Russia is seeking an antidote to Chinese expansion
02.05.2012 — Analysis
Russia is considering the expulsion of Chinese migrants. Such a radical step is intended as a response to the Middle Kingdom's strong-armed economic policy. The experts who proclaimed this idea at an international conference in Ekaterinburg suggest that Russia, with its clear division between its eastern and western halves, needs to reclaim its space by building new rail lines to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This will require political support from Central Asia. But, as this columnist for RusBusinessNews has determined, those former Soviet republics are in no hurry to give up their roles as re-exporters of Chinese goods. In addition, there is doubt that the money that has been allocated to construct the railroads will actually be spent for its intended purposes.
The first Yeltsin Lectures have been held in Ekaterinburg. This academic conference was dedicated to the memory of Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, and it focused on the strategy for economic and political cooperation between Russia and Central Asia. The discussion was prompted by some of the serious challenges faced by the countries of that neighboring region. Experts aren't ruling out the possibility of unrest breaking out again in Kazakhstan in the near future or of new confrontations erupting between Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz.
Dr. Vakhob Vakhidov (PhD in economics) claims that the economic problems in Tajikistan are worsening - there are shortages of energy, land, and water, plus fewer products are being produced and fewer crops planted. All this is coupled with a growing population and increasing nationalist sentiments. Tajiks are angry that the Uzbeks, with whom relations have long been strained, are blocking their gas supplies and roads, following irrational irrigation practices, and worst of all, refusing to agree to the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric plant, which would not only eliminate the electricity and water shortages, but also allow them to sell their surplus to their neighbors.
Tajikistan's economic survival is primarily due to its flow of migrants who find work in Russia. Tajiks depend on the assistance of these migrants to revive their country's economy. According to Guzel Maytdinova, a professor at Russian-Tajik University, the Corporation for Central Asian Development, which was created by the Russians, should focus its efforts on job training and creation and on ensuring the country's supply of water, electricity, and food.
Aleksandr Knyazev, of the Institute for Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, also told this columnist for RusBusinessNews that Russia will assist Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan only in exchange for political concessions that they have yet to make. Both countries have been slow to support Russia's opposition to China. In turn, Moscow prefers not to intervene in the conflict between the Tajiks and Uzbeks, as the two sides are unwilling to listen to one another and use the water shortage to put pressure on their neighbors. Aleksandr Knyazev believes that the irresponsible and short-sighted stance taken by the Central Asian countries may literally cause them to soon vanish from the global map. This expert predicts that there will be no more than 50 sovereign nations in the world by 2040.
That list certainly won't include Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan, because those countries are very weak. The markets in these former Soviet republics are so tiny that Russia is not even considering them as potential members of the Customs Union, which was established to defend against Chinese economic expansion into the area of the former USSR. On the contrary, Moscow believes that if the Central Asian republics become members, this will only exacerbate the situation by opening the door for goods to be re-exported from the Middle Kingdom to Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan, weary of battling the flow of drugs and contraband across its southern border, is considering erecting an "iron curtain" to separate the country from its neighbors.
Meanwhile, experts believe it is essential to unite the efforts of the former Soviet republics in order to counter China's power plays in the region. According to Kseniya Muratshina of Urals Federal University, China has increased its water consumption many times over since 1997, and it continues to expand its construction of canals, despite its neighbors' objections. The Irtysh River has become visibly shallower, but there is no provision in the bilateral agreements for the country to be held legally liable and pay reparations for the environmental damage. China is opposed to a unified agreement that would govern the use of water in the region.
Russia has no mechanism through which to act in the Middle Kingdom. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has long been little more than a guise for advancing China's interests in the territory of the former USSR. Aleksandr Knyazev is convinced that Russia must counter China's power politics without reservation - the country might consider expelling all Chinese migrants from Russia, for example. But this expert's colleagues doubt that such a harsh step would help. China's economy is worth $9 trillion, and the EU's - 12 trillion euros, and between the two of them they are literally tearing Russia in two, forcing the Russian economy to serve two masters.
Aleksandr Sobyanin, the head of the strategic planning service of the Association for Border-Zone Cooperation, notes that the greater the investment in the country's commodity sector, the more strongly the country is pulled between these two powerful centers of influence. But under the current circumstances there is no reason to invest in industries other than commodities - the size of the Russian manufacturing sector has been steadily declining and the educational system is deteriorating. This expert claims that in order to survive, Russia must employ West-East and North-South railroads to gain control of this area. Previously, the Trans-Siberian and Turkestan-Siberian railways fulfilled this role. But the Trans-Siberian is no longer adequate for this task and the Turkestan-Siberian line has been entirely dismantled.
Aleksandr Sobyanin claims that this area can only be reclaimed by connecting the Chuya and Fergana valleys by a road heading to the Indian Ocean, and by opening up a route to the Pacific Ocean via a northbound rail line to Chukotka, as well as by constructing a Central Siberian railroad running above the current Baikal-Amur Mainline. To complete these projects, deep-water ports must be built on the ocean coasts. By addressing these economic interests, the country can also resolve its security issues. Once the country is braced by these transportation corridors, this will fundamentally change the nature of Russia's development. Having independent access to the oceans will make the other needed investments work to strengthen the country, instead of dividing it.
Konstanin Zubkov, a senior researcher at the Institute of History and Archeology at the Urals division of the Russian Academy of Sciences, doubts that Russia is currently able to build ambitious rail lines to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In the Urals Federal District they wanted to construct a more modest railroad along the ridge of the Ural Mountains a decade ago, but the idea never got past the initial discussion phase.
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