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The Soft Underbelly of Siberia

The leadership of the Russian Federation is all too often willing to openly identify the United States and NATO as its #1 enemy in leaked (on purpose, of course) security doctrines.  The idea that NATO actually has coherent plans to harm Russian interests is amusing to anyone familiar with the internal dysfunction of the organization, but the importance of such announcements for Russia’s domestic politics is well known.  What is interesting is the Kremlin’s studious avoidance of ever using the taboo word “China” in its security materials, despite very serious concerns and preparations underway.

A few days ago I came across this interesting article by Simon Saradzhyan at ISN Security Watch which reports that Russia will conduct a major combat exercise in the Far East this month to allegedly simulate a potential conflict with Chinese armed forces.  Saradzhyan rightly points out that instead of military chest beating, the Russians had better get busy soon on a stronger development policy for the region.

As of the early 2000s Russia’s Far Eastern and Siberian districts had atotal population of 27 million and their combined gross regionalproducts totalled $110 billion per year, according to then-governor ofKrasnoyarskii Krai Alexander Khoponin’s 2006 speech at the BaikalEconomic Forum in 2006.  In comparison, some 100 million people live inthree Chinese provinces that abut the Russian Far East, according to aMay 2010 article by Robert Kaplan in Foreign Affairs.  The populationdensity on the Chinese side of border is 62 times greater than on theRussian side, according to this renowned expert on China.

China is most likely to continue growing at rates unattainable forRussia while the latter can count only on migration to prevent furtherdepopulation.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that in his 2008speech Khloponin identified the fast growth of countries of theAsia-Pacific region, which includes China, as the main challenge forRussia.