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The Sick Man of Asia

The Sick Man of Asia

Mini Teaser: Russia's reversal of fortunes in its resource-rich Far East will complicate the Asian equation for the United States.

by Author(s): Rajan Menon

RUSSIA ACQUIRED its Far East (Dal'nii vostok) the old fashioned way, through war and conquest. The imperialism of the Muscovite state, its Romanov successors and finally Josef Stalin's Red Army fixed the region's current borders with China, Japan and North Korea. The balance of power favored Russia's accumulation of land in these earlier times; its present weakness has cast doubt on its ability to retain all of the territory it now holds. The forces that pushed Russia into the forbidding vastness of what is now its Far East--migration, economic growth and military superiority over weak neighbors--seem poised to reverse course, with potentially disruptive consequences for the entire region.

The Russian Far East is a gaggle of territorial units varying in size and shape.1 A vast expanse of 6.2 million square kilometers three-fourths the size of the "Lower Forty-Eight" U.S. states, the Far East occupies more than a third of Russia's landmass and contains a cornucopia of oil, gas, timber, gold, diamonds, fish, coal and assorted industrial raw materials. Yet no more than 7 percent of Russia's population lives there. Emigration (10 percent of the Russian Far East's population has left since 1991) and a mortality rate that exceeds the birth rate (as is the case in Russia as a whole) ensure that the region's population will dwindle further. The Far East is also isolated from Russia's traditional centers of power in Europe: even its western fringe is more than 5,000 kilometers from Moscow, and its eastern flank, seven time zones away, nudges China, Japan and the Korean peninsula. Since distance dilutes power--the farther a region is from the center, the greater the limits on central control--the Russian Far East is too large to be administered by fiat from a remote capital.

The problem posed by these geographic and demographic attributes is aggravated by the strategic equation in Northeast Asia, which has moved steadily against Russia over the past decade. This growing disadvantage in relative power matters all the more because Russia lacks reliable allies in this neighborhood. Indeed, Northeast Asia's major powers have a troubled history with Russia, one that features war and territorial disputes.

Together, these facts of size, power, distance, geography, demography and history raise a stark question: Will the Russian Far East remain Russian? The weakening, or loss, of Russia's control over its Far East, which would have consequences for American interests in Northeast Asia, could occur in three ways: separatism; a decline in Russian power that leaves this resource-rich region ripe for the taking; or creeping Chinese hegemony (a "reverse Manchurian" scenario, defined as preponderant influence without formal territorial control). To further paint this bleak picture, however, we must proceed with a brief account of how Russia acquired its Far East.

How the East Was Won

RUSSIA BEGAN its centuries-long eastward expansion in the 17th century. In the northern areas of what is now its Far East, indigenous people were subjugated with brutal ease and their land annexed. The pattern in the southern parts was different: China (albeit in a weakened state), Japan and the Western powers exerted a countervailing force. Territorial gains came more slowly and entailed an admixture of diplomacy and force. China's weaknesses made the task easier: Its Qing dynasty was in decline and losing legitimacy because of its fecklessness in the face of foreigners' encroachments and demands.

The Treaty of Aigun (May 1858)--a classic product of statecraft backed by raw power--established the border between Russia and China at the Amur and Ussuri rivers. It was followed in November 1860 by the Treaty of Peking, which gave Russia the land between the Ussuri river and the Pacific Ocean in exchange for its intercession to lift the Anglo-French blockade of the Chinese capital. The two treaties, which Mao Zedong later called the "unequal treaties", added nearly 650,000 square kilometers to the Russian empire--territory that, as early as the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-256 BCE), had been under Chinese suzerainty and recognized by Russia as Chinese territory in the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk. Russia cemented its hold over them by sponsoring migration from the western parts of the empire and by building towns, military outposts and the Trans-Siberian railroad (begun in 1891 and completed in 1905).

In Manchuria, annexation was a precluded option for Russia because Japan and the Western powers had acquired important stakes there. But China's troubles--which included defeat by Japan in the war of 1894-5--did enable Russia to establish a strong presence. The most impressive manifestation was the Chinese Eastern Railroad (CER), which sliced through Manchuria, linking the Russian city of Irkutsk south of Lake Baikal and the Pacific port of Vladivostok. It eventually included a spur running south to Harbin. Russia also secured a lease at the end of the Liaodong peninsula, plus the Port Arthur naval base and the port of Dairen. Immigration and 100,000 troops secured Russia's position in Manchuria at the dawn of the new century.

