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The Strategic Aspect of Migration from China’s North-East to Russia’s Far East

Prashant Kumar Singh is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • July 23, 2009

    In a conference on socio-economic development in Kamchatka Kray in 2008, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that if Russia does not step up the level of activity of its work in the Russian Far East (RFE), it may risk losing territory. The tone of his remarks was ‘unprecedented’ and reminiscent of former President Vladimir Putin’s even more direct and straightforward warning, who observed in 2000 that “if the authorities failed to develop the region, even the indigenous Russian population will mainly be speaking Japanese, Korean and Chinese in a few decades.”

    Russia is facing problems on two fronts in the RFE. On one hand, its own population in the RFE is migrating to the south of Russia due to poor development, lack of opportunities and extremely tough geographical terrain. On the other hand, people in large numbers are streaming into the RFE from China’s adjoining north-east region. The Chinese influx is more worrisome for Russia than the decline of its own population in the RFE. There are many people in the Russian establishment, political sphere, academia and journalistic arena, who seriously believe that this influx poses the threat of a peaceful demographic offensive.

    The RFE is home to around 6.5 to 7.0 million people, constituting 4.9 per cent of the Russian population. Given the region’s size, which is over six million square kilometers or 36.4 per cent of the total land area of the Russian Federation, this population is small and cannot be treated as a strategic asset in the eastern periphery of Russia. The major settlements of this population are concentrated in the cities of Greater Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, with a population of 1 million each. Thus only 4.5 to 5.0 million people live in the rest of the RFE region. The ground reality is that the whole population of the RFE is settled mostly along the 4,300 kilometre border between Russia and China. The RFE borders the densely populated Chinese north-eastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, which have a population of more than a 100 million. Thus, Russia has to deal with a complex demographic reality in its far-flung and remote frontier areas where local habitants are living in the vicinity of an overwhelming Chinese population. They are virtually cut off from their Russian country cousins whose main concentration happens to be in the European parts of Russia. The distance between them and the main body of the Russian population in the West runs thousands of miles. This demographic reality is not favourable to Russia. It cannot rely on the strength of its RFE population to defend the country in case any strategic emergency develops from its north-eastern, eastern and south-eastern borders. Against this backdrop, the strategic aspects of the problem of illegal migration from China to RFE require analysis.

    The problem of illegal migration from China started after the collapse of the USSR. This was the time when Chinese border traders and seasonal workers started arriving in the RFE. Initially, they would come, do their business or job and go back to their homes. But as economic activity in the region began to gather pace, they gradually became inclined to stay back in the RFE. Now, very few Chinese migrants prefer to return. The exact number of Chinese people residing in the RFE is difficult to ascertain. There are huge variations in estimates. They fluctuate from an official figure of around 40,000 to 5 million according to Russian right-wing politician Dmitry Rogozin. However, the point that has to be taken into account is that the Chinese are creeping into RFE unchecked. This has attracted attention and acquired space in the Russian nationalist discourse.


    January 1, 2000

    (in millions)

    End of 2010

    (in millions)


    (in millions)


    (in percentage)

    Russian Far East



    – 0.5

    – 6.1

    Northeast China (Liaonin, Jilin, Heilongjan Provinces)





    Source: Motrich, Ekaterina, “Reaction of the Population of the Russian Far East to the Presence of Chinese People,” Economic Research Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences: Khabarovsk, available at (accessed on July 15, 2009).

    Russians are taking note of their disadvantageous situation in the RFE; but the Chinese are equally aware of their advantageous position in the region. A recent Chinese bestseller by five Chinese intellectuals titled China Gets Angry, describes Russia as “a living space for the still growing Chinese people.” It suggests that “sober-thinking minded Chinese need to get rid of any doubt on this point: sooner or later we will be in Siberia and Russian Far East developing the vast areas that Moscow has not.”

    Russian experts have taken note of this book. Vil’ Gel’bras, a Russian Sinologist, commenting on this book in Pravda, wrote that the imbalance of population and agricultural land in China is making China interested in Russian territories east of the Urals. In China, there are around 120 million hectares of agricultural land for around 900 million farmers or 0.13 hectares per agricultural worker, whereas in Russia this ratio is 2.5 hectares per agricultural worker. This ratio between available land and population in the RFE must be much higher. Besides, the gender ratio in China is also imbalanced in comparison to Russia. Due to China’s One-Child policy and the preference of Chinese parents for a male child, the number of males in China will be 30 million greater than that of Chinese females by 2015. As Vil’ Gel’Bras noted, Chinese males will look towards Russia for mates where the number of women is greater than that of men.

