Weird Times in the Far East, Part 3 (Final)

More interesting times.

Part 1

Part 2

The emerging character of Russia’s military build-up in the Far East is one that would enable Russia to project power around China’s eastern flank, rather than confront China head-on in the continental interior.

Things that make you go hmmm    

It’s a smart strategy, but Russian execution remains ragged across the board. This recent Russian move in relation to an ally of convenience was positively stupid. An Indian naval task force traveled to the Russian navy’s headquarters in the Far East, the Pacific fleet naval base at Vladivostok, for a long-planned joint exercise scheduled for May 2011, only to be told on arrival – without any prior warning – that the exercise had been cancelled. The Russians also cancelled a major exercise with the Indian army, in the same abrupt way.

Observers speculate that Russia is annoyed at having been eliminated (along with US bidders) from the tender for India’s next-generation multirole fighter. Reacting in this bizarre manner to a key potential ally against a China-Pakistan nexus seems to argue something close to a meltdown, however.

It may simply be a struggle to assemble a critical mass of Russian brain cells in eastern Russia these days. Time and trends have turned Siberia into an empty quarter where much of the human activity is conducted not by the shrinking population of unemployed Russians but by Chinese businesses. The Siberian area in question is west of the Far East’s Primorskiy military district (where the military force build-up is centered). A big reason why the Russians won’t be confronting China across the border from Siberia is that there are only 6 million Russians on the border, facing 90 million Chinese.

The land area of Siberia is 5.1 million square miles (the land area of the US is 3.79 million), with some 24 million total inhabitants. Nutball Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky proposed in March, after the Japan earthquake, that the Japanese move part of their population to Siberia to build a new life. Zhirinovsky has been lobbing lunatic comments at the public for more than 20 years, but he’s vice-chairman of the Duma and a persistent force in Russian politics. He’s not wrong, however – neither is Medvedev – about the strategic vulnerability of an empty Siberia. It is as important a destabilizing factor as anything else going on in Asia.

And of a piece with the cheerful news that Russia’s middle class has been fleeing – really, fleeing, in droves – along with global capital. According to Russian analysts, the recent exodus of about 1.25 million of Russia’s most productive citizens is comparable to “the first which took place after the October coup in 1917 when about two million people left” Russia.

The world is not what it was two years ago – or even one.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

10 thoughts on “Weird Times in the Far East, Part 3 (Final)”

  1. For me its more like Huh? than Hmmm. Maybe someone can help a guy out and connect a few of the dots. What do these trends mean in the larger picture? Is Russia on the cusp of collapse? If so, what does Game Theory say about the actions of the elites as it collapses? What will the peripheral nations do? How does the cauldron boiling around Israel affect or is affected by all this? Thanks in advance.

    1. No, I don’t think Russia is on the cusp of collapse. If I did, I would have said so. But Russia is decreasingly able to effectively govern all her territory, and that is likely to be a temptation for China.

      I don’t expect the temptation to play out in an out-and-out military invasion of Siberia. That’s not China’s MO, and it would be stupid. But China can put the squeeze on Russia in other ways, given the vulnerability of Russia’s vast and lightly guarded/populated territory. If China can begin to implement local policies that the central government in Moscow objects to, because there’s not much the “White Russian” core population can do about it, that will shift the balance of power in Asia as surely as the conquest of territory.

      To the question whether China WOULD do such a thing, the answer is, Of course. The pretext in virtually every case would be the exploitation of natural resources, which is driving much of China’s global policy right now. Siberia is stuffed with natural resources — like the other areas of Asia, Africa, and Latin America where China has been combining charm offensives with intimidation and arm-twisting.

      The hinge of the dynamic will be whether Russia tries to act preemptively, to prevent things from lining up to China’s advantage in Siberia, or accepts being unable to and negotiates the best surrender she can get. Right now, my money is on the former.

      And Russia and China don’t operate in a vacuum. The great strategic temptation represented by a poorly defended Siberia is not something only China will recognize. The problem in the region is that neither Russia nor Japan has a young, dynamic, outward-pushing population. India, for all its economic energy, is inward-looking and steeped in tradition. Korea is vibrant but divided, and in any case too small compared to either China or Japan. The Central Asian tribal peoples are poorly organized and not that numerous to begin with.

      So if you were to take a very crude perspective, the question would be whether the effective owner and exploiter of Siberia in this century will be China, Russia, or some combination of Westerners — the historical explorer peoples — who contract with Russia to get the region organized.

      Right now, I think most people would bet on China. I’m not so sure. But we’ll see. However things go, the huge imbalance of power and organization in northeast Asia is a major destabilizer.

  2. Russia isn’t collapsing, it’s still in a prolonged decline. It’s also quite effectively hemmed by Europe and China and is going to be spending the next couple of decades trying to retain some sway over the former Soviet possessions in Central Asia.

  3. What China-Pakistan nexus???

    Pakistan isn’t anybody’s idea of a desirable ally. They might be sucking up to China because the Chinese represent about the only possible replacement for US aid, but China isn’t all that eager. Pakistan may try to sell the Chinese that they can help them with controlling the Islamic militants that are working against China (and train ing in Pakistan, but the Chinese have had plenty of time to note Pakistan’s obvious lack of sincerity and effectiveness.

  4. It’s a nasty brutish place, read Ghelfi, ‘the Burning Lake’ for the fictional tableau,
    or Maier’s ‘Black Earth’ for the real view. Historically that area has been a flashpoint.

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