Once a barren land marked only by political tensions, the endless, sparsely populated frontier between China and Russia is now crossed by goods and trade. The explanation is in the numbers: an area accounting for 60% of Russia’s land mass is inhabited by only 8% of the entire population, barely 12 million people. Out past Mongolia, however, the Siberian Far East is a territory flush with natural resources, and a relatively dense Chinese population just across the border. Rich, ambitious, and thirsty for energy, neighboring China is a natural partner for the development of Siberia, an easy conclusion that is gaining traction. The alternative, linking Siberia to Moscow, has already proven to be too difficult and expensive in the past. The distances are immense, there is little infrastructure, and the costs of setting one up and maintaining it would be unbearable. The Sino-Russian relationship has rekindled, but with economic interests in place of the ideological synergies of the past.
China replaced Germany in 2011 as Russia’s largest trade partner. Russia has now become China’s 10th largest supplier, largely due to the export of raw materials, and Beijing often intervenes directly in the extraction and transfer. A pipeline terminating in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, 3,700 km from its origin in Russia, is now being complemented by the East Siberia Pacific Ocean (Espo) duct that, despite not yet being completed, already carries 600,000 barrels of crude to Russia’s pacific ports each day. Other projects are underway, ranging from hydroelectric energy transmission, to natural gas transportation and extraction of gold, silver, copper, and molybdenum from Siberian mines. The political framework supporting these initiatives is the “2009-2018 Cooperation program,” signed by Presidents Hu Jintao and Dmitri Medvedev, an agreement that envisions the realization of 205 projects in the border regions.
The new relationship is already changing Siberia’s landscape. The population is on the rise again, after a dramatic 22% drop following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Old mines, dating back to the Stalinist era, have been reopened and are now back in operation. Former Soviet engineers and technicians, who migrated to more prosperous regions after the collapse, are returning to their hometowns to take advantage of the current boom. Pressure is also being felt from the neighbors to the south. The new opportunities are a magnet for Chinese workers and entrepreneurs, attracted by the untouched resource-rich lands to the north. The Heilongjiang River (River Amur in Russian), where the two countries fought a war in 1969, is now bridged by the exchange of goods, capital, and ideas.
About half a million Chinese live in Russian Siberia, along with the tensions that are often felt following the opening of borders that have traditionally kept two countries separate. Beijing and Moscow nevertheless see an opportunity for reciprocal benefit in this situation. Russia gains in development and demographics, and China is able to relieve some of its internal stress caused by overpopulation. Siberia attracts old Russians and new Chinese with the promise of a rich new land that would otherwise be nothing more than a windswept desert.