While there are greater outward signs of cooperation between Russia and China, especially in Central Asia, the reality is that Russia and China still view each other as rivals in their economic and geopolitical ambitions.

"China may see itself having a partnership with Russia in the region, but it believes it, and not Russia, is the leader." Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping. Photo: RIA Novosti

Chinese leader Xi Jinping's visit to Russia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia in early May was warmly received by the Russian media as a sign of close collaboration between the two countries. In line with President Vladimir Putin’s disengagement with Europe and pivot to elsewhere in the world (typified by the emphasis on the strange bedfellows of the BRICS), it is widely believed that Russia and China represent a counterbalance to the perceived monolith known as “the West.”

With tensions between Washington and Beijing also rising due to Chinese activities in the South China Sea, some have even giddily commented that a new “G2” of Russia and China could supplant the current one of the U.S. and China. However, the tensions that have long existed between the two neighbors are hardwired to their geopolitical and economic interests and will not dissipate because of one trip. Indeed, it is more accurate to think of Russia and China as “frenemies,” apparent friends due to their disagreements with other countries but in reality rivals with very different ideas on how the neighborhood should be run.

The relationship between China and Russia has been the subject of increasing interest over the past three years, as cooperation has appeared to intensify across a broad range of issues. The Chinese President’s attendance at the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow may have been the most ostentatious manifestation of this growing closeness, but more concrete measures such as the joint Russian-Chinese naval exercises in the Mediterranean last week are more telling for where the relationship might go. China has also been a willing (and the largest) backer of the new “BRICS Bank,” a brainchild of Russia that has been seen as a way to “chip away” at America’s financial hegemony

Moreover, as the world’s fastest growing economy, China also has an intense and sustained need for energy. According to the U.S. Defense Department, China imported 60 percent of its oil in 2014 and is projected to import 80 percent by 2035. This reality that explains why Russia is an attractive partner for China, even as the Russian economy moves more and more towards being a mono-economy, dependent upon natural resources.

For a very different take, read "The real meaning of Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow"

Russia has played up this aspect of the partnership, with energy concerns playing a central role during the visit of Xi Jinping to Moscow at the beginning of May. With markets in Europe seeking to break their dependence on Russian energy, it is vital for Russia to find new consumers elsewhere.

But perhaps the most important reason that Russia has looked to its eastern neighbor has been for support of its own territorial ambitions. With the heavy-handed Russian approach to Moldova and Georgia and the continuing slow-motion “invasion” of Ukraine (and the corresponding backlash from Europe), Putin has looked elsewhere for friends who would not be so judgmental.

And China certainly has no reason to cast aspersions on Russia: the Chinese conquest and incorporation of Tibet pre-dates Russia’s re-establishment of control over Chechnya by 50 years, and Chinese territorial claims throughout the South China Sea mean Beijing is in no mood to counter Russia’s own regional aspirations. However, China is also conflicted by Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as the referendum in Crimea could set a dangerous precedent for Tibet or the Uighurs in Xinjiang to have their own secessionist vote and attempt to leave the People’s Republic.

Regardless of this tension, for the most part China has been somewhat supportive of Russia’s Ukrainian policy. Much has been made in the Russian media regarding China’s abstention in the UN vote condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea, with Putin himself taking this abstention as a clear sign of China’s support. More directly in support of Russia, China has been vocally against the imposition of sanctions by the EU, and state media has pointedly not criticized Russia’s military incursions.

However, ambiguity still remains on China’s true stance, with continuous “clarifications” from the Foreign Ministry and seemingly contradictory support for Russia’s interests while at the same time championing non-interference. The takeaway from the entire affair appears to be that China deplores the idea of the West telling anyone what to do, while not necessarily believing that Russia’s invasion is in and of itself a good idea.

Traveling the Silk Road together or alone?

While Ukraine may showcase common interests between Russia and China, there is a marked divergence of economic and geopolitical interests in relation to the landlocked and politically immature countries of Central Asia. Where broader sentiments against the West may converge far from China’s shores, there is more potential for friction between the two countries in each other’s backyards.

Moscow should rightly regard Beijing as a competitor in the Central Asia for several reasons, with the biggest one related to economics. The Russian (and in many cases, still the Soviet) economic model has failed the region for a century, spawning only backwardness and political repression.

With China’s vibrant economy and ready capital next door, and Russia’s economy in freefall after military conflict in Ukraine, the Chinese model of political centralization but economic decentralization may look much more attractive to the leaders of Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. And China has proven itself as more adept in penetrating these markets, becoming the region’s largest trading partner as of 2013.

