Will China Take Siberia away from Russia?



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(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).

SiberiaApart from these bloopers, however, how likely is a Chinese grab of Siberia? And does Cliodynamics offer any insights on this question?

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).

rocketsBut 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.


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Ross Hartshorn

I think this article must be “link-bait”, where the incentive is to make a provocative statement (to get clicked on), rather than a likely one. The incentives of the modern news media economy are not towards accuracy, but rather towards attention-getting. This is unlike a 1970’s new program, which could take your attention for granted and therefore had an incentive towards at least attempting to be accurate.


Many Russians will disagree with you, Peter, meaning they feel threatened by Chinese expansion to the north albeit peaceful.

Official Russian statistics does not show high numbers of Chinese migration, but facts on the ground in the Russian Far East tell a different story. The region has been losing ethnic Russian population for the last quarter century. Birthrates are low as anywhere else among ethnic Russians and literally millions relocated to the ‘mainland’ as they call it.
They are replaced by Chinese who have been seeping in during all these years. There exist strong financial and business Chinese interests there.
Just recently there was a huge public outcry in Russia when it was revealed that a local administration in the Far East signed a 50 year land lease with a Chinese company for agricultural use. With an idea to bring Chinese workers in to cultivate the land. No one has a slightest doubt that Chinese will come to stay.

It is true that so far China’s attention has been focused on it’s influence expansion southwards, quite assertive if need be. It does not mean that in the future this focus will not be shifted to the north.


When Mexicans come to the US, do they become American or does the territory they inhabit become part of Mexico?


Richard, as for Mexicans, it depends. If they come to the US illegally (most of them), they don’t. If they come as family reunification, they do. As you know, many Americans see Mexicans as a problem.
Moreover, I have never heard of an American state leasing land to a Mexican company. Have you?
The few cases of long term land leases I know of were equivalent to sales. Guantanamo comes to mind. Alaska was technically not sold but leased by the Russian Empire to the US for 100 years.The lease expired long time ago.

Why one should think that China leasing land in the Russian Far East will be any different?


??? Mexicans who come illegally and stay often become Americans (and if they don’t, their children do).

Also, Alaska was a sale, not a lease. Where do you have documentation that it was a lease?


What’s your point, Richard?
Is it that illegal immigration to the US or anywhere else is fine?
Or is it that leasing land to China is a good idea?


Personally, I’m not a big fan of flaming nativist fears. Some of the worst atrocities in human history have come from that. I haven’t seen nearly as many atrocities from peaceful immigration.


I am not sure what you call “peaceful”. Is storming Eurotunnel or Macedonian border, fighting border guards , peaceful?


Not terribly violent. Not a lot of deaths of border guards that I see.

In any case, I believe that immigrants (illegal and otherwise) make the US stronger in the long run, and Europe is a place that needs immigrant energy (so long as they can integrate them).


Hmm. Seems like you (and probably other Russians) have been taken in by a fiction writer:


That might be:) Lease or sale, it doesn’t really matter. Alaska belongs to the US. Period.


I am anthropologist and I suspect that it could be difficult to await observer independent truths from social scientists. Ethnicity of observer is very important. Mathematical understanding of extremely complex human history is very poor.Hence, “social scientists” can imagine everything in their art – from reunification of Alaska and Russia to unification of China and Sibiria.


If we grant that the primary constraining factor which led historical world empires to expand within rather than between biomes was the suitability of land/climate for growing their preferred cultivars, is it still reasonable to assume that this is still the primary dynamic despite all the technological changes in food transportation, refrigeration, GMO cultivars, etc.? It’s hard to see that ensuring access to crops within the conquered region is as urgent a problem for present-day attempts to expand a country’s borders.


China doesn’t want to rule areas that are very dissimilar to it, but it does want to prevent invasion from such areas. So China wants to influence its border regions. Having an area as a politically stable economic colony with sovereignty vested elsewhere has advantages over direct rule.

China will only rule Siberia after Russia tries, with some success, to conquer China via Siberia. After such an event, China may believe the costs of direct rule are worth bearing. But not until then.

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