MEMORY is everything and time is nothing in Chinese political cosmography.
In 1820, the 25th year of the reign of Jiaqing the Great, China published a map of its empire. In the south it extended to Ladakh, which reached Nepal. The province of Tibet included Arunachal Pradesh. Nepal, Bhutan and Assam were marked as tributary states. In the west, Afghanistan, Bukhara, Kirkiz-Kazhak and swathes of Central Asia beyond the Pamirs and Xinjiang were also tributaries. The northern limits reached Altai, Mongolia, the whole of Manchuria and the Sakhalin islands. The Qings, of course, were Manchu; Manchurians ruled China from 1616.
Great as the Qing dominion was, it was less than the sum of Chinese claims. If Mongolia was part of China then so was the Mongol Khanate of Sibir, the original term for Siberia, also known as the Khanate of Turan, established by Genghis Khan’s eldest son Jochi, and Jochi’s fifth son Shayban.
The Turco-Mongol-Tatar Sibir became the world’s northernmost Muslim state after its conversion to Islam from shamanism.
Russia conquered Sibir in 1598, but reached Chukotka on the Bering Strait only in 1778. Tribes like the Buryats, Yakuts, Tuvans, Altais, Khakas and Khitans still live in this vast expanse.
Decline of Qing power
Qing power began to decline with the loss of Hong Kong to Britain in 1842, at the end of the First Opium War. Sixteen years later, in 1858, Russia took Outer Manchuria. The ebb made no difference to China’s sense of its boundaries. Conversely, it vitalised a desire for repossession that transcended differences of polity. Sun Yat-sen, who led the movement to remove the last emperor in 1911, made the Qing map into China’s national project. In 1938 the Chiang Kai-shek government published a ‘map of shame’ showing parts of China and its tributaries seized by Russia, west Europeans, and Japan: northeast Asia, Senkaku and Nansei islands, Taiwan, Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, the Malay peninsula, Singapore, Myanmar, Nepal, Ladakh- Kashmir and, of course, Central Asia. The past was never forgotten. Communist China waited till 1997 to recover Hong Kong from the British after 155 years. China recovered the part of Manchuria taken by Japan in 1931, but Outer Manchuria is still in Russia. China claims that Russia took a million square kilometres of territory in Manchuria and another half-a-million elsewhere from the Qings.
War over Manchuria
Beijing has gone to war against Russia over Manchuria twice since 1858. In 1929 the Chinese Northeastern Army went on the offensive. Stalin deployed 156,000 troops, or one-fifth of its total forces, to hold his ground. Amity between communist regimes in Beijing and Moscow diluted border tensions but did not eliminate them. In 1964 Beijing raised Manchuria in talks, arguing that Russia had imposed an unjust frontier upon the Qings. When nothing happened, Mao Zedong ordered a troop build-up. On August 23, 1968, Premier Zhou Enlai, who could turn a phrase, castigated the Soviet Union for “fascist politics, great power chauvinism, national egoism and social imperial- ism” at a banquet held at the Romanian embassy in Beijing.
China attacked on March 9, 1969 in Ussuri and Xinjiang. The war halted only in September after negotiations between Premiers Zhou Enlai and Alexei Kosygin restored the status quo. There were two significant outcomes. Mao Zedong’s détente with Richard Nixon in the 1970s was a direct consequence. The second never made the headlines, and is still secretive.
China initiated a drip-feed of emigration to the region to reset the demographic balance in the far-east. It was a formidable ploy for Russia has ensured, mainly through deportations and forced transfer of populations, that 85 per cent of the region is of European descent in the Siberian expanse.
Lode of mineral wealth
The prize is inestimable. Siberia is the mother lode of mineral wealth. The bright lights of European Russia are sustained by the resources of Asian Russia. Asia contributes 90 per cent if not more of Russia’s mineral oil, gas and mineral wealth. Siberia has immense resources of oil, natural gas, hydropower, coal, copper, timber, lead, zinc, bauxite, nickel, tin, mercury, platinum, titanium, manganese, potash, uranium, cobalt, tungsten, aluminium, mica, amber, iron ore, tobacco, gold, and diamonds. The West Siberian Basin is the largest known hydrocarbon basin with reserves of 146 billion barrels of oil and 1,600 trillion cubic feet of gas. It contains— for those interested in quiz answers—107 giant fields, and nine new ones have been discovered since 2019. The point made, we can spare ourselves further details.
This is not a prelude to any sudden outburst of war between Russia and China, currently basking in a diplomatic embrace as they cooperate against a common foe, America. But equations have shifted. Moscow has slipped from its perch as big brother.
And China will return to the northern map once it has played out the endgame for Taiwan.
Dragon butterfly effect
As Xi Jinping left the Kremlin on the night of Tuesday, March 21, 2023 after a two-day state visit, he told Putin: “Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years and we are driving this change together.” The two smiled, clasped hands. “I agree,” replied Putin.
Xi’s last words before he stepped into the limousine were: “Please take care, dear friend.” One aspect of change might have suggested itself to President Putin.
Xi Jinping was at the wheel, while he manned the frontlines.
The Chinese leader implied more than he said. He might have described the relationship with Russia as a “limitless” partnership but both knew that the 20th century was finally over. America and Russia looked exhausted. The superpowers of the 20th century had become the Nervous Powers of the 21st.