China’s Growing Political Influence in Russia’s East of the Urals

Beijing is enhancing its political influence in Siberia and the Russian Far East to support its expanding economic activities, targeting political and business elites who are key stakeholders in determining which firms can operate in their regions.

This follows the Chinese playbook from Central Asia, where Beijing has used various tools to promote its “soft power” and deployed elements of “hard power,” including private security companies. China has done so by providing funds and opportunities that Moscow cannot offer to support the authoritarian tendencies of regional elites, such as sponsoring ethnic unrest, supporting elite crackdowns, and using outright corruption to win over government officials and business leaders.

These tactics have generated both local and regional concerns in Russia, with local populations resenting their regional leaders kowtowing to China. Russian citizens hold various perceptions on Beijing’s increased activity, such as growing interest in economic issues or concerns about the formation of political alliances with regional elites as a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity. These fears limit the success of China’s soft power offensive at the mass level but represent a major impediment to the expansion of Russian-Chinese cooperation at the state level.

Russian officials in Siberia and the Far East have shown growing deference to Beijing, as evidenced by the governor of Russia’s Amur Oblast, Vasily Orlov, who declared that all schools in Blagoveshchensk would offer special courses for the “in-depth study of the Chinese language.” This move was due to the opening of a bridge between Blagoveshchensk and the Chinese city of Heihe. China’s efforts to extend its influence on regional Russian elites gained prominence with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Beijing and the meeting of over 1,000 Chinese and Russian regional political and business leaders in Liaoning.

The agreed-upon deals aim to boost trade between China and many Russian regions east of the Urals, open new trade offices of these regions in China and new Chinese offices in the Russian regions (proto-embassies), and provide for the construction of new transportation links that will further expand trade and promote economic integration between the Russian regions and China. The Liaoning meeting’s infrastructure and trade deals have garnered less attention in Russian media due to their increased ties to China and the opportunities for regional elites to exploit China for greater freedom.

Russia’s dependence on China is causing regional elites to drift away from the Russian center, with Chinese officials celebrating these agreements. The Russian Far East is increasingly looking to China and willing to work directly with Chinese authorities, as per Russian law and practice. The growing role of China in the Russian Far East and Siberia has put Moscow on the defensive, as the Chinese government published new official maps showing parts of India and the Russian Federation within China.

However, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that these maps do not reflect the realities that Moscow and Beijing recognize. Some Russians fear that these developments may reflect a new reality in relations with China, with Xi Jinping reportedly announcing the Russian president’s next visit to China to be in Khabarovsk, which is within the Russian Federation’s borders and only 30 kilometers from the Chinese border. If this is the case, meetings like the one in Liaoning will have mattered more than the Putin-Xi summit in Beijing.

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