Nothing captures the strengthening state of Sino-Russian relations quite so graphically as 2,800 kilometers of tubular steel. Running from the oil reserves of western Siberia to China's Xinjiang region, this structure will be the first of two new pipelines linking the two countries and is designed to carry 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year.
No more will supplies have to be delivered by rail and, given China's energy hunger and Russia's burgeoning oil and gas capacity, this is a particularly strong piece of cooperation. China's oil imports from Russia rose 28% year-on-year over the first 11 months of 2006.
Energy trade is not the only area in which there has been a rapprochement between the countries.
In 2005, much to the concern of the US and China's Asian neighbors, the two powers conducted joint military exercises on an unprecedented scale. As well as involving land, sea and air forces, operation "Peaceful Mission" saw the shared use of new weapons systems and technologies.
Even at the best of times during their often turbulent and sometimes bloody history, there has never been a high level of trust between the Chinese and the Russians.
In the watershed years of the 1940s and 1950s, the Soviets were instrumental in influencing (or perhaps dictating) the outcome of the Communist-Nationalist conflict.
Moscow's scope extended well beyond arms and intelligence. The children of many of China's elite were educated in Russia, allowing Soviet intelligence to nurture long-term personal relationships between future Soviet and Chinese leaders. Come the 1970s, though, relations between the nations were cordial but colored by mistrust.
Today, the forces of globalization have thrust the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations into positions of increased power and influence in world affairs.
This will affect Sino-Russian relations in several key areas: trade and commerce; strategy and a desire to counter-balance American unipolar hegemony; and political influence in Asia.
Trade has so far been dominated by energy-related exports going one way and value-added industrial products the other. But with a goal of increasing bi-lateral trade to US$80 billion per year, this balance will change. For example, Russia will be stepping up exports of space and nuclear technologies as well military hardware.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has promised US$12 billion in infrastructure investments by 2020 in return.
On the strategic front, both countries are keen to counter American super-power hegemony. The US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the growing US military presence in Moscow's former sphere of influence – Eastern Europe, Kazakhstan, etc – have galvanized this objective.
There is also mutual agreement on more localized issues. Regarding Taiwan, the Russians have stated that they solidly back Beijing and would oppose any US move to intervene in a Chinese military operation against the island.
Similarly, the Chinese firmly support the Russian stance on Iran and its development of nuclear capabilities.
The key to China and Russia enhancing their political roles in Asia is participation in political and intergovernmental organizations, notably the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
But there are fundamental differences between these two heavyweights – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan take up the remaining SCO seats – on the intended focus of the organization. The Russians want it to continue to play an anti-terrorist role, while the Chinese want a more economic and commercial focus.
How the SCO develops is a concern to the US and its allies. Should India join, something Delhi is considering, a new Asian military bloc could emerge. This may counterbalance US hegemony but fresh power struggles and security threats would come with it.
The way in which Beijing and Moscow manage their commerical and political priorities will influence bilateral relations for years to come. Yet how long the good times last is open to debate.
Many Chinese intellectuals see Russia as a declining empire and their own nation as the next great world power, thus leaving open the possibility that old suspicions could re-emerge. For many reasons, therefore, the Sino-Russian relationship should be watched closely.
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