Legendary scenes of determined settlers bravely moving west in a journey to fulfill America’s “Manifest Destiny” are being quietly resurrected. Only this time, Chinese migrants, not American settlers, are driving west into the cold, forbidding environment of the Russian Far East and Siberia.
As with any mass migration, especially one involving foreign nationals crossing sovereign boarders, Chinese migration into Russia raises a number of significant questions for Moscow. Should Chinese migrants, many of them poor and uneducated, be permitted to stay in Russia? What will be the impact of Chinese migration upon Russian society? More importantly, what are Beijing’s long-term intentions in the Far East and Siberia?
Many Russian officials have expressed fear that uninhibited Chinese migration into the Russian Far East and Siberia could lead to an eventual Chinese “land grab.” Given the recent progress made in Sino-Russian defense, energy, technology and trade relations, what would motivate China to pursue such an aggressive and potentially devastating regional strategy?
The answer to this question is simple – China desperately needs the region’s natural resources to achieve its dual goals of Asian supremacy and global influence.
A History of Mistrust and Suspicion
In the 19th century, China reluctantly ceded control of the Far East and Siberia to Russia. During the past 50 years, however, Chinese territorial claims to the area have steadily increased. Chinese communist founder Mao Zedong and leader Deng Xiaoping both publicly asserted that the Russian cities of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk were Chinese. Some Chinese historians have claimed that the current China-Russia boarders are unfair and that Russia “stole” the Far East by force.
“The Chinese view this region [Siberia] historically as their territory,” said Larisa Zabroskaya, an Asia expert. Moreover, Russia’s Far East population increasingly identifies itself with the east – looking to South Korea, Japan and China for guidance on matters of governance and culture. As a result, the region has become less connected to Moscow and the ideals of “Euro Asia.”
In Moscow, apprehension and uneasiness concerning China’s influence in the Far East has gradually increased. In 2002, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned, “If people here [Far East] will not regenerate their region and economy, they will all speak the Asian language.”
Russia’s Treasure Chest
Russia possesses the world’s largest proven reserves of natural gas and is the second largest oil producer behind only Saudi Arabia with Siberia holding the overwhelmingly majority of these strategic reserves. The Siberian region possesses 80 percent of Russia’s oil; 85 percent of its natural gas; 80 percent of its coal and 40 percent of its timber. Adding to the region’s importance, valuable raw materials such as nickel, zinc, cooper, aluminum, ores, and mercury are plentiful throughout the Russian Far East and Siberia.
Siberia’s fresh water supply is unmatched. Baikal Lake alone holds one-fifth of the world’s fresh water reserves with the Ob and Lena rivers providing enormous hydro-electric power potential. Moreover, dense forests cover an area of 800 thousand square miles translating into over 40 billion cubic meters of timber.
Over the past decade, Moscow has adopted an economic policy that has resulted in a dangerous dependence on the region’s natural resources to propel the country’s growth. As a result, Russia’s influence in global affairs is now clearly linked to the successful development and exploitation of the region’s natural resources.
China’s Immediate Needs
The temptation to seize the Russian Far East and Siberia may be too much for China to resist, since the region would offer the country an opportunity to achieve increased energy autonomy and replace its own depleted natural resources. Many coal mines in China have become exhausted with further exploration an expensive and time consuming alternative. China also imports more oil than it produces -- a significant barrier for a country of its size with designs for regional dominance and global influence.
Misuse of China’s forests by the country’s timber industry and illegal logging now threaten large portions of China. Water shortages are more common, as drought, rising demand, and pollution take hold. Beijing recently identified one hundred Chinese cities as “water deficient.” Hydro-electric plants which produce energy for Chinese industry have seen flow rates drop to historically low levels.
Taken collectively, these developments have forced China to identify and secure reliable sources of energy and raw materials globally [i.e., Africa, South America and North America] and within its Asian periphery.
Russian Depopulation of the Far East and Siberia
Russian depopulation and resulting deindustrialization of the Far East and Siberia continue to haunt Moscow. The precipitous decline in the region’s population over the past decade can be traced to the lifting of Soviet-era controls on residency and place of employment in the early 1990’s. This caused an “out-migration” of over two million Russians leaving many areas entirely unpopulated. As a result, once vibrant towns created during the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway have been deserted and forgotten.
Chinese migrants entering the region to replace the departing Russians have encountered harsh resistance from the remaining population. Sergei Darkin, a government official from the city of Vladivostok, says, “We have to ensure that there is no large-scale assimilation. The Chinese who come here have to go back again.” Other Russian officials agree, saying Chinese migrants contribute little to local economies, evade taxes and are involved in illegal activities. Beijing has countered these accusations saying its migrants spread prosperity on both sides of the boarder.
