Written by Gaye Christoffersen.

China’s new Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) is Beijing’s latest vision on how to reorder China’s relations on its periphery. This vision includes Central Asia and Russia, and requires Moscow to actively support it and to integrate Putin’s vision for a Eurasian Union with the Silk Road project.

Heilongjiang Province has its own “Heilongjiang Land and Maritime Silk Road Economic Belt” as part of SREB, and is also keen on accessing the Asia-Pacific through the 21st c. Maritime Silk Road.  Heilongjiang Province needs the Russian Far East as a transport corridor to the Asia-Pacific, which it assumes requires economic integration of China’s Northeast (Dongbei) and the Russian Far East (RFE).

An earlier Chinese vision for Northeast Asian economic integration, the Tumen River Area Development Programme, although supported by Moscow, faced stiff resistance from local Russians in the Russian Far East. The Greater Tumen Initiative, as it is now called, has not lived up to it promise. Twenty years later, Chinese scholars still discuss the Greater Tumen Initiative as having potential for success if there had not been local Russian opposition in the 1990s. Today they believe Tumen would be successful if China’s Northeast could be economically integrated with the Russian Far East (Dongbei-RFE integration).

Heilongjiang Province enthusiastically supports the idea of Dongbei-RFE integration, linking it to industrial rejuvenation of the province’s outdated industrial plant. Heilongjiang has lobbied for this since the 1990s, and finally succeeded in 2004 when the “Revive the Northeast” was launched.

In March 2007 Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement on Dongbei-RFE economic cooperation. The National Development and Reform Commission has taken charge of Dongbei-RFE integration since July 2007 and is in charge of revitalisation of the Northeast.

In October 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao proposed regional economic integration of the Russian Far East and Chinese Northeast, in the context of the Sino-Russian negotiations over the East Siberian-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline (ESPO). Called the Program of Cooperation between the Northeast of the People’s Republic of China and the Far East and Eastern Siberia of the Russian Federation (2009-2018), the regional integration agreement was a side agreement with less attention than the oil pipeline.

Chinese are disappointed that Russia has failed to implement more than 200 projects in the 2009 agreement on Dongbei-RFE economic integration, which continued to exist only on paper, ceased functioning before completion, and caused Chinese economic losses. China is concerned this pattern will be repeated by Russia in the SREB, blocking or delaying projects.

Heilongjiang’s enthusiasm was encouraged by the “Dongbei Gongcheng” [Northeast Project] in the Borderland History and Geography Centre at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences which existed 2002-2007. The Northeast Project studied the history of Northeast China’s border relations with the Russian Far East using a heavy ideological slant. It revised history to support contemporary policies, providing a historical basis for contemporary Dongbei-RFE economic integration in a 2003 book, History of Economic Relations between the Chinese Northeast and Russia (USSR) from mid-17th century to 1949. The Project mobilised research institutes, universities and scholars throughout Dongbei to a certain political activism beyond scholarly interests.

China appears to have first incorporated Dongbei-RFE integration within the wider SREB when Chinese Ambassador to Russia, Li Hui, in February 2015 suggested to a Moscow university audience that SREB would cover the Chinese side of Dongbei-RFE integration and the Chinese side of oil and gas pipelines. This was before SREB and Russia’s Eurasian Union had formally linked but was under intense Russian-Chinese discussion whether they would be linked.

In March 2015, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued an action plan for the SREB and Maritime Silk Road, the Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road. The Russian Far East was included in SREB’s action plan, in cooperation with Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning in multi-modal transportation networks on land and sea. It was presented as a fait accompli that Dongbei-RFE economic integration would be incorporated into the SREB.

Two months later, the SREB and the Eurasian Union were formally linked during the May 8-9, 2015 visit by Xi Jinping to Moscow. This gave Russia, and the Russian Far East, a role in SREB.

Chinese scholars note that the Dongbei-RFE project’s incorporation into the SREB transformed the Dongbei-RFE project from a narrow regional project into a part of China’s rise and globalisation. This is a new situation for local-level initiatives to be linked to an anticipated power shift.

SREB did not initiate Chinese ideas on Dongbei-RFE economic integration. Instead it took these decades-old ideas and incorporated them into a new framework. After the Chinese SREB and the Russian Eurasian Union projects were formally joined, the absorption of the Dongbei-RFE integration project onto this larger framework appeared certain.

Moscow’s expectation of China’s SREB is to supply capital and technology for the Russian Far East, building industrial capacity for exported manufactures to markets in East Asia. The first Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, September 3-5, 2015, was meant to attract investors to priority projects in the RFE. For Moscow, SREB is a solution on how to finance RFE development.

The EEF was followed by the First Meeting of Regional Cooperation Council of Northeast China and Russian Far East, chaired by Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang and Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, Yury Trutnev. This meeting indicated Dongbei-RFE integration would be state-led and top-down.

A round table in Novosibirsk, September 2015, was held to reassure Siberia and the Russian Far East that they would not be exploited by SREB but rather advantaged economically. Russian Far East resistance to economic integration with China’s Northeast now appears futile.

The economic benefits of RFE participation in SREB and Heilongjiang’s Silk Road plans are clear but it is also apparent that the SREB brings constraints on RFE foreign economic relations and limits choices.

Beginning with the Tumen project, then the Rejuvenate the Northeast project with Dongbei-RFE integration, and currently the Silk Road Economic Belt, there seems to be a historical pattern. It begins with a Chinese vision of Sino-Russian economic integration along their common border, local enthusiasm in Heilongjiang Province, local resistance in the Russian Far East, especially Vladivostok and Primorski Krai, resulting in a project that fails to be implemented. This is followed by a new Chinese project which incorporates the previous one with expectations that the new project will facilitate implementation of the older one. How the Silk Road Economic Belt is implemented will demonstrate whether this pattern is altered.

Dr Gaye Christoffersen is Resident Professor of International Politics at Johns Hopkins University, SAIS, Nanjing Centre.  Her research focus has been primarily on transnational, non-traditional security issues such as piracy, energy, and other issues on which East Asian nations cooperate in Asian multilateral regimes. Image credit: CC by Brian Yap (葉)/Flickr.