Russia's gains in the islands of the North Pacific grew out of the convergence of Russian and Japanese power from different directions starting in the late 18th century. Russia initially had the upper hand. As Japan faced western pressure to open itself to trade, Vice Admiral Evgenii Putiatin concluded the Treaty of Shimoda (1858), which divided the Kurile archipelago between Russia and Japan--Russia received the islands north of Etorofu--and created joint control in Sakhalin. Under the 1875 Treaty of Petersburg, Russia acquired all of Sakhalin, and Japan the entire Kurile island chain.

But Japan's trajectory was different than China's. Rejuvenated by the reforms that followed the Meiji Restoration and its confidence supplemented by the 1902 alliance with Britain, Japan began to contest Russian expansion. The culmination was Russia's stunning defeat in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese war, the result of its arrogant refusal to take Japan seriously. Russia could not mobilize adequate military manpower in its Far East or reinforce the region quickly enough through the 6,000 kilometer Trans-Siberian railroad. When it responded to Japan's destruction of its Pacific Fleet by sending its Baltic Fleet around the world, the Japanese sunk the weary armada in the Tsushima Straits.

Only Sergei Witte's masterful diplomacy allowed Russia to get off lightly at the Portsmouth negotiations. Under the treaty that resulted, Russia yielded to Japan the Liaodong peninsula lease, the rail line to Port Arthur and Dairen, and southern Sakhalin, but retained the rest of the CER and a sphere of influence in northern Manchuria--until evicted completely in 1931.

At the end of World War II Russia was quick to recoup its losses in Manchuria. Soviet troops poured into the former sphere of influence in 1945, pillaging Japanese-owned raw material and equipment in the process. As Japan's surrender became a certainty, Stalin secured control of the CER and a lease on the Liaodong peninsula--including Port Arthur and nearby Dairen--from Chiang Kai-shek--gains that were soon sacrificed on the altar of proletarian internationalism once the Chinese Communist Party took over China in 1949. But the Red Army's reconquest of southern Sakhalin and the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomais endured, and rightful ownership of the latter group of islands, located at the southern end of the Kuriles, remains disputed between Russia and Japan.

In contrast to its ascendancy over the past several centuries, Russia's current weakness and sense of vulnerability contrasts with China's surge in power and confidence. This turnabout explains why the scenario of a Manchuria in reverse--the inexorable expansion of China's economic, demographic and political presence in the Russian Far East--figures prominently in Russian and Western assessments. Another outcome, also often discussed in tandem with Chinese hegemony, is the secession of the Far East as Moscow becomes too weak to retain it through coercion and too poor to hold it through co-optation.

THE RUSSIAN Far East's future will turn on its relationship with the central government. Inept policies from Moscow could provoke people in the region to question the value of remaining within the Russian Federation, generating upheaval inside the Far East and squabbles with Moscow. The ensuing instability will give rising powers opportunities and motives to seize the first mover's advantage in a Northeast Asia that is bound to face competition and strategic transformation.2 Stated differently, what happens within Russia's Far East will affect the behavior of other states, not vice versa. This may seem a dismal conclusion given Russia's many economic and social problems. But, fortunately, apocalyptic scenarios of secession are quite improbable.

Paradoxically, the reason for this optimistic prognosis is the Russian state's weakness. The Russian Federation is a far cry from the hyper-centralized Soviet Union. Regional leaders have a good deal more leeway, which they demonstrate in ways ranging from the criminal to the comical. Though Putin symbolizes the strong state, Russia's center has been unable to tighten control over the provinces. Its inability to do so promotes stability--although not necessarily efficiency--and prevents secessionist backlashes: unable to rule the regions with an iron hand or to be a provider par excellence, Moscow is forced to deal with the provinces through negotiations and compromise. Chechnya, despite the attention it receives, is an exception to the prevailing pattern of Russian federalism, wherein disputes are settled at the bargaining table rather than the battlefield.

Yet a loose federation is hardly Moscow's preferred outcome. Putin has sought to assert his control over the 89 units of the Russian Federation by incorporating them into seven "federal districts", each headed by a presidential representative. The Far East comprises one such district, with its headquarters in Khabarovsk, and is headed by Konstantin Pulikovskii, who was appointed by Putin in May 2002. Pulikovskii is a former general with command experience in the North Caucasus--including in Chechnya--but is also a "local", a native of Ussuriysk.

This reorganization to bolster central control, however, is doomed to fail. Despite, or even with the connivance of, presidential representatives, the Russian Far East's leaders will rule their domains as fiefdoms. Even when they are ousted, they will land positions in Moscow or elsewhere and retain a measure of influence by ensuring that their acolytes remain in pivotal positions.