Perhaps aware of this economic challenge to its moribund economy, Russia has not been making it easier for the countries of Central Asia to enjoy the benefits of proximity to China. The Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has created extra barriers to trade and in-migration with Kazakhstan, a country that has benefited from China mightily over the past decade, and Kyrgyzstan’s recent acquiescence to the EEU means it too is likely to erect unnecessary barriers to life with China.

Thus far, Russia has ignored advice for the EEU to be more liberal in relation to China (and in general), although there has been some discussion on creating an EEU-China Free Trade Agreement. Such a move would be incredibly beneficial for consumers in the EEU, but is unlikely to bolster Russia’s political prospects any further, as China’s economic dominance in the region will likely increase.

In regards to security issues, Russia and China also display some disagreements, although they have not been as pronounced as China has been fairly deferential to Russia’s position in the region (preferring to operate through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, rather than bilaterally). In particular, Russia and China are in agreement about the rise of Islamic terrorism in the region, but there is also some divergence on the strategies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, gestures while speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping, second left, watching the Victory Parade marking the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II, in Red Square, Moscow, on May 9. Photo: AP

China has less of a fear of American presence in Central Asia, while Russia believes it can take on the issues by itself (and has pressured the Central Asian countries, notably Kyrgyzstan, to close American bases in the country). Russia has ramped up its military presence in the region via a training exercise in Tajikistan this past weekend to demonstrate just this point, using as its vehicle the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). With Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan on board (as well as Armenia and Belarus), Moscow hopes to utilize this organization to help keep the peace in the region.

Others in the region are not so sure, and both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan has turned to China to upgrade their military, rather than Russia. Uzbekistan in particular has much to lose from increased terrorism, bordering Afghanistan to the north and having fought its own insurgency in the guise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (which was defeated in part by the U.S. during its intervention in Afghanistan).

China has contributed $4.4 million worth of equipment for Uzbekistan’s border posts and sniper rifles for the military starting as early as 2000. Kazakhstan has also sought some assistance from China in military capacity building, famously mulling the purchase of Chinese drones (although, at time of writing, this had not yet happened). And even the latest member of the EEU, Kyrgyzstan, has conducted bilateral exercises with China (although in 2002), with more recent overtures including $16 million in military aid at the end of 2014.

The final point regarding the incipient rivalry between the two countries in Central Asia is probably the one that may cause the most friction: China may see itself having a partnership with Russia in the region, but it believes it, and not Russia, is the leader. While China may have been deferential in the past, the undisputed divergence in economic fortunes, exacerbated by Western sanctions on Russia, may make it bolder and more persistent in its ambitions.

Such a desire could be behind the Chinese championing of a new “Silk Road,” an initiative it is vigorously promoting in order to link its producers with markets in Central Asia and in Europe. Even the joint naval exercises seen last week can be thought of, not as a show of solidarity with Russia, but as a vehicle to push this idea. In this view, Moscow is deluded if it feels that it is bringing China along to help do Russia’s bidding, when the exact opposite may be true.

China does what China wants

In reality, at least in reference to Central Asia (but likely on a host of other issues), China is returning to its Cold War strategy of triangulation between Moscow and Washington. This is clearly not based on some mystical solidarity with Russia or acquiescence to the U.S., but on a cold and hard calculation of China’s geopolitical position.

As Lord Palmerston noted in the 19th century, countries do not have “permanent allies, only permanent interests,” and China sees this more clearly than others. For the future, China will tack towards Russia when it feels it suits its interests, and it will collaborate with the U.S. when that suits itself better.

This means that, unfortunately, neither Moscow nor Washington have much leverage to persuade China conclusively to one side or the other. Russia, having displayed its disregard for international law, may have the upper hand is supporting China in its territorial disputes, as it is unbound by diplomatic niceties and pieties. But, as noted, Russia has its own ambitions in Central Asia that definitely do not converge with China.

Similarly, the U.S. is the only country with the logistical and financial ability to effectively combat Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and Central Asia (whether President Obama is serious about this is another question); and while the U.S. economy remains fragile under years of harmful policies, it still remains a formidable force on the world stage. But Washington has its own ideas about the way disputes should be resolved in the South China Sea, which put them into direct opposition to Beijing.

Given these broad divergences, it appears that China and Russia will remain frenemies for the foreseeable future. Russia no longer has the economic or military clout to compel Beijing along with all of its schemes, and China will continue to blaze its own path. This needs to be kept firmly in mind to avoid the embarrassment of China suddenly discovering its short-term future lies with the U.S. rather than Russia.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.