China wrestles with Russia for control of Central Asia

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This is the seventh in a series of articles that looks at China’s borders. As China has grown in the last 30 years, so have the often complicated relationships it has with its many varied neighbors. In this article, we take a look at Russia.

By Joyce Roque

April 14 – The Russian Federation is a nation foisted in two realities: the East and the West. As the largest country in the world, it hugs the planet starting from northern Asia spanning to about 40 percent of Europe. It is Eurasia; a country with the breath of 11 time zones and the depth of topography that includes vast frozen tundra, grasslands and steppe.

The country’s beginnings can be traced back to as early as the 3rd century A.D. when the East Slavs were ruled by the seafaring Vikings. The centuries have gone and steeped its history rich with culture, science and ideology. There comes to mind the names of such luminaries as Tolstoy, Nabokov, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky to name a few. More importantly, Russia is a self-sufficient with its abundant stores of raw materials needed to keep any industrial economy running. It produces an estimated 20 percent of the world’s total oil and natural gas production making it a global energy leader.

With the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of Soviet Union, Russia found itself with a collapsing economy, an aging military infrastructure including huge nuclear weapon stores, rampant corruption, and western neighbors that were suddenly looking towards Europe and not Moscow for direction and support.

As the country has dug itself out of the chaos of the early 90s, it has been both buoyed and threatened by the emergence of its southern neighbor, China.

Clash of the titans
Over the years, China and Russia relations have walked the tightrope between friendship and war. Forget that despite sharing the same ideologies and a common perceived Imperialist enemy, the United States; the two often did not see eye to eye.

During the Cold War in the 1960s, relations were strained over ideological and eventually border issues. China wanted to step out of the former Soviet Union’s shadow to claim leadership in the Communist movement. For years the two Soviet giants were at odds with each other, and it was only in 1976 that Chinese-Soviet relations normalized again, only to be disrupted when China chose to invade Vietnam in 1978.

In 2004, a long-disputed border issue was resolved when Russia agreed to cede Yinlong Island and half of Heixiazi Island converging the Amur and Ussuri Rivers to China. Another prickly territory issue is Russia’s largest port city of Vladivostok located near the Chinese-Russian border and North Korea.

The region is unique for its population of Russians, Chinese and Korean co-existing side by side. Sources report that prior to Russia’s acquisition of the city through the Treaty of Aigun in 1858, it was first occupied by the Manchu people. The Manchus are an ethnic minority originating from what is today Northeastern China, and have long assimilated with the Han Chinese. In its historical atlases, Beijing has not been shy in claiming that Vladivostok once belonged to China.

Trade and energy
Chinese-Russian relations were shaped by the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation formalized in 2001. The treaty outlined plans in the next twenty years that would cover peaceful relations, economic cooperation, geopolitical reliance and more telling include a defense pact set to increase military cooperation.

The treaty allowed for a cooperative approach to environmental technology regulations, energy conservation and international finance and trade with Russia agreeing that Taiwan was “an inalienable part of China.”

Since then, Chinese-Russian relations have engaged on such areas as energy development, spaceflight and aviation, nuclear power, mechanics, high-tech industry.

Chinese President Hu Jintao told Xinhua that China-Russia trade would reach US$60 to US$80 billion by 2010. In 2007, bilateral trade estimates peg the figure at more than US$40 billion.

To provide the energy that China desperately craves to continue its economic growth, the Russian government has announced plans to pipe natural gas through western Siberia to Xinjiang in China’s west. The project, with a projected annual capacity of 30 billion cubic meters, is expected to be completed by 2010. Another pipeline with a capacity of 38 billion cubic meters per year is also set to connect eastern Siberia and Sakhalin Island to China’s Heilongjiang province by 2016.

Russia is angling itself to become the main supplier of oil for its energy-strapped Asian neighbors by developing a 4,000 kilometer oil pipeline, starting from eastern Siberia and stretching to Kozimo Bay in the nearby Sea of Japan. The project’s Phase 1 will give China a spur pipeline that promises to deliver up to 300,000 barrels of oil daily.

But Russia’s monopolistic ambitions have attracted already challengers. Turkmenistan has signed a deal with China for a gas pipeline called the Central Asia Gas Pipeline that will annually deliver 30 billion cubic meters of gas for 30 years. The gas field will be located at the Amudarya River and will eat through Russia’s energy trade.

The Shanghai Six
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Formerly known as the Shanghai Five, the SCO was established after Uzbekistan was admitted to the fold in 2001. The group aims to share resources in areas dealing with terrorism, separatism and extremism.

According to the SCO, the main purpose of the group is “strengthening mutual trust, friendship and good-neighborly relations among the member countries; promoting their effective cooperation in politics, trade and economy, science and technology, culture, education, energy, transportation, ecology and other fields; making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region, to establish a new, democratic, just and rational political and economic international order.”

Sources speculate that Russia may see the SCO as a balancing force against its poor relations with the West most notably NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) composed of North American and European countries. On the other hand, others say that China considers the SCO as an organization that could follow the European Union example.

A race to the finish
Beneath the froth of diplomatic talk, there is a silent economic storm brewing between Russia and China as they race for domination in Central Asia. Russia has an advantage because of its historical Soviet-ties to the region; but what China offers can be a hard bargain to turn down -a shot at economic revival.

Federico Bordonaro, a Rome-based analyst, told Radio Free Europe, “In the medium term, competition between China and Russia is set to take a more important place in relations between Beijing and Moscow. This is due to the fact that Beijing absolutely needs energy and the same energy is in the strategic interests of Russia.”

China and Russia are both eyeing the reserves of their Central Asian neighbors, particularly oil from Kazakhstan and natural gas from Turkmenistan. Russia has made the move to guard its cash cow by regulating the flow of Turkmen gas through its series of pipelines. In the region, while Russia has long maintained profitable trade imports, China has been swift to gain ground. In fact China finishes at a close second after Russia.

According to RFE, Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of a Moscow journal said, “We will see a soft competition that could heat up as China becomes more successful. Russia doesn’t want to be China’s junior partner in this region.”

This is the seventh in a continuing series that focuses on China’s borders. The complete series to date can be found here.