As an avid follower and enthusiast of modern trends in Sino-Russian relations (and media coverage thereof), I saw this “jewel” of an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this week, titled “Why China will Reclaim Siberia“. This type of Sinophobic fear-mongering is nothing new in the western media. With amusement, I read through it with the slight hope of finding some new, compelling arguments other than the same old rhetoric of “there are so many Chinese and so few Russians”. Unsurprisingly, there were none. I have written on this subject previously, and demonstrated why the so-called “invasion by mass migration” from China into the Russian Far East is a myth. Ethnic Chinese consists of 3% of the Russian Far East regional population, and most of that 3% are seasonal migrants with no intention of long-term settlement. Another noteworthy nuance is that these ethnic Chinese are concentrated largely in Russian urban centers where they have no chance of attaining a numerical majority. Reality aside, I understand that in the realm of propaganda and misinformation, facts and data-driven logic are optional conveniences.
Nevertheless, I will pose another question that few, if anyone, has asked in the discourse over this topic – is it actually in China’s strategic interests to seize sovereign control of the Russian Far East (RFE) or any part of Siberia? It seems like few, if anyone, has done any basic, high-level cost-benefit analysis from a Chinese strategic perspective. When we put forth even a casual effort to weigh the costs and benefits, the answer becomes quickly apparent – NO, it’s not. As usual, for those who do not want to read too much, the bolded text provides an adequate summary.
Any attempt by the PRC to takeover Russian territory in the RFE and/or Siberia would be a huge strategic mistake for China. There are three main reasons for this.
1. China reaps EXPONENTIALLY MORE benefits from a stable, progressive relationship with Russia than a hostile takeover of Siberia. The primary motive attributed to a Chinese takeover scenario is access to Russia’s vast natural resources. However, China already has access to Russia’s natural resources without having to resort to risky land seizure schemes. Such access will only expand as Russia urgently diversifies its economy as part of its own “Asian Pivot”, in the face of western sanctions and enduring US hostility. Additionally, Russia has far more to offer China than just natural resources. It is a middle-income emerging market of about 145 million consumers, a partner in all multilateral institutions, a balancing force to an otherwise unfettered US hegemon, as well as a source of nuclear energy and military technology. But perhaps most important of all in the coming decade, Russia is a critical land bridge in China’s efforts to build the New Silk Road. All these strategic benefits will be jeopardized if an attempted hostile takeover of the RFE provoked Russia into closing its doors to China, and returning to a hostile stance reminiscent of the 60s.
2. A hostile Russia – even if weakened – will pose a strategic, existential threat to the PRC. Any Chinese attempt at taking over Russian territory would squander the comprehensive partnership and goodwill built up with Russia since the funeral diplomacy days of the early 80s, and cause an anti-Chinese backlash. Russia has a range of retaliatory options at its disposal. The most obvious of which would be material and political support for separatist movements in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. Moscow can also exercise its persisting regional political influence to sabotage Chinese economic ties with Central Asia, and rollback Chinese advances in the Silk Road project. If by some miracle China actually succeeds in taking over parts of the RFE, it would have 4-6 million angry local ethnic Russians to deal with, among whom Russia would surely instigate political defiance and armed rebellion against PRC occupation. Even if Russia does not want to take retaliatory measures out of nationalistic hostility, it would be forced to do so out of strategic necessity, simply to distract China from further incursion, and ensure its own national survival. Such threats would be exacerbated if a future US-Russian detente enabled the two powers to collaborate in these efforts.
3. There is no feasible, realistic option to implement a Chinese takeover, which has any reasonable prospect of success. We can segment these options into four broad categories:
– Military action is a non-starter. A military takeover of the RFE/Siberia would require a full-scale invasion against the world’s largest nuclear weapons state. Obviously, no amount of Russian land or natural resources could offset the devastation China would incur when such a war escalates to nuclear proportions.
– Political subversion instruments are non-existent. Unlike the US and Europe, China does not have a well-trained and experienced network of “NGOs”, “activists”, and other political operatives, with which to subvert Russia’s government and engineer regime change. Even if that were a possibility, what is the likelihood that these regime change agents would be such brainwashed 5th columnist sinophiles, that they would openly surrender RFE sovereignty to China over the Russian people’s objections?
– Demographic “invasion” simply isn’t happening. As mentioned in my previous blog, ethnic Chinese make up about 3% of the RFE population. By that estimate, there are more ethnic Chinese in New York than there are in the entire RFE.
– Economic “hegemony” is impossible in the face of competition. The latest commonly touted argument against Sino-Russian trade expansion is that this would reduce Russia to a resource appendage of China. Such an argument conveniently ignores the fact that Russia – until recently – has been a near-exclusive resource appendage to the EU, who remains Russia’s top trading partner despite rapid Sino-Russian trade growth. Neither the EU nor the major East Asian economies would simply acquiesce to Chinese economic hegemony in Russia.
In short, a pragmatic and well-informed Chinese leader would see that it is NOT in the PRC’s strategic interests to takeover the Russian Far East or Siberia. Any such attempt would severely deteriorate China’s strategic environment and has a near-zero probability of success.