China is Overstepping the Boundaries of Russia’s Geopolitical Interest: the Far-East, Central-Asia and Arctic Regions
The priority of Russian foreign policy has been oriented toward the Western direction, bordering Europe although Asian parts from a geographical point of view more occupy the territories of the Russian Federation. To concentrate on the Western direction, it is necessary to stabilize her South-Eastern borders. As Dmitrii Trenin argues, Russia’s East-southern tier has become its most vulnerable region. Along its border, Russia confronts weak states and unconsolidated Societies that are generally at far less advanced stages of modernization (Trenin 2002). In this context, China, the gigantic-centralized power in the East, has played as the potential risk which could destabilize the Russian Eastern borders. The border between Russian and China, 4,259 km long, has traditionally been among the most important strategic frontiers in the world. In accordance with this geographical factor, Russia has tried to normalize the relationship with China in order to minimize the risk from the East and concentrate her attention toward the Western direction.
Historically, the border between the two countries has existed for more than 300 years. The Treaty of Nerchinsk signed in 1689 established a boundary between the Russian and Chinese empires along the Argun and Shilka rivers and the Stanovoi mountain range. Russian historians regarded that Russia could minimize the potential risk from East and concentrated her policy toward Europe and Near-East regions thanks to the treaty of Nerchinsk with China (e.g. Plokhikh & Kovaleva 2002).
In the Soviet periods, the old territorial disputes between China and the USSR which led in 1969 and 1973 to armed incidents on the current Kazakh border have been settled. In 1996, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan signed a border treaty with China, confirming the existing borderline — with relatively minor adjustments — and agreed on a set of confidence-building measures and military force reductions in the border area (Trenin 2002).
Since the confrontation with the West after the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Russia seeks to cooperate with China for avoiding the diplomatic isolations performed by the West. It seems that the present confrontation between Russia and West makes Moscow-Beijing’s alliance improved and by cooperating with China Russia is allowed to concentrate her attention to confront the West ostensibly.
Along with the diplomatic pressure from West, Russia, however, is facing the geopolitical challenge from her Eastern neighbor which gradually encroaches the vital interest of Russia in her grand Eurasian strategy. Even though geopolitical tension between Sino-Russian relationships keeps intensified, this issue still doesn’t appear on the surface. In this article, the author outline three regional cases in which the Chinese geopolitical challenge toward Russia stems from Far-East, Central-Asian, and the Arctic.
Chinese Expansion Toward the Far-East
Although Moscow now stands against the West under the Sino-Russian entente, Russia also has been uncomfortable with Eastern neighbor, overstepping the backyard step by step. Russia has apprehended the underdevelopment of her Eastern-Periphery where shares border with the over-populated and devouring neighbor.
The border issue between Moscow and Beijing during their ten-year alliance in the 1950s came to a head as a consequence of their split. Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders publicly denounced the 1858 and 1860 treaties as “unequal,” and referred to about 1.5 million square kilometers of Soviet territory as “annexed Chinese land.” (Trenin 2002). In 1956, the relations between the two countries steadily worsened for various internal and external reasons, including the lack of understanding between Mao and Khrushchev. The Chinese greatly reinforced the militarization of their border areas, which gave rise to the mythic ideal of the ‘frontier disloyalty’ of the Russian refugee settlers in China (Peshkov 2018). In 1964, Beijing asked Moscow to consider some 20 relatively small territorial adjustments. It was over one of the small and insignificant border islands on the Ussuri in which Chinese and Soviet forces clashed in March 1969, raising the prospect of a war between the two major powers on the Asian continent.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation in the Far-Eastern region, sharing the border with China, worsened for Russia. According to Russian scholar German Dudchenko, since 1990 years Chinese inhabiting population number has made demographic pressure on Russian inhabitant in Far-Eastern region. When it comes to the comparing of number inhabitant in this region, Russian dwells only 7.4 million, Chinese in border region stays 102,4 million. In this context, Dudchenko also stresses out that this demographic unbalance in the Far-Eastern region causes the complex crisis of ecology, regional economy, and provisional sovereignty for Russia (e.g. Dudchenko 2012). Developing China actively tried to bring Russia’s Siberian and Far Eastern regions into its orbit. Russian society was not ready for such a sharp overturning of roles. (Peshkov 2018) The penetration of China toward the Far-East is slowly but steadily growing with their vastly larger financial resources and the local Russians are becoming increasingly defensive. China’s economic and demographic expansion is feared by both the local authorities and national border guard services. There are suspicions that the penetration into Russia is part of Beijing’s grand design to alter the ethnic situation in the Russian Far East and turn it into an appendage of China, or even annex it all together (Trenin 2002).
