North Asia’s Future: Moscow or Beijing?

by Colin Pummel

For many years, the dominant force in North Asia has been Russia, the former leader of the United Soviet Socialist Republics. While the fall of communism in Russia in the 1990s did trigger major social and political changes throughout the region, Russia itself remains a powerful influence in the area, despite possessing a generally more European than Asian political culture. Russia’s unique position as a buffer state between these two culturally, economically, and politically different continents provides equally unique dilemmas and opportunities for the region. Historically, as illustrated during the Cold War of the late 20th century, Russia has been a significant competitor of the United States. Today, this competition continues, although no longer under the threat of immanent nuclear war. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, continues to make calculated movements in the Ukraine and in the Middle East to preserve or expand areas of Russian influence. In the case of the Middle East, this has meant intervening militarily in a region that for the last three decades has been largely under American “protection.” While this is not a direct move against the United States, according to The Economist, “Mr. Putin wants to discredit America’s stewardship of the international order.”[1] For the moment, Russia is not making such claims official pronouncements.

In the area of economics, North Asia is facing an enormous potential shift in economic influence away from the Russian ties of the Soviet era to links with China in a New Silk Road. The old Silk Road, from which China’s program gets its name, was historically the principal trade route from Europe to Eastern Asia, influencing everything from Europe’s Renaissance to the first step of globalization. This trade route, made famous by the legendary explorer Marco Polo, brought wealth to Asia and valuable goods and spices to Europe; similarly, China’s New Silk Road is intended to bring similar benefits to China. The program will create advanced new infrastructure throughout Asia, building and updating roads and railways, to increase China’s economic involvement in the rest of the world,[2] particularly in an effort to exclude the United States by rerouting international trade to overland routes. This initiative, marketed by Chinese leadership as an effort towards global peace,[3] will directly affect China’s neighboring nations on all sides, including North Asian nations like Russia. Talks between Moscow and Chinese leadership have established the mutual benefits of one of the proposed new routes, and have gone so far as to call Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, a Chinese territory that borders Russian Siberia through which the original Silk Road passed, “the ‘gates’ from China to the west.”[4] Siberian authorities are optimistic about the benefits the New Silk Road could have on their economy, not to mention the possible myriad benefits expanded trade with one of the world’s top economic powers could have on smaller North Asian nations. Time will tell whether such a reality follows a northern or a southern route and whether this would further bind or potentially poison Russo-Chinese relations.

 

[1] “The New Game: American dominance is being challenged,” The Economist Vol. 417 No. 8960 (October 2015): 15.

[2] Michael Schuman, “China’s New Silk Road Dream,” Bloomberg Business (November 2015): Accessed on January 24. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-11-25/china-s-new-silk-road-dream.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Plotting the New Silk Road and what it could mean for economic development,” The Siberian Times (September 2015): Accessed on January 25. http://siberiantimes.com/business/others/news/n0401-plotting-the-new-silk-road-and-what-it-will-could-mean-for-economic-development.

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