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Jul 7, 2000 | 05:00 GMT

6 mins read

Russian Far East Turning Chinese?

The Chinese are invading Russia, not with tanks but with suitcases, according to Alexander Shaikin, head of the border control at the Federal Border Guard Service. He stated June 29 that over the past 18 months 1.5 million Chinese have illegally entered Russia's Far East, as reported by The Moscow Times. While Shaikin's claim is likely exaggerated, increased Chinese migration marks a return of Chinese influence to historically Chinese territories. Unlike Sino-Russian disagreements over Ukraine or India, a territorial dispute over the Russian Far East holds the potential to formally rupture relations between the two continental powers.

Yury Akhipov, head of the Russian immigration directorate, disputes Shaikin's claims. He counters by stating that many Chinese are only temporarily in Russia on business, and that many “shuttle traders” are counted each time they cross the border. It is impossible to either confirm or disprove Shaikin's 1.5 million figure; Russia has not undertaken a census since before the end of the Cold War. According to the Moscow Carnegie Center, the only organization to launch an independent study of the issue, about 250,000 of the region's population was Chinese in 1997. At that time the Interior Ministry claimed the number was two million. Other sporadic estimates place the Chinese population anywhere from 100,000 to five million.

Still, even the Federal Migration Service - of which Akhipov is a representative - fears a Chinese flood. The service has repeatedly warned that the Chinese could become the dominant ethnic group in the Russian Far East in 20 to 30 years. Such an occurrence would require an annual influx of about 250,000 to 300,000 Chinese; less than one-third the rate that Shaikin currently claims.

Regardless of the specific numbers, there are many reasons as to why this flow would occur -and why Beijing would allow, perhaps even encourage, it to happen.

China's demographics come into play. China has more than 1.2 billion people - more than eight times Russia's population. Only 7.4 million Russians populate the entire Russian Far East, verses more than 70 million in northeast China. Furthermore, while Russia's Far Eastern population decreased 8 percent since 1989, across the border China's Manchurian population increased 13 percent over the same period.

The historical arguments are even stronger. Any Chinese expansion into the Russian Far East would in reality be a return to the region. Most of the border region - an area roughly the size of Iran - used to be Chinese. Russia seized the territory in 1858 and 1860 in the Treaties of Aigun and Peking, respectively. Of all of the unequal treaties forced upon the Qing dynasty by outside powers in the 19th century, these are the only two China has not managed to overcome. While China and Russia signed a border agreement in 1999, China never explicitly accepted the Aigun and Peking treaties as inviolable.

Economically, the Russian Far East is rich in natural resources such as oil, gas and timber, which China increasingly needs. Transport costs also encourage economic links between the Russian Far East and Asian countries as opposed to 3,000-mile distant Moscow. Furthermore, due to Russia's rapidly aging population, Russia's work force is disappearing. China's young - and growing - population is more than able to fill the gap. The combination of proximity and Russia's looming labor shortage makes economic development of the Russian Far East dependent upon China.

Finally, there are strategic issues. The territory at stake comprises all of Russia's temperate access to the Pacific. Vladivostok is Russia's only Pacific warm water port. Nikolayevsk, at the mouth of the Amur River, processes most of Siberia's remaining exports. Both are well within former Chinese territory. If China were to gain control of the region - particularly these two ports - Russia would lose sea access for nearly all of its Siberian trade along with the ability to ever project a Pacific fleet. Such northern bases would also allow China to more directly threaten its primary regional rival: Japan.

Local Russians are nervous about the alleged Sinoization of their region. Primoskiy Kray Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko on June 1 called for relocating five million Russians from European Russia to the Far East in order to create population parity with China. Such a transfer is impossible considering Russia's demographic crisis; even with the relocation, Russians would still be outnumbered 6:1 by their neighbors across the border. As the cross-border economic integration continues, Russians in the Far East are discovering just how exposed they are with Moscow seven time zones away.

As well, Russian police in urban areas have responded to public perception of an immigration flood with aggressive ethnic profiling. Law enforcement personnel are expected to check the documentation of foreigners, and they actively target ethnic Asians. The policy results from a widespread feeling from the Sino-Russian border to the western city of St. Petersburg that China is the source of undesirable immigration. Public sentiment is especially inflamed by border merchants who smuggle goods to and from China and Russia in order to avoid taxation.

Tensions on the Sino-Russian border region are part of a wider - and expanding - Sino-Russian rivalry. Russia's expanding military cooperation with India casts a dark shadow over Sino-Russian claims of partnership at the recent Shanghai Five meeting in Tajikistan. Putin's meeting with his “strategic partner,” Chinese President Jiang Zemin, lasted less than an hour. Border issues were specifically excluded from the agenda, according to ITAR-Tass.

And China is pressuring Russia on other fronts. In Central Asia, China is attempting to secure some of the region's petroleum resources. Further abroad, members of the Chinese leadership recently outflanked Russia with trips to Europe and former Soviet satellites and republics. Wrestling over influence in North Korea, Ukraine and Vietnam continues as well.

Russia is far from helpless in dealing with Chinese encroachment, however. Russians, for now, remain in the majority within the Russian Far East. More importantly, Putin rose to power on a wave of nationalism; a wave he could easily divert toward Chinese immigrants in the Russian Far East. For its part, China has no reason to push the process; simply given demographic factors, the migration will proceed on its own. China can always choose to exploit the situation later.

Until that happens China and Russia will continue to agree to disagree over a range of issues, but it is the looming territorial dispute in the Far East that will place them firmly at odds.

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