The Sick Man of Asia: Russia's Endangered Far East

By Menon, Rajan | The National Interest, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Sick Man of Asia: Russia's Endangered Far East


Menon, Rajan, The National Interest


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. …

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