Any new Russian empire will be a weak reincarnation of previous ones, limited not only by Chinese influence in the Russian Far East but by Chinese political and economic influence in Muslim Central Asia as well. Newly vibrant states like China, India, Turkey, Poland and Kazakhstan are already containing Russia after a fashion. America’s goal must be to support Russia’s consolidation of its own Far East, so that China will feel less secure on land and consequently be unable to so completely devote its energies to sea power. Balancing against Russia in Europe and yet helping it abroad is the kind of subtle strategy that would help guard against any one nation achieving the level of dominance elsewhere that America already enjoys in the Western Hemisphere.
THE SOON-TO-BE-COMPLETED Amur highway in the Russian Far East linking Chita to Khabarovsk, 1,240 miles away, is about one thing: Russia’s fear of China. The new road, necessary to bring the Far East closer to Moscow, follows the Chinese border most of the way. This frontier region, known as Amuria to the north of the Chinese border and Ussuria to the east of it, has been fought over for centuries—czarist Russia against Qing (Manchu) China since the mid-seventeenth century, when Russian freebooters entered the region, to be followed by Muscovite soldiers and later by diplomats at a time when the Manchus were distracted by their conquests of Taiwan and parts of the mainland. This process culminated in 1860 when a decaying Chinese dynasty was forced to accept the transfer of three hundred fifty thousand square miles of territory into Russian hands, creating the current frontiers. Of course, now that China is strong and Russia comparatively weak, this border is coming under pressure from Chinese settlers and corporations seeking to move north to take advantage of the region’s oil, natural gas, timber and other resources. There is an inevitable—and perennially—tense relationship between Russia and China, obscured only for the moment by their tactical, somewhat anti-U.S. alliance. In July 2009, Chief of the Russian General Staff Nikolai Makarov made a slide presentation, and one of the slides reportedly said, “NATO and China . . . are the most dangerous of our geopolitical rivals.”2
Russia and China no longer mass troops on their borders; in fact, Putin recently opened an oil pipeline from the Russian Far East to Chinese Manchuria. Nevertheless, because the two countries can never really trust each other, the geopolitical opportunities for the United States in Eurasia are basic and structural. With no challenger in the Western Hemisphere, Washington will be free into the middle decades of the twenty-first century to keep any one power from gaining primacy in the Eastern Hemisphere.
THE STATUS quo dynamic America presently lives under is for the Chinese armed forces to become, at a minimum, a major regional power. More likely, Beijing will turn into a global power that will reduce America’s own air and naval reach in relative terms. There is practically no case of a nation building up its economic capacity over decades (as China is doing) without also developing a commensurate military capacity. China is only following the turn-of-the-twentieth-century United States in this regard. Whereas Americans take their blessed continental and oceanic geography for granted, the Chinese have a very consciously developed sense of space. This is because the current People’s Republic occupies the territory of the most expansionist Chinese dynasties of yore, comprising the arid, mineral-rich tableland in the west and the arable, riverine cropland of the coastal east. And yet at the same time, the Chinese carry within them the bitterness of immense violations of their sovereignty by Japan, Russia and Western nations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The result is a fierce territoriality, which today has led, for example, to an obsession with the South China Sea. At times, Beijing has even moved its navy into the blue water beyond the first Pacific island chain, which runs from Japan’s southern tip through Borneo.
The most signal international development the American media has failed to adequately cover is China’s emergence as a sea power, even as the influence of generals and particularly admirals is increasing in Beijing’s political circles. Now the South China Sea is to the Chinese what the Caribbean was to the Americans a hundred years ago (an international waterway that the United States came to dominate with the building of the Panama Canal). The South China Sea is the Pacific gateway to the Indian Ocean—the major oceanic interstate linking the hydrocarbon fields of the Middle East with the factories of East Asia. Over 80 percent of China’s oil imports and one-third of the world’s annual maritime trade flow through the Strait of Malacca at the South China Sea’s southern extremity. It is also home to some of the largest untapped stores of oil and natural gas in the world, while possession of its islands is disputed among China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.