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PANEL | Post-Crimea nationalism eases Far East border fears

March 30, 2015

By Sarah McPhee

This post is part two of a three-part series on a panel discussing Russia’s relationship with China in the context of current events in Ukraine. This panel discussion, “Russia’s Pivot to China in the Context of a Burning Ukraine” was co-sponsored by the Ellison Center, the East Asia Center, and the Center for Global Studies at the University of Washington. Panelists included Judith Thornton from the University of Washington and Liz Wishnick from Montclair State University as well as Dr. Mikhail Alekseev from San Diego State University.

Mikhail Alekseev, Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University, analyzed the emerging modern Sino-Russian relationship through public views on Chinese migration in the Russian Far East since 2000. Based upon mass opinion surveys in Russia in 2000, 2005, 2013, and 2014, Alekseev found a significant decline in negative perceptions of Chinese migration among residents of the Russian Far East, particularly as a threat to sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia. The opinion surveys addressed  perceptions of geopolitical threat, xenophobic prejudices, central government authority, economic valuations, and intergroup contact.

These findings are compelling against a historical background of protracted territorial disputes over land lost to Imperial Russia. For the Russians, Sino-Soviet Split came with a huge defense obligation for this contested border area. Alekseev explained that “from 1962 to 1982,  the cost of protecting the Eastern border was 2.5x more than the cost of all the losses in WWII.”

Borderline Anxiety?

Courtesy of the Moscow News

Courtesy of the Moscow News

The Soviet Union, succeeded by the Russian Federation, grappled with these territorial and migration concerns in this region as the Chinese population on the other side of the border is far more dense. In 2000, when talking to Russians in Primorskii Krai, researchers found a gradual and significant decline in fear over Chinese migration, although 60% of Chinese believe it is legitimately their territory. Since Russians generally believe that China is in a stronger position, Alekseev insisted the threat perception should increase…yet his findings indicate that the threat perception is decreasing.

There has been a great deal of media attention in Russia around the Kremlin’s reengagement with China. Alekseev reminded the audience that “Putin gave China two islands, and it was perceived that Chinese get more benefit from trade.” Despite these misgivings amongst Russians, cross-border human exchanges have grown, to include the establishment of cross border trade complexes and visa-free zones for traders and scholars.

Russian children learn Chinese opera as part of a successful Sino-Russian cultural exchange.

Russian children learn Chinese opera as part of a successful Sino-Russian cultural exchange.

Alekseev highlighted the differences in perspective between the Chinese and Russians which complicate such exchanges by offering an  example of a border visa-free zone. The Chinese pragmatically built transportation and economic routes. The Russians, however, first built a fence and then an Orthodox church. In order to get to the visa-free zone, Russians needed an FSB permit. To the amusement of the crowd, Alekseev declared, “There goes your free trade!”

Despite prejudice, marriages between people of Russian and Chinese ethnicity are not uncommon, with couples thinking of themselves as creating "global families." Picture links to Russia Behind the Headlines article.

Despite prejudice, marriages between Russians and Chinese are not uncommon. Picture links to Russia Behind the Headlines article.

The exchange efforts have made some inroads, but not all of the results have been positive. According to Alekseev’s research, the more Russians who traveled to China, the more threat was perceived. There is a belief amongst Russians that ethnic diversity weakens Russia, which is already experiencing a population decline. Alekseev’s work found that the respondents consider Chinese and Gypsies to be the most unacceptable marriage partners, along with Ukrainians (due to the current conflict).

Western Pressure

Alekseev asserted that much like the Russian government, the Chinese Communist Party has been building a wall against foreign NGOs for political stability. Within both capitals, there is a sense of threat, and sanctions have not helped the situation. He asserted that when Russians experience a decline in economic position, there is a general increase in animosities, and sanctions prevent Russia from reaping benefits in Asia.

It is clear that Russia and China face similar problems right now — they both have export-led economies which are driven by the markets — and enormous domestic problems. China faces serious issues, including environmental disasters, overpopulation, human rights and censorship issues, and an economy that is heavily dependent upon exports. Russia’s domestic problems are more a product of an institutional environment so corrupt, so centralized, that the “only alternative is US style market liberalization, and unless they do that, there will be stagnation.”

While China has no Arctic borders, the opening of shipping routes through the North Pole make the region an important focus for an export-oriented economy.

While China has no Arctic borders, the opening of shipping routes through the North Pole make the region an important focus for an export-oriented economy.

Alekseev found that previously understating the strength and relevance of the Sino-Russian relationship in American policy circles (Axis of Convenience) is the reason for surprise and perhaps alarm when this partnership is highlighted. Still, Alekseev insisted that the two countries do have differences which present certain weaknesses, and currently the Arctic is where the countries find the greatest divide. Beijing believes that the Arctic “belongs to everyone” and China considers itself a “Near-Arctic Nation,” while Russia takes a more territorial view.

The Ukraine Effect

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“Pro-Russian separatists” were pictured playing football outside the Ukrainian town of Debaltseve, courtesy of the BBC.

Alekseev concluded his presentation within the context of the Ukrainian conflict. He asserted that many of the Russian soldiers who are involved in the fighting originate in the Far East. “Who are the Russian troops in Ukraine? They are from Siberia and the Urals, about two to four thousand of them.” 

According to Alekseev, the most recent 2014 data suggests that the alarmist anti-Chinese views in the Russian Far East likely declined further since the onset of the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea due to a perception of increased national strength. He concluded that, on the whole, “valuations of in-group strength shape migration attitudes more significantly than comparisons across groups or nations.”