, five years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its conclusions are not informed by the most recent 20 years of political history, it can often revealing to evaluate a book such as this, written in the past, to see how its themes and conclusions have stood the test of time and march of history. This particular work certainly remains relevant.
Some might be tempted to label this relationship a century-spanning struggle between two nations to stake their claims to largely empty space. While to some extent true, this hugely oversimplifies what was and still may be at stake for Russia, China, and others with a geopolitical stake in this part of the world. It also provides a revealing window into the way that these two major civilizations viewed (and still view) the world. It is clear that these views have persisted across time and across major governmental changes in both cultures, with Russia moving from a Tsarist autocracy to Bolshevism, and China becoming a republic and then entering its warlord period.
Russia’s actions over this period are an object lesson in the perils of Imperial over-extension, as its actions were a major contributor not only to the fall of the imperial Tsarist autocracy, but also to the eventual later implosion of the Soviet “empire”. It was voracious in its perpetual pursuit of a defensible border, and lied and bullied its way to one land acquisition after another, at Chinese expense, inventing myths along the way to tell itself about its "civilizing" mission to justify its actions.
In China’s case, this series of events constituted a spanking it received for failing to learn quickly and thoroughly enough about its new Western challengers. China had its own mythology about its civilization that was undoubtedly at the core of its reluctance to adapt. China was also unlucky to have been presented with these challenges at a time in its history where internal political instability also occupied much of its attention.
One thing exemplified well in this history is the fact that diplomatic agreements are ultimately only as good as a signatory’s strength and its willingness to back them up with force. It is instructive that the one time the Russians fully learned to behave themselves was after Japan finally had enough of Russian “pushing” and defeated them in a war (the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905). After its defeat, Russia took Japan quite seriously, and its behavior towards Japan was scrupulously correct thereafter.
This also feeds into the theme that diplomatic victories have an impact beyond their immediate objectives (e.g., the gain of some land, commercial benefits, concessions, etc.). The added increment to the perception of strength accruing to the prevailing side after each such victory benefited it in the eyes of both its own public and the international community at large, which is less obvious but just as tangible in the long run.
NOTE: I must reluctantly comment on the relatively low quality of the physical book (which is not reflected in my rating). My copy, a 2015 imprint by Routledge, is of spotty quality and not well reproduced in places. One issue is the maps--the author included excellent shaded relief maps with terrain, rivers, key place-names, and borders. At their best, they would really contribute to understanding and with following discussions about a part of the world most readers are not intimately familiar with geographically. Unfortunately, the publisher does not do them justice. Each of them looks like a “copy of a copy of a copy” and key portions are virtually illegible. Another (more minor) issue is the print quality--occasional pages contain lines that are incompletely reproduced, faded, or chopped at the top or bottom. I do not know what the original 1996 edition looked like, but running down one of those copies rather than going with the 2015 Routledge imprint might be worthwhile.
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