While currently cozy economic and defense trading partners, Russia and China are traditional military and intelligence opponents. Up until at least the mid-1980s, the KGB considered China to be a “major adversary” just behind the US “main adversary”. Undoubtedly, the “Chinese conspiracy” theory is still popular in Russian intelligence circles, matched by the opposite view among their Chinese counterparts. Indeed, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s China expert reports the sense in Moscow of widespread Chinese intelligence operations within Russia, reciprocated on the Chinese side. Powerful military and political groups in Beijing have never lost hope of eventually recovering to the Chinese sphere of influence territories Russia took from the old Chinese Empire.
These territories are vast and abut on all China’s frontiers. The most relevant in contemporary terms are the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kirghizia and Tadjikistan, seized by Imperial Russia under an 1858 treaty, and the Siberian frontier region of the Heilong Jiang (Black Dragon) River, or Amur River as the Russians call it, where the rustic and decaying, under-populated Russian town of Blagoveshchensk faces the modern Chinese city of Heihe just some 1,000 metres across the river with modern skyscrapers and a booming economy. In the 19th century this region was seized by a resurgent Russian Empire from a weak Chinese Empire. Chinese bitterness over its past territorial losses, surfacing in the 1964-1974 Sino-Russian border clashes, has never abated and claims to some half a million square miles of land never recalled.
No longer full “comrades”, China is concerned over Russian political instability and the possibility that the Kremlin may return to its major power expansionist ideology. Russia, for its part, views China primarily as a source of investment and hard currency, secured in large part through the sale of Russian arms. Historically, densely populated China has been regarded as a threat to Russia’s energy and resource rich, but under-populated, territories east of the Urals.
In its April 1996 strategic accord with Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, China undertook to ease military tensions along all these borders, which are also sources of Islamic extremist separatist activity aimed at Beijing. Following an understanding to resolve their long-standing border disputes at their July 2001 bilateral summit, the two powers agreed to hold consultations on strategic stability, allow military-technical cooperation not directed at third parties, but opposed “any kind of independence for Taiwan”.
Privately, some PLA intelligence estimates hold that China could recapture Siberia in a matter of weeks, given the heavy cutbacks and state of neglect in the Russian Far Eastern Command and Far Eastern Fleet, the slow self-destruction of Russia’s nuclear deterrent for lack of maintenance, and the lack of funds for developing a new generation “nuclear triad”.
However, an economically vibrant China is discovering the short cut to regaining lost territory by simply buying it back.
In May 2002, China regained 90,000 hectares of claimed territory from the ex-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.
Earlier, in September 2001, Premier Zhu Rongji concluded a deal in Moscow to build by 2005 a 2,500 kilometer oil pipeline connecting the eastern Siberian city of Angarsk, the easternmost terminal of Russia’s current oil pipeline network, with the Chinese city of Daqing in Heilongjiang Province, which is the northernmost terminal of China’s oil pipeline network. This new pipeline will carry tens of millions of tons of Western Siberian oil into China.
A high-capacity natural gas pipeline will be built in tandem with the oil pipeline.
Also during September 2001, China won permission to explore and develop oil and gas deposits throughout Eastern Siberia and the massive Yakut Republic of the Russian Far East. Russia abandoned the last of its far-flung Asian military bases when it handed back Cam Ranh Bay naval base to Vietnam on May 4, 2002. Essentially, Russia has by these steps reverted to the role of a central Eurasian land power, denuded of facilities for monitoring Chinese, American and Japanese activities in the South China Sea. However, by keeping its hand on the cross-border energy source of rapidly industrializing China, Moscow holds a lever to keep Beijing’s expansionist aspirations in check.
This is particularly pertinent when Chinese expansion is not just territorial.
Special Chinese border free trading zones in proximity to former Soviet states, the largest of which is Dadong City in Liaoning Province on the Yalu River, are porous not only to trade but also, in the case of Siberia, to broad unofficial Chinese societal immigration of Han farming settlers and traders. Chinese intelligence may have a hand in facilitating a natural demographic process. So too do big-time crime organizations, like the Chinese triad, the Japanese “Yakuza” and Russia mafia elements, who run heavy illegal goods smuggling, money laundering, counterfeit goods production, and narcotics trafficking across the border, centering on Far Eastern Russian towns with large ethnic Chinese communities, such as Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Blagoveshchensk, and Pogranichnyi.