One Asia Policy or Two? Moscow and the Russian Far East Debate

One Asia Policy or Two?
Moscow and the Russian Far East Debate

by Elizabeth Wishnick
March 1, 2002

Dr. Wishnick explores the divergent approaches to Russia’s Asia policy in Moscow and the Russian Far East. She argues that Moscow’s foreign policy is aimed at cooperation with China in order to achieve Russia’s strategic-military goals.

Russia’s current Asia policy reflects many of the problems it encountered during its initial engagement in the region in the nineteenth century. Then, as now, Russian policymakers faced a complex geopolitical picture in East Asia, and Russia’s identification of friends and foes shifted depending on the balance of pressures in Europe and Asia. [1] Thus, strategic considerations played a key role in driving Russia’s eastward expansion.

Poor communications and transportation links made integration into Asia a necessity over a century ago. [2] To solve some of these problems, Sergei Witte, Minister of Finance from 1892– 1903, became the architect of Russia’s far eastern policy and spearheaded the construction of the Trans–Siberian railroad. Believing that Russia would have to expand eastward to remain a great power, Witte viewed the Trans–Siberian railroad as a means to implement his economic policies and strengthening Russia’s economic position vis–à–vis the major powers. In his view, the Trans–Siberian would enable Russia to compete with England for the Chinese market for cotton, wool, and metal goods. [3] Russia’s strategic position in Asia also would be enhanced, since the railroad would enable St. Petersburg to maintain a permanent fleet in the Far East.

Until the Trans–Siberian railroad was constructed, the far–flung territories in the Russian Far East depended on economic cooperation with Asian neighbors for food and other consumer products. In the mid–nineteenth century, officials in Russia’s eastern territories were ambivalent about the opening of the region to foreign trade. Like today, these territories depended on foreign imports of food and consumer products due to the unfavorable climate and high cost of shipping these goods from European Russia. For example, in the late nineteenth century flour from Odessa cost four times the price of Chinese flour. [4] Yet Russian officials were concerned that the sparseness of the Russian population in the Far East and weak lines of communication would invite foreign control. Prior to the completion of the Trans–Siberian railroad, it could take almost an entire year to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok by land.

The great distance separating the Russian Far East from central Russia also enabled political regionalism to flourish, and political challenges have appeared whenever central control has weakened. [5] Center–periphery conflicts have long been a part of the history of the Russian Far East, a region that has proven to be as difficult to govern as it was to settle and develop. In 1884 St. Petersburg created the Priamur…

[1] For the strategic rationale behind the integration of the Russian Far East in the Pacific Rim in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, see John J. Stephan, The Russian Far East, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994, Part II.

[2] Andrew Malozemoff, Russian Far Eastern Policy, 1881–1904, New York: Octagon Books, 1977, pp. 1–19.

[3] S. C. M. Paine, Imperial Rivals, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1996, p. 183–84.

[4] Malozemoff, Russian Far Eastern Policy, p. 47.

[5] N. A. Trotskaia, “Russkaia dalnevostochnaia burzhuaziia i severo-vostochnyi Kitai. O vlianii prigranichnogo polozheniia na predprinimatelskuiu deiatelnost,” unpublished paper prepared for the conference on “Russia in Asia: Past and Present,” Khabarovsk, August 26–28, 1995, p. 8.