But trying to make Chinese migrants return home may just delay the inevitable. Vladimir Yakovlev, Russia’s regional Asian development director, recently commented that Russia’s total population had fallen to 145 million – a decline of 1.7 million people over the past two years. If the Russian population continues to decline at the current rate, some experts estimate it could drop to 100 million by 2050. This, as the Chinese population continues to increase placing rising pressure on Beijing to find open space.
Alternatives for China
Recognizing the importance of the Russian Far East and Siberia, China could pursue several alternatives to secure the region’s burgeoning natural resources.
First, China could decide to take conventional military action, embarking on its own “Chinese Blitzkrieg” to secure the Russian Far East and Siberia. Such a large-scale invasion would almost certainly elicit a nuclear response from Moscow. This is something both countries would want to avoid, since any large-scale nuclear exchange would all but destroy the area’s natural resources. Although weakened by the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia’s conventional forces remain formidable, capable of confronting any Chinese aggression.
Second, China could adopt a policy of “gradual assimilation” and “soft influence.” Under this scenario, Beijing would sponsor increased migration hoping that the Russian-Chinese population would eventually be capable of exerting influence over regional politics and thinking. Beijing could then use this opportunity to question many of the boarder treaties now in place, demanding concessions from Moscow.
Third, China could choose to nurture the current bilateral partnership, allowing Russia to develop the infrastructure necessary for the production and transport of oil, natural gas, water and timber. Of course, this alternative assumes that trust and sincere cooperation between the two countries will continue to deepen. Any sudden fracture or visible weakness in the bilateral alliance could be perceived by China as a threat to their national security, eliciting a sudden and profound economic, political or military response.
Fourth, China could begin to covertly drill for oil and natural gas in remote regions of eastern Siberia where energy resources remain unexploited, hoping that Moscow would “look the other way.” Following a course of action similar to its South China Sea policy with Japan, small teams of highly-trained Chinese geologists, engineers and military personnel would be inserted into Russian territory on energy exploration missions.
After consideration of all of these alternatives, a more likely Chinese strategy will involve the continued pursuit of bilateral agreements in the areas of energy development, infrastructure and production which includes the construction of pipelines, roads, and railways. China will play a waiting game with Russia, hoping the country will eventually implode from a lethal combination of ethnic strife, government corruption, Islamic rebellion, fiscal mismanagement, and a commodities driven economy that lacks diversity. When a total collapse does occur and chaos ensues, China will move in a deliberate and swift fashion across its 4,000 km boarder with Russia to secure what it can of the Russian Far East and Siberia.
United States Concerns
Any increased involvement by China in the Russian Far East and Siberia would have enormous geo-strategic ramifications for the United States.
Possibly realizing the growing importance of Russia in an increasingly energy dependant world, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman visited Moscow in May seeking to promote energy cooperation between the two countries. In response to comments that Russian oil exports to the U.S. have reached 230,000 barrels per day, Bodman noted, “It should be ten times that or more, given the reserves that are here.” He also noted, “It is in the interests of the U.S. to have more diverse sources of [oil] supply. It’s a compelling case.”
Despite comments of this nature from high-level American officials, the American intelligence community remains fixated on Taiwan, viewing China’s need for reunification as the country’s major foreign policy goal. For its part, Beijing has gone to great lengths to reinforce this perception, making occasional hostile remarks and releasing government documents that support nothing less than total Taiwanese capitulation.
But has the time come for the American intelligence community to give equal importance to Chinese intentions concerning Russia? In short, would it be more beneficial for China to control strategic natural resources such as oil, natural gas, timber and water that are abundant in Russia, or continue its pursuit of reunification with Taiwan? This is a perplexing question, but one that must be asked.
Whatever China’s strategy, Sino-Russian relations merit our attention. A future confrontation between the two regional powers is a growing possibility, as Russia moves east to replace depleted western Siberia energy reserves and China looks west to secure the region’s natural resources for itself.
In April, Moscow indicated that it wanted geological exploration of oil deposits in eastern Siberia to begin immediately to confirm the size of its oil deposits. “According to our estimates, there should be enough resources to supply oil to China and the Pacific coast,” said Russian Energy Minister Victor Khristenko.
If Moscow is not careful, it may not have a decision to make.
Frederick W. Stakelbeck, Jr. is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.