Russia and China fuel Asia’s other ‘Great Game’

The 19th century central Asian rivalry between the British and Russian Empires was known as the Great Game. But there's a new and little remarked upon Great Game emerging between Russia and China with potentially enormous consequences for the whole of Asia

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Michael Auslin
On 5 August 2015 06:26

Asia watchers have spent years divining the growing competition between the U.S. and China in East Asia, seen by some as a new version of the 19th century Great Game -- the Central Asian rivalry between the Russian and British empires.

Those predicting conflict feel justified by recent tensions in the South China Sea, while others argue confidently that the depth of economic relations between the two modern rivals will forestall any type of clash.

However, those interested in Asia’s long-term geopolitical trends should turn away from the sea and focus on the Siberian steppes. There, a still-growing and needy China is eyeing Russia’s riches covetously.

For years after World War II, it was Japan that flirted with investment projects in Siberia, in part as a political sop to Moscow as it sought to settle a territorial dispute over the Russian-controlled Kuril Islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories.

As Japan’s economy has stagnated and China’s has grown, Beijing has emerged as the most significant country interested in the Russian Far East. But for Moscow, beset with economic and social weakness, China’s interest carries as many potential dangers as it does benefits.

Despite what appears to be a close relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the two countries have for centuries watched each other warily. They have fought border wars on the vast steppes, including one in the 17th century that led to the first modern treaty negotiated by an Asian nation, the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk.

Driven by generations of Russian colonization of uncharted Siberia, the border region between the two was always fluid and changing, at least until the founding of Vladivostok (“Ruler of the East”) in 1860, when the modern demarcation lines were set. Yet the two countries had border disputes as recently as 1969.

Now the world’s second-largest economy, China is steadily expanding its influence in Siberia, awakening Russian fears of Chinese domination. A Moscow Times opinion piece by Alexander Gabuev, a scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center, details some of the recent events fueling Russian concern.

A proposed 49-year lease to a Chinese agricultural company of 115,000 hectares of land in the remote Zabaikalsky region bordering Inner Mongolia has prompted public concern that the deal will lead to, “China’s colonization and then annexation of Siberia, and for a major war.”

This follows on the heels of a $2 billion joint investment fund established between a Russian government development agency and the Chinese provincial government of Heilongjiang, in China’s far northeast.

These deals are being pushed by Putin, and on the face of it, such economic cooperation indicates that Russia and China are finding common ground. Certainly, from the perspective of an economically challenged Russia, any Chinese investment should be a good thing.

But public opinion often sees things differently, driven by nationalism and concerns that trump economic ties, such as those recently expressed by Yevgeny Savostyanov, former head of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, successor of the Soviet-era KGB intelligence service.

Russia’s government is thus running the risk of ignoring public passions that might one day boil over.

In part, ordinary Russians are nervous because they know their country is a declining power. Although Siberia is rich in energy resources, timber, water and minerals, the entire Russian population east of the Ural Mountains, traditionally the eastern boundary of Europe, is only 25 million.

Worse, just 7 million live in the most eastern part of Russia, while just across the border are more than 100 million Chinese suffering from a lack of clean water and an endless need for energy and other raw materials.

Even modern economic deals like the ones proposed raise fears that opening the door to China will lead to a flood of traders, merchants and investors that cannot be countered by native Russians. This is not an economic issue, but an ethnic one, driven by a sense of nationalism.

Even as Moscow seeks Chinese economic aid, it, too, fears the growth of China’s military strength.

The past half-decade has seen concerns that Russia’s long-term ability to defend Siberia is being hollowed out by depopulation and Chinese growth. In response to such unfavorable trends, Moscow in 2011 announced a $150 billion naval buildup that will shift the Russian navy’s attention to the Pacific, and will add further defensive weapons to the Kuril Islands.

Although the buildup is ostensibly aimed at Japan, the reality is that Moscow is worried about China’s growing ability to project naval power throughout Asia, and eventually into the Arctic.

Russia has found defending Siberia difficult at the best of times, but a China intent on expanding its control over its remote northeastern regions would be a particularly formidable opponent.

A Sino-Russian clash is highly unlikely anytime soon. However, those in Japan and the U.S. who fear a supposed entente between Moscow and Beijing should remember the fraught history between these two nations. Russia has been a declining power for more than two decades -- a period that has coincided with China’s emergence as a global giant.

The legacy of their empires and colonialism has left each feeling that it should play a major role in Asia, but only China can realistically become dominant. This leaves Russians resentful and suspicious of Chinese designs.

It is hard to see how other nations in Asia can reap any advantage from these long-standing Sino-Russian tensions. Certainly, neither Tokyo nor Washington should seek to worsen ties between Russia and China.

At best, their distrust of each other may offer a way to help balance China’s growing assertiveness, simply by including Russia in regional security dialogues.

Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has frozen any cooperation between Moscow and Washington, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is still seeking to hold a summit with Putin later this year. Should Russia’s behavior in Ukraine change, both the U.S. and Japan should consider more cooperative initiatives, including trade deals to wean Russia away from China, and perhaps joint security exercises.

But there is no assurance that stability in Asia will be sustained. Relations between Russia and China, even over economic ties that should benefit both, will be tense at the best of times. If China’s economy weakens, Beijing may seek more access to Siberia than Moscow is willing to give.

Alternately, a repulse of Putin’s designs in Ukraine could push him to show strength somewhere else, perhaps in Russia’s far eastern borderlands, where public opinion already fears China.

In either case, uncertainty over the future could morph into instability, fueled by historical distrust. Asia’s other Great Game is far from over.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues. Before joining AEI, Auslin was an associate professor of history at Yale University. His articles can be read here

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