Asia watchers have spent years divining the growing competition between the U.S. and China in East Asia, seen by some as a new version of the 19th century Great Game -- the Central Asian rivalry between the Russian and British empires. Those predicting conflict feel justified by recent tensions in the South China Sea, while others argue confidently that the depth of economic relations between the two modern rivals will forestall any type of clash.
However, those interested in Asia's long-term geopolitical trends should turn away from the sea and focus on the Siberian steppes. There, a still-growing and needy China is eyeing Russia's riches covetously.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Ufa, Russia, on July 10. © Reuters
For years after World War II, it was Japan that flirted with investment projects in Siberia, in part as a political sop to Moscow as it sought to settle a territorial dispute over the Russian-controlled Kuril Islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories. As Japan's economy has stagnated and China's has grown, Beijing has emerged as the most significant country interested in the Russian Far East. But for Moscow, beset with economic and social weakness, China's interest carries as many potential dangers as it does benefits.
Despite what appears to be a close relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the two countries have for centuries watched each other warily. They have fought border wars on the vast steppes, including one in the 17th century that led to the first modern treaty negotiated by an Asian nation, the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk. Driven by generations of Russian colonization of uncharted Siberia, the border region between the two was always fluid and changing, at least until the founding of Vladivostok ("Ruler of the East") in 1860, when the modern demarcation lines were set. Yet the two countries had border disputes as recently as 1969. Nikkei Asian Review