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Why Russia Still Matters in the Asian Century

John Lee

Toward the end of World War II, the godfather of geopolitics, Nicholas Spykman, offered his famous analysis that was to become a rule of thumb for many strategists ever since: Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia, and who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world. Spykman had a point. The two world wars of the 20th century came about largely due to attempts by European rivals to tilt the Eurasian balance of power in their own favor.

Russia was always a critical component in this balance, but now, due to the country’s aging population and infrastructure, the 21st century seems to be leaving Moscow behind. Still, even as economic and political power shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, aging and forgotten Russia will not disappear from the Eurasian equation. A game-changing great-power rivalry could be brewing—not between Russia and the West, but between Russia and China.

The common wisdom is that Russia is moving closer to China in order to counterbalance America and its European and Asian allies and partners. This has been helped along by Russia’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as by trade volumes between the two countries reaching $40 billion in 2009. Moscow and Beijing also signed a document in 2004 ending their 300-year, 2,700-mile border dispute, allowing China to focus its military resources on Taiwan and the South China Sea, and Russia to make up for lost influence in its near-west.

But while Russia is presently preoccupied with regaining its influence in parts of Eastern Europe, Moscow is also warily watching China’s unauthorized movements into Siberia and the Far East. Beijing is approximately six times closer to the Russian Far East port city of Vladivostok than is Moscow, which has very weak administrative control over its eastern territories. Already, an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Chinese nationals have illegally settled in these oil-, gas- and timber-rich areas. Beijing is also tempted by Siberia’s fresh-water supply, given that China already has severe shortages throughout the country.

Currently, the Russian Far East is inhabited by only 6 million people, while the three provinces in northeast China have around 110 million Chinese inhabitants. By 2020, over 100 million Chinese will live less than 60 miles to the south of these Russian territories, whose population will then number between 5 million and 10 million. As Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently admitted, if Russia does not secure its presence in the Far East, it could eventually “lose everything” to the Chinese.

Moscow signed two major agreements with Beijing in 2009 that allowed Chinese state-owned companies to build mining and pipeline infrastructure in undeveloped areas in east Siberia, which will eventually supply northeast China with oil and gas. But there were immediate concerns in Russia that the agreements will result in the overwhelming majority of workers being Chinese. Although Chinese workers will only be issued temporary work visas to develop these parts of east Siberia, the projects are long-term ones that will last at least one or two decades. It is unlikely that Chinese laborers will simply pack up and leave after spending such a long period of time working there. Moscow is well-aware of this possibility, but is in desperate need of capital and feels it has little choice if it is to develop its far-flung eastern territories.

A scenario of increased Chinese incursions into Russia’s Far East territories will not, in itself, trigger a major falling-out between Moscow and Beijing. But as the projected imbalance of military and economic power between Russia and China grows wider, Moscow is likely to see its Chinese neighbor as a greater threat and constraint on its ambitions than America and Western Europe. The reason, as Spkyman insisted, is due to the immutable factor of geography. China and Russia will increasingly see their competition for influence in Central Asia and Siberia as a zero-sum game.

So far, China has been relatively accommodating to Russian sensitivities in the Far East. But Moscow suspects this has been primarily due to Beijing’s desire to focus its military and strategic attention on Taiwan and the South China Sea. Moreover, China is currently Russia’s most lucrative arms market. But Moscow is well-aware that Beijing is currently reverse-engineering Russian designs of its most advanced weaponry, and that Chinese reliance on Russian military hardware and technology will diminish over time. The apparently warm military-to-military relationship between Moscow and Beijing is shallow, and relatively minor disputes between the two will fester rather than evaporate. Many in Moscow believe it is only a matter of time until China looks north again.

Furthermore, any genuine Russia-China strategic cooperation moving forward is limited by the fact that the two countries’ strategic planners have enormously different worldviews for the future. China sees the coming world order as a bipolar one defined by U.S.-China competition, with powers such as the EU countries, Japan, India and Russia relegated to the second tier. In contrast, although Russia remains wary of the U.S. and the EU using an expanded NATO to restrict its influence in Eastern Europe, it is determined to remain one of the handful of powers (including China) entrenched just below the American superpower in the global power hierarchy. Therefore, Moscow will seek to position itself as a “middle man” between the U.S. and China, and will become increasingly resentful if Beijing ignores these ambitions —possibly even moving closer to America as a result.

Even if Russia continues to decline, it will likely remain a great power for decades. The apparent friendship between Moscow and Beijing is pragmatic but superficial. In Chinese strategic circles, there is a nightmare future scenario: strategic cooperation between the U.S., Japan and Russia. China takes this possibility seriously. Washington, Tokyo, and Brussels should, too.

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