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Aug 10, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

9 mins read

Competing Interests on the Mighty Amur River

Competing Interests on the Mighty Amur River
(China Photos/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • China's and Russia's intentions for the Amur River Basin will continue to be fundamentally at odds: Moscow wants to use it for transport and security, while Beijing wants to harness its power for energy and agriculture.
  • Russia may view China's growing involvement in the region and the arrival of Chinese migrant workers as security threats.
  • Agricultural development on the Russian side of the river could also increase tension between the two countries. 

Political borders define countries and set imperatives, constraints and strategies. These human-drawn boundaries are not always natural nor, necessarily, constant. River basins, especially those that cross national or ethnic boundaries, define the history of the regions they traverse and shape their future relationships. Jointly owned resources create the potential for cooperation or conflict, depending on whether the interests of either side converge or diverge. Water systems shared by neighboring countries, including the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Mekong and the Rio Grande, often foster a similar dynamic. Almost always, one nation holds the advantage, whether because of economic prowess or simply priority access to the water.

The Amur River, which delineates a portion of the China-Russia border as it flows from the desolate reaches of Mongolia into the Strait of Tartary, does not often make the same lists as other storied rivers, such as the Nile, the Danube or the Mississippi. But it has played a vital role in the dynamic between two vast nations. The Amur, one of the longest undammed rivers in the world, is navigable along much of its length and serves as a transport artery for agricultural products and raw materials from the immense Siberian territories of Russia.

As Moscow focuses east, maintaining its strategic detente with Beijing, there are opportunities for cooperation and trade between the nations, specifically in the areas of hydrocarbons and agriculture. But there is also the potential for conflict: The Chinese and Russian intentions for the river system fundamentally differ. Russia prizes the Amur for the security and transportation opportunities it provides, while China is more inclined to harness the river's power for energy and agriculture. Even though the two nations' relationship seems rosy, their history of conflict on the frontier suggests that the possibility of tensions flaring up again along the banks of the Amur is still very real.

Hydrology and History

The Amur River, which stretches more than 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles), is the 10th-longest river in the world. Its major tributaries, the Shilka and Amgun, are fed by smaller rivers emanating from Mongolia and Russia. Farther downstream, the Amur is joined by other notable tributaries: the Zeya from the north and the Songhua and Ussuri from the Chinese south. The Amur Basin is split relatively equally between Russia and China: 54 percent of the basin rests in Russia, and 44 percent lies in China. (Mongolia sits on the edge of the basin with 2 percent.)

Today, landlocked Mongolia, sandwiched between the two colossal global powers sharing the Amur Basin, is in no position to influence either the flow of the river or the economic and political decisions made within the basin. But the push westward by the great Mongol emperors in the 13th century inspired Russia's push east centuries later. Starting in the 16th century, Cossacks, convicts and peasants alike emigrated east in waves. By 1639, Russian settlements had reached the Sea of Okhotsk.

Much of this initial expansion centered on the rivers that flow north to the Arctic, the ones that define Siberian Russia, such as the Lena, the Ob and the Yenisei. The lucrative fur-trapping trade drew many to the region, and Russians overran many of Siberia's small native populations. Then, the Russians began to move south toward the Amur, encountering the Manchus and China's Qing dynasty (ruled by ethnic Manchus).

At first, the Russians did not realize the importance of the Amur and instead focused on establishing relations with potential trade partners to the south. In 1689, the signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk set the border between the countries, keeping the entirety of the main river in Manchu territory, while the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta set up a physical spot for Russian-Chinese trade. Back in Moscow, however, there was a cry for manifest destiny, a dream of Russia as a Pacific maritime power that eventually, through a search for raw materials and an outlet to the Pacific, led back to the Amur.

So as the beleaguered Qing dynasty's focus was directed south, Russia annexed the land north of the Amur in the first half of the 19th century, formalizing the new border with the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 and the Peking Convention of 1860. A new wave of Russian migration began. But even with the additional peasants and exiles trying to make their way in the new land, the Russian side of the border remained a sparsely populated frontier, difficult to control from the remote Muscovite core. Populations from China began crossing into Russia looking for work, and by 1900, roughly a quarter of the border town of Blagoveshchensk, at the confluence of the Amur and Zeya rivers, was estimated to be Chinese. Four years later, the Trans-Siberian Railroad was completed, linking eastern and western Russia.

