With Moscow Distracted, Xi Jinping Could Turn China’s Gaze To Russia

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Craig HooperSenior Contributor

Oct 24, 2022,

As China’s Communist Party Congress wound to a close, China’s “Paramount Leader,” Xi Jinping, emerged stronger than ever. Granting himself a third five-year term, what remained of any internal opposition was ceremonially ushered out of the room. With Xi’s powerbase solid, the West is taking to the fainting couch, anticipating that Xi’s hardline approach towards China’s territorial ambitions will rapidly crystalize into a military confrontation over Taiwan, a key link in the strategic “first island chain” in the Pacific.

The threat is overstated. Even though Party delegates baked new anti-Taiwanese language into the Communist Party’s constitution, the real territorial temptation for China might be to the North, in the Russian Far East, where hundreds of thousands of ethnically Chinese Russian citizens, trapped in a substantially weakened and hollow dictatorship, could potentially be enticed to reconsider their options.

While there’s no way to know what Xi is thinking, China’s long-established pattern of behavior suggests that, as Russia redirects border security units to a grinding conflict in Ukraine, it is worth considering if China might be mulling expansionist contingencies to the north, along the sprawling and sparsely held 2,615 mile Russian frontier.

Their history of conflict in the region and the great demographic imbalance between China and the declining population of Russia’s Far East has fanned speculation for years that Beijing could press north. All the preconditions are in place for a surprise ramp-up in China-Russia border tensions. 

Taiwan is an obvious target for Chinese territorial expansion, but it is a tough nut to crack. Self-governed since 1949, China treats Taiwan as a rebel province, while Taiwan considers itself an independent country. For his part, President Xi expected reunification to occur no later than 2049, using that target date to spur a massive military reforms and a speedy modernization. Some timorous Western observers fear that China, facing demographic and economic headwinds, has accelerated the “timeline” for reunification, and may take concrete military action over the next few years to grab the rebel territory.

Conventional wisdom—even informed conventional wisdom—speculates that a Chinese military strike on Taiwan is likely. And yet, China’s posturing has generated more flash than bang. After decades of aggressive signaling, China has not overtly attacked Taiwanese territory or military units since the mid 1960’s. 

On the other hand, on both the Indian frontier and in the South China Sea, China moved into sovereign territory with little advance notice. In both cases, China’s expansionism was opportunistic, taking advantage of an administrative or military vacuum to suddenly “change the facts on the ground.” 

An old Russian tank depot near the Chinese border

A Limitless Friendship That Has Boundary Issues

In the runup to Russia’s debacle in Ukraine, China and Russia declared a friendship “without limits.” But both countries know that friendship agreements are fragile things. Less than two decades after China and the Soviet Union signed their last friendship treaty, the two countries engaged in a sharp series of border fights. Expansion-minded Chinese nationalists, coupled with China’s increasing and barely concealed contempt for Russian weakness, have the power to erode Russia and China’s current rapprochement in a matter of moments.

The foundations for a “renegotiation” of the Chinese/Russia frontier are deep. China and Russia have bickered and battled over their shared border for centuries, while “official” resolution, such as it is, only came in 2008. For a centuries-old border conflict that predates the official existence of both nations, China could easily claim a pretext to overturn current agreements, demanding that Russia return Vladivostok as well as some 23,000 square miles of former Chinese territory Russia has held since 1860. 

Despite agreements stating that all outstanding issues are settled, China still keeps all of its expansionist-minded options open. While China actively manages public debate, simmering grievances are allowed to bubble away. Vladivostok, Russia’s military and commercial gateway to the Pacific, is still described in China by the city’s old Chinese name, Haishenwai, or “sea cucumber bay.” Chinese resentment over the centuries old agreements that established China’s northern frontier remains a society-wide staple. 

The foundation for a northern territorial claim—albeit a flimsy one—to an even wider swath of Russia’s far East territories exist. Chinese historic records suggest Chinese explorers reached the Arctic during the Tang Dynasty—if not before—allowing China to chip away at Russia’s territorial legitimacy. Even if the claims might be extravagant, the mental gymnastics would be worthwhile. Getting a foothold—any foothold—north of the Arctic circle allows China to formally claim status as an Arctic—if not a Polar—power. 