Take the case of Evgenii Nazdratenko, former governor of Primorskii krai and an embodiment of entrenched power and corruption. He was appointed governor by Yeltsin in 1993 and elected to that post in 1995. Putin dislodged him, but then appointed him chairman of the State Fisheries Committee, a post which, given how important fishing is to the Far East's economy, ensured Nazdratenko's continued influence in his former domain. He also continued to wield influence through several proteges who survived the house-cleaning carried out by his successor, Sergei Darkin. Amidst allegations of corruption, Nazdratenko was moved from the Fisheries Committee in 2003, but was appointed deputy secretary of the State Security Council--a testament both to his resilience and the sorry state of Russian politics.

Leaders in the Far East are unlikely to upend federalism to seek outright independence, and the deck is stacked against those who might try. To begin with, there is no "Russian Far East" except in conceptual and administrative terms and as an expression of convenience. The region is a conglomeration of disparate political units that vary in their resources (the northern regions are less industrialized and are more sparsely populated than those in the south) and in their degree of entanglement with Northeast Asia's economies. This makes for a cacophony of interests, not a unity of purpose or a common agenda at the center. Economic patterns reinforce the Far East's political disunity: autarky, protectionism and diverse policies reign; interdependence, let alone integration, remains anemic. Above all, local leaders are busy bolstering their positions and power (not to mention their incomes). Conspiring to bolt from the Federation is a distraction.

Furthermore, neither the history nor the ethnic composition of the Russian Far East favors separatism. There has never been a genuine movement for Far Eastern independence. The so-called Far Eastern Republic of 1920-22 was the short-lived child of war and foreign intervention, not of nationalism. The republic's independence from the Bolsheviks was a fiction established to create the illusion of an independent, non-communist center of power. It was dismantled once the Bolsheviks won Russia's civil war, and many of the republic's leaders went on to become Communist Party officials in the Far East. Breakaway movements that arose elsewhere in the Far East after the Bolshevik revolution were Japanese-initiated, not examples of genuine nationalism, and collapsed once the Japanese withdrew.

Anti-Russian nationalism continues to be weak in the Far East. Unlike in Chechnya, there is no robust social basis for secession powered by ethnic grievances. Russian nationalism, tinged with Sinophobia, is far stronger in the region's overwhelmingly Russian population, even if the sentiment coexists with grumbling about the center's neglect and ineptitude. Though there are many non-Russian peoples in the Russian Far East (Chukchi, Dolgan, Even, Evenk, Itelmen, Koriak, Nivkhi, Yukhagir and Sakha among others), most are small, scattered, divided by social and economic differences, and lacking in strong national consciousness--in other words, damp kindling for igniting anti-Russian separatism. The weakness of nationalism works to Moscow's advantage since independence movements rarely prevail absent ethnic differences that can be used to mobilize people."

Consider the example of huge, diamond-rich Sakha, which is half as large in area as the entire Russian Far East and is Russia's largest ethnic republic. The Sakha possess a national consciousness that has been growing since before the fall of the Soviet Union (seen most prominently in the promotion of their Turkic language and culture and in their desire for control of a larger share of the income from their republic's diamond production).

Anti-Russian separatism nevertheless remains on the political fringe in Sakha, for four major reasons. First, center and republic have reconciled differences through negotiation, giving Sakha's culture more heft and a bigger cut of diamond revenues. Second, the Sakha account for only a third of their republic's population. With ethnic Russians constituting half its population, separatism would be a recipe for ethnic conflict--something for which most Sakha have no taste. Third, Sakha's economy turns on raw materials, which are especially subjected to fluctuations in price, and its land has little capacity to grow food. It is, therefore, ill-suited to going it alone. Finally, the Sakha are unenthusiastic about a separate Far Eastern state for fear that Russian nationalists would run it (they would likely be far less charitable than Moscow has been). There will doubtless be tussles between Moscow and Sakha over federal subsidies, the proportion of local revenues retained by the republic, and the apportionment of shares in the local diamond monopoly, Almazy Rossii-Sakha, which produced almost all of Russia's diamonds, but since negotiations on such matters have proven feasible, why should Sakha risk blood and treasure on campaigns for independence that involve big risks and little prospects for further gain?

Money also curbs local leaders' enthusiasm for independence. While they complain about the paltry and diminishing subsidies from the center, they understand that these funds, however meager, help them rule. And it is hardly the case that independence from Russia would free them to bring prosperity to the Far East by building closer economic ties with China, Japan and the wider Asia-Pacific. Formidable obstacles block the region's economic integration with East Asia, among them shopworn infrastructure, rampant corruption and criminality. Independence would not erode these barriers; it would strengthen them by removing even the modest supervision the center exercises today. And statehood would hardly strengthen the Russian Far East's capacity to strike lucrative deals with the outside world. Rather, separation from Russia would reduce the Far East's leverage--no small matter in a region where high hopes for foreign investment coexist with visceral fears that it will bring dis-possession and exploitation by foreigners, above all the Chinese.

Ambitious local leaders have also acquired a political stake in the continuation of the Russian Federation, which provides them a platform--whether in the form of the Duma, the Federation Council or the more recent State Council--for pursuing grander ambitions in national politics. Connections in Moscow also bolster their position in local politics by enabling deals to be struck, patronage to be disbursed, and endorsements to be won--and these are the currency for buying support, awe and allegiance at home.

Finally, leaders who have risen to the top in the rough and tumble of the Far East's politics are hard-nosed realists under no illusions that the security of the Far East will be improved by seceding from Russia. On its own, the weak yet alluring region would be the plaything of surrounding powers, not an independent factor in Northeast Asia's balance of power. The widespread worry about this scenario, historical memory and abundant fears of the malign motives of neighboring states (particularly China) are powerful deterrents to divorce.

Enemies Within

A SECOND DANGER is facing the Far East. This one lacks the drama of breakaway movements and civil wars, but it is perhaps even more dangerous: torpor. This malady threatens to erode the region's economic vitality as well as its security.

The danger posed by torpor is not immediately apparent, for the Far East has immense economic potential, particularly in an age when profit-seeking capital crosses national boundaries with unprecedented ease. The region has much to offer globalization's cold-eyed profit-seekers: abundant energy and raw materials (much of which is yet untapped), relatively cheap and skilled labor, and proximity to the markets of the Asia-Pacific.

These strengths are undercut, however, by a climate of decay, which compounds the region's inherent problems and makes it a weak magnet for foreign investment. Ecological problems, now exacerbated by the deterioration of the Russian Pacific Fleet's nuclear submarines, are pervasive and create extra costs for would-be investors. In the early 1990s, the defense industries and shipyards of greater Khabarovsk and Vladivostok employed 400,000 people and were a mainstay of the local economies. With steep declines in orders placed by the cash-strapped Russian military and fishing fleet, there have been massive layoffs, which have not been offset by new sources of steady employment.

The results have been protests and strikes, a reliance on multiple low-paying jobs for earnings, high unemployment, migration and increased poverty. The end of the Cold War and the penury of Russia's government have dried up orders for armaments and left unpaid more than a few bills for equipment already delivered. Foreign investors could convert these industries to non-military production, but the costs would be great and the delay imposed by the thicket of bureaucratic regulations considerable. Permafrost, which covers nearly three-fourths of the Far East and can be miles thick, makes construction difficult and expensive. Buffoons, crooks and xenophobes have attained positions of power with enough regularity to give bad governance deep roots. A maze of shifting regulations policed by central and local bureaucracies with conflicting aims breeds corruption and confounds investors. Federal and local legal institutions neither effectively guarantee the enforcement of contracts nor offer reliable protections against the expropriation of property. A sorrier list of conditions for luring foreign capital is hard to imagine.

The outlook is even bleaker when one considers the quality of human capital. The Far East tracks with the larger trends in Russia. The population is aging as fertility rates decline. The spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and diphtheria threaten to divert scarce resources from productive investment. Social problems such as substance abuse, suicide, domestic violence and homicide are on the rise. Institutions providing basic education and health care lack money, supplies and sufficient qualified employees. The atrophy of human capital is pervasive and generally worsens the farther ones moves from Moscow. And nowhere in Russia is farther from Moscow than the Far East.

Its location has, however, blessed the Russian Far East with enormous stocks of oil and gas, much of it still untapped, and with large and lucrative markets close by. China is certain to become a larger customer for the Far East's oil and, if it can switch from pollution-laden coal as its principal source of energy, its natural gas as well. China, which became a net energy importer of oil in 1993--now relying on imports (about half coming from the Middle East) for nearly a third of its consumption--is determined to diversify its sources of supply and find new ones closer to home, especially as its dependence on foreign oil promises to grow. Japan is even more reliant on imports, and while its lack of a comprehensive national distribution network for natural gas impedes large purchases from Russia, it, too, seeks to reduce its dependence on Persian Gulf oil. Japanese companies have been pivotal in developing Sakhalin's energy resources.

These circumstances bode well for the Russian Far East and have generated some massive energy projects, underway or in gestation, throughout the region. After almost a decade of haggling over details, the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the Russian oil giant YUKOS signed an agreement in May 2003 to build a $2.5 billion pipeline that will stretch 2,400 kilometers from Angarsk (near Irkutsk) to Daqing in China. It will transport over 5 billion barrels to China between 2005 and 2030, raising Russia's daily oil exports to China from 40,000 barrels a day today to 600,000 barrels.

Not to be outdone in the deal-making, Japan lobbied hard until the last minute for an alternative--and at $4.5 billion far more costly--pipeline, which would have run entirely through Russia's territory from Irkutsk to the Pacific port of Nakhodka and enabled Russian oil to be sent not just to Japan, but also to the United States and the wider Asia-Pacific region. Despite Russia's choice of the less costly Angarsk-Daqing route, Putin has said that the pipeline to Nakhodka is attractive and worth pursuing if Russia proves to have enough oil reserves. Soon after the agreement on the Angarsk-Daqing pipeline was reached, Japan offered Russia $7 billion in low interest loans to develop its east Siberian oil fields.

Russian officials, for their part, are also obviously mindful of the need to limit the dependence on China. In addition, the six offshore oil and gas consortia in Sakhalin will boost Japanese purchases of Russian energy. Chinese, and possibly Japanese and South Korean, imports of Russian natural gas will grow if officials construct the planned pipeline to China from the Kovyktinskoye fields (also located in Irkutsk province and managed by a joint venture between BP-AMOCO and the Russian oil company, SIDANKO).

Even if all of the impediments facing these various projects are overcome and they are up and running within the next decade, energy exports will not be a magic elixir that transforms the economic face of the Russian Far East. The region's pervasive corruption and economic mismanagement, which will result in the theft or waste of energy revenue, is one reason why. Another is Russia's susceptibility to the pathologies that have affected many countries that have staked their economic future on energy sales: gains in employment have been largely confined to the energy sector, which is capital intensive and thus employs a small percentage of the labor force; there are few multiplier effects to stimulate the rest of the economy; opportunities for corruption and criminality increase; and much-needed reforms are postponed because oil and gas provide a panacea.

There is nothing to suggest that Russia in general or its Far East in particular will defy this pattern. Already Sakhalin could be a bellwether. The energy boom there has sent real estate prices soaring and increased prices for essential goods and services without generating a large number of jobs. True, good governance can make the difference and harness energy wealth to promote economic development and social welfare, but there is scant evidence of this particular precious commodity in the resource-rich Russian Far East.

The only foreign investments that have flourished come in the form of the pernicious manifestations of globalization: transnational organized crime, smuggling, narcotics trafficking and prostitution, in which criminal syndicates from Russia, Japan, Korea, China, Central Asia and the Caucasus are involved. Vladivostok, for example, is better known as a market for stolen Japanese cars than as a magnet for productive investment from the Asia-Pacific.

Strong leaders who try to root out these ills pay a heavy price. Consider the case of Magadan's governor, Valentin Tsvetkov. Known as "the bulldozer" for his relentless crusade against crime and corruption, Tsvetkov was reportedly investigating the misappropriation of a $75 million loan extended to Magadan by the central government when he was gunned down in broad daylight on a Moscow street in October 2002. Corruption, in stark contrast, offers sweet dividends, as the autonomous region of Chukotka shows. Roman Abramovich, an aluminum and oil magnate from Moscow, who also has a 49 percent stake in the government-controlled ORT television network and whose wealth stems from close ties to Boris Yeltsin's family, was elected to Chukotka's sole Duma seat in 1999 and to its governorship the following year.

Many Russians see Chukotka's oil and mineral wealth, rather than a bout of public spiritedness, as the reason for Abramovich's political ambitions in a far-flung region that is virtually bankrupt, lacks a single highway or rail line, and has seen the emigration of half its population over the past decade. Chukotka is not an exotic exception. The rest of the Far East offers political cover and a route to respectability for Russia's oligarchs and criminals.

