Analysis: Russia's Far East Turning Chinese

The Chinese are invading Russia — not with tanks, but with suitcases.

Alexander Shaikin, in charge of controlling the Russian-Chinese border, said on June 29 that 1.5 million people from China have illegally entered the Russian Far East over the past 18 months.

Reported by The Moscow Times, Shaikin’s claim is likely exaggerated, but increased Chinese migration is marking a return of Chinese influence to these territories. And any territorial dispute could disrupt relations between Asia’s largest continental powers.

It’s impossible to know the exact level of Chinese migration into the Russian Far East; Russia has not run a census in over a decade. But by all indications, a significant river of people is surging across the border.

The Moscow Carnegie Center, the only organization to launch an independent study, claimed that there were about 250,000 Chinese in Russia in 1997. The Interior Ministry has claimed that there are 2 million. Other estimates place the Chinese population at 5 million.

Regardless, the Federal Migration Service fears a flood. The service has repeatedly warned that the Chinese could become the dominant ethnic group in the Russian Far East in 20 to 30 years. Such an occurrence would require an annual influx of about 250,000 to 300,000 Chinese, less than one-third the rate that Shaikin currently claims.

China Looks the Other Way

There are reasons to believe that the flow will hit these levels, with at least tacit help from Beijing. The Russian Far East is becoming China’s safety valve, much like Mexico lets off population pressures with migration into the United States. China has more than 1.2 billion people — more than eight times Russia’s population. Only 7.4 million Russians populate the entire Russian Far East, versus more than 70 million in northeast China. The Russian Far East is comparatively empty, with only 1.3 people per kilometer. China’s Manchurian population has increased 13 percent in a little more than a decade.

Any kind of Chinese expansion into the region will eventually bring about a question: What is Beijing’s claim there? Most of the border region — an area roughly the size of Iran — used to be Chinese. Russia took the territory in 1858 and 1860 with the Treaties of Aigun and Peking, respectively. Of all of the unequal treaties forced upon the Qing dynasty by outside powers in the 19th century, these are the only two China has not managed to overcome. China and Russia signed a border agreement in 1999, but the Beijing government has never formally accepted the Aigun and Peking treaties.

Valuable Ports and Resources

The Russian Far East also holds resources that are valuable to an ever-growing China. The region is rich in natural resources such as oil, gas and timber. It is easier to send these goods to Asia instead of shipping them 3,000 miles to Moscow. The size of the Russian work force is shrinking as the country grows older. China’s young — and growing — population is more than able to fill the gap and exploit these resources.

But there is no reason to believe that, over time, Moscow will simply let the region slip from its grasp. The territory at stake includes all of Russia’s access to the Pacific Ocean. Vladivostok is Russia’s only warm-water Pacific port. Nikolayevsk, at the mouth of the Amur River, processes most of Siberia’s remaining exports. Both are well within former Chinese territory.

The local Russian population is increasingly nervous. The governor of Primoskiy Kray, Yevgenii Nazdratenko, on June 1 called for relocating 5 million Russians from European Russia to the Far East.

Police in Russian cities are responding with aggressive ethnic profiling. Law enforcement personnel check the documentation of foreigners, and they actively target ethnic Asians. The policy results from a widespread feeling — as far away as St. Petersburg — that China is the source of undesirable immigration.

Peter Zeihan covers Russian issues for, an Internet provider of global intelligence. Researcher Colin McRoberts contributed to this analysis from St. Petersburg, Russia.