Overall, it was the consequence that Russia neglected local economic prosperity. Along with the financial crisis and fall of currency after the Ukraine crisis 2014, the reduction of Russian state subsidies, and the general lack of certainty about Eastern Siberia have turned out to be more dangerous for the Far-East and Siberian regions themselves. The result was a sharp economic imbalance, in which the vast majority of goods, especially consumption items, came from China, and the purchasers came from Russia. In general, the Russian economic structure in Far-East overly depends on China. The fate of the city in this region is directly related to the integration of Chinese future-oriented economic perspectives which now require a readjustment downwards with the low purchasing power of a Siberian periphery (Peshkov 2018). The underdeveloped state allows to Chinse influx to penetrate toward Far-Eastern Russia.
In this background, the Chinese diaspora is replacing the local-rooted business groups with their network. Each subject such as tourists coming to buy fur coats, Dagestanis running an underground casino in Chita, the hospital administrator from Ulan-Ude purchasing goods for the shop in his home village, shuttle-traders from nearby hamlets, artists from Donetsk, and former prisoners and former soldiers from Trans-Baikalia – all of these individuals and groups suddenly become some social whole that is threatened by Chinese aggression ( Peshkov 2018).
Recognizing the penetration of China, Russia has closed numerous border-crossing points along its borders with Mongolia and China since 2010. Strict controls were placed on Chinese migration into Russia, with the panoply of visa and work quota requirements, and after 2007 ‘foreign’ citizens (affecting mainly the Chinese) right to trade in Russian marketplaces. (Peshkov 2018)
It is clear to say that the Chinese strengthening position in Far-East plays as the cornerstone of the mega project “One Belt and One Road (OBOR)” which is gradually penetrating toward Central-Asian regions, which has also regarded as the vital important regions for the Russian security question.
Chines Influence in Central-Asia
When it comes to Chinese Central-Asian policy, the main question in the area is the stability of Xinjiang, where Muslim Turkic-speaking Uighur separatists have been active. The multiethnic region, home to the Uighurs but also to 55 other recognized ethnicities including all the major Central Asian groups, remains China’s largest administrative division with an unsettled history.
Historically, Xinjiang has been Achilles’ heel in China. The territory rebelled from the Republic of China and bounced between regional powers; the short-lived independent Islamic state known as the East Turkestan Republic was mostly absorbed by China in 1934, while the northern area became a de facto Soviet satellite from 1945–1949 as the Second East Turkestan Republic, before it too was brought under Chinese Communist control. In 1998, Chinese authorities initiated the “strike hard” campaign, which sought to clamp down decisively on the activities of Uighur movements and their supporters. According to the Chinese government’s figures, over the 1990s “East Turkestan Terrorist Forces”—which include the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the East Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO), and the Uighur Liberation Organization (ULO), among others—instigated over 200 “bombings and assassinations” that killed 164 people and wounded 440 people. (Cooley 2012)
Considering Uighur’s question, the Chinese domestic security imperative of combating the “three evils”—terrorism, separatism, and extremism—would be directly transplanted into the founding language of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Charter as its guiding principle of security cooperation. Along with the strengthening security institute, Beijing’s so-called Great Western Development Project (2000), or the “Go West” campaign, was designed to promote the impoverished province’s modernization, industrialization, and economic development in a bid to reduce socio-economic disparities between West and East. China’s engagement with Central Asia was primarily driven by an internal concern: securing its territorial integrity and stabilizing its Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. There are about 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs, 180,000 ethnic Kyrgyz, 50,000 ethnic Tajiks, and 10,000 ethnic Uzbeks living in Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia. Beijing demands cooperation from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan where the Uighur activists once tried to establish themselves. (Cooley 2012)
The armies of China and Central Asian countries cooperate by sharing experience, and through the training offered by the region’s militaries: from 2003 to 2009, sixty-five Kazakh officers, and thirty Tajik and thirty Kyrgyz military specialists underwent training at Chinese academies. The first Chinese military base appeared not so long ago, in the Murg-hob district of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, not far from the Afghan and Chinese borders.
