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Siberia at Stake

Siberians have realized that, for better or for worse, Beijing is a lot closer than Moscow. The land is already providing China, ‘the factory of the world,‘ with much of its raw materials, especially oil, gas and timber. Increasingly, Chinese-owned factories in Siberia churn out finished goods, as if the region already were a part of the Middle Kingdom‘s economy

PRAFULL GORADIA | New Delhi |

One is unable to understand the Russian regime’s inability to realize that its greatest enemy potentially would be China and certainly not the USA.

Moscow’s obsession with America earlier was due to its illusion that the Soviet Union was a superpower. Josef Stalin imagined that primarily the USSR was instrumental for the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. He overlooked that the USA and Britain were the Western front and a lot of his weaponry and other material had been supplied under the Lend Lease Act.

The Soviet Union was not a very strong European power before the war; its economy was neither resourceful nor efficient. It did not deserve to nurture dreams of being a superpower, a dream that eventually resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. By some strange device, this delusion was passed on to his successor Nikita Khrushchev, who in turn passed it on to Leonid Brezhnev. It was only Mikhail Gorbachev who could see the reality, by which time it was too late.

Vladimir Putin appears to be making an equally dangerous mistake by ignoring the potential threat from China. He was only 17 years old when the Soviet Union fought a seven-month-long mini war across the Ussuri River, which is located in Russia’s Siberia or sleeping land. How big was Beijing’s ambition one does not know, but the Soviets had to convey an implicit nuclear threat to the aggressor.

To save face, Mao Zedong through his premier Zhou en Lai, threatened a “People’s War”, which meant that hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers would swarm Soviet tanks, as they had done with the Americans in the Korean War in 1951-52. The Chinese leader’s belief of convenience was the superiority of man over machine. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) did demonstrate its idea of warfare on one of the islands on the Ussuri by ambushing Soviet soldiers.

In the end, China gained quite a few islands on the river, which were a loss for the Soviet Union. Logically, more conflict lies ahead. China is a much bigger nuclear power than it was in 1969. Its ambitions have grown and by its current indications, it wishes to become a superpower. We have to remember that Siberia is over 13 million square kilometres with a sparse population, whereas China is bubbling with people but is short of arable land. Incidentally, the Yellow giant gained several hundred islands in the midst of not only the Ussuri but also the Amur and Argun rivers. This gain by China and loss by the USSR were after decades of harrowing negotiations which ended in 2004.

With the earth experiencing climate change and getting warmer, Siberia could well become more hospitable. Today, the whole region is considered hostile due to its very low temperatures in winter. It gets as cold as -25 degrees centigrade on an average; at its coldest some pockets touch-46 degrees centigrade. In other words, with global warming, Siberia, east of the Ural mountains and stretching to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean, is likely to become attractive for China to occupy.

To add to its attractions, parts of Siberia are rich with minerals. The region, called Sibir in Russian, is rich in coal, natural gas, diamonds, iron ore, gold and aluminum. The visionary Czar towards the end of the 16th century sent groups of Cossacks led by a heroic Yermak who occupied gradually the whole area now a part of Russia.

A possible scenario of China forcibly occupying Siberia can no larger be looked upon as hypothetical or imaginary. Patrick Prinston, a Western columnist informs us that a Chinese portal “Jinji Toutiao” had published an article whose author called Siberia “Chinese land”.

The Chinese media regularly praises Russian ruler Vladimir Putin and how cleverly he puts the West in its place. Simply, from the point of view of Beijing, Russia is not only a good friend, but also has an excellent potential prize.

“There are no countries around the world that are always friendly, or, conversely, always hostile to each other. In the past, Siberia was conquered by the Mongols and therefore, in fact, is a Chinese territory.” This is increasingly becoming China’s refrain.

Recently, one of the inhabitants of Siberia organized a collective boycott of China, collecting 250,000 signatures. He wants Russia to stop exporting timber to China within ten years. Siberian forests are of great value for Russia. However, following the sharp increase in the volume of foreign trade in recent years, the local forest has been cut down on a large scale.

Joe Burgess in his column in The New York Times “Why China Reclaims Siberia” lays out an even starker scenario. A land without people for a people without land, Burgess says. At the turn of the 20th century, that slogan promoted Jewish migration to Palestine. It could be recycled today, justifying a Chinese takeover of Siberia. The land is as resource-rich and people-poor as China is the opposite.

The weight of that logic scares the Kremlin. Like love, a border is real only if both sides believe in it. And on both sides of the Sino-Russian border, that belief is wavering. Siberia ~ the Asian part of Russia, east of the Ural Mountains ~ is immense. It takes up three-quarters of Russia’s land mass, the equivalent of the entire USA and India put together.

The 1.35 billion Chinese people south of the border outnumber Russia’s 144 million almost 10 to 1. The discrepancy is even starker for Siberia on its own, home to barely 38 million people, and especially the border area, where only 6 million Russians face over 90 million Chinese.

With intermarriage, trade and investment across that border, Siberians have realized that, for better or for worse, Beijing is a lot closer than Moscow. The land is already providing China, “the factory of the world,” with much of its raw materials, especially oil, gas and timber. Increasingly, Chinese-owned factories in Siberia churn out finished goods, as if the region already were a part of the Middle Kingdom’s economy. Beijing could use Russia’s own strategy: hand out passports to sympathizers in contested areas, and then move in militarily to “protect its citizens.” If Beijing chooses to take Siberia by force, the only way Moscow could stop it would be by using nuclear weapons.

In a meeting with the press on May 20 this year, Russian President Putin, using a bit of colourful language, threatened to “smash the teeth of anyone who tried to bite off even a piece of Siberia”. He surely could not have been thinking of the USA or the West. Chinese dictator Xi Jinping only last year described Putin as his “best friend”. The bonhomie is understandable as both countries now face American sanctions and hostility ~ China for its increasingly apparent role in engineering the Covid-19 pandemic devastating the world and increasing aggression, and Russia for its revanchism in Europe and cyber-interference in American affairs.

But despite all the nice sounding rhetoric, the reality of the China-Russia relationship is a shallow one. The USA and the nations friendly to it are bound by a set of common values, formal military alliances and/or structures and even sharing of intelligence, with both qualitative and quantities expansions like the Quad (USA, Japan, India and Australia) happening.

There is nothing even remotely comparable in the case of Russia and China; in this partnership, which is purely transactional without any real political integration, Russia is very much the junior partner by a long distance, with China eyeing its geographically vast, resource-rich but under populated Eurasian neighbour.

The writer is an author, thinker and former Member of Parliament.