Silk-Gloved Hegemony

WOULD that the torpor of the Far East were merely an obstacle to its economic development. It also exacts a heavy toll on the security of the region by making it susceptible to hegemony and by making it harder and costlier for Moscow to defend its territory. To begin with, poor governance and a harsh and damaged natural environment will ensure that the Russian Far East remains dependent on the center. Dreams of integration with the AsiaPacific region--featuring a Eurasian rail corridor that runs through the Far East, connecting the Pacific with Europe, and energy pipelines that supply Northeast Asia--will remain pipe-dreams. The region is unlikely to generate self-sustaining growth and attract any significant amounts of foreign capital. The paucity of local resources (human and material) that can be mobilized to defend the region will present Russia with the problem it faced during the 1904-05 war with Japan--one all the more daunting because the cashstrapped central government must defend its western and (particularly) southern borders as well. 3

Ironically, the steady improvement in Sino-Russian relations since the late 1980s has created a new problem: the influx of Chinese (as traders, laborers and illegal immigrants) into the Russian Far East. This has fueled fears of creeping Sinicization. Politicians in Russia manipulate sensationalism about the demographic changes, but popular fears of Chinese encroachment are no less real for that. They flow from differences rooted in history, race and culture, evoking suspicion and vulnerability as Russia's centuries-long preponderance over China ends. It was that preponderance that determined the current border, placing within Russia much territory that had been (however loosely) Chinese as recently as the mid-19th century--merely a glimmer in Chinese conceptions of history.

Demographic trends aggravate the problem of defending the Russian Far East, not least because harsh conditions will continue to deplete its population, which Russian demographers project could fall by as much as an additional 25 percent by 2020. As it is, only eight million Russian citizens inhabit its six million square kilometers. Across the border in China's northeastern provinces (Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning), 130 million Chinese are shoe-horned into two million square kilometers, and the population density is up to thirty times what it is in the Russian Far East. Cross-border trade and migration (legal and illegal) have deepened China's demographic footprint over the past decade. Even if reports of three million immigrants are wild hyperbole, reasonable estimates put the Chinese population living in the Russian Far East between 20,000 and 100,000.

If Russia's relationship with China turns hostile--and history provides several instances of that--Moscow would be hard-pressed to defend the Russian Far East: it is too close to China's centers of power and too far from those of Russia. Moreover, Russia's armed forces are not just shrinking, they are deteriorating in every aspect: procurement, training, maintenance, the quality of recruits and morale. Units stationed in the Far Eastern Military District are worse off than those based elsewhere--at the end of the line when it comes to the distribution of funds, supplies and weapons.

By contrast, China's military, which was quite recently a giant horde of foot soldiers, is modernizing steadily--chiefly with Russian weaponry, much of it supplied from cash-starved military industries in Khabarovsk, Komsomol'sk and Vladivostok. It may lag far behind the United States, but in force projection, speed, accuracy and lethality it is a wholly different force than it was a decade ago, thanks to Russian fighter jets, submarines, tanks and missiles, many of them built in the Russian Far East.

Yet the chances that China will attempt to conquer Russia's Far East are slim. Such a brazen power play would damage China's wider interests. Taiwan might recoil in terror and treat Beijing's proposals for a negotiated reunification with even greater skepticism and wariness. The prevailing Western rationale for economic engagement with China--that commerce will transform and co-opt that country--would be shredded. China would likely face a counterbalancing, encircling coalition of the United States, India, Japan, Russia and Vietnam. Would such setbacks justify the burdens of ruling the vast, problem-infested Russian Far East? The Chinese leaders know their Sun Tzu: what they seek from the Russian Far East (access to resources and a benign northern front) can be had by means of silk-gloved hegemony.

Chinese interests can be served without its formal occupation of the territory. Indeed, what may emerge could be a "reverse Manchurian" scenario, where the Russian Far East remains a titular part of Russia but is increasingly integrated into Beijing's sphere of influence. That is precisely what the conspiracy among geography, demography, power and time may create in Russia's Far East.

At the other extreme, a weak and unstable China--a prospect rarely discussed in the West--would also threaten the security of the Russian Far East because Beijing would be unable to control population movements, maintain order or enforce agreements reached on cross-border trade and transits. But if forced to choose between these two futures--an aggressive China and an unraveling China--it is a safe bet that Russian officials responsible for national security will select the second; it is certainly the one that keeps them up at night.

Manipulate, Co-opt, Stretch

AS RUSSIAN strategists see it, the key is to keep China's growing influence in the Far East within tolerable bounds, such that hegemony does not segue into imperialism if China's growing might combines with a pugnacious nationalism. The best way to prevent this metamorphosis is to combine cooperation (economic exchanges and arms sales with China) with balancing (building multifaceted ties with other states that also have reason to fear China's power), thus giving China a stake in a cooperative relationship with Russia. This would also ensure that China could be matched, if not by Russia alone, then by a counterbalancing coalition if it opts for confrontation.

