Vladivostok lies roughly 4,000 miles and seven hours ahead of Moscow – about the same distance and time difference between New York and Berlin. But while much of Moscow’s focus is on Europe and the United States – and on maintaining strong central control over Russia’s vast territory – the economic and strategic futures of Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East are increasingly Asia-centric.
The Russian Navy’s decision to station the two Mistral-class helicopter carriers it recently ordered with the Pacific Fleet, likely in late 2013, sends a powerful signal that decision makers in Moscow want to reaffirm the strategic importance of the region. And there’s one country that looms largest over the area, in demographic, economic and strategic terms – China.
Russian media sources say that in the past year, Chinese investors have invested $3 billion in the Russian Far East – about three times as much as the Russian Federal Government spent over the same period. Of course, spending isn’t the only gauge of how a region fits into a country more broadly. However, increasing economic and business ties between China and Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East will be powerful levers of influence, particularly as China’s economic power continues to rise.
Why does this relationship, and this region, matter so much? There are several reasons, both local and global. For a start, if Russia feels like it is backstopped by a friendly but resource-hungry China, it’s likely to be a tougher to deal with on economic and security issues because the Kremlin will feel it has more leverage. Correspondingly, colder Sino-Russian ties could steer Moscow toward a more Atlanticist course and favour relations with Europe and the United States.
Another point is that Moscow’s feelings toward Beijing will shape the Kremlin’s willingness to share military technologies with an increasingly modern Chinese defence industry. And, as Russian power wanes while China’s influence rises, there’s a genuine risk that nationalist political factions in Russia could react adversely to Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East being drawn more closely into China’s orbit.
Economic forces are currently driving regional ties, but larger scale Chinese immigration into Eastern Russia could revive Russian fears of a Chinese demographic conquest in the region. This issue is particularly sensitive as a sizeable portion of the lands north of the Amur River and the lands east of Jilin and Heilongjiang, which are now part of Russia, were considered Chinese territory for more than 150 years under the terms of the Treaty of Nerchinsk.
Still, in purely economic terms, ties are close. Trade between China and Russia doubled in 2010 to $60 billion, according to The Economic Times. As such, China-Russia trade has recovered basically back to levels prior to the global financial crisis, and could hit $70 billion in 2011. This would make Russia one of China’s 10 largest trading partners, with a significant amount of the value on the Russian side coming from Siberia and the Russian Far East.