Strategic location puts land of fire and ice on the map
THIS COLUMN COMES to you from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. 'Where is that?' you may reasonably ask as you reach for your atlas.
It is quite remote, even by Russian standards of distance and isolation. But it happens to have the distinction of being the most easterly city of the whole Eurasian land mass and the easternmost outpost of European colonisation of the continent. So it makes a useful point for reflecting on the interactions of geography and history and the possible future of a strategically important part of northeast Asia.
Petropavlovsk's 250,000 mostly ethnic Russian people are more than half the population of the vast Kamchatka Oblast, or province. This long (1,000km), narrow (average 200km) peninsula stretches from the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean and juts out towards the Kurile Islands - the subject of much bitterness between Russia and Japan even before the Russians took advantage of Japan's 1945 defeat to seize more of them.
It is known as the land of fire and ice, on account of its harsh climate and proliferation of volcanoes. Many of these are still active, including one which overlooks Petropavlovsk, and one further north on the peninsula, which at 4,750 metres is the highest active volcano in the world.
The reality and the image is of a wild and snow-covered land. It is also a place which seems to play tricks with time and distance. Moscow is nine hours both in flying time and time zones away. Petropavlovsk is five hours east of Hong Kong, yet if one could fly direct it would be only six hours away. Anchorage, Alaska, is a four-hour flight away, which puts it slightly further than the nearest significant Russian cities, Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.
That in itself is a reminder that Alaska was Russian until a bankrupt tsar sold it to the United States. Americans nearly got Kamchatka too. Lenin had so little use for it and the early Soviet government was so desperate for funds that it negotiated to lease it to an American company. The deal never went through and the province went on to become a front line in the cold war.
The region still bristles with missile and satellite-tracking stations, radar installations, a submarine base and other naval facilities. For decades until the collapse of the Soviet Union it was closed to most Russians, let alone foreigners. Today, the biggest issue here between the US and Russia is about fish.
Although Petropavlovsk's importance has declined drastically since the end of the Cold War, its position at the edge of the continent is symbolically important. It also has a magnificent harbour. It is a valuable base for any power wanting control of the northerly reaches of the Pacific.
It was first established as a Russian settlement in 1741 by the Danish-born explorer Vitus Bering.
Small and isolated though Petropavlovsk then was, the British and French thought it sufficiently important that in 1854, during the Crimean War, they sent an expedition to seize it. They failed ignominiously. The Japanese had more success. During the Russo-Japanese war they destroyed much of the town but did not stay.
All these events are a reminder that Russia's presence may not prove permanent. Russians pushed aside the indigenous inhabitants, the Koryaks. But 300 years after the first Russians arrived in Kamchatka looking for furs, they are still thin on the ground. The military activities which once sustained the economy are much reduced and fishing has been hurt by a decline in stocks.
The immediate future may be brighter. Mining has good prospects. And Kamchatka is just beginning to develop its elite tourism potential. Its isolation for reasons of geography and politics have enhanced its already unique attractions - the volcanoes and hot springs, fishing for salmon and skiing in winter. There is - at a price mostly only foreigners can afford - bear, sable and reindeer hunting. There are direct flights to Anchorage. Tokyo and Seoul are not that far away.
One can even conceive of an occasional direct link to Hong Kong as Petropavlovsk lies close to the flight path between Hong Kong and Vancouver.
But the bigger, long-term question is whether the Russians can keep their hold on the peninsula. Will some other naval power arise in northeast Asia which eyes Petropavlovsk's strategic harbour and finds cause to seize it from a weak and Europe-oriented Russia? Japan may now be a defensive power but the country still smarts from its loss of the Kuriles. Though Kamchatka is joined to the Asian mainland in the far north, in practical terms it is cut off by the Sea of Okhotsk.
Its ring-of-fire geology links it more to the Kuriles and Japan than to Siberia. Alternatively, Japan might want Petropavlovsk's harbour simply to strengthen its strategic position vis-a-vis China.
Or perhaps a reunited Korea would seek to use its own newly acquired economic and technological prowess to build a little empire.
Alternatively, China, which still regards the Russians as interlopers in Asia, may seek the oil and other vast mineral resources of the mainland Russian Far East. In that case, Russia's hold on Kamchatka would become untenable and the peninsula would be up for grabs. Whatever the future, Kamchatka bears an occasional thought, and maybe even a visit.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator