Will China Take Siberia away from Russia?

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Will China take Siberia away from Russia? No, Peter Turchin argues:

Do you remember a chapter in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, entitled “Spacious Skies and Tilted Axes”? (If you haven’t read the book, I strongly recommend it — it’s Diamond’s best one). In this chapter, Jared argues that crops and domestic animals spread more easily within the same “biomes” — macro-ecological zones characterized by similar climates and soil types. Because biomes tend to stretch along East-West axes, cultivars (and other cultural elements) diffuse more easily East and West, rather than North and South.

When I read this chapter, I remember wondering, what about the territorial expansion of states? Shouldn’t they also find it easier to expand into a similar ecological zone? Teaming up with Jon Adams and Tom Hall we analyzed the shapes of historical mega-empires. We found that, indeed, there was a very strong statistical tendency to expand along the East-West axis. The only exceptions to this pattern, such as Egypt and Inca, actually conformed to the more general rule — it just happens that, in their regions, biomes were stretched in the North-South direction.

What does it tell us about China? If you look at the historical atlas of China, you will see that China easily expanded East and West, more slowly South, and there was essentially no expansion towards the North. Chinese empires since the Shang originated in the North and unified territories in all directions except the North. The only reason Manchuria (to the North of Beijing) is now part of China is because it was Manchuria that conquered China, not the other way around.

So the countries that should be most afraid of China are those that inhabit similar ecological zones. That would be Korea (well, North Korea is already essentially a vassal of China) and Vietnam, which has the same ecology as southern China. In fact, Vietnam (unlike Siberia) has been part of China on two previous occasions. And there are very substantial tensions between the two countries (unlike the Chinese-Russian relations).


  1. Lu An Li says:

    De facto conquest by demography is possible. Military conflict very low probability I might think but do not totally preclude the possibility. That conquest of Siberia by the Russians was the greatest land grab in history.

  2. Jim says:

    How many ethnic Russians live in Siberia?

  3. Mike in Boston says:

    Here’s the first step toward the Chinese getting some of the land back, de facto.

    I found it especially interesting as the first real-world reflection of Jeremy Grantham’s concern with topsoil depletion.

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