The first step, of course, is to cement good relations with China. Putin, like Yeltsin before him, fetes China as a "strategic partner": China buys more Russian weapons than any other state; and Russian-Chinese summits include not just the standard bonhommie but concrete accords embodying strategic concord. The many meetings between top Russian and Chinese leaders since 1991 have shown that the two sides share many strategic concerns. For example, both oppose a unipolar world dominated by the United States, as well as by separatism and Islamic fundamentalism, the American plan for a ballistic missile defense system, and military intervention in countries based on principles of human rights that override sovereignty. Both favor a stronger UN, a multipolar world, and the use of diplomacy and persuasion in dealing with North Korea's nuclear program.

Among the concrete manifestations of the convergent interests between China and Russia is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which brings together China, Russia and the Central Asian states to prevent Central Asia from becoming an American sphere of influence in the wake of 9/11 and to thwart terrorism and militant Islamic movements in that region. Various transactions, including cooperation on energy, China's purchases of Russian arms and Russian assistance for the Chinese space program lend further substance to what both parties characterize as a "strategic partnership." These points of convergence were in evidence most recently in May 2003, when the new Chinese president, Hu Jintao, visited Russia--in his first trip abroad as president--to meet Vladimir Putin, pledging even before he left for Russia to take the partnership to "new and higher levels." The final piece of the puzzle is to maintain good relations with Asia's other leading regional powers.

Yet Russia's relationship with the West is also crucial for counterbalancing China, which is among the reasons why post-Soviet Russia has opted for democracy and capitalism, the hallmarks of the West. Russia aspires to join the WTO; it is a member of the G-8, the club of economic heavyweights (though its economy is smaller than the American defense budget); and it has realized that consultation with NATO will offer more benefits than a policy of opposition to its expansion. However, a number of sticking points remain in Russia's relations with the West, and these tensions mean it cannot rely on the West alone to form a counter-weight to Chinese power.

The alignment with India, the second largest customer for Russian weaponry and a holdover ally from the Soviet era, is vital in this regard and is fortified by many intersecting interests besides wariness about China, among them economic ties, support for robust international institutions, and a suspicion of unilateral military campaigns. Russian plans for the economic development of its Far East also envision Japanese investment as an essential ingredient, and Russia's unease about China's ambitions may eventually spawn a new approach to Japan that includes a settlement on the Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomais islands. Japan, which shares Russia's apprehension about China, will warm to compromise. This will take time.

The territorial issue is particularly sensitive and will require mutual compromises that will be unpopular in both countries. (Putin will therefore not act until the 2004 elections in Russia are over.) Nevertheless, both Russia and Japan have taken small steps forward. Under Yeltsin, Russia acknowledged that there indeed was a dispute over the islands, something that the Soviet leaders were unwilling to do. Since that change, the deal that almost worked in 1956 (when it appeared that Russia would relinquish Shikotan and the Habomais island cluster, allowing for the signing of a peace treaty) has intermittently been floated by both sides. While Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi initially rejected this approach, insisting on the return of all of the islands claimed by Japan, more recently he has referred positively to the 1956 model. The fact is that there can be no effective Russian strategy for defending the Far East and for promoting its economic development that banks only on the West. Asia will have to be brought into the mix.

Russia will thus defend its Far East by drawing China, Japan and Korea--rising powers that might otherwise look upon territory in the Far East with rapacious eyes--into a web of cooperation that creates payoffs and gives important constituencies within these countries a stake in regional peace and in a Russia that is stable and whole. Trade and investment, centering on Russian oil and gas, would launch this regionalism, and Moscow would also seek to tighten the link between the Far East and the rest of Russia by bringing to the region investment from Russian energy companies. Moscow will look to the West's capital and technology to provide momentum to prevent any one Asian state from dominating the Far East's economy. Regional cooperation would deepen as other plans--such as a secure and speedy connection between Asia and Europe using the Russian Far East's ports and rail lines--become reality, and as Russian energy begins to slake Northeast Asia's thirst for non-Middle Eastern energy sources.