    The RFE is full of traditional as well as non-traditional energy resources, including coal, oil, natural gas, hydropower, tidal, geothermal, wind and solar energy. Apart from energy resources, this region is a big producer of diamonds and gold. The RFE accounts for almost 70 per cent of Russia’s gold output. It has large reserves of lead, zinc, tungsten, boron, spar, tin and silver.

    RFE has enormous economic importance for Russia. Many Chinese experts view this region as a useless ‘chilled-box’ for Russia, and which can provide China with space to accommodate its growing population and economy. Chinese experts base their claim on perceived historical facts. According to them, Russia was able to make advances in this region because of China’s pre-occupation with the Opium War. Frequently, proposals for purchasing tracts of the RFE keep surfacing in China. The whole discussion seems to indicate that China has interests in the region. To serve them, China could become pro-active, if needed. It is in this context that one can understand why sometimes the Chinese government itself has been accused of promoting illegal migration to the RFE and why apprehensions are raised about the possibility of Chinese people forming a community, loyal to China inside Russia.

    Is the security scenario in this region really grim for Russia? Certainly, there is no impending strategic exigency looming large on Russia in the short and medium terms. However, one cannot ignore the way the RFE has acquired space in the Russian nationalist discourse. Dmitri Trenin asserts that “Russia’s territorial integrity and unity will not be decided in Chechnya. Instead, they will depend on whether Moscow can find a way to perform the feat of integrating the Russian Far East and Siberia (RFES) both with the rest of Russia and with their north-east Asian neighbours.” (Financial Times (Online edition), March 1, 2005 accessed on July 15, 2009).

    This could be really a reasoned and nuanced stand. But the apprehensions regarding China’s intentions in RFE are quite widespread and vocal in Russia. Their existence cannot be wished away. Phrases like Chinese take over of the RFE or Russia losing the RFE to China are very much in circulation in the nationalist discourse. Currently, given Russia’s preoccupation with the US and Western Europe, these apprehensions remain only in the background. But the fact remains that China’s rise and its activism in Central Asia is also being viewed with anxiety by Russia. Therefore, if any incipient tensions in the Sino-Russian relationship develop in the future, the RFE along with Central Asia will become a chess board in a new great game.

    The other side of the coin is that Russia’s north-eastern Asian neighbours – China, Japan and South Korea – are extremely critical for the economic life of its Far East. The RFE is much more integrated with these countries than with the European part of Russia. After the collapse of the command economy of the USSR, the present Russian market economy has not been able to generate investments in the RFE. People are migrating from the RFE to more hospitable parts of Russia. The population in the RFE is declining and aging. Private entrepreneurs from the west of Urals are not interested in investing in the hostile and less profitable geography of the RFE. Economically, the Russian government is also not in a position to take care of the region in the way the preceding communist regime did out of political and ideological considerations. Against this backdrop, cross-border trade and movement of labour constitute the life-line for the RFE. It would be quixotic on the part of the Russian dispensation, if it allowed the separation of the Far East from its South Eastern neighbours.

    In the final analysis, though tensions in the RFE could remain dormant or incipient, they should not however be taken for granted. This is because northeast Asia, Russia included, has the highest density of nuclearised countries – with Russia, China and North Korea having nuclear weapons and Japan and South Korea enjoying the protection of the US nuclear umbrella. Innovative measures to allay Russian fears about RFE and ensuring development of the region are needed. Russia needs to chalk out a developmental scheme for the region in which the energy sector has centrality and make other northeast Asian countries stakeholders in the development of the RFE. It should focus on technological innovation to exploit the economic potential of the region. On the migration front, it should effectively regulate migration to the RFE and ensure that the right mix of ethnic diversity comes with migrants so as to thwart any attempts at internal subversion by any particular ethnic group or a quiet take over of the RFE by any foreign power. Simultaneously, Russia must continue to maintain stable relations with the northeast Asian countries and endeavour to build a regional security structure on the lines of the Six-Party dialogue.