“Russia’s death will come in either of two ways – from the East by the sword of the awakened Chinese, or through the voluntary merger with a pan-European republican federation”. These stunning words were written by Konstantin Leontyev, a Russian philosopher, already in 1891. His judgment might be very close to the truth if one takes a closer look at what has been happening within the last decade in the vast, wild country of Far Eastern Siberia. Spanning over spectacular 6.2mln square kilometers, Far Eastern District is home to a mere 6.2 million people (population of Israel). Those 6 millions are mostly native Russians as well as some semi-nomadic indigenous tribes, who live in the wilderness breeding reindeers and cattle. Yet, since the collapse of Soviet Union, Siberian lands East of Baikal Lake have become home to hundreds of thousands (precise numbers are unknown) of Chinese, whose community has been growing exponentially every year since 1998. Russia and China share a 2,038 mile-long border – one the longest in Asia. But there is a stark difference between a life in the South and the North – Chinese border provinces house ca. 110 million people, who have harvested the fruits of economic boom and indulged in development and unprecedented wealth for over a decade, whereas their Slavic neighbours were left with a feeling of gloom, frustration and abandonment by Moscow, watching from far away how the Russian cities West of Ural blossomed, showered with oil and gas money.
This is why scarcely populated, undeveloped and relatively impoverished Russia’s Far East has become an increasingly attractive destination for China’s investments. One of the areas of such investment is farming. Infinite amount of uncultivated land makes a perfect opportunity for the production of cheap food for Chinese markets. For example, in the Birobidzhan oblast, Stalin-made Jewish enclave, Chinese companies have already rented out hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and more is being bought or rented every year for cultivation. These companies do not hire locals, but bring their compatriots to do the seasonal work in the field. In the cities, Chinese businessmen run numerous enterprises, from shopping malls to vodka distilleries, hiring Chinese workers, and flooding Siberia with Chinese products, capital and culture. The invasion from the South makes Russians feel a bit like strangers in their own country but little choice they have, they accept for the most part foreigners’ presence. Without them, their cities and villages would never gain an equally good opportunity to advance economically. Nevertheless, fear of being overwhelmed by a populous and powerful neighbour is also spreading. To demonstrate just how much attention Chinese influx draws among Russian policymakers, one can look at Prime Minister Medvedev warning directed towards China in August this year, in which he stated that it is “important not to allow negative manifestations, including the formation of enclaves made up of foreign citizens”, as well as emphasized Russia’s need to defend itself against “excessive expansion by bordering states”.
On the other hand, Far Eastern District was the only Russian governorate in 2009 to experience a growing, rather than contracting, economy. This growth was fuelled by Beijing’s growing appetite for Siberian great riches above and underneath the ground – timber, oil, gas and steel. Kimkan mine near Birobidzhan, now owned by a Chinese conglomerate IRC, holds ca. 1bln tonnes of iron ore and that’s just one single mine in this enormous country. Now, Kimkan’s iron has replaced imports from Brazil as a cheaper, more available source. Chinese lumberjacks smuggle thousands of tons of timber from Russia and sell them to wood mills back at home. China is also interested in Siberian water reservoirs as more and more of its cities suffer from water shortages, whereas Baikal lake contains a fifth (!) of world’s sweet water. Yet, the most important project so far, which skyrocketed the value of Chinese-Russian trade, was the opening of an oil pipeline in January last year. This pipeline carries almost 15mln tones of oil every year directly into China. Another 15mln tons are transported to the Kozmino seaport near Vladivostok, and shipped to farther regions of Southern China. The pipeline project also was politically motivated on Moscow’s side – Putin wanted to send a message to EU that it’s not irreplaceable as a trade partner, and Russia doesn’t appreciate how Brussels constantly patronizes her and preaches how to run its domestic politics. If in Putin’s eyes, China is a better alternative than the EU, should then Russia view Chinese penetration of its Far Eastern territories as a security threat?
A threat from China does not come in a form of unparalleled value of trade between the two countries or from what is, as of now, the best period in Sino-Russian relations in history. The threat comes in size disparities, as Russia will never be able to compete with China, financially, economically nor militarily. Firstly, Russian state control of its Far Eastern territories is weak and Chinese are taking advantage of it very well. Scarce population in the area is mostly to be blamed, but widespread corruption and general social malaise are also at play. Declining native Russian population facilitates Chinese buyout even more. Moreover, Moscow also becomes increasingly dependent on China on its hard currency inflow – China has already taken over Germany as Russia’s biggest partner, whereas Russia is only on the eighth place in China’s trade balance and fifth in energy trading. With Russian physical presence virtually vanishing year by year, Far Eastern District, and in the end all of Siberia might become a Chinese dominion, which will fuel its titanic industrial sector, making China largely resilient to fluctuations in global resource prices. In the worst-case scenario, it will also allow China to become a virtually invincible military power, which will wield huge human resources, enormous industry to produce firearms, as well as its own, reliable source of energy and materials right from across the border. Russia’s traditional military strategy, which worked so well in past wars with Europe and which can be summed up as “human quantity over arms quality” supported by insurmountable resource capacity, will lose any value in the face of a conflict with 1bln-people-strong country. Fears of losing Siberia to China can be far-fetched, but looking at a current dispute between China and Japan over Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Chinese takeover of Siberia cannot be ruled out and should definitely become a central theme in Russian foreign policy thinking. Russia still aspires to be a peer to other global powers in this increasingly multilateral world, but a powerful neighbour encroaching on its greatest treasures can substantially impede its ability to exercise a successful foreign policy.
So if Russia’s future boils down to what Leontyev prophesied over a hundred years ago, a choice between the East and the West, maybe it’s just about time for Moscow to start reconsidering its troubled relationship with Europe.
Photo Credit yvescosentino