Russia's hold on its Far East will depend in part on whether this vision of co-optation and counterbalancing becomes reality. But if cooperation driven by commerce fails because of the miserable conditions in the Russian Far East--its torpor--Russia's weakness will reduce it to a supplicant in Northeast Asia. Such an outcome could foster uncertainty, miscalculation, temptation and rivalries for spoils among the region's ascendant powers. Rising powers will make the Russian Far East their sphere of influence, transforming it into an arena for strategic competition. The pursuit of hegemony under competitive conditions could give way to outright imperialism if one state prevails, or perhaps even to the dismemberment of the region.

In the unlikely event that China were to acquire land and resources of the Russian Far East outright, its power and strategic position would be boosted immeasurably. Any ambitions it might develop to dominate Northeast Asia would then be more feasible, as would its efforts to supplant the United States as the preeminent power in the region. To avoid subordination to China, Japan and South Korea might decide to bolster their military might, perhaps even to build nuclear weapons, adding to the instability and risk of war in the region. Either denouement--Chinese preponderance or a regional military buildup aimed at resisting it--would make the North Pacific a more dangerous place, and one less hospitable to the United States.

America's Bottom Line

THE UNITED States should not be surprised, let alone alarmed, by cooperation between Russia and China. Russia cannot afford a large and hostile power on its weak and remote eastern flank. Yet it will fail to gain China's attention and respect without a substantive relationship with the West, especially the United States. Cooperation between Russia and China will, therefore, inevitably be accompanied by parallel efforts to strengthen ties with the West. Moreover, Russia is not unaware of the dangers of unbridled cooperation with China. It has deliberately kept alive the prospects of the Angarsk-Nakhodka pipeline. Similarly, the strategic partnership with China notwithstanding, Russia turned down China's request for long-term leases on the Russian Far East ports of Zarubino and Poset during Hu Jintao's visit to Moscow. While China's interest in these ports stemmed from the opportunities they provided for exports from its northeast to Japan and the Korean peninsula, Moscow was almost certainly skittish about the strategic implications of giving Chinese Manchuria outlets to the Sea of Japan--and just south of Vladivostok, Russia's main Pacific naval base. This apprehension reflects deeply-rooted Russian perspectives on the world beyond.

The Far East's torpor will prevent Russia from deterring foes or contributing much to the strength of any coalitions that arise against a state or alliance that threatens Northeast Asia's balance. And this means that the United States cannot count on Russia, however friendly it might be, as a capable strategic partner in Northeast Asia. On the contrary, the United States and its allies, especially Japan and Korea, will be forced to develop strategies that shore up Russia so that its land, strategic depth and resources do not fortify the power of any state with the motives, means and opportunity to reconfigure Northeast Asia's status quo.

Because the conventional forces in Russia's Far Eastern military district are in a state of near-collapse, Moscow may increasingly be forced to lower the threshold for using, or threatening to use, nuclear weapons to defend the region. That is not good news given the condition of Russia's nuclear arsenal; nor is the dependence of Russia's Eastern military industries on purchases from China. Russian arms cannot close the gap between the American and Chinese militaries, but they have and will increase the risks American forces must confront to defend Taiwan, and that consequence affects the credibility of its commitment to Taipei.

It is sound policy, therefore, to increase the role the United States plays, through programs like Nunn-Lugar, in promoting defense conversion in the Russian Far East. It is also in America's interest to see Western and Japanese firms take an even greater part in tapping the region's energy. While that may contribute to China's energy security by reducing its dependence on the long, vulnerable sea-lanes connecting it to the Persian Gulf, it will diversify sources of supply for the United States and its partners and help prevent the Russian Far East from becoming the sphere of influence of any one power--a sound tradeoff.

In contrast to the Cold War, Russia will find that American forces and alliances in Northeast Asia make its Far East more secure and supplement its strategy of stretching China's power in multiple directions. How Russia will contribute to American security in Northeast Asia is far less clear--and the parlous state of the Russian Far East is a big reason why.

1 It is comprised of the Sakha Republic, Primorskii krai (region), Khabarovskii krai, Amurskaia oblast' (province), Kamchatskaia oblast', Magadanskaia oblast', Sakhalinskaia oblast', the Birobidzhan Jewish autonomous oblast', and the Chukotskii and Koriakskii autonomous okrugi (districts).

2See Rajan Menon and S. Enders Wimbush, "Asia in the 21st Century," The National Interest (Spring 2000).

3Although the Russia-China border--among the world's longest--was largely delimited in the 1990s, there remain disputed locations in the Ussuri and Amur zones.

Rajan Menon is Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University. He was selected as a Carnegie Scholar in 2002-03 and served as Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The author wishes to thank Gilbert Rozman, who made many useful suggestions and provided information on a number of points discussed in this essay.

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