Future of Amur Heilong River Basin or its further degradation will be determined by internatonal cooperation between China, Mongolia and Russia.
The Russian Far East is important to Russia and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. Abutting the Pacific Ocean, the region neighbors the United States, Canada, Japan, China, Mongolia, and North Korea. The RFE is an important transit route from western Europe and countries in the Asia-Pacific region due to its year-round access to the sea and direct connection with the Trans-Siberian and Baikal-Amur railways. These two routes are economically important for international passenger traffic and for transport of raw materials for international trade. The socio-economic future for Asian Russia depends to a large extent on trade and policy relations with its Asian neighbors, first of all China. Unless a new “iron curtain” is erected to isolate the RFE from the rest of the world, its economy, politics, and demography will always be subject to the dominating influences of more populous and industrious neighbors.
Mongolia is a traditional society rapidly integrating into global markets and acquiring international standards for natural resource management. At first glance its population, economy, and resulting impacts on the environment are minimal in comparison with two giant neighbors. However, the fragility of arid ecosystems and fast pace of socio-economic change puts the supply of many traditional resources, including water, at risk. International demand for minerals has become leading force for economic change, which might threaten sustainability of the country's economy over the medium term. In general Mongolia is vulnerable to political and economic pressures from Russia and China.
The China provinces of the Amur-Heilong basin, particularly Heilongjiang and Jilin, are economically well developed. Urbanization, per capita GDP, and primary healthcare indicators exceed the national averages. The middle of the Songhua River basin, shared largely by Jilin and Heilongjiang, is one of the most developed agricultural and industrial areas in the country. However, the prevalence of heavy industry, state-owned enterprises, and large scale agriculture slows economic development and makes it excessively dependent on large government investments that are not sustainable. Beginning in 2003, an aggressive new policy was implemented to revitalize the “Old Industrial Bases.” This will inevitably result in much more rapid economic development. This policy promotes the restructuring and growth of those traditional sectors of the economy that in previous waves of industrialization already contributed significantly to the degradation of natural ecosystems. This new stage of restructuring already has partially depleted the natural-resource base. Extensive economic development requires a growing amount of raw materials and energy imports; Mongolia and Russia, as close neighbors and resource-rich countries, are the first choice markets to look for natural resources that can be extracted.
Trade and international economic cooperation between basin countries is almost solely based on natural resource extraction. Mongolia and Russia are major sources of raw materials processed in Northeast China and, with time, more Chinese capital will be invested to secure extraction-processing chains. Given the poor condition of local economies and their remoteness from major development centers, both Russian and Mongolian portions of the basin will increasingly rely on China as a source of investment, technological innovation, and a major market. In these conditions, we can expect a greater influx of Chinese immigrants into adjacent areas. At the same time, outdated and conservative administrations with poor enforcement capability leaves Mongolia and Russia with little hope for adequate environmental oversight of resource extraction processes. Environment is deteriorating rapidly in all three countries and major impacts on regions biodiversity are already very evident.
Medium and long-term resource exhaustion is unlikely to be a major concern for pragmatic policy-makers in China who have focused on solving acute domestic problems. Other major underlying sources of environmental degradation influencing development trends in China are internal. Therefore, while China's economy has an overriding influence on the region's environment, policies designed domestically to protect China's environment are unlikely to address cross-border environmental issues. Some of these policies are intended to secure access to foreign resources by increasing pressure on the neighboring transboundary regions.
No matter how advanced China's domestic environmental policies might be, taken alone they are unlikely to contribute to the formation of a more sustainable resource-use pattern throughout the basin. Only by involving Russia and Mongolia can China help drive a more environmentally sustainable future.
Second Songhua River in Jilin City
(Photo by E.Simonov)