A geopolitical weekend is awaiting Xi Jinping, the new President of China. Starting today until March 24, Mr. Xi will be hosted by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, while the world will debate the meaning of the first overseas trip the Chinese President makes during his mandate.

As the order in which national leaders visit foreign countries is usually believed to be an unspoken declaration of their foreign policy priorities, Mr. Xi’s travel has been interpreted by experts as a sign that the new administration will look forward to reinforcing ties with Russia, with which China has a historically difficult and politically ambiguous relationship. Whether this will succeed is another story: former President Hu Jintao did the same in 2003, but since then there has been no major breakthrough in bilateral relations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev pictured in Beijing in 2010. Pic: AP.

The China Daily published an optimistic op-ed saying that “Xi’s visit to Russia will be a landmark, because it will be the first country he travels to after becoming president. His decision to visit Russia also reflects the high mutual regard and confidence the leaders of the two countries have”. The same mood was already in the air in 2011, when the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced on its website that the year before “the strategic partnership of coordination between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation continued to deepen across the board. The bilateral political mutual trust, practical cooperation, people-to-people exchanges and strategic coordination reached an unprecedented level”. Not least because “China and Russia continued to give each other strong support on issues concerning core interests including national sovereignty, security and development interests”.

However bright contemporary rhetoric may be, the two countries – allowing for an imperfect equation between Russia and the former Soviet Union – have a bumpy history. The friendship between Mao’s China and the Soviet Empire was “eternal” and “indestructible” only before they went to war against each other in 1969. In fact, one of the driving factors behind the Sino-US rapprochement which took place soon afterward was the common fear of Moscow.

For a few decades, relations between the two neighbors have been ice-cold, but the end of the Cold War and China’s rise on the global scene changed the situation. The disintegration of the Soviet empire and the birth of a new Russia pushed the old animosity in the past, leaving a window for cooperation and leading the two countries closer. In 1996, they created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group that includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and focuses on security in Central Asia. In 2001, they signed the “Treaty for Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation” which covered a variety of topics, from arms sales to energy cooperation and geopolitics. The communiqué also states that China and Russia will “endeavor to enhance relations between the two countries to a completely new level, determined to develop the friendship between the people of the two countries from generation to generation”. Most recently, both have united against Western-sponsored plans to impose sanctions against Syria at the United Nations.

However, despite newfound common ground in foreign policy, experts say mutual distrust still lurks behind polite smiles. In a one-on-one interview at China Town Hall, former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that “Mr. Putin seems tempted to play the China card against us [the US] if he can. I do not think he can play it too well, because for one thing the Chinese are not going to let him. [..] The Russians moreover are profoundly fearful of China and greatly aware of the fact that their resources-rich territories in the Siberian area and the far east are increasingly vacant – literally vacant – and right next door to a country which is setting the pace for modernization without precedent historically”.

Strategically, China and Russia are latent rivals in Central Asia, an area traditionally influenced by Russia but where in recent years Beijing has been gaining a strong foothold. Moreover, historical issues have not been forgotten by the Chinese, who still resent early Twentieth Century Russian imperialism. When the Russian embassy in China opened a Weibo account in 2011, Chinese netizens flooded it with comments that can be synthetically reassumed as “give back the territories you have taken from us”.

In an interview published on the Global Times, Professor Zhu Feng, an expert of international relations at Peking University, argued that Sino-Russian relations have not improved much since former President Hu’s own visit in 2003. According to him, there are several factors suggesting a less than optimal relationship. He mentions the neutrality of Russia over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the disappointment of Chinese leaders at watching the war in Georgia unfold right when the 2008 Olympic Games were underway in Beijing. Trade between China and Russia, he contends, “has been restricted by the differences in bilateral economic structure”, and “both China and Russia are chiefly fixated on the US, not on each other”. He concludes that the two countries “need to rethink their own foreign policies”.

One field in which there seem to be a genuine cooperation is energy. Earlier this week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that Mr. Xi’s visit will be a chance to  boost cooperation in this sector. On March 20, Reuters wrote that according to sources Xi could sign an agreement that will enable Rosneft – Russia’s largest crude producer – to “increase oil supplies via the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline by 1 million tons this year already, by a further 2 million tons next year and by a further 5 million tons from 2015 to 2017.” According to the same article, Rosneft will increase exports to China by 34 million tons to around 50 million tons by 2018.