To help rectify the problem, the Kremlin is trying to cultivate domestic manufacturing, rather than simply shipping raw materials to China.
“Just because there is a big demand for natural resources in China does not mean that the far east should turn into one big mine,” said Alexander Bazhenov, head of a Russian state development fund set up last year to invest in the Far East.
However, it will not be easy. Bazhenov estimates that the region needs at least US$94 billion over the next 15 years.
Chinese demand also fuels criminal networks in Russia that cash in on lucrative export opportunities. Russia supplied China with US$1.3 billion of illegally logged wood in 2011, the Environmental Investigation Agency said.
Hunters in the far east’s Primorsky region can easily make up to US$5,000 from poaching rare Amur tigers, whose body parts are used in Chinese medicine, said Sergei Aramilev from the World Wildlife Fund’s Vladivostok office. Chains of middle-men and smugglers also make large profits.
There are few signs of a mass influx of Chinese seeking to forge new lives in the harsh climate of southern Siberia. The Chinese presence is instead driven by economics. Chinese markets and restaurants are ubiquitous across the region, and Chinese laborers — valued for their work ethic and low wages — are employed even hundreds of kilometers from the border.
Chinese companies are crowding out their Russian competitors. In Chita, 804.7km from the border, the main square is paved with Chinese tiles engraved with Mandarin script and the construction of fairytale ice parks, where Russian children play during winter months, is contracted to Chinese companies.
About 48.28km from the shattered ex-military town of Bezrechnaya, residents of the Soviet rocket base Yasnaya are fearful they could soon be living amid ruins after troops finally left last year. They complain that the few jobs available are given to Chinese workers.
Mikhail Shagirev, 63, who served in the Soviet army in the 1980s, criticized the new Russian relationship with China and the loosening up of the once tightly controlled frontier.
“Mongolia guards its border with China better than we do,” he said.