Chinese in the Russian Far East

The Time Is Right

China, globally, has taken great pains to minimize any differences between Chinese ethnicity and Chinese nationality. As Russia’s Far East wallows in economic stagnation, ignored by Russia’s Moscow elites, Russia’s many citizens of Chinese ethnicity could be tempted to reconsider their national loyalties. The forced resettlement of Ukrainians into the region will only further degrade the societal homogeneity of Asian Russia. 

Demographically, with only two or three people per square kilometer, the vast expanse of Asian Russia is essentially vacant, ready for annexation and easy settlement. Those Russian citizens that remain are largely voting with their feet, heading west towards the more glamorous cities of European Russia. In a few years, there simply won’t be many ethnic Russians left in Russia’s eastern territories.

Along with vast amounts of open space, Asian Russia is resource-rich, capable of fueling China’s rise for decades to come. And with climate change, Asian Russia’s bleak eastern lands may yet bloom, transforming into a much-needed Asian breadbasket.

With Russia’s military reputation in tatters, and the Russian Army reduced to begging for supplies from Iran and a motley band of ex-Soviet states, there is little left in the conventional Russian arsenal to deter Chinese military aggression. In desperation, Russia is reactivating the same types of T-62 main battle tanks that China seized from Russian border forces some fifty years ago. Contempt for Russia’s military will be increasingly difficult for China to contain

If China’s recent efforts at border expansion are any guide, Asian Russia might well be a tempting target. By deft application of Grey Zone provocations, along with a savvy exploitation of negative global sentiment towards the Putin Regime, China could raise old tensions, make demands or even change the “facts on the ground” quickly, outmaneuvering Russia’s nuclear deterrent, and leaving a prostrate Russia with essentially no options beyond accepting a territorial or diplomatic fait accompli. 

Over the next few years, with Russia serving as little more an unarmed and unstable pariah state, China could reignite border tensions or tap into deep grievances to loosen Russian control of the east, and nobody would raise much of a fuss. 

Taiwanese sailors salute Taiwan flag

Taiwan Can Wait

Modern China has learned that it can often win without fighting. Today, Paramount Leader Xi has sufficient force to back even the most provocative of territorial claims. On the other hand, China neither needs nor wants a fight that will, like Ukraine, catalyze global resistance. The math just doesn’t work. Stripping a dying Russia down to the bone could offer a far greater return on investment than a combative near-term push on Taiwan now.https://2cc52377bc97cf98ce9f31e675d6b52b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0

Russia will never be weaker than it is today, while Taiwanese attitudes may well change over time. 

Certainly, a menacing attitude towards Taiwan is a useful tool. The government’s aggressive stance unites China, while the constant military jostling offers good operational training for Chinese forces. A credible Chinese threat to Taiwan captures a disproportionate amount of Western attention as well, distorting Western statecraft and military investment priorities. In competition with the West, Taiwan is an enormously useful distraction, feeding America’s tactical obsessions while distracting America’s strategic focus in other critical areas. 

If China moves on Taiwan in the near term, widespread conflict is inevitable. But if China raises border tensions, making a successful play for Russian territorial concessions to the North, it gets access to new resources, new protein stocks, and can, in turn, nourish the aggrieved country’s sense of “Manifest Destiny” for very, very little. Xi might even earn some grudging international respect for helping to remove a rogue Russian leader from the board. 

A Chinese push to reclaim Asian Russia makes sense. Taiwan offers China little more than strife, while a press—diplomatic or otherwise—to push Russia out of Asia opens far more profitable options to the hungry and expansion-minded Chinese state.

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Craig Hooper

I offer blunt, uncompromising guidance on national security solutions, bringing complex security issues and oft-neglected defense topics to the attention of interested policymakers and the general public. Founder and CEO of the Themistocles Advisory Group, I focus on communications and government relations as well as maritime, homeland defense and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) challenges. Previously, I served as an executive for naval shipbuilder Austal USA, helping deliver Littoral Combat Ships and Expeditionary Fast Transports to the U.S. Navy. With a Ph.D. in Immunology and Infectious Diseases from Harvard University, I have taught at the University of California, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In my spare time, I support think-tank studies, discuss naval matters at NextNavy.com or write about the Navy, publishing op-eds and papers in places like the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Naval War College Review, the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings and beyond.

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