Russia-China relations

Russian nationalists often comment that the Chinese are expanding into Russian territory of Far East not with tanks or troops but with suitcases.

The Russian Far East territory, long disputed between the two powers, could cast a gloom about any bonhomie between Russia and China.     

Since Russia is not having a credible plan to control its own territory, the Chinese are ready with their money bags to insert their influence.

However, increased Chinese migration is marking a return of Chinese influence to these territories. And any territorial dispute could disrupt relations between Asia’s largest continental powers.

The Chinese migration into Far East is fast becoming a problem. It is impossible to know the exact level of Chinese migration into the Russian Far East because Russia has not run a census in over a decade. But by all indications, a significant river of people is surging across the border.

The Moscow Carnegie Center, the only organization to launch an independent study, claimed that there were about 250,000 Chinese in Russia in 1997. The Russian Interior Ministry has claimed that there are 2 million. Other estimates place the Chinese population at 5 million.

The Russian Far East also holds resources that are valuable to an ever-growing China. The region is rich in natural resources such as oil, gas and timber. It is easier to send these goods to Asia instead of shipping them 3,000 miles to Moscow.

The size of the Russian work force is shrinking as the country grows older. China’s young-and growing-population is more than able to fill the gap and exploit these resources.

Territory at stake

But there is no reason to believe that, over time, Moscow will simply let the region slip from its grasp. The territory at stake includes all of Russia’s access to the Pacific Ocean.

Vladivostok is Russia’s only warm-water Pacific port. Nikolayevsk, at the mouth of the Amur River, processes most of Siberia’s remaining exports. Both are well within former Chinese territory.

The local Russian population is increasingly nervous. The governor of Primoskiy Kray, Yevgenii Nazdratenko, last year called for relocating 5 million Russians from European Russia to the Far East.

Now, the authorities of Russia’s Far Eastern regions, sparsely populated but very rich in natural resources, have come up with an idea of free distribution of plots of land in a bid to draw migrants from other regions or, at least, to stem the exodus of the local population.

Foreign nationals have nothing to count on, though. Experts’ opinions of this initiative are plentiful and varied.

The idea of giving each resident of the Far East one hectare of land for free was proposed by the presidential representative in the Far Eastern Federal District, Yury Trutnev, to have met with approval from the head of state.

Trutnev said that in the Far East, 614 million hectares of land were state property.

“Under our plan, each resident of the Far East and each individual who would like to move to this region would be given one hectare of land free of charge. The land might be used for farming, for starting a private business, for timber production or as a hunting estate,” Trutnev said.

This land, he said, “would be provided for an initial period of five years, and, if used properly, made the owner’s full-fledged property.” On the contrary, if the land remains abandoned, it will be taken back.

Putin said that “as such the idea is correct and in Russia’s history it was already implemented once, in Siberia.” At the same time, he said the conditions related with the need for using that land must be formulated and the mechanism devised in detail.

Trutnev’s initiative enjoys enthusiastic support from local governors, in particular, Oleg Kozhemyako, the governor of the Amur Region, where 400,000 hectares of land have fallen into disuse.

And the governor of the Magadan Region, Vladimir Pechyony, has expressed the readiness to grant plots of land larger than one hectare to both local residents and potential migrants. “We will be able to give five hectares of land to each new-comer, provided there are people eager to have it,” he said.

As for foreign nationals, there is no chance for them to join the program. The plots of land that may begin to be distributed in the Far East on the disinterested basis cannot be sold to foreigners, an aide to the Economic Development Minister, Yelena Lashkina, has said.

At the moment, the Far East has a population of 6.3 million. Theoretically, there are nearly 100 hectares of land per each resident. However, a considerable part of that remote territory is inaccessible as there are no roads.

The implementation of the Trutnev plan will at least stem the exodus of the population from the Far East, and this is already good, many Russian feel.

However, a seemingly innocent announcement-the development of a large island in the scenic Far East with cooperation of the two neighboring countries Russia and China -brought reactions of disgust from Chinese netizens since last year.

In a sit-down meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District Yury Trutnev, said preparation would be made for the development of the Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island, in cooperation with China.

Trutnev stated that a financial incentive in the form of a free hectare of land would be given to any individual willing to move to the island, as well as to current residents.

Yet, China’s state-run newspaper, Cankao Xiaoxi, which is owned by Xinhua News Agency, reported on the development, saying that an international resort would be built on the island, and a visa program would also be implanted as part of the development plan.

What Xinhua did not report is that China should have had exclusive rights to the development of the island.

Russia returned half of the Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island, also known as Heixiazi Island, to China in 2008, after refusing to return the island to China in 1929 after signing of the Khabarovsk Treaty, at the conclusion of a conflict between Soviet Union and China.

The other half of the island, which is about 994,000 square miles in size, was conceded to Russia after former Chinese Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin signed “The Descriptive Agreement between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of the Russian Federation on the two sections, East and West, of the Sino-Russian border.”

