A few days ago, as the Crimean crisis began, I posted a piece suggesting that Putin was setting a dangerous precedent that might someday be used to justify a Chinese seizure of Siberia. Yesterday, that piece was picked up and excerpted on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal.
The Chinese have not forgotten the Treaty of Nerchinsk signed with Russia in 1689, whereby the Manchus were forced to cede a large swath of Siberia. The Chinese with a generational outlook on history know how to play the long game. They have no need to conquer by force of arms what they can more easily reclaim by migration.
I've been told by an expert on Russian affairs that entire cities along the Trans-Siberian Railroad have already been overrun by Chinese migrants. Some of these cities now bear Chinese names not unlike a similar process going on in the U.S. south-west where migrating Latinos have reclaimed areas lost during the Mexican-American War.
One of the keys to understanding Siberia is to view a satellite map of the region taken at night. The railroad illuminated at night looks like the tale of a kite stretching from Moscow to Vladivostok. The true geography of Siberia is, in fact, very linear with 90% of the population living along the railroad. All the easier to conquer if you're a Chinese migrant.
I would not want to suggest that China will seize Siberia tomorrow or even the next day. Nor do I imagine that The Mugwump thinks differently. But the game that Vladimir Putin is playing is, indeed, a dangerous one. China is the only power that poses a strategic threat to Russia, and the Russians have a very great interest in sustaining the principle they are now violating — that of territorial integrity.
It was my suggestion in that earlier piece that the quasi-alliance that exists between Russia and China (which has cannily backed Putin's Crimean adventure) makes no sense from the perspective of geopolitics.
Here is a pertinent item that appeared in the review section of Saturday's Wall Street Journal in Marc Levinson's review of John Browne's book Seven Elements That Changed the World. Levinson rightly finds "enlightening" Browne's " explanation of why there are few pipelines between oil-rich Russia and oil-poor China."
The obstacle, he says, is not economics or geology but mistrust, confirmed at the highest level. Russian President Vladimir Putin tells Mr. Browne that he fears the Chinese wouldn't pay the agreed price after a pipeline is built, while former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao says he doubts the Russians would supply oil at whatever price they've promised. The Russians have supply, and the Chinese have demand, but the flow of crude petroleum across their shared border remains small.
I have no idea whether Browne is telling the truth about Putin and Wen Jiabao. In 2007, after twelve years at the helm of British Petroleum, he departed from the company, as Levinson points out, "amid accusations that he had perjured himself to cover up the origins of a personal relationship."
But the question of Browne's veracity may not much matter here. For, as the Italians put it, si non e vero, e ben trovato: if the claim is not true, is is nonetheless well crafted. No one in his right mind would trust a despot.
Moreover, it is certainly true that there are next to no pipelines linking Russian Siberia and China, and the two states have been at odds in the recent past. As recently as 1969, they fought a great battle on the Chinese-Siberian border (which is what occasioned Richard Nixon's opening to China).
My guess is that, from Russia's perspective, the absence of pipelines between it and China is a very good thing. If China were to become dependent on Russia for oil, China would have an interest in "safeguarding" its easy access to that precious resource. By the same token, Putin's Russia would be much less interested in the Crimea were Sebastopol on the Black Sea not its only warm-water port.