Beijing is increasing its political influence in Siberia and the Russian Far East to better support its expanding economic activities. These efforts are directed at the political and business elites who are the major stakeholders in deciding which firms can operate in their respective regions (Kommersant, May 20; Vybor Naroda, October 25).
This pattern follows the Chinese playbook from Central Asia, where Beijing has used a wide range of tools to promote its “soft power” and even opened the way for deploying elements of “hard power,” including private security companies (see “The Role of PSCs in Securing Chinese Interests in Central Asia,” February 22). China has done so by providing funds and opportunities that Moscow can no longer offer to support the authoritarian tendencies of regional elites. These means go to sponsoring ethnic unrest and then supporting elite crackdowns, even using outright corruption to win over government officials and business leaders (see EDM, January 30, 2018).
Now, China is doing many of the same things inside the Russian Federation, especially east of the Urals (see EDM, September 21, 28). So long as Moscow is distracted by its war in Ukraine, China is likely to have ever-more opportunities to expand its political and economic influence in Russia.
These tactics have generated both local and regional concerns in Russia. Chinese efforts are generating resistance from the local populations that resent their regional leaders kowtowing to China. Russian citizens hold a number of perceptions on Beijing’s increased activity. For example, some see it as being motivated by growing interest in purely economic issues, while others are concerned about the formation of political alliances with regional elites as a type of neo-imperialism and threat to Russia’s territorial integrity. Such fears limit the success of China’s soft power offensive at the mass level. These concerns, however, are much less impactful at the level of regional elites, though they do represent a major impediment to the expansion of Russian-Chinese cooperation at the state level (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, September 7, 2017).
Evidence of the growing deference of Russian officials in Siberia and the Far East to Beijing has long been apparent. Perhaps the most notorious came last fall from Vasily Orlov, the governor of Russia’s Amur Oblast. Orlov declared that all schools in Blagoveshchensk, a city on the Russian-Chinese border, would offer special courses for the “in-depth study of the Chinese language.” Some outlets suggested that these courses would also be available at other schools in the region and that they would be compulsory. These outlets also noted that street signs in Chinese have already gone up in many places (Govorit moskva, June 12, 2022; Evening-kazan.ru, June 13, 2022). The Russian governor said he was taking this step due to the opening of a bridge between Blagoveshchensk and the Chinese city of Heihe, which has five times more people than Blagoveshchensk.
China’s efforts to extend its influence on regional Russian elites assumed new prominence this month with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Beijing and the meeting of more than 1,000 Chinese and Russian regional political and business leaders in Liaoning of China’s Shenyang Province. Putin visited Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum on October 17 and 18. He tried to present his talks with Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping as a great success. They were far from that, with Xi giving Putin little besides a rare chance to travel abroad (see EDM, October 23).
The Liaoning meeting, where Russian officials from various regions met to sign deals with their Chinese counterparts, may prove to be more consequential. The agreed-upon deals look to boost trade between China and many Russian regions east of the Urals, open new trade offices of these regions in China and new Chinese offices in the Russian regions (i.e., “proto-embassies”), and provide for the construction of new transportation links that will further expand trade and promote economic integration between the Russian regions and China (Akcent.site, October 23; Primamedia.ru, October 25; Ura.news, October 25).
These moves have received less attention in the Russian media than one might expect. This is in part due to the fact that the infrastructure and trade deals signed at the Liaoning meeting tie these Russian regions ever-more closely to China and give regional elites greater opportunities to use China as a means of gaining greater freedom of action relative to Moscow.
As long as Russia needs China more than the other way around, there is little the Kremlin can say or do that will prevent regional elites from drifting away from the Russian center. At the same time, these agreements are being celebrated by Chinese officials who see the Russian Far East increasingly looking to China and willing to do what Beijing wants. This includes working directly with the Chinese authorities rather than via Moscow, as Russian law and practice require (EastRussia, October 25).
The level to which China’s growing role in the Russian Far East and Siberia has put Moscow on the defensive was thrown into high relief just before these meetings. In August, the Chinese government published new official maps showing parts of India and the Russian Federation within China. New Delhi reacted immediately and sharply, but Moscow did not (Stoletie.ru, August 29; Bzdt.ch.mnr.gov.cn, accessed October 26). Weeks later, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, claimed that the maps, though officially approved by the Chinese government, do not reflect the realities that Moscow and Beijing recognize (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, August 31).
Some Russians fear that these developments may reflect a new reality in relations with China. Following Putin’s visit to Beijing, a new anecdote has been circulating in Moscow that claims Xi announced that the Russian president’s next visit to China would be in Khabarovsk. The city, perhaps for the time being, remains within the borders of the Russian Federation and sits only 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Chinese border (Publizist.ru, October 19). If this is indeed the case, meetings like the one in Liaoning will have mattered far more than the Putin-Xi summit in Beijing.
This article was published at The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 166