China locked out of Russia’s far east

By Dmitry Shlapentokh

Since the incorporation of the far east into the Russian empire in the 17th century, Russia has strived to keep the area under its rule. This is why Moscow sent not just millions of convicts there but also considerable funds to build towns, factories and roads.

After the end of the Soviet regime, nothing emerged in its place. The economy in the far east has declined and Moscow worries it will lose its influence there.

It plans to avoid this by luring foreign investment to the vast region, which located between Lake Baikal in Eastern Siberia and the Pacific Ocean includes the Far Eastern Federal District – a huge area covering 6,215,900 square kilometers.

China seemed to be the logical source. A few years ago, there was a plan to rent part of Vladivostok to China in exchange for funds. However, that led to a public uproar and the plan was quickly shelved. Another plan was for China to have a lease to exploit the far east and Siberia’s mineral riches, with the use of Chinese labor. One of the provisions of the treaty implied that Chinese workers would return to China at the end of the workday. Clearly utopian, it was also consigned to the deep freeze.

Finally, a recent plan was made to lease huge territories of the far east for farming. With its shortage of arable land and huge surplus labor force China should have been the prime candidate. But China was excluded. One could assume that Moscow is not happy with a Chinese presence due to an apparent dislike of Asians, or actually of any non-Europeans.

Russians are hardly alone in such Asian-phobia feelings; they are, indeed, quite widespread in Europe. Nevertheless, racism alone could hardly explain Moscow’s decision. And those who might replace the Chinese on this agricultural project, at least according to the plans, are also Asians: South Koreans, Singaporeans, etc. Moscow has a continuous predisposition towards Japan, and some Russian politicians imply that Russia could even cede the Kuril Islands, which Tokyo regards as a part of Japan, if it would lead to a massive investment in the far east and Siberia. The problem, thus, is not with the Chinese as Asians but with China as state.

Moscow clearly sees in China its own past – a totalitarian/semi-totalitarian society that used huge state controlled funds and control over the political/social process to enhance its economic/geopolitical interests in the long run. This is what makes Moscow apprehensive and why it prefers either capitalist market countries, such as South Korea or those authoritarian/corporate societies such as Vietnam. These countries are seen as too small to change the demographic and economic structure of the far east in a way potentially dangerous for Moscow’s control over the area.

Still, the major threat for Moscow could come not from ethnic migrants, but from ethnic Russians in the area. Moscow is aware of the alienation of local populations from Moscow and the economic degradation of the region. This led it to put forward a new proposal that should parallel the above-discussed plan to lease a considerable area of arable land in the far east to Asian migrants.

The new plan implies the creation of a government trust that would invest in the far east’s economy and provide some money for those who would move to the region. Still, judging by the response to the program on the Internet, Russians, both those who live in the far east and on the Russian mainland, are highly doubtful that the plan would work.

The previous reason people moved to the far east was because the government provided direct investments in building factories, roads and cities. Nothing of this is in the project; in addition, the fact that the funds would be managed by Moscow implies that most of it would be stolen as in the past.

Furthermore, the money promised to those who would move to the far east is miniscule. The point is that those who engaged in the discussion – and they clearly represent a view of quite a few ethnic Russians in the far east – assume that Moscow will not help. And the best way for far easterners to solve their problem would be to distance themselves from Moscow as much as possible, for Moscow regards the far east as just a colonial appendix.

This latent or not so latent separatist feeling had percolated to local law enforcement who are not anxious to deal with locals in case of problems. Indeed, when a few years ago a disturbance erupted in Vladivostok due to problems created by Moscow, which had tried to limit the export of Japanese cars, the Kremlin was compelled to send riot police from the Russian heartland because local law enforcement was not anxious to tackle the problem with the needed severity.

It is clear that in the case of a major economic or political crisis – and there are indications that Russia might, indeed, be entering an era of instability, together with a good part of the world – Moscow’s power over the far east could be loosened and the locals could take advantage of this movement to seek semi-independence/independence.

This plan for a new geopolitical marriage would definitely include Japan as a possible option; as a matter of fact, during the demonstration in Vladivostok a few years ago some of the demonstrators carried posters saying “Give Vladivostok to Japan.”

Still, in the case of China’s continuous economic rise and especially if it were to be perceived as a natural economic/geopolitical center of Asia or even the world, China could well emerge as the natural center of gravitation. The emergence of a new geopolitical order could happen very quickly as the result of a serious economic crisis.

Started in the West, it could easily spread to Russia and shake the unstable construction of Russian statehood, leading to its disintegration, and where China and possibly other nearby nations would vie for predominance in the far east. And China could well emerge as a prime candidate, and her dominion in the far east would not depend on military pressure or even demographic expansion. It would be related to a deep alienation of the majority of ethnic Russians, especially those in the far east, which no Kremlin schemes could eliminate. And for most of the residents of the area, all of these nations might well look like a more preferable overlord than Moscow.


Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter – The Life of Themistocles, 2005.


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