The Far East Between Russia, China, and America
by Rens Lee, FPRI Senior Fellow
Reviewed by Colonel John Handley, USA (retired)
Rens Lee, a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, wrote this interesting short article on Russia’s near neglect of its nine Far East provinces, collectively referred to as the Russian Far East (RFE). This area contains some 36% of the nation’s total territory yet holds less than 5% of its population and produces, to date, less than 6% of its GDP. Though the area has significant economic potential, with over 25,000 km of coastline and an abundance of natural resources, its distance from European Russia and closeness to a dynamic and growing China calls into question Russia’s ability to control the region’s economic or political future. Russia’s leadership consequently views the RFE as vulnerable.
To counter that, Russia will increase its involvement in the RFE economy while inviting various Asia-Pacific states, to include China, to invest in the region. The economic data that Lee provides the reader in support of that claim causes confusion by mixing RFE and Trans-Baikal (TB) figures drawn from overlapping time periods.
The Russian economic model for the development of the RFE relies extensively on financial investment from other nations, especially those in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR). The Russian Minister for the Far East has stated that “Russia wants to vault into the ranks of the 20 most advanced nations, and to do this it must associate itself with actively developing states—that means China, India, the BRIC, and the APR”—a strange collection of overlapping categories.
Russia and China have already formed a close political partnership and worked together to thwart Western and U.S. interests in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere. China is now Russia’s largest trading partner and has pledged to increase trade from $83 billion in 2011 to $200 billion by 2020. Russia’s oil pipeline from Irkutsk to China, once completed, guarantees China 300,000 barrels of oil per day for 20 years.
The author concludes with a section called “Seeking Balance,” in which he states that Russia will always be a “resource appendage” for other nations. Though maintaining sovereignty does not require “self-reliant” industrializations, it does require “judicious exploitation” of its enormous abundance of natural resources, which prevents any single power from gaining a dominant trade and investment role in the RFE. Fearing that an RFE dominated by China could become a military concern for the U.S., Lee favors an American effort to limit Chinese influence in the RFE by leading a coalition of other Asian-Pacific states in the economic development of both the RFE and Siberia.