Sino-Russian relations appear to be flourishing. As Moscow has become locked in conflict with the West over the crisis in Ukraine, it has moved closer towards its long-time international partner, Beijing. Highlights of Sino-Russian cooperation in 2014 included the conclusion of large-scale energy deals, the initiation of ambitious bilateral projects in the economic and financial sectors, joint military maneuvers, and the announcement of further arms deals.
Behind the burnished diplomatic façade, however, many of these projects have in fact been stalled since shortly after their inception. In particular, the massive bilateral gas export agreement reached in May 2014 has made little progress towards implementation, and its precise stipulations remain shrouded in mystery.
Russia’s brazen violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – which contradicts principles that both Moscow and Beijing had thus far jointly advocated on the international stage – was received coolly by Chinese government officials. Russia’s actions did, however, garner praise from leading state-controlled Chinese media, at a time when China is vocally advancing various territorial claims of its own in the East and South China seas. Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine resonated with Beijing’s recent territorial assertiveness, but this in itself is unlikely to promote closer Sino-Russian strategic interaction, since both countries have historically had intricate territorial disputes between themselves.
But by far the greatest stumbling block for the two countries’ further rapprochement has been the nature of their interaction in Central Asia. In almost every other field of Sino-Russian relations, the Ukrainian crisis has served to further solidify bilateral cooperation; with regard to Central Asia, however, it has raised various thorny questions. Sino-Russian tensions in the region have been simmering under the surface for a number of years. Through its relentless penetration of the region’s economies, China has rapidly broken the economic and political hegemony that Russia had enjoyed there since the mid 19th century. China has already become the largest trading partner of all five Central Asian republics; its total trade with the region is now more than double that of Russia. Flooding the region with investments, China has built major oil and gas pipelines across Central Asia that cut through Russia’s long-standing stranglehold on the region’s energy exports. The Central Asian countries now provide Beijing with around 40 percent of its gas imports. Last September, the Tajik and Chinese governments launched the construction of a new gas pipeline that turned Tajikistan into the latest transit country for Central Asian gas supplies to China.
Moscow has looked on warily as Beijing consistently extended its influence in Russia’s former dependencies. While Russia has been co-opted to participate in some of China’s economic projects in the region, it has for the most part been sidelined. The final departure of U.S. forces from their one remaining military base in Central Asia – Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan – in June 2014 means that Russia now has the privilege of facing China’s forays into Central Asia on its own. Already as early as January 2010, the incipient tension between Moscow and Beijing was reflected in leaked confidential comments by China’s former ambassador to Kazakhstan, Cheng Guoping. Cheng underlined that, in Central Asia, China and Russia were rivals on the economic front, “and again asserted that Russia’s reaction will not force [China] to limit its regional cooperation.” Cheng also predicted that “the growth of Chinese influence will break the Russian monopoly in the region.” At the time, Cheng not only “expressed a positive view of the U.S. role in the region,” but also suggested that NATO should take part “as a guest” at talks on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Picture: Kremlin.ru [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons