"The railroads in this region are poor, the conditions difficult, there are few people, and there is no food. We acutely need and hope that you will help us with 30-50 transport aircraft to ship food, clothing, key personnel, and some of the troops."
That is an excerpt from a letter written by Chairman Mao to Joseph Stalin, in what was a desperate plea for Soviet assistance before the People's Liberation Army's attack on Xinjiang in 1949.
Fast-forward to 2022. How the tables have turned.
Russia has, according to various international newspapers, asked China for military equipment to support its war on Ukraine.
Newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times reported on Sunday, 13 March, citing anonymous US officials, that Moscow had been requesting military assistance from Beijing since the very start of the war.
The officials refused to provide any details of what kind of weapons and equipment Russia had requested. China, on the other hand, claimed to not know anything about any such request.
Liu Pengyu, who is the Chinese embassy spokesperson in Washington, said that China "sincerely hope[s] that the situation will ease and peace will return at an early date".
The development comes in the backdrop of the US government's National Security Adviser (NSA) Jake Sullivan's trip to Rome on Monday, 14 March, to have a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, to discuss the war in Ukraine.
"We are communicating directly, privately to Beijing, that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions, evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them," the NSA told CNN.
Nevertheless, given the rapid economic isolation of Russia from much of the western world, the Biden government has been trying to ascertain the extent of support that Russian President Vladimir Putin will receive from Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Regardless of the type (military economic, diplomatic) and the magnitude of support that China is providing or will provide to Russia in the future, recent events have crystallised the changes in the international world order, the signs of which have been present for the past few years.
The first major change is the resurgence of adversarial blocs, which was one of the defining features of the Cold War.
The second one is the complete reversal of power dynamics in the current camaraderie between China and Russia, compared to the Cold War's Sino-Soviet alliance.
The Resurgence of Cold War Blocs
Until the mid-1960s, the communist camp in the Cold War was led by the Soviet Union, and vice-captained by the People's Republic of China, which was then being ruled by Mao Zedong.
The Sino-Soviet split, which stemmed from the deterioration of relations between the USSR and the PRC due to both ideological differences and border clashes, was official by 1966, after which the US strengthened its ties with China (thanks to Nixon and Kissinger), marking the beginning of tripolarity in the Cold War.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 seems to be taking us back to the days when world politics was defined by two opposing camps, with Russia and China on one side, and the US along with Europe on the other (except this time, a majority of Eastern Europe is hostile to Russia).
China is yet to oblige Russia by providing it with military assistance to crush Ukraine, but its response to the war has provided implicit support to Putin's actions.
It has blamed NATO and the US for making Russia feel insecure about its borders.
Chinese state media has continuously backed Russia's accusations that the US has been using Ukraine to research biological weapons.
Xinhua and The Global Times have run stories and conducted "satellite investigations" to prove the same. The US has categorically denied these claims.
China relaxed restrictions on Russian wheat imports one day after the war started, a decision that would ease the pain of the dozens of sanctions that have been slapped on Russia by the West.
It has also abstained in the UN from condemning the invasion of Ukraine, which is noteworthy because of Beijing's commitment to the "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence" (from the Sino-Indian Agreement 1954), which include:
Respecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity
Non-interference in other countries' domestic affairs
Providing military aid to Russia would only serve to eliminate whatever doubt is left regarding Xi's support to Putin. Such a moment, experts say, could be a "watershed" one for global politics.
Eric Sayers, who is a former adviser to the US Indo Pacific Command, told the Washington Post that "if Beijing is offering any type of military assistance to aid Moscow's war in Ukraine, the spillover effects on US-China policy could be vast".
How the Tables Have Turned
In the autumn of 1949, the PLA, under Mao's orders, invaded Xinjiang, fearing that the region and its Muslim population would be used as an anti-communism base by his rivals, and by external powers like the US and UK.
Before the invasion, Mao, as already illustrated above, had requested Stalin to assist his invasion. But that was not the only time that the PRC had asked the Soviet Union for help before the Sino-Soviet split.
Cold War historian Odd Arne Westad, while writing about Soviet assistance to China, argued that Stalin sent "the biggest such [assistance] program undertaken by any country anywhere, including the US Marshall Plan for Europe."
That was the 1950s. Seven decades later, the situation has reversed.
The Sino-Soviet split indeed allowed China to emerge out of the Soviet Union's shadow, and since then, Communist China has propelled itself to the top.
Needless to say, relations between the two are now warm again, given that Beijing and Moscow, in the face of a common adversary, have affirmed in the past few weeks that the friendship between both nations "has no limits".
But in a reversal of history, it is not China anymore that has to ask for assistance.
As Chris Johnson, a former CIA China analyst, says, recent events highlight "China's position as the clear senior partner in the relationship now".
It is yet to be seen how far Xi will actually go in his support for Putin. The relentless sanctions on Moscow have shown that providing direct military aid to the Kremlin could lead to serious economic consequences for Beijing itself.
The same can be said for any plans that China has with respect to an attack on Taiwan.
As Michael Schuman argues in The Atlantic, "Putin has done Xi one huge favor: revealing what might happen if China starts its own war. Putin’s invasion has shown that—contrary to what Beijing's leadership seems to believe—the U.S. alliance system is alive, well, and still potent".
In the face of western such unity, China may or may not choose to take a step further in supporting Russia. It won't take us too long to find out.