- By Richard Lourie
- May. 12 2008 00:00
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Russia is the only European country that borders China. That border is quite long (4,400 kilometers) and has a long and contentious history. The first treaty China ever concluded with the West, the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, began establishing borders with Russia, a process that was only finally completed by President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2004.
But fear and grievance remain. Many Chinese believe that by force or the threat of force Russia imposed "unequal treaties" on China and unjustly seized 1.5 million square kilometers of land.
Mao Zedong espoused that view in 1964, and five years later, Soviet and Chinese troops engaged in armed border clashes. "The Politburo was terrified that the Chinese might make a large-scale intrusion into Soviet territory that China claimed. A nightmarish vision of invasion by millions of Chinese made the Soviet leaders almost frantic," wrote Arkady Shevchenko, the highest-ranking Soviet diplomat ever to defect.
But it wasn't only the Politburo that envisioned war with China. Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik predicted war with China as the probable cause of his country's demise in "Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?" He was wrong about the cause but only seven years off on the date.
The old Soviet quip "All quiet on the Finnish-Chinese border" continues to reflect Russian anxiety. Speaking off the record, highly placed Russian government figures told me that they expect the next war to be a "resource war" and that China would be the enemy. It's a pity that U.S.-Russian relations have sunk so low, they say, when the two sides should be forging an alliance to counter the mounting Chinese threat.
As in Soviet times, anti-Chinese sentiment runs deep and creates odd bedfellows. Democrats and jingoists, unable to agree on anything else, agree on China. Leaders of the pro-Western Union of Right Forces, including Yegor Gaidar, often speak of "Chinese expansionism" and the country's "population threat."
Geography abhors a vacuum every bit as much as nature. The Russian Far East, which is two-thirds the size of the continental United States, has only 7 million people. On the other side of the Russian border, in the three northeastern Chinese provinces, there are 100 million people in an area one-eighth the size of the Far East.
A "creeping occupation" has already begun, and by some estimates the Chinese could be the dominant ethnic group in the Far East by 2020. Putin himself has said, "I don't want to dramatize the situation, but if we do not make every real effort, even the indigenous Russian population will soon speak mostly Japanese, Chinese and Korean."
Though Putin's Asia policy has been balanced based on the recognition that Russia is both a European and an Asian country, Putin himself has come under fierce attack lately in a white paper by Boris Nemtsov, co-founder of Union of Right Forces. Nemtsov accuses Putin of a "capitulatory" policy toward the Chinese, whom he has armed to the teeth and to whom he has made "major territorial concessions" (some islands across from the city of Khabarovsk). Nemtsov has even called Putin a "Chinese agent of influence." He also notes that Chinese politicians often speak of Chinese territory "unfairly seized" by tsarist Russia and that Chinese schoolbooks have maps with Russia's eastern territories in the same color as China.
Perhaps it's because the only successful invasion of Russia came from the east -- the Mongols in 1230 -- but it's rare to hear any reasoned discourse on the subject of China. Still, it does exist. Speaking of the glaring disparity between Russia's manufactured exports to China (1.4 percent) and China's to Russia (30 percent), Andrei Ostrovsky, deputy director of the Institute of the Russian Far East, put it quite plainly: "Instead of developing our own production, Russia prefers to 'be afraid of the Chinese.'" Sounds about right.
Richard Lourie is the author of "A Hatred For Tulips" and "Sakharov: A Biography."