On the Chinese side of the river, the remote tribes of the Amur Valley had enjoyed a fruitful relationship with China's Qing rulers, benefiting from trade and relative peace. The Boxer Rebellion weakened the dynasty, however, and after an invasion by Japan in the 1930s, China's northeastern corner, which was its original seat of industry, became the puppet state of Manchukuo. After World War II and China's Communist Revolution, the relationship between the two neighbors stayed friendly — but only briefly. By the late 1960s, border skirmishes between China and Russia were breaking out along the banks of the Amur. It took decades for more formal trade links between the countries to be established through customs-free ports such as Heihe, and it was not until 2006 that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the resolution of all remaining border issues.

Modern Uses of the River

Siberia is still a source of raw materials on which Russia relies for export revenue. Though the fur stocks that first drew people to the region have long since diminished, oil, minerals, metals and timber remain vital to Siberia's commerce. Because of its geography, Russia relies far more on rail and road than it does on its sole Siberian river that does not flow north, but the Amur is still an important transport outlet to the Pacific. When the river is ice-free from May to November, a number of cargo boats ply the watercourse.

For China, while Manchuria was the industrial center of the Qing dynasty, manufacturing has largely moved to the southern coast, and modern-day Heilongjiang province is a major agricultural producer, relying on the waters of the basin to irrigate crops on a commercial scale. Additionally, dams and industrial operations along the Amur's tributaries alter, consume and threaten the quality of the water entering the basin. For example, a 2005 benzene spill into the Songhua traveled kilometers downstream and into the Amur. China's water scarcity issues are expected to only get worse in the near term. Because the water basin is interconnected, overuse in one area has the potential to disturb environments in distant regions.

Over the past decade, economic ties have strengthened with energy deals and financial investments. Still, in this remote region, only about half a dozen border crossings exist, an extremely small number for such a tremendous stretch of territory. Many are heavily guarded, and sometimes, passage is limited by ethnicity. This reveals how precarious Russia's position in the Far East actually is — too much land and too few people, far away from a core focused quite literally in the other direction.

Despite a frontier history of mining, hunting and logging north of the river and a historical industrial power to the south, agricultural expansion along the Amur may be the area that poses a slightly higher risk of conflict between the two neighbors in the near term. Russia has tried to push its citizens to move to the region, offering tax exemptions and other incentives to promote development, specifically in Russian-produced agriculture. The 2012 Beginning Farmer program distributed grants to small farmers in the region, and the 2015 Homestead Act for Russian Far East further encouraged the development of state-held land. Still, cultivation on the Russian side of the border has struggled to return to pre-Soviet levels, unlike on the Chinese side, where agricultural production has skyrocketed.

Agricultural development in the Russian Far East is not a new concept for Russia or China. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the region faced a shortage of labor, one that Chinese contract workers filled, and that trend continues today. While Moscow has encouraged Asian investment in the region, it banned migrant farm workers from much of the area in 2013 and 2014. But Chinese farming techniques, especially of high-value crops such as vegetables, are considered superior to those of Russian operators, and Chinese workers are still able to enter as technical specialists.

With commercial agriculture already dominating the land south of the Amur, expansion north is not out of the question, but it may run counter to Russia's original imperatives regarding the river. Beijing is currently undertaking a consolidation movement in heavy industrial sectors while attempting to push workers back into forestry and farming — and in theory, shifting them north, where its breadbasket butts up to the river.

Putting aside water scarcity issues and the increasing demands on the Amur's southern tributaries, Russia also wants to develop its side of the river. But it seems unlikely that this will happen without Chinese money and labor. Russia will have difficulty persuading its citizens to move east, and Chinese workers just across the border will be looking for employment. But Russia could view increasing numbers of Chinese on its side of the Amur as counter to its need for security and access to the Pacific that the river provides. Should that happen, relations between Russia and China could sour, especially at the regional level. Though any future conflict is more likely to play out in the realm of diplomacy than between militaries, neither the Amur's violent history nor the competing demands on the river can be entirely dismissed.

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