Wednesday, September 23, 2020

"Why China Will Decide the Future of the Steppe"

ZeroHedge had a post on the 19th, "The Possible Limits Of China-Russia Cooperation" that reminded me of this, from Palladium August 8:
You are now a Tatar like us,” the Mongol General Batu said to the Russian king, offering him the fermented mare’s milk known as kumis. “Drink our drink.” The year was 1246, and the greatest land empire the world had ever known was reaching its apex. The two met on the grasslands of the Steppe, a massive region stretching from beyond the Black Sea in the west to nearly the Pacific Ocean in the east. The story of that empire is the greatest chapter in the history of a landscape which has profoundly shaped the history of the Eurasian continent and the world. Little more than a century and a half after this alleged meeting, the Mongol Empire disappeared into history.

But at its height, it was the only era in history where the entire Steppe was united under a single Khan. From Hungary to China, Mongol dominance allowed products, resources, people, and information to flow freely from east to west and back again. Centuries before the term globalization was created to describe the global spread of maritime European empires, the Mongols had built a transcontinental realm.

The Steppe today is a far cry from the open plain that was once home to enormous nomadic tribes that would frequently crash onto nearby settled civilizations. Throughout the 20th century, the Steppe became an anvil for the forces of modern development. Populations largely left out of urbanization and modern technology were forcibly settled and mobilized by foreign powers, often at a heavy human price. Industrial needs, the space race, and terrible military technologies spurred the territorialization of the Great Steppe along the hard borders of closed and paranoid states. A once open space was divided among the USSR, Mao’s China, and the Iron Curtain.

Today, it is still in flux. New independent states across Central Asia have taken up the mantle of their ancestors. The collapse of the USSR and the market liberalization of China have opened the Eurasian continent like it has not been for centuries. But these states are still forced to coexist with the power centers in Moscow and Beijing, both of whose borders cut across swathes of the Steppe itself.
From the Pontic to the Mongolian Steppe, ‘Eurasianism’ of various kinds has become the new vogue. Regimes across the steppe speak of building a new order—one that shifts the economic and political center of gravity away from America, away from the oceans, away even from Europe, taking it back home to the steppes of Eurasia.

But for the first time in centuries, China is the most important and powerful player on the Steppe, not Russia. What China will do with that power is yet to be seen, but the question of what it can do with that power is becoming clearer by the day.

Modern technology and futuristic ambitions give the Steppe a potential importance it has not had for centuries. The process of the Steppe’s territorialization will only accelerate as Central Asian states, as well as Russia, China, and other powers move quickly to control the region’s trade routes and development paths. Of these states, China alone seems poised to dominate across the entire Eurasian space, bringing new dangers to the vast and sparsely populated region under the shadow of two of the world’s most powerful countries.

The Steppe and its People
The Steppe is a vague term. It has exact uses in geography, but its historic and cultural definition is far more expansive.

Roughly, it describes the flat plain of mostly grasslands that encompasses the Pannonian Steppe in Central Europe, the Pontic Steppe mostly in southern Ukraine and Russia, the Kazakh Steppe in Central Asia, and the Mongol Steppe in East Asia. These steppes together form what is known as the Eurasian Steppe. However, the term is used more broadly to define the areas inhabited and traversed freely by the nomadic peoples of the continent.

From the perspective of great cities like Baghdad and Samarkand, those peoples were seemingly innumerable. Their lack of material records only adds to the air of mystery. Even the tribes we do know are hard to describe precisely, since they did not leave written accounts, such as the Scythians who ruled the Pontic Steppe for four centuries. The ones we know best are those like the Hungarians or the Bulgars, who invaded Europe or other regions in dramatic fashion only to settle down and assimilate to the local settled cultures over time.

Nowadays, there are few such great migrations across the Great Steppe. Its western reaches are home to the farmlands of Hungary, Ukraine, and Russia, while its central and eastern portions are largely controlled by sovereign states: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and others. In the Steppe’s east-central region is the Chinese-ruled province of Xinjiang, home to the Uyghurs and smaller groups of Kazakhs and others.

The Steppe is not quite what it used to be. Entire populations have been frozen in space for generations, cut off from much of the world. To travel from Mongolia to Hungary by land, you need more than a few buddies and your horses—much more. In your way is the closed-off and heavily policed region of Xinjiang, followed by thousands of miles of poorly paved Russian and Kazakh provincial roads. Make it through Russia, and you will have to avoid the active warzone in eastern Ukraine. Finally, you arrive at the barbed wire fence that marks the border of the highly protectionist European Union.

Of course, a number of rail routes have been slowly built up over the decades, with expansions and new routes set to follow. But these routes serve the trade needs of states and global corporate powerhouses, not the average citizen attempting to make life work. Most of these new routes are being built to service trade between China and Europe. They are being built to go over the Steppe, not through it....

Part of what's going on is the map of what China considers to be the proper borders:

As you can imagine, a China that stretches north to the Arctic and west to the Urals makes Moscow more than a little nervous.

And then there are the ethnic tensions:
"The Chinese influx into Asian Russia"
Why forecasts of a Chinese takeover of the Russian Far East are just dramatic myth
Residents Of Russian Far East Protest Chinese Presence