Sorting out Sino-Russian Relations and Central Asia: 欢迎! Добро пожаловать! Welcome!

Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow – only eight days after his installation as president of China, and his first foreign visit as Zhongnanhai’s new laoban (boss) – has resulted in extensive commentary concerning the current state of Sino-Russian ties, the implications of the “strategic partnership” for the United States, and myriad lists of historic and contemporary irritants which could either buttress or derail the relationship.

The diversity of commentary and conclusions is certainly breathtaking, covering the entire spectrum of issues raised in the academic literature on the topic over the past decade.

Some journalists and analysts seeking to explain Xi’s choice have pointed out the “positives,” namely the commonalities in national interests:  Russian diplomatic support for China in its conflict with Japan over the Diaoyutai; shared opposition to the policies of the Western states on global security, human rights and sovereignty questions; Chinese energy requirements and a new $30 billion “loan for oil” agreement with Russia’s state oil firm (the “new and improved Gazprom”) Rosneft; the export of Russian military technology as China continues its program of PLA modernization; and economic complementarities which could serve to boost historically anemic non-resource trade.

Conversely, others have underscored the challenges confronting Moscow and Beijing as the two sides seek to further strengthen relations: the age-old question of Chinese irredentism over the Russian Far East and perceptions of Chinese migration thereto; rising Kremlin fears regarding the trade imbalance and Russia’s limited position as a resource supplier to a continuously growing China; grumbling among Russian defense firms about China’s development of its own capabilities in this area; and even the legacy of the Khrushchev era Sino-Soviet split and past border disputes.

Finally, some commentators cited the importance of the scheduling requirements of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) summit; a fresh Chinese focus on its northern and western peripheries (i.e., Russia and its much ballyhooed “near abroad”); implied statements by both towards their main global interlocutor, Washington; and a new spirit of “pragmatism” in the foreign ministries of both countries.

The conclusions were equally diverse. Some contended this was a new critical juncture in global politics which will fundamentally alter security questions in Asia and threaten US hegemony across the region. Others purported that it was a relationship “riding for a fall” and that despite common goals, the divisions are simply too deep to overcome. While still others shrugged and chalked it up as yet one more meeting with minimal consequences and minimal import to global affairs.

All of this forces observers to ask themselves: who’s right? What is the status of Sino-Russian relations? Which variables are causally significant to the relationship and which are irrelevant? The diversity of analysis depicts both the difficulty and the salience of the question. For those focused on the political, economic, and security development of Central Asia – finding a sound footing for understanding how Russia and China relate to one another is essential. Both states have a highly significant strategic and economic footprint in the region and the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Community are only increasing. To understand the future of Central Asia, comprehending the realities of Russian and Chinese policy towards the region and to place that in the context of their burgeoning bilateral relationship is key.

Thus, over the next year this blog will provide a review of research by scholars in the United States, Europe, Russia, and China which can shed light on the interests, actions, policies, and relationships which are relevant to contemporary Central Asia. Serving as an Archimedean fulcrum, later this week we’ll explore the valuable work of Dmitri Trenin on the Sino-Russian relationship together with Robert Bedelski and Niklas Swanström’s recent “Eurasia’s Ascent in Energy and Geopolitics: Rivalry or Partnership for China, Russia, and Central Asia.” So, watch this space!