Contemporary analysis of Russian foreign policy understandably focuses on Ukraine and the Caucasus, but real drama is unfolding much farther east. Having lost its European empire in the twentieth century, Russia may find that its biggest threat in the twenty-first is that of the loss of its Asian empire. Stretching for thousands of miles east of Siberia, the Russian Far East is thinly settled and poorly integrated into the rest of the country. In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States because it could neither govern nor defend it. Today’s Russia must act soon to prevent a similar scenario on its eastern flank.
Until its fall in 1644, China’s Ming dynasty claimed suzerainty over all of what is now the Russian Far East and much of Central Asia. With its own political system lacking the modern concept of sovereignty, China did not establish settler colonies to reinforce its claims to these territories. And so, when Russia began to expand eastward from Siberia into the Far East in the 1600s, it did not encounter any Chinese garrisons.
By 1689, Russian presence in the region was sufficient to prompt the negotiation of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which defined a formal boundary between the Russian and Chinese spheres. In time, Russia grew overwhelmingly more powerful than China. In 1858, representatives of Tsar Alexander II and the Qing Xianfeng emperor signed the Treaty of Aigun. This treaty, forced on China in the midst of the Taiping Rebellion, formalized Russia’s sovereignty over what is now the Russian Far East. In the ensuing 1860 Treaty of Beijing, China further ceded the area that would become the Russian port city of Vladivostok.
Along with the treaties that granted Hong Kong to Britain and opened other ports to Western countries, China’s two treaties with Russia reflect the decay of China’s imperial court and the rise of the European colonial powers. Although the return of Hong Kong in 1997 closed the book on Western European colonialism in China, the issue
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