China's new President Xi is in Moscow on his first foreign trip, emphasizing his country's bond with Russia. It's where his predecessor Hu Jintao first ventured abroad 10 years ago.
When a new head of state takes office, all the world watches his first steps and attempts to draw conclusions about his future political orientation. It is no different for China's new leader Xi Jinping. As his first foreign guest, Xi on Tuesday, March 19, received US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. China has invested a substantial portion of its huge trade surpluses in the purchase of US government bonds, thus keeping the American wheels of state moving.
But the Chinese leader's first trip abroad is to Moscow. To say relations between the two neighbors have had their ups and downs in recent history would be an understatement. From the Chinese perspective, Russia - and the communist Soviet Union before it - was first a mentor, then an enemy and ultimately a partner. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Soviet Union sent thousands of experts to provide aid to the fraternal communist state.
But ideological differences led to a deep rift that escalated in the late 1960s to an exchange of fire along their common border. Since then, the two sides have maintained an unsentimental partnership of convenience - which has, officially at least, been raised to the rank of a strategic partnership. Speaking to DW, Tübingen sinologist Gunter Schubert said this partnership was directed primarily against the West. Xi's trip to Moscow, he said, was symbolic in nature and a signal to the West that "China is able to turn elsewhere than to the West."
Standing up to the democracies
Russian President Vladimir Putin put it somewhat more genteelly about a year ago. Before his trip to China in June 2012, he wrote in an article for the official "China Daily": "The important thing is that all sensible politicians and experts in economics and international relations realize that today the global agenda cannot be set behind the backs of Russia and China - and not without taking their interests into account."
This became evident, for example, at the UN Security Council. China there often takes its voting cues from Russia when it comes to topics that do not strongly affect China's interests - such as in the case of Syria or Iran. Conversely, China expects Russia's support on issues that affect East Asia.
For Gu Xuewu of the University of Bonn, the strategic coordination of the two neighbors is therefore high on Xi's agenda in the talks in Moscow. The talks are also likely to focus on trade relations and deepening military cooperation in the face of the US "pivot to Asia," Gu said in an interview with DW.
Russia's trade conundrum
Trade between China and Russia rose by more than 40 percent in the last two years. In 2011, it reached a volume of 83.5 billion US dollars. In 2010, China replaced Germany as Russia's largest trading partner. But Russia is not satisfied with the trade structure. Its sales to China consist almost exclusively of commodities: energy, timber and minerals. In contrast, sophisticated industrial products flow from China to Russia.
Gu said this structure could change somewhat by the sale of Russian nuclear technology to China. "China is eyeing atomic energy as a mainstay of its energy supply. But China is still forced to rely on foreign technology, especially in the construction of large power plants - and here Russia has a lot to offer."
As for military cooperation, there are regular meetings of high-ranking officers from both sides. The two countries conduct joint maneuvers; a joint naval exercise took place for the first time in April 2012. Joint military exercises are occasionally held within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), founded in 2001 involving the neighboring Central Asian member states.
Demographic time bomb
The Russian side views the demographic development in the Far East with unease. On the Russian side of the border, more and more people - and especially the better educated - are leaving the vastness of Siberia for Europe. Just over five million people live in the five Russian regions bordering China. In contrast, on the other side of the border there are over 100 million Chinese. Their influence on economic life in Siberia is growing.
"The local conditions in Russia are increasingly dominated by China - precisely because the provision of energy, vegetables, grain and consumer goods is increasingly dependent on Chinese supplies," Gu said. Russia is trying to counter this influence. Putin has announced he would pay more attention to the East. That is one reason why Vladivostok on the Russian Pacific coast was chosen to host the 2012 APEC summit.
And Russia is uneasy above all about the fact that China is emerging as a superpower, while Russia itself has lost that status. In early January, Xi named the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a cautionary tale for China's Communist Party.