Especially, Chinese military assistance is most active in Tajikistan. In 2016, Beijing promised to build eleven border posts and one training center for border guards along the Afghan border. That same year, China gave Dushanbe a grant of $19 million to build officers’ clubs. Officially, it is a border guard station for Tajik troops built using Chinese funds. The Tajik and Chinese governments signed an agreement back in 2016 to build seven border posts and training centers along the Tajik-Afghan border. The Chinese allocated grants for that purpose and built three garrison headquarters, five border guard stations and posts, and one training center.
In 2019, China launched a new format of military exercises dubbed “Cooperation 2019” with Central-Asian partners. This format was used in May with Uzbekistan’s National Guard in that country’s Jizzakh region, and in August with Kyrgyzstan’s National Guard in the Chinese city of Ürümqi in Xinjiang.
Through the SCO organization, founded in 2001 and headquartered in Beijing, China strengthens his influence toward Central-Asia under the slogan of anti-Terrorism and China has implemented many of these policies, thereby lending a multilateral face to these regional initiatives. It has upgraded the surrounding region’s infrastructure to promote the regional economic development that it views as key to ensuring future political stability. By stabilizing regional security issues, Beijing also has secured access to important sources of oil and gas in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and has rapidly completed the construction of new regional pipelines to transport this energy supply eastward (Cooley 2012: 6). Beijing has tailored its engagement to each of the Central Asian countries. Thus, in Kyrgyzstan, the only fellow WTO member in Central Asia, China has established a major trade and re-export hub to the rest of the region, while in Tajikistan, Beijing has focused on upgrading electricity transmission and distribution and improving direct road links. In Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, the region’s most important hydrocarbon producers, China has carefully and deliberately cultivated partnerships and has built major new pipelines that will provide oil and gas to the Chinese market for many decades.
During the last three decades for which an independent Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have existed, China has become a key partner for each of those countries. The region’s future development is now impossible to imagine without cooperation with Beijing.
China’s total trade volume in 2008 with Central Asia passed Russia’s factoring in the border shuttle trade; this number is probably significantly higher. Beijing is also offering aid and investment packages to all of the Central Asian states and seems intent to open a host of new regional road and railway transit corridors that bypass Russia altogether (Cooley 2012: 74). In 2009, China even became Turkmenistan’s leading source of imports, vaulting ahead of Russia and Turkey, while China recently has become the leading foreign investor in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. China has strengthened its economic role.
In comparing with Chinese activity in Central-Asia, Russia comparatively seems passive and seeks to remain ‘’status-quo’’. Russia also pursues to keep her influence on Central-Asia regions by activating regional organizations, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and EurAsEC/Customs Union. Some analysts interpret Moscow’s plans for the Eurasian Union as an attempt to balance against this accelerating Chinese regional activity. Although these organizations were modeled to promote Russian leadership in Eurasia, Moscow has proven less successful when it has sought to monopolize relations with the Central Asian states, while it has struggled to disentangle itself from intraregional rivalries and has proven incapable of checking the regional rise of China (Cooley 2012: 52).
Russia’s quest for primacy in Central Asia now faces its most significant geopolitical challenge since its independence. However, this competition comes not from the West, with which Russia has been so preoccupied, but from the East. For much of the decade, Russia has pursued a strategic partnership with China in what has aptly been described as an “axis of convenience.” Despite much alarm over the new potential Russia-China strategic partnership, Beijing has gone about achieving its strategic goals in Central Asia with remarkable focus. The higher global profile and prestige of the SCO as a regional security organization clearly frustrate Russian policymakers, who argue that the CSTO is more advanced in its institutional functions and operational capacity than the Beijing-based organization. Considering this situation, relations between the Russian-led CSTO and the Chinese-led SCO remain uncertain and potentially competitive (Cooley 2012: 70).
