Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Demographic Time Bomb

Taylor Washburn at The National Interest has a column that should be of special interest to our Russian and Chinese readers.

Despite their apparent chumminess the demographic trends in both Russia and China are an ominous augur for the future of Sino-Russian relations. Chinese population is growing, Russian population is contracting. Where will the burgeoning Chinese masses go? Washburn thinks that the vast underpopulated Russian territory along the Chinese border may prove an irresistible temptation for Beijing.

Here are a few excerpts from Washburn's essay:
For although China currently maintains no claims to Russian land, many in Moscow remain convinced that Beijing has not given up on the Far East forever. Fueling Russian fear is a fantastic population imbalance and a wave of illegal Chinese immigration which could eventually render European Russians a regional minority. With 110 million residents—and 65 million in the border provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin alone—the northeast holds only 8 percent China’s population but is more than three quarters the size of Russia’s, which is heavily concentrated west of the Ural Mountains.

With around 6 million people, the Russian Far East is among the most vacant places on earth and is only growing emptier, as nationwide demographic collapse is compounded by out-migration. Endowed with oil, gas, coal and timber, the region is the opposite of nearby China: rich in resources while starved for labor and capital.

Thus, although Moscow and Beijing recently staged their largest-ever joint naval drill off the coast of Primorsky Krai, Russia has continued to run exercises which appear to be aimed at China—including a 2010 ground drill tailored to repel an invasion by an unnamed foe resembling the People’s Liberation Army, and massive war games held just last month.

In addition, the Kremlin has maintained its time-honored partnership with India, and has also sought to improve ties with China’s archnemesis Japan, pledging to negotiate a long-delayed World War II peace treaty, which would not only sow the seeds for additional Japanese investment in Far East oil and gas fields, but could provide a hedge against Chinese economic and military coercion.
Washburn concludes with this thought:
...relentless demographic trends in Northeast Asia suggest that any collaboration between Moscow and Beijing will operate under a cloud, which could grow darker as China’s relative military strength increases. Even if Chinese leaders try to reassure Moscow that its hold on the Far East is secure, both states surely know that the growth of the region’s Chinese population amidst Russian decline may place the other in a bind, with nationalist pressure setting constraints on compromise. While Putin and Xi grip and grin, the demographic time-bomb between them is ticking—and if it goes off, a shared suspicion of the United States may prove a brittle bond.
It would seem that the natural frictions that would be exacerbated by population trends along the Sino-Russian border offer the United States opportunities to advance its own interests. If tensions increase between the two Asian powers both would have an interest in courting the favor of the U.S. An adroit State Department would work that to our advantage. It'll be interesting to see how matters unfold in this region.