Raising claims

China’s forward policy along the Sino-Russian border

Over the past several years, one of the most defining trends at the Sino-Russian border, and possibly a defining trend in Sino-Russian relations is the prospect of China taking a de-facto control of Russia’s Far East. Russian officials, nationals and experts have openly mulled over the possibility that based on recent developments, China is engaging in a forward policy act in Russia’s Far East.

China and Russia enjoy mutual cooperation in the spheres of defence, technology, energy and bilateral trade. They maintain a business-like relationship. With such a beneficial business and political relationship, analysts have long mulled over the consequences for the Russian Far East in the wake of increasing Chinese inflow.

Some have suggested that Chinese control over these areas is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’ issue; others argue that the idea of Chinese expansionism is exaggerated for this is the natural consequence of increased Sino-Russian economic cooperation; some suggest that while this fits perfectly with China’s long term plans to dominate the region, it is not yet unsure of how to proceed with such policies toward Russia.

Apart from the vast wealth of natural resources and proven oil reserves bedded in Russia’s Far East which automatically makes the territory strategic, another possible goal for such activity is also to reclaim its territory that it feels Russia forcefully took away from it decades ago.

Border demarcation

Russia is worried because tomorrow, China could claim that this territory belongs to it, based on simple demographic facts and its lack of involvement in its own Far East. Russia’s demographic design is currently its biggest challenge and its failure to connect its Far East with its economic centers has added to the problem.

This could have intense consequences for their bilateral relations, which recently have become decently cordial. They have teamed up on major international decisions and also simultaneously increased economic cooperation, but a possible strife over the border demarcation and Chinese involvement could alter the balance of power between the two permanent members of the UNSC.

Even though Russia and China agreed on a border demarcation recently in 2008, which China has ratified to, China is still covertly harboring a futuristic forward policy which could come to effect in the next forty-fifty years.

Although China has ratified the treaty and accepted the demarcation line, it still feels that this treaty has been unfairly imposed on it. In a recent survey, it came out that most of the Chinese mistrust the Russians because of this. They feel that the treaty has been unfairly imposed on them. Therefore, while there is little they can legally do about it, because they have ratified to the treaty, they are covertly applying the forward policy.

Although for most of the lifetime of the Soviet Union the border with China was effectively closed. But when it reopened in 1988, the fear of a possible Chinese invasion resurfaced, based on demographical facts. Russians are significantly outnumbered by Chinese. Approximately six million people live in the entire Russian Far East (Eastern Siberia), while more than 90 million Chinese live in China’s Northern provinces, bordering Russia. Only a miniscule population of Russian lives in the Russian Far East. This seems an ideal place for China to relieve some of its population pressure.

According to a UN survey, Russia’s population could fall by a third over the next forty years. Also, there will be lesser and lesser Russians in the Far East, as they are increasingly moving to European Russia, where there is a warmer climate and better economic opportunities. The population decrease on the Russian side is in stark contrast from the Chinese side of the border.

An increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants (legal and illegal) are making their way across the border and Chinese presence can be felt all over Blagoveshchensk, Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, all Russian cities along the border and around the Usuri and Amur rivers.

China already has a significant economic presence in the region. The region is heavily dependent on Chinese imports of food supplies and consumer items. The vast distance between the Russian economic center and the Russian Far East has meant that the area frequently looks southwards towards China, rather than towards its own West, for economic opportunities. According to data, China is one of the three largest foreign trade partners of at least five of the nine administrative regions of Russia’s Far East Districts, gradually overtaking the EU.

New opportunity

All these indicate at the possibility that the Russian Far East is fast becoming economically dependent on China. Local Chinese people and not Russian authorities are managing the scenes. Chinese are cashing in on those jobs that the Russians don’t want to do and local authorities and businessmen don’t complain about dwindling Russian manpower when they can easily be replaces by Chinese workers, who are willing to work hard. These economic indicators are also accompanied by a tangible change in social trends.

China’s North East, on the other hand suffers from overpopulation and resource misallocation. The dismantling of state-owned enterprises in China has also resulted in widespread labor unrest.

