Scholars of the Cold War claim that the former Soviet Union planned to carry out strikes against Chinese nuclear facilities in 1969, perhaps even considering the use of nuclear weapons against its communist brethren. At the time, Chairman Mao was busy telling citizens in Beijing to dig tunnels and bomb shelters. The Communist Party of China wasn't naïve about the fact that the likelihood of bombs coming from Moscow for a time eclipsed the possibility that they would be coming from Washington.
Indeed, for long decades in the 20th century, China and Russia were not friends, but enemies. That all seemed to be forgotten history on Tuesday in Beijing.
Vladimir Putin, the once and current czar-like president of Russia, arrived on an official state visit to announce that relations between the two countries had now reached an unprecedented point in history.
For a moment, it seemed that all the frictions and disagreements of the past years had been forgotten. Russia didn't mention its concerns about illegal Chinese immigration in its Eastern provinces -- or its concern that 100 million densely packed Chinese lived across the border from a sparse 10 million, mostly nonethnically Russian citizens. Nor was there any talk of the many territorial disputes of the past. Russia's concerns about selling its most sophisticated weapons to China went unspoken. Worries from plane maker Sukhoi that China had, and will continue to, reverse-engineer advanced Russian jets went unaddressed.
There were only determined expressions and the voicing of friendship and unity in creating a just and reasonable international order. The two governments were clear that they saw that new order as one where they played an increasingly bigger role and where a disproportionate superpower, America, was a thing of the past.
But if the world has learned anything about Vladimir Putin over the past 12 years, it's that he's extremely good at putting on a brave face. In truth, relations between China and Russia are going well but not incredibly well.
The two countries are planning to sign 17 agreements to boost trade, valued at $80 billion in 2011, to $100 billion by 2015. Certainly a high number, but not as impressive when you consider that a month earlier, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was predicting trade with Eastern Europe would reach the same level by the same time.
The Russian business and diplomatic delegation which arrived with Putin, including representatives from oil and gas giants Rosneft and Gazprom, expected trade to reach $200 billion by 2020. But if Russia's power and stature in the 21st century comes from its hydrocarbons, China is one place where it still has big trouble getting its way.
The two governments have yet to reach consensus on a set price for transferring natural gas. Moscow wants $350-$400 per 1,000 cubic meters, while China asks for a lower rate at $200-$250.
If a deal were ever agreed upon, Russia would gain access to the world's largest emerging market for natural gas, and an alternative to selling in Europe, should appetites there ever diminish. China would be able to receive supplies across Siberia, rather than from precarious waterways in South Asia. It would also help China diversify its hydrocarbon imports away from the Middle East and Africa.
That deeply cooperative tone, but not entirely rosy picture, has led many international relations scholars to label Sino-Russian relations the ultimate marriage of convenience.
Each country is facing problems at home. Putin has to contend with persistent demonstrations against his rule. His popularity is not what it was in past years, when his resistance to the West and heavy-handed methods were applauded by citizens sick of inequality and national weakness. Today, political conditions in Russia appear much as they did in past decades, with hierarchical rule from the top by a selected and exclusive group of politically well-connected elites.
In China, elite corruption is also shaking domestic and world opinion of the Communist Party during a critical year of political transition. The humiliation of the former party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, once a prime contender for the Politburo Standing Committee -- the nine oligarchic leaders of the country -- has created troubling suspicions of strife within the party's top ranks.
Both governments have opted to delay more comprehensive political reforms and used economic growth and national prestige projects to gain support for national rulers. It's no surprise then that Chinese President Hu Jintao said both were committed to restructuring their economy and addressing the risks and adverse influence in the global economy.
At a time when East Asia and North Africa have undergone profound changes, Beijing and Moscow have been standing firmly together to safeguard the tenets of the U.N. charter and the norms of international relations, Chinese English language news service China Daily stated on Tuesday.
Both states used the occasion in Beijing to reiterate their opposition to Western powers using military force to intervene and remove autocratic governments, in particular, Syria.
Beijing is rolling out the red carpet for other autocracies as well this week. China will host the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in its capital on Wednesday and Thursday. The group not only consists of China and Russia, but also four other visiting member nations from Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Most distressingly for Western observers, the presidents of Iran and Afghanistan will also be in attendance.
No one should be surprised that the group, founded in 1996, is an attempt by China and Russia to keep the U.S. and NATO out of its Central Asian backyard.
Back in the 1970s, China was part of a group of Asian states working with the U.S. to contain the USSR. Russia felt surrounded by China in East Asia and Iran in Middle East and bogged down in a quagmire in Afghanistan. But the situation now is largely reversed. The Asian manufacturing giant and the Eurasian hydrocarbon titan are now eager to work more closely together, and there's nothing in immediate sight that could turn sour their friendship.