The 1.35 billion Chinese people south of the border outnumber Russia’s 144 million almost 10 to 1. The discrepancy is even starker for Siberia on its own, home to barely 38 million people, and especially the border area, where only 6 million Russians face over 90 million Chinese. With intermarriage, trade and investment across that border, Siberians have realized that, for better or for worse, Beijing is a lot closer than Moscow.
The vast expanses of Siberia would provide not just room for China’s huddled masses, now squeezed into the coastal half of their country by the mountains and deserts of western China. The land is already providing China, “the factory of the world,” with much of its raw materials, especially oil, gas and timber. Increasingly, Chinese-owned factories in Siberia churn out finished goods, as if the region already were a part of the Middle Kingdom’s economy.
One day, China might want the globe to match the reality. In fact, Beijing could use Russia’s own strategy: hand out passports to sympathizers in contested areas, then move in militarily to “protect its citizens.” The Kremlin has tried that in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and most recently the Crimea, all formally part of other post-Soviet states, but controlled by Moscow. And if Beijing chose to take Siberia by force, the only way Moscow could stop would be using nuclear weapons.
Well, nukes ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at, but still. It would be interesting if Beijing tried the Putin strategy for colonization. I hope it doesn’t happen, if only because the world doesn’t need a war between two nuclear-armed nations. But it is fascinating to think about the geopolitics here.