Thus, the abundant possibilities in the Russian Far East could create new opportunities for land ownership for millions of unemployed Chinese rural laborers. Unlike Russia, China has a hardworking labor base and a strategic incentive to cash in to the vast opportunities in Russia’s Far East.

China’s economic growth in the long run can only maintain its steady pace through expansion. Thus, Russia’s Far East is a good option. In addition, Russia’s Far East has abundant untapped natural resources. The area contains nearly all of Russia’s diamonds, 70% of its gold deposits and substantial deposits of oil, natural gas, coal, timber, silver, platinum, tin, lead and zinc, as well as rich fishing grounds and vast expanses of unpopulated land.             

The Russian Far East has a poor manufacturing base, a crumbling physical infrastructure, high transportation costs that discourage local enterprise. In addition, the region is far away from Western Russia, where traditionally more economic opportunities have taken shape due to proximity with Europe.

Therefore, despite the richness of the region, Russia finds it difficult to invest time, manpower and money to exploit the superabundance of natural resources. Thus, Russians have chosen to leave, declining the population by ten percent at an average, every year.

On the other hand, thousands Chinese traders and seasonal workers continually move back and forth across the border, one of the longest in the world. The immigrants are also increasingly settling deeper into Russian territory. Russian Nationalists have now called this wave of laborers as the beginning of “the Chinese conquest” of Siberia.

A study conducted for the research of Chinese migration between 1998-2001 reflected that approximately 5, 00,000 Chinese crossed the Russian border and then returned home. By 2002, the number had increased by 55%. This number has been steady ever since. Such information clearly suggests that there is a full fledged pan for such a specific form of movement of people and goods and it is not a random migration.

In fact, Chinese authorities are stimulating this cross border flow themselves. Russia has the resources and markets China needs and China has the financial capital to infuse much-needed investments into the Russian economy.

The strategic importance of this area in Russia has infused perennial fears of a possible Chinese invasion into the Far East. Chinese immigration into Russia’s Far East has come with an array of problems.


Russian vendors periodically protest the encroachment by Chinese sellers in local markets and Russian authorities often treat visiting Chinese with heavy suspicion. In addition, there is also the issue of smuggling of raw materials into China. Forest products are illegally exported to the Chinese city of Manzhouli, just south-east of Chita, Russia, where there are plenty of wood processing factories.

The Chinese effectively avoid paying taxes and have managed to become de-facto controllers of these factories. They have also monopolized over companies that make traditionally popular Russian beverages like Kvass. Chinese entrepreneurs are running the best hotels and shopping centers in these towns, as more Chinese bring more investment into the region.

There are several possible consequences that could result from Far Eastern Russia falling in the hands of the Chinese. If such a forward policy by the Chinese continues, Russia’s Far East could well become predominantly inhabited by ethnic Chinese, resulting in a significant change in the nature of the entire region. Hence, this will make it hard for Russia, such a vastly spread country, to tame the varied dynamics of its eastern and western sides respectively.

If the Chinese step up the ante with aggression, then the Russians might be compelled to resort to military aggression, which cannot be ruled out in the long term. The Russian army’s numerical advantage would also fade in the face of Chinese armed forces, which are ten times larger. However, Russia’s army and nuclear capabilities are still a frightening force to reckon with.

The Russians have already sent some subtly signals to the Chinese in the wake of these developments.  In July 2010, Russian armed forces conducted Vostok 2010, a series of 10 day unprecedented military exercises, made up of strategic exercises that involved 20,000 troops, 70 warplanes and 30 warships from the Far Eastern military districts and the Pacific fleet. This exercise was also a warning to Chinese military, which was also present during the exercise.

President Vladimir Putin has for long been asserting that unless comprehensive measures were taken, the ‘’Russians in the border will have to speak Chinese’. Highlighting the lack of connection infrastructure in Russia’s Far East that prevents its integration with Russia’s West, he insisted local authorities to develop more concerted action plans to prevent an overarching Chinese presence.

Therefore, though the Sino-Russian relations are on an upward trajectory, China’s encroaching forward policy could upset their increasing strategic ties. If China doesn’t control the situation, this could push Russia, an otherwise strategic ally, away.