Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Putin’s Journey Along the Sino-Russian Border

By Gregory Shtraks

Last week (September 2), Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli for the opening of the China-Russia gas pipeline and the Russian president’s subsequent sojourn to Mongolia, his first state visit to Ulaanbaatar since 2004, made headlines throughout the world (Renmin Ribao, September 2).  Putin’s tour of the southeastern Russian provinces of Amur, Altai Republic, Altai Krai and the Tuva Republic, on the other hand, were hardly noticed by the international media. Still, both his international and domestic trips deserve closer analysis.

The Russian leader’s visit to Mongolia resulted in the signing of several economic and political agreements, best viewed as part of an ongoing tectonic trade shift in the wake of the Ukrainian war. Ironically, the most consequential sanctions resulting from the war so far have not been those placed on Russia, but rather the food produce restrictions placed by Russia on the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada and Norway. Sellers from countries as disparate as Brazil, Turkey, Israel, India and Argentina have rushed in to fill the vacuum in Russian supermarkets. It appears that Mongolia will also profit from this phenomenon as Russia is set to lift decades-old restrictions on Mongolian livestock (RT, September 3). Nonetheless, its livestock and metallurgy notwithstanding, Mongolia’s primary importance to Russia is as a conduit to China. In fact, in his remarks to journalists in Ulaanbaatar, Putin emphasized the need to improve Mongolian infrastructure so as to make it a better transit corridor between Russia and China (this was also the interview in which Putin introduced his seven conditions for ending the Russo-Ukraine war) (Kremlin.ru, September 3).

China was clearly also the main catalyst for Putin’s trip to Blagoveshensk (Amur Oblast), a border town on the Amur River that is mirrored by Heihe—a Chinese city on the opposite bank of the Amur (kremlin.ru, September 1).  Coming on the heels of Putin’s visit to Yakutsk (Sakha Republic in Russia’s Far East)—where he met with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang—it is not difficult to discern that Putin’s voyage to the Sino-Russian border had less to do with the construction of the Chita-Khabarovsk super highway (the ostensible reason provided) and more with booming Sino-Russian border trade. In addition to the recent oil and gas deals, China has lost no time in capitalizing on Russia’s demand for more fruits and vegetables. China’s leading fruit seller, Baoring, has set up a giant wholesale market and warehouse in Dongning, just outside of Vladivostok (RT, August 12; FreshFruitPortal.com, August 12). Putin has made the development of the Russian Far East a top priority and his time in Blagoveshensk included an all-day conference on the socio-economic development of Russia’s far eastern provinces. The Russian head of state has appointed not one, but two, top-level ministers charged with developing the region’s economy. At the conference, Yuri Trutnev, the presidential envoy for the Far East, and Alexander Galushka, the minister for Far Eastern development, took turns trying to impress President Putin with their preferred projects, almost all of which are dependent on increased Chinese investments (kremlin.ru, September 1).

After two days in Blagoveshensk, on September 4, Putin visited the Altai Republic and Altai Krai, two remote provinces that the Russian president had never been to prior to this trip, but which happen to share a short border with China (on the western side of Mongolia) (kremlin.ru, September 5). This border connects Russia’s western Siberian oilfields with the Chinese western province of Xinjiang. During the ten-year negotiations that culminated with the signing of the Sino-Russian gas deal last May (see EDM, May 22), Moscow strongly lobbied for the gas pipeline to go through this section of the border, before finally capitulating and agreeing to have the pipeline start in Yakutsk and pass through the eastern section of the border instead. Nonetheless, the construction of a highway that would connect Russia and China in this remote locale is very much in Russia’s interests and undoubtedly played a role in Putin’s visit.  

Last, but certainly not least, on September 6, Putin visited the Tuva Republic to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the unification of Tuva and Russia (kremlin.ru, September 6). Observers of eastern Ukraine would do well to pay close attention, as there is no better example of forced “Anschluss” than Russia’s annexation of Tuva—a province whose population is almost entirely composed of ethnic Mongolians. Furthermore, it is an unlikely coincidence that a presidential trip that began with an expression of Sino-Russian friendship in Yakutsk, and continued with a state visit to Mongolia, ended with a trip to Tuva. After all, the Tuva Republic was the last part of the Qing Empire to be annexed by Russia. Tuva was taken under “Russian protection” in 1914 in the aftermath of Outer Mongolia’s declaration of independence. It then remained a mostly autonomous region until 1944 when the Soviet annexed Tuva in “gratitude” for the sacrifices of Tuvan “volunteers” during World War II.

The deterioration of Russia’s relationship with the West has pushed Moscow closer to Beijing. The Sino-Russian relationship is arguably closer than it has been since the 1950s and may grow closer still. Beneath the affable surface, however, the two powers continue to play geopolitical games on their Central Asian peripheries as they compete for influence in countries such as Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Putin’s trip to Siberia in the midst of the Ukrainian war shows just how crucial China is becoming to Russia. 

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