Conflicts - TensionsNortheast Asia

Far East territorial dispute tests PRC-Russia ties


With his authoritarian regime already isolated and weakened because of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin now has stirred up discord in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the most important of Moscow’s few remaining backers.

The flare-up centers on an intractable territorial dispute over Russia’s Far East, which is home to Moscow’s Pacific Fleet headquarters in Vladivostok and considered a strategic gateway to the resource-rich Arctic. Despite a series of treaties and agreements between the neighbors dating back almost two centuries, some Chinese nationalists insist that Russia stole the region from imperial China. Russian citizens in the remote province, meanwhile, are suspicious of creeping investment by Beijing-linked companies.


In a February 2024 interview, Putin again cited discredited historical claims to justify the invasion of Ukraine two years earlier, an assault that plunged Europe into its worst conflict since World War II and sparked chaos in global markets.

Putin’s selective comments riled social media users in the PRC, with some circumventing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors to express disdain at his hypocrisy, Newsweek magazine reported. “According to history, Russia should return us Vladivostok and vast territory stolen 100-something years ago,” one user posted.

Such ownership claims are not restricted to social media. In August 2023, the PRC’s natural resources ministry published a map that, among other unilateral and arbitrary demarcations, showed Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island on the Russian-Sino border as Chinese territory. The map ignored the nations’ agreement nearly 20 years earlier to divide the 350-square-kilometer island roughly in half, Newsweek reported. In exchange, Beijing agreed not to claim additional Russian territory.

Previous versions of the map also renamed Russian territory, including Vladivostok, with Chinese designations.

The dispute has been simmering since at least 1860, when China’s ruling dynasty ceded territory in the region to czarist Russia after its defeat in the Second Opium War. A century later, the communist forces of the PRC and the Soviet Union clashed along the border north of Vladivostok.

About 8 million people live in Russia’s expansive Far East, which is abundant in natural resources including, oil, coal, gold and fish. The three Chinese provinces bordering the region are home to about 90 million, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper. Vladivostok is 6,500 kilometers east of Moscow, almost five times farther than the port city is from Beijing.

The situation has been dubbed a “geopolitical time bomb.”

While the PRC has continued supporting Moscow since its invasion of Ukraine, analysts question Beijing’s commitment and motives. They point to the PRC’s attempts to be considered an Arctic power despite its northernmost reaches being 1,500 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle.

“China has declared itself a ‘near-Arctic state,’ a designation it invented to push for a greater role in Arctic governance,” noted a December 2022 essay published by the Rand Corp.

Even though Putin and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping proclaimed a “no-limits” friendship, Beijing may seek to exploit a diminished and distracted Moscow to advance its claims over the Far East, analysts say. The contested region separates the PRC from the Sea of Japan and the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic shoreline, which can cut the shipping distance between Europe and the Indo-Pacific by about 40%.

“China’s actions should be viewed contextually,” noted an article in the International Policy Digest. “Despite the platitudes and assurances of mutual support, China has been reluctant to give Russia access to advanced missiles, drone technology … or further expansions of natural gas and pipeline agreements.

“China has made no secret of wanting the far eastern region around Vladivostok back,” the August 2023 article noted.

Beijing’s history of territorial encroachments and land grabs — from the South China Sea to the India-China border in the Himalayas — will only heighten Russian concerns about surrendering sovereignty.

“China’s exploitation of Russian vulnerabilities should not come as a surprise,” noted a December 2023 article in the Eurasia Daily Monitor, a publication of The Jamestown Foundation, a United States-based think tank. “Experts observed … that Beijing only supports Moscow to serve Chinese interests, for example, leveraging Russian anti-Western narratives in its own propaganda and treating the Russian Far East as a ‘resource colony.’ China will not assist Russia to its own detriment.”

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