Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Empire at Risk

When the Soviet Union broke up, first losing Eastern Europe in 1989 and then the USSR itself in 1991, one of the largest empires in the world was mostly ended. The fact that the empire was contiguous rather than overseas as the British and French empires were before they lost their empires has obscured the fact the the Soviet Union was in fact an empire.

But part of the old Soviet (and before then, Czarist Russian) empire survives today: the Far East beyond the Ural Mountains. Part of this territory near the Pacific was taken from the Chinese as the Russians advanced east in what the Chinese call "unequal treaties" in the mid-19th century. This wide stretch of territory is sparsely populated by Russians, rich in natural resources, and ill-defended by Russia.

Well, trends are underway that may break apart the rump empire even more (via Real Clear Politics):

Vladimir Putin, like Russia's double-headed imperial eagle, has two faces. Both have lately been very much in evidence. At a meeting of G8 energy ministers in Moscow last week, the Russian president showed his Western visage, presenting Russia as a reliable energy partner and playing the superpower alongside the big hitters of the democratic, industrialized world. This week he travels to Beijing to cement a growing partnership with Asia's other booming authoritarian-capitalist country, China. There he will sign deals on oil pipelines, sales of sophisticated weaponry and nuclear reactors, and security accords reminiscent of the old days of Sino-Soviet entente.

Putin clearly relishes his—and Russia's—newfound clout. But his visit to China raises an interesting question: which of the two nations, in fact, is the real superpower? On the surface, Russia seems to take the laurel, playing an energy-hungry East and West to its advantage. Awash in oil money, Moscow has recently been asserting itself as never before in the post-Soviet era—involving itself in Iran and the Middle East, wielding oil and natural gas as a political weapon against its neighbors in Eastern (and Western) Europe and reasserting control over its near abroad from Belarus to Uzbekistan.

Yet for all its new bullishness, Moscow looks East with a fearful eye. The reality is that China is rising as a military power—thanks in large part to the $5 billion of high-tech Russian arms it buys every year. And long ago it surpassed Russia economically. Yes, Russia may be sloshing with petrodollars. But China's surplus of trade capital is even bigger—to the point that Chinese investment threatens to swamp Russia's dysfunctional economy, particularly in its impoverished but strategically critical Far East. Western G8 members may have objected, fruitlessly, to Putin's inviting China to the Moscow summit. But in truth, it's China—the world's fourth largest economy, with Russia just ahead of Mexico in 12th place—that has the greater claim to a place at the top table. "Russia is shifting from being a junior partner of the United States to a junior partner of China," says Dmitry Trenin, director of Moscow's Carnegie Fund.

Nowhere is China's growing dominance more evident than in Siberia, a vast land far larger than China itself but inhabited by a mere 30 million Russians. Chinese goods are everywhere. In Novosibirsk, the owner of a new hotel can't think of a single thing in the place that isn't from China, from the electric sockets to the beds and furniture. The town's citizens will soon ride to work on Chinese buses; in the markets of Khabarovsk bargain-hungry Russian babush-kas even know the Chinese names for the vegetables they buy from Chinese traders. "Everything we have comes from China—our dishes, leather goods, even the meat we eat is from China," complains Vyacheslav Ilyukhin, head of the Building Department at Novosobirsk's city hall. "Siberia is becoming Chinese."

Russia has been playing with fire to buy time for Russia to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Time is running out and Russia has not restored their former power to be able to stand up to Chinese growing power and ambitions. Russia can either go nuclear or surrender. As I've written, if the Russians think they can protect their frontier with China by arming China they are suffering from borderline insanity.

And an interesting little tidbit in the article states that in May 2005, Putin agreed to give 120 square kilometers of land back to China. The long-standing border dispute is settled according to the article. But I doubt it. China established two things by this small transaction. One, if this small chunk of land is really Chinese territory, in theory the rest of the Far Eastern territory that Russia took from China is no less Chinese. Second, the Chinese established that Russia can be forced to cede territory to them. This will not be the last time that land changes hands along the Russian-Chinese border. Count on that.

Rejoin the West, Russia. You are being played for fools by China out of misplaced pride in what you thought you had under a communist dictatorship.

UPDATE: Mad Minerva wonders if the Russians are being foolish in siding with China and links to this post discussing it in relation to Central Asia. I still say we need to shovel the snow north in Asia.