(originally published here)
A political scientist friend sent me this opinion piece in New York Times: Why China Will Reclaim Siberia. The author, unfortunately, shows little knowledge of the subject he writes about. For example, he writes:
The border, all 2,738 miles of it, is the legacy of the Convention of Peking of 1860 and other unequal pacts between a strong, expanding Russia and a weakened China after the Second Opium War.
Apparently the author is unaware of the 1991 Sino-Soviet Border Treaty, which resolved this issue. Yes, in the following 10 years the job of demarcating the border encountered some resistance (especially from the more nationalistic forces within Russia), but eventually it was concluded to the mutual satisfaction. As Alexander Lukin writes:
Evidence of the new level of Russian-Chinese relations was formalized with the “Treaty of Good-neighbor Relations, Friendship, and Cooperation” signed in Moscow in July 2001. Article 6 had great significance. The article fixed China’s agreement to recognize the existing border and the necessity of preserving the status quo where unresolved areas remain. Although Chinese negotiators were reluctant to include this article in the treaty, they finally yielded to Russia’s insistence. This reduced any speculation that China may find some pretext to claim Russian territory or to conduct a planned settlement of the Russian Far East.
Another strange phrase in the article is this one:
Perhaps two existing blocs – the Eurasian one encompassing Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – could unite China, Russia and most of the ‘stans.
Well, Russia is already a signatory to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; in fact, it was a founder of it together with China (and playing a junior role to China, naturally enough).
Sure enough, it does.
Do you remember a chapter in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, entitled “Spacious Skies and Tilted Axes”? (If you haven’t read the book, I strongly recommend it – it’s Diamond’s best one). In this chapter, Jared argues that crops and domestic animals spread more easily within the same “biomes” – macro-ecological zones characterized by similar climates and soil types. Because biomes tend to stretch along East-West axes, cultivars (and other cultural elements) diffuse more easily East and West, rather than North and South.
When I read this chapter, I remember wondering, what about the territorial expansion of states? Shouldn’t they also find it easier to expand into a similar ecological zone? Teaming up with Jon Adams and Tom Hall we analyzed the shapes of historical mega-empires. We found that, indeed, there was a very strong statistical tendency to expand along the East-West axis. The only exceptions to this pattern, such as Egypt and Inca, actually conformed to the more general rule – it just happens that, in their regions, biomes were stretched in the North-South direction.
What does it tell us about China? If you look at the historical atlas of China, you will see that China easily expanded East and West, more slowly South, and there was essentially no expansion towards the North. Chinese empires since the Shang originated in the North and unified territories in all directions except the North. The only reason Manchuria (to the North of Beijing) is now part of China is because it was Manchuria that conquered China, not the other way around.
So the countries that should be most afraid of China are those that inhabit similar ecological zones. That would be Korea (well, North Korea is already essentially a vassal of China) and Vietnam, which has the same ecology as southern China. In fact, Vietnam (unlike Siberia) has been part of China on two previous occasions. And there are very substantial tensions between the two countries (unlike the Chinese-Russian relations).
What about demography? It’s a big factor. But what’s important is not the relative size of China with respect to Russia, but the population growth rates. China is about to start experiencing negative population growth, which will be exacerbated by the unfavorable male/female ratio. While Russian demographic situation is not a happy one, it has dramatically improved in the last ten years (a story that was not reported in the Western mass media). And there is no male-female imbalance.
In the short run this will cause problems. As Chinese men move into the Russian Far East, they may snap up Russian women, causing disgruntlement among the Russian men. But in the long run, what identity, do you think, will be adopted by the children of Chinese-Russian unions growing up in Russia? Data suggest that mothers (and the linguistic environment) will play the dominant role.
All of this doesn’t mean that Russia should completely relax and not worry about the mighty neighbor to the southeast. History tells us that countries that were too weak to hold territory lost it to stronger neighbors. Just look at Crimea. And I don’t expect it to change in the foreseeable future. So if Russia were to start disintegrating, pieces of it could, indeed, be up for grabs. Although I would expect that the Far East would be grabbed not by China, but by Japan (yes, Japan – it already tried to do it a mere hundred years ago).
But Russia was disintegrating in the 1990s, not now. And the Chinese leadership is an extremely pragmatic one. Their main worry is not Siberia – they get all of its riches by peacefully cooperating with Russia. And although the NYT article belittles the Russian nuclear arsenal, I am sure the Chinese leaders hold an opposite view. According to the map, drawn by Mr. Jacobs, Russia will give up Vladivostok, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Ekaterinburg – all of these cities with millions of population? A country that has many more nuclear weapons than China? I don’t think so. And, apparently, the Chinese leadership holds the same view.