Chinese analysts thought that “when China announced the OBOR project, Russian officials saw it as a challenge to Russia’s regional integration project — the Eurasian Economic Union”. Russia’s weaker economy has provided an opportunity for China to establish stronger links with Moscow and increased the prospect of Russian accommodation of China’s economic interests in the region (Hong 2016). Alexander Gabuev, a senior researcher at the Moscow Carnegie Center, says that “the agreement was the result of ‘a painful internal discussion’ on the Russian side,”69 indicating that Russia would allow China to have economic domination in Central Asia, while it retains its military and security position there (Hong 2016).
By acquiescing to China’s rise in Central Asia in its attempt to balance against Western influence, Russia has sanctioned China’s newly elevated regional role and now even risks becoming Beijing’s “junior partner. But rhetorical flourishes aside, in practice Beijing rarely has made any compromises to its security or economic agenda to curry favor with Moscow (Cooley 2012: 71).
Chinese March Toward the Arctic
There are the five Arctic Ocean coastal states: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United State which have direct access to the Arctic Ocean and have exclusive economic zones there. They have the right to develop natural resources and must protect their indigenous populations. Among them, Russia possesses the longest Arctic coastline. Understanding the geopolitical interest in the future, Moscow defends the hierarchy of states’ national interests in the Arctic.
From a geopolitical perspective, Russia is a northern country whose territory occupies almost the entire north of the Eurasian continent except for Scandinavia. Russia’s main goal now is to reclaim the mantle of the leading Arctic power. In 2008, the country’s government adopted a document titled “The Foundations of Russia’s Strategy in the Arctic, and in 2013, the “Strategy for the Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation Through 2020” was approved. Developing the Arctic zone is a personal priority for President Vladimir Putin. Russia’s Security Council oversees the strategy, while the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East is in charge of implementing the megaproject.
However, Moscow is also facing the geopolitical challenger from the East, which is marching toward the vital interest of Russia. China also pursues his influence on the Arctic region under the slogan of “One Belt One Road initiative.” It’s so-called “Marine Silk Road” project include northward and connect with Russia’s North’ sea Road, strengthening port and other infrastructure (Guo, Lu, Andreevich & Zielin 2019). Geographically and historically, China views itself as a near-Arctic nation and as a “major stakeholder.” Chinese experts show maps of an expansive fifteenth-century empire that nearly touches the Arctic as proof of China’s rightful place as that stakeholder. In more recent times, China views 1925 as the official date of its Arctic origins when it became a signatory to the 1920 Spitsbergen or Svalbard Treaty. As a signatory, China can legally pursue scientific research in the Arctic having placed its first Arctic research station, Yellow River Station, on Svalbard in 2004. China is keen to ensure that Arctic issues are not simply decided by the five Arctic coastal states or the eight nations and indigenous participants of the Arctic Council. (Conley 2012: 3)
When Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 put forward the “One Belt and One Road initiative”, which was originally focused on its neighboring countries in Eurasia, One of the projects associated with the initiative is the Ice Silk Road to Europe, which China aims to establish via the Arctic waters. Under “OBOR initiative”, the avenues for this expansion is China’s creeping conquest of the Arctic: gaining access to the region’s natural resources, creating transportation and communication infrastructure there, and developing and taking control of the Northern Sea Route – also known as the Northeast Passage –along the Siberian coast, linking East Asia to Europe.
In this context, Beijing insists that navigation along the Northern Sea Route shouldn’t be regulated by national (i.e., Russian) laws. It’s not only the principle per se that is important to China. Beijing takes into consideration that maritime routes that connect China with Europe and the Middle East pass through the narrow Malacca and Hormuz straits, whose control has been disputed by regional powers.
China unequivocally states its commitment to upholding the Arctic governance system based on existing international law. This point returns once again to the legal justification for China’s engagement in the Arctic, based on the Svalbard Treaty and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to “explore, understand and utilize” the Arctic, which is the sought-after “win” for Beijing. Recognizing that its presence is viewed by some as unwelcome, China will build partnerships to reinforce its commitment to existing international law. International law and issues of governance, particularly through the International Maritime Organization, is viewed by China as a two-way street. China will actively promote and complement the current Arctic governance regime for the greater common interest (Conley 2012: 3-4).
