Staunton, August 12 – As a result of globalization, political and geographical borders “are losing their importance,” a Buryat anthropologist says, while “strategic borders,” those reflecting where a country has projected its economic and cultural influence, are becoming ever more important.
With respect to China and Russia east of the Urals, Sayana Namsarayeva says, China’s “strategic border” is already well within the nominal political border between the two countries, something that gives Beijing “effective control” of that region and could lead to a change in the political borders to bring them into line with this new reality.
In an interview with the Russian Service of RFE/RL, Namsarayeva, who is currently a research fellow at the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit at Cambridge University, talks about her research on the appearance of so-called “’frontier societies’” along the border between the Russian Federation and China.
Namsarayeva says she has been studying relations between the Russian city of Zabaykalsk, which has 12,000 residents, and the Chinese city of Manchuria which has more than a million. The study focuses on shuttle trade, personal investment decisions and shifts in economic activities, since the 1990s.
She notes that increasingly Chinese goods are coming into Siberia not via Manchuria but via Kyrgyzstan or “even via Moscow and then back to Siberia.” That reflects the declining role of the Trans-Siberian railway and ‘the container revolution’ which the Chinese have embraced to a much greater degree than the Russians.
One of the consequences of the shuttle trade along the political border, the anthropologist says, is the rise in the ability of people who do not speak the same language to communicate, leading to a decline in the suspicions of local Russians about the Chinese, independent from how Moscow views the situation.
One upshot of this, is that “very many local Transbaikal businessmen are investing their money in China and purchasing property in Manchuria.” Another is that Russians at the local level welcome increasing Chinese investment in their regions, seeing it as a boon to their well-being and a way out from the restrictions that Moscow still imposes.
China, Namsarayeva continues, “is a most important trading partner of Russia.” But “paradoxically,” the two countries view this trade along the border in very different ways. The Russian side “introduces enormous restrictions on the development of entrepreneurships” while the Chinese welcome it.
Not long ago, she says, at a conference in Cambridge, two Korean professors “said that Russia is already not a global power but the weakest regional player in Northern Asia.” But everyone understands that “without the development of Siberia and the Far East,” no one will take Russia seriously in the future. This has provided an opening for China.
Russia’s “far eastern neighbors and China, in the first instance, cannot develop their border territories without developing the Russian Far East and Siberia …we see the semi-deserted and depressed territories on the Russian side, and the enormous investments and accelerated development of border territories on the Chinese side.”
The Russian authorities are only making this worse, she suggests. “Local residents in Zabaykalsk,” she continues, “said that they cannot obtain lots for the construction of houses in the city because all of them supposedly have been bought up by Muscovites. While in fact, nothing is happening and nothing is being built.”
As a result, “for residents, life is becoming ever more difficult.” On the Russian side, officials still view the border regions as places where non-governmental activity should be severely constrained. “For Russia up to now, the borders are a limiting factor, reflecting fears of an external enemy.”
That, Namsarayeva says, is “a mentality certainly of the last century when the territory of the country was divided into an enormous front region and the rear.” But in China, the situation is “just the reverse.” There, “border areas are a territory of new possibilities,” and since the 1970s, Beijing has promoted their development because that is “where business calls you!”