Friction between China and Russia is possible in three areas. The first of these is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). A meeting of the heads of state in December 2015 led to a series of consultations on the creation of a free trade zone being set up. The situation is made all the more complicated by the fact that Russia, China and the Central Asian countries are pursuing very different goals. The flagging Russian economy, coupled with the fact that a number of private companies are heavily reliant on government contracts and the state budget, has meant that the country is intent on protecting its domestic market from strong competition, especially from such a competitive country as China. Russia has no intention of opening its markets, including as part of the SCO. This is why the Kremlin torpedoed the initiative for such a long time. Now Moscow has agreed to the establishment of a free trade area because it does not want to appear as if it is opposed to the idea of trade liberalization.

Meanwhile, a number of countries in Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan, are hoping that a SCO free trade area would allow them to sell more of their traditional export goods, namely hydrocarbons, metals and, to a lesser extent, agricultural products.

Alexander Gabuev
Gabuev is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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The second possible source of tension is concerned with the creation of a "mega economic partnership" – the Eurasian Economic Union, the SCO and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Vladimir Putin declared this in his message to the Federal Assembly. It is not clear at the moment what the initiative will include, only that it is supposed to be some kind of response to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The details of the project are unknown, but judging from statements made by government officials, it is not about signing a contract on lowering duties on traded goods. In other words, it is not a free trade agreement in the classic sense of the term. Russia sees the partnership as an agreement to trade services, protect investments, simplify customs procedures and establish technical standards. However, trading services rather than goods is perhaps the most exotic decision in the history of global trade.

This is why China is unlikely to actively support Russia here. Beijing will not necessarily torpedo the process, but it will certainly drag it out, because the initiative is still poorly understood and it is not clear what benefits can be derived from it.

Finally, the third area where Russia and China may find themselves at odds is the plan to connect the economies of the Silk Road Economic Belt project and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). A document has been signed to the effect, yet it remains unclear just how these two projects will be melded together.

It is clearly more beneficial for China to actively develop bilateral cooperation with individual EAEU countries, before Russia defines its position and starts controlling China's interaction with other countries, particularly those in Central Asia.

Beijing has already launched bilateral projects with individual EAEU member states (particularly Kazakhstan), much to Russia's displeasure. At the EAEU Summit in October, Moscow was able to coordinate the relations of the member states with China within the framework of the Silk Road Economic Belt project.

In terms of politics, friction between Moscow and Beijing is unlikely. Russia and China follow very similar positions in the UN, unless the topic of the Ukrainian crisis is up for discussion, in which case China prefers to maintain its neutral stance on the matter. Beijing will tread carefully around any other conflict that might break out in the post-Soviet space. Should the situations in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia or Abkhazia worsen, China will probably avoid taking any action, as it does not have any interests in the region.

Russia and China have identical positions on cybersecurity. Cooperation in this field will develop at an even faster pace in 2016.

In addition to Russia, China will work with Central Asian countries in 2016. This will include securing the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in to create an area of regional development where it can export its production overage in infrastructure facilities. China will attempt to actively cooperate with the ASEAN, partly because of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and attempts to increase trade in the region (all the more pertinent now given China's recent economic slowdown), and also because of the South China Sea.

The Taiwanese opposition, which is opposed to rapprochement in the mainland, has a real chance of winning. This would serve as another source of irritation in U.S.–China relations.

The role of regions as suppliers of raw materials has become less important, as the price of raw materials which themselves have become more readily available, has fallen. Nevertheless, China is still dependent on the import of raw materials. This is why relations with Latin America, Africa and the Persian Gulf states will stay as they are.

China will try and develop relations with a number of international organizations in the coming year, primarily with the African Union and Mercosur, as well as with the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf in the Middle East. However, we cannot say at this stage whether a real breakthrough will be made, or whether China will even exert a significant amount of effort on developing these relations.

This article originally appeared on the Russian International Affairs Council site.