China seeks to pursue an economic development strategy that requires that the Arctic be open to Chinese development and that China is given equal standing to other Arctic nations. China constructed its scientific research station, the Yellow River Station based on Svalbard, in 2004. In 2008, the five coastal states reaffirmed, through the Ilulissat Declaration, that the international law of the sea and the sovereign rights of the coastal states were sufficient to govern the Arctic. In 2013, the Arctic Council welcomed several new permanent observing nations and organizations, dominated by countries from the Indo-Pacific region, including China after which Chinese firms began to invest in infrastructure projects in Russia, and across northern Europe (Conley 2012: 5).
China has much greater economic, financial, and technological resources than Russia, and the gap is growing. China’s economic dynamics also look stronger. While China is charging ahead, Russia is merely trying to protect its positions: its sovereignty, territorial integrity, national control over navigation, and the precedence of international law (i.e., interstate bargaining) over any kind of universal rules-based order. Russia is, in a word, a status quo power, while China is seeking to open up the region for the world and capitalize on that.
Furthermore, China actively cooperates with other Arctic states for activating his geopolitical strategy in Northern territory. China’s economic footprint has expanded to northern Europe, most notably Finland. In February 2016, Sunshine Kaidi New Energy Group, a leading renewable energy company in China, agreed to invest $1.13 billion in a wood-based biodiesel plant in Finland. This is part of China’s ambition to diversify its energy portfolio to include biofuels. Most recently, there were reports that China is in talks with Finland about a 10,500km high-speed telecommunications cable connecting Europe and Asia across the Arctic Ocean (Conley 2012: 7).
Whereas Moscow tries to localize Arctic states, Beijing seeks to globalize this region. It might seem to the outside observer that by defending a liberal multilateral approach. For a mighty power with limited resources, however, this position serves the Chinese national interest.
This is where the main conflict between the Russian and Chinese strategies lies in the Arctic. The security section of the document talks of strengthening peace and stability, ensuring the security of maritime trade, and supporting the right of all states to use the Arctic. In keeping with its basic position, the Chinese strategy offers an inclusive system of managing the Arctic. Naturally, considering China’s significance, such a system presupposes that the country will play a leading role in it.
For its part, Russia is predictably unhappy with Chinese aspirations to manage the Arctic. Moscow firmly intends to preserve the special privileges bestowed on the five Arctic Ocean coastal states. The Kremlin doesn’t trust the statements on environmental protection and caring for indigenous peoples included in China’s Arctic strategy. Marlene Laurulle underlines that Russia suspiciously regards the Chinese march toward the Arctic. It is clear to say that the more Chinese dominance fortifies in the Arctic, the more Russia’s exclusive right to exploit in Northern territory is limited (Laruelle 2020).
Currently, Russia focuses on the geopolitical competition against the West such as Ukraine Crisis and the civil war in Syria, which caused Russia to be isolated in the global arena. In this context, Russia pursued a partnership with China to counteract the diplomatic isolation and sanction performed by the West.
However, China is gradually overstepping the boundary of Russian vital interest while Moscow concentrates on the geopolitical competition against the West. Under the slogan of One Belt One Road project, China is ambitiously penetrating the traditional backyard of Russia; Far-East, Central-Asia and Arctic, which Russia will never yield up for her security and geopolitical interest.
Considering the relationship between Moscow and Beijing on the dominance of Eurasia, Russia still remembers the bitter experience on China which stabbed the Soviet regimes in the back at the time of the Afghanistan War 1979-1989, standing in the side of the West and supporting Islamic Mujahidin fighters against Soviet troops.
A leading Moscow academic calls China “the most formidable geopolitical rival it has ever had on the Eurasian continent since the Tartar-Mongol invasion.” To the Russian scholars, the territorial issue forms “the core” of Russia’s China problem (e.g.Bogaturov 1999).
It reminds us of the quote as Lord Palmerston said, “There are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests in the international affair.” The collapse of the Soviet Union gave also Russia unforgettable historical lessons on the relationship with China. For Moscow, it is unavoidable to face the Chinese challenge for stabilizing and keeping Russia’s Eurasian strategy.
In this context, the author argues that the question of handling the geopolitical challenge from China will be the decisive factor for Russia’s Eurasian strategy in the future along with the traditional competition against the West. Therefore, Russia in the future has no choice but to decide the priority of her concentration whether “West or East”.
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