China and Russia seem on their way to make the West’s most-feared nightmare a reality, which is to give rise to an alliance able to break down the American-centered unipolar system built in the aftermath of the World War II, in order to allow the transition to multipolarism. The Ukraine-related sanctions regime put in place in retaliation for Crimea’s annexation and Russia’s sponsoring of the Donbass war, which were reactions to the West-backed Euromaidan, played a key-role in pushing Moscow into Beijing’s arms.
But the alliance that could revolutionize international affairs could die before rising completely if the two countries don’t find a way to respect each other mutually in their own spheres of influences, such as Central Asia, and within their own borders. The last point deserves special attention, because Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions over Siberia, the Arctic, and the Far East, are the main reasons behind the growing discontent among locals that the Kremlin’s China-watchers seem to underestimate.
Siberia: land of conquest
Siberia is one of the most resource-rich regions of Russia, but it has a problem: it is scarcely populated, and barely linked to the rest of the country. The government’s efforts to develop the infrastructure system and re-populate the vast territory have clashed against budgetary issues and the ongoing winter, where average temperatures come in at −25°C, respectively. China, which has both the money and the human resources to fulfill Russia’s plans, was seen as the natural problem-solver to properly exploit the huge possibilities offered by the region.
Siberia could have been the place in which supply and demand could meet perfectly: China is the largest importer of timber in the world, while Russia is the world’s largest forest-rich country. But Beijing’s actions in the region suggest that the purpose is not to have a balanced partnership, but to take advantage of Russia’s junior role in the partnership as much as possible.
Since 2014, the bilateral timber trade has grown constantly and dramatically: last year, the value of timber exports to China reached $3.5 billion, up from $2.2 billion in 2013. China’s wood hunger is due to the ongoing ban of commercial logging of its own forests and the seemingly-endless boom in the construction industry linked to growing urbanization, the globally-extended Belt and Road Initiative-related projects, and demand from manifacturing sectors. Such appetite an appetite has made Russia the world leader in forest depletion.
To date, over 500 Chinese firms are operating in Russia, mostly in Siberia and the Far East, and they supply Beijing with about 30% of its total imports of raw timber. The reason for which the number of Chinese working in Russian wood cutting industries is growing is mainly due to the cheap logging concessions made by local authorities to attract investors from Beijing. Firms pay – on average – $2 a hectare, which is lower than elsewhere in the world.
Exploitation, not investments
In the last five years, more than 100 Chinese firms established themselves in Kansk, one of the most important logging industry hubs of Southern Siberia, but they did not help foster the local economy as promised by Moscow. Indeed, China’s sole activity is deforestation, while processes such as the transformation of raw wood takes place elsewhere, namely in China.
Not even the promises of reviving the local markets made by Chinese investors to the local governments in order to receive grants, permissions, and tax exemptions, became true in many cases, and controversial incidents took place instead. In 2017, a suspicious fire destroyed the Soviet-era factory Kansk Biochemical Works, which was supposed to be renewed by China under pressure from local inhabitants. After the fire, the investors left the town.
In many other cases, locals are facing the rising phenomena of the so-called “black loggers“, who are particularly widespread in Southern Siberia. Black loggers refers to illegal loggers, most of whom are of Chinese origin, that cut and sell trees to registered Chinese firms who are unwilling to pay for further land concessions. Such firms may pay the black loggers up to ten times the amount averagely received by regular workers.
Stopping this illegal timber trade proved difficult in light of the pervasive corruption characterizing both local authorities, who are blamed by inhabitants for not considering their concerns, and border patrols, often found guilty of receiving bribes from logging firms.
The last issue that proves Beijing’s misconduct surrounds salaries. According to some reports, logging firms pay Russian workers less than Chinese employes.
Why environmental protection could be the game-changer in Sino-Russian relations
Residents from all over Siberia and the Far East are complaining increasingly about the environmental damages caused by the Chinese-run over-extensive deforestation, both through legal and illegal means – such as the controversial practice of setting fires to sell scorched trees – without receiving anything in return. But deforestation is not the only issue.
The recent protests surrounding the Baikal lake bottling plant are the strongest evidence that the Kremlin can’t ignore the civil society’s wills anymore. And such wills work against the common goal of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping of exploiting the country’s natural resources.
Locals protested heavily against the $28 million project run by Chinese-run Baikal Lake Water Industry and AquaSib, aimed at building a bottling plant, exploiting the world’s seventh-largest lake with the purpose of delivering water to the Chinese consumption market.
The protests forced the authorities to temporarily suspend the works to start talks with civilians, but since no agreement was possible, the project was eventually cancelled.
Both the Kremlin and civil society have a point: the former is trying to circumvent the sanctions regime by having closer relations with the world’s largest emerging economy, even if this means closing one eye to some misconduct, but the latter experiences Beijing’s aggressiveness directly and daily, and it understands that China is using business to corrupt authorities and proceed silently to the conquest of Siberia and the Far East. It is a game-changing unforecasted situation that can no longer be ignored, and one that is likely to shape Russia’s future attitudes toward China.