The agreement permanently redefined the border between Russia and China, and China permanently lost vast territories that had originally belonged to it.

The territorial concession was the result of China wanting to flex its muscles on international affairs, as it was heavily dependent on crude oil, natural gas, and military hardware from Russia.

Another case in point is an island on the Ussuri River, approximately 150 miles south of Khabarovsk and 350 miles east of Harbin, known as Damansky Island in Russian and as Zhenbao Island in Chinese.

The Russian name honors a Russian railroad engineer Stanislav Damansky who died in the area in the late 1880s. The Chinese name translates as ‘rare treasure island’. But this tiny island is not much of a treasure from the economic point of view. Its territory is a mere 0.74 square kilometers (0.29 sq mi).

During periods of high water on the Ussuri River it is flooded entirely.

Historic tensions

Yet in March 1969 Damansky/Zhenbao island became the site of a bloodbath which left several hundred Soviet and Chinese military and border guards dead. And even today this speck of land, together with two bigger islands near Khabarovsk, remains the focal point of simmering Russian-Chinese tensions.

The casus belli for the 1969 conflict over Damansky Island was the controversial demarcation of the border. Since the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the accepted way to delineate a riverine border between countries has been along the middle of the waterway.

However, the Russian-Chinese border has been decided in the nineteenth century, leaving the problematic island in Russian possession. In the 1960s the Chinese government declared that those borders had been imposed on the Qing Dynasty of China by the much stronger Tsarist Russia, and as such amounted to an unfair annexation of the Chinese territory.

The Soviets countered that the 1919 international demarcation convention could not be applied to redraw the borders decided by an earlier treaty. Nonetheless, secret border talks were conducted in the early 1960s, and the Soviets agreed to transfer the island to China.

But before Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev-well-known for his temper and less than cordial personal relations with his Chinese counterpart-could approve the agreements, Mao Zedong provoked the Soviets by stating in a July 1964 meeting with a Japanese delegation that Tsarist Russia had stripped China of vast territories in Siberia and the Far East, on the order of 1 million square kilometers. As a result, the border talks collapsed, and the number of troops on both sides of the border increased dramatically.

Five years later, the simmering tensions erupted into outright warfare. In the early hours of March 2, 1969, Chinese troops ambushed Soviet border guards on the island. Fighting continued for the rest of the day involving similar weaponry on both sides, including machine guns, artillery, and armored personnel carriers.

The battle was decided when the Soviets brought in the new BM-21 multiple rocket launch vehicles, which inflicted heavy casualties on the Chinese forces.

Exactly how many Chinese were killed remains controversial, with estimates varying from 100 to 3,000. The official Soviet figure, based on an estimate from a KGB investigation, is 248 dead Chinese troops.

The Soviets casualties amounted to 58 dead, including an army colonel, and 94 wounded. According to forensic medical expertise, some of those Soviet troops who were wounded in battle were later tortured to death by Chinese troops.

A series of agreements regarding the border were struck during 1990s and 2000s, focused on questionable areas including not only the Damansky/Zhenbao, but also Tarabarov Island (Yinlong Island) and approximately half of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island (Heixiazi Island), both located near Khabarovsk.

An agreement reached in 2004 and finalized in 2008 officially resolved the matter by granting control over the two and a half islands to China.

However, while the Chinese have accepted this border demarcation, they continue to talk about “the lost territories, referring to the 1 million square kilometers of southern Siberia and the Far East, which they claim to have been unfairly annexed by Tsarist Russia.

Now, one can assume that the border demarcation issue is far from completely settled in Russia as well, as many Russians are resentful about the transfer of the islands to China.

The border disputes concerning Damansky/Zhenbao, Tarabarov/Yinlong, and Bolshoy Ussuriysky/Heixiazi islands further feed into fears of Chinese demographic, economic, military, and possibly even political expansion into Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Exactly how many Chinese currently live in Russia is not clear. The 2002 census counted only 34,500 ethnic Chinese residents.

But many Russian demographers suggest that a number between 200,000 and 500,000 is more appropriate. Some analysts also claim that many if not most of these ethnic Chinese live in European Russia rather than in Siberia.

The “empty territories” of Siberia and the Far East practically call for Chinese colonization. Even Putin had on occasion expressed a worry that if no practical steps are taken to develop the region, in a few decades, even the “Russian population” of the region would speak Chinese, Japanese, or Korean.

Russia has become the main supplier of crucial natural resources for the growing market in China, due to its geographical proximity to China and its status as one of the world’s largest exporters of oil, gas, and timber.

But despite this mutual economic dependence, frequent declarations of goodwill, and co-membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Chinese-Russian relations have been marred by mutual suspicions, pricing concerns, and inadequate transportation infrastructure.

Russian leaders have repeatedly expressed alarm over increased Chinese investment in and control of Russian energy ventures.