It’s scarcely a day passes that there isn’t some fascinating new development bringing Russia and China closer in peaceful economic cooperation. The most recent such development involves what must be described as a win-win development in which Russia has agreed to lease prime Siberian agriculture lands to a Chinese company for the coming fifty years. It fits beautifully to plans for the development of the world’s largest infrastructure project, the planned New Silk Road Economic Belt, a network of new high-speed railway lines criss-crossing Eurasia from China to Mongolia to Russia and beyond ultimately to the EU.
The Chinese government officials in recent years are very fond of talking about “win-win” developments in business and politics. Now a genuine win-win development is emerging for both China and Russia in Siberia near the borders of Mongolia and China in the region known since 2008 as Zabaikalsky krai or region.
The region has a very sparse population of just over 1 million Russians on a land area of some 432,000 square kilometers. It also holds some of the richest, most fertile farmland in the world. China for its part is hurt by increasing desertification, water problems and other pressures on its food production security. China also has population and money to invest in worthwhile projects, something the more remote regions of the Russian Federation have had serious deficits of during the Cold War and especially since the destructive Yeltsin years.
Now the government of Zabaikalsky krai has signed a 49-year lease agreement with China’s Zoje Resources Investment together with its daughter company Huae Sinban to lease 115,000 hectares or just under 300,000 acres of Russian farmland to China. The Chinese company will invest more than 24 billion rubles for development of agricultural sector in the region, to produce agricultural products for Russian and Chinese markets. Plans are to grow fodder, grain and oilseeds as well as to develop poultry, meat and dairy products production in Russia’s Baikal region.
The project will be divided into two stages. If the first stage is successfully completed by 2018, the Chinese company will be given a lease on a second parcel of land bringing the total to 200,000 hectares. For Russia and the region it will be a win. The lands where the project will start have not been farmed for almost 30 years and to make the land suitable again for farming will require the labor of as many as 3,000 hands. Also significant is that the Chinese company had to compete for the land deal with several other Chinese companies as well as companies from South Korea, New Zealand and even from the United States.
Wang Haiyun, senior advisor at the Chinese Institute for International Strategic Studies, called the deal an example of the developing trust between the two countries, according to an article from the Chinese newspaper Huanqiu Shibao. He noted that the fact that Russian authorities agreed to lease such an immense territory for 49 years to a Chinese company proves Moscow has no ideological prejudice towards Beijing.
China-Russia Agriculture Fund
The latest land lease deal in Zabaikalsky krai follows other positive developments in agriculture cooperation between Russia and China. This past May Russia’s state Direct Investment Fund head, Kirill Dmitriev, announced that RDIF, the Russia-China Investment Fund and the government of China’s Heilongjiang province have agreed on the creation of a special investment fund for agriculture projects. The fund will total some $2 billion and be funded by primarily money of institutional Chinese investors, including those with significant experience in investment in the agricultural sector, Dmitriev added. He said that the agreement on the creation of a joint investment bank will help attract Chinese capital to Russia and make it easier for Russian companies to enter China’s markets. China’s Heilongjiang Province is to the east of Zabaikalsky krai.
Silk roads to golden goals
The China-Zabaikalsky krai agriculture agreement is merely the initial step of what will become a major infrastructure and industrial development of the now-remote underdeveloped Siberian region. Zabaikalsky krai is one of the richest regions in all Russia. Russia’s largest known deposit of copper at Udokanskoye in the region has resources of 20 million tons. On June 3 at the Sochi SP1520 annual international railways forum, Russian Railways president Vladimir Yakunin announced that the Russian Copper Company, a joint venture by Russian Railways Public Company, UMMC, and Vnesheconombank, had applied for development of the Udokanskoye copper deposit, confirming that Russia is thinking very strategically about its development in the region.
In addition the region is rich in gold, molybdenum, tin, lead, zinc and coal. Its crops are today wheat, barley and oats. The region is amply blessed with fresh water and flowing rivers.
At the same time Beijing has announced it is creating a huge $16 billion fund to develop gold mines along the rail route linking Russia and China and Central Asia. One major obstacle to date to exploitation of Russia’s vast agriculture and mineral riches has been availability of modern infrastructure to bring the products to market. Contrary to Harvard University or George Soros “shock therapy” free market theories, markets are not “free.”
At the September, 2014 meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Dushanbe, at the request of the Mongolian president, China’s Xi, Russia’s Putin and Mongolia’s Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj agreed to integrate Beijing’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative with Russia’s transcontinental rail plan and Mongolia’s Prairie Road program, to jointly build a China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor.
That could turn Mongolia into a “transit corridor” linking the Chinese and Russian economies. Mongolia is larger than Japan, France and Spain together. The three are discussing issues of traffic interconnectivity, how to facilitate cargo clearance and transportation, and the feasibility of building a transnational power grid.
Eurasian Economic Birth
The potential of the recent economic cooperation agreements between the two great Eurasian nations, Russia and China, is without question the most promising economic development in the world today. As US sanctions forced Russia to turn increasingly to its eastern neighbor, China, US military provocations against China in the East China Sea and elsewhere forced China to completely rethink its own strategic orientation. Developing their land connections in a vast economic space is emerging as the result. As the ancient Chinese saying goes, every crisis contains new opportunities if viewed so.
Beijing has discussed building various Eurasian rail ties for several years but in the past eighteen months since the beginning of the Presidency of Xi Jinping it has assumed highest priority, especially the construction of the New Silk Road Economic Belt. President XI has made that Silk Road project the cornerstone of his presidential term. In the meeting of Xi on May 8 in Moscow with Russian President Putin, the two presidents signed a joint declaration “on cooperation in coordinating development of EEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt,” with both declaring their goal to coordinate the two projects in order to build a “common economic space” in Eurasia, including a Free Trade Agreement between the EEU and China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently stated that the trade turnover between China and Russia is likely to reach $100 billion in 2015. The future prospects, with construction of the network of high-speed railways, is staggering.
Markets, all markets, are manmade, products of deliberate or not so deliberate decisions of individuals and usually of governments. The creation of what could become a multi-trillion dollar economic space spanning the vast Eurasian land is moving forward in a beautiful way. The China-Russia agriculture land leasing is a sign that Russia is opening a new qualitative phase in these developments.
In the world of mathematics win-win is referred to as a “non-zero sum game” in which there is typically a matrix of multiple payouts for all participants. That seems to be emerging across the vast Eurasian expanse far faster than anyone could have imagined even two years ago.
F. William Engdahl is strategic risk consultant and lecturer, he holds a degree in politics from Princeton University and is a best-selling author on oil and geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.