China and Russia are building bridges. The symbolism is intentional

By Simone McCarthy

For decades, the Amur River has separated modern China and Russia – its waters flowing through more than 1,000 of their roughly 2,500 border miles. But it still lacked one thing: a vehicle bridge.

Now – as Russia’s economic isolation following its invasion of Ukraine brings it closer to Beijing – that is changing, with fanfare.

Last Friday, Beijing and Moscow celebrated the launch of another new link – what state media on both sides called the first road bridge over the Amur – with rockets trailing colored smoke bursting above their heads, and local officials cheering from the banks, while their superiors beamed. Moscow and Beijing on giant television screens specially brought in for the day.

A second crossing, the only rail bridge connecting countries across the river, is expected to open soon.

For this maiden highway trip last week, eight cargo trucks from China and eight from Russia drove in procession over the mile-long bridge, each carrying two oversized national flags on either side of their cabins. , as they glided past each other in a choreography captured by aerial drones.

The Chinese cargo ships carried electronics and tires, the Russians soybean oil and sawn timber, according to Moscow. And if any viewers doubted the symbolism – coming as the war in Ukraine has left Moscow desperate to show it still has friends and business partners – a Russian deputy prime minister filled in the blanks.

“The Blagoveshchensk-Heihe Bridge has a special symbolic meaning in today’s disunited world. It will become a new thread of friendship between the peoples of Russia and China,” said Yury Trutnev, the Kremlin envoy to the Russian Far East.

The $369 million project links the twin towns of Heihe City in China’s Heilongjiang Province to the capital of the Amur Region, Blagoveshchensk, in Russia’s Far East. Moscow expects it to clear about 4 million tons of goods and two million passengers every year when it is fully operational.

This should further boost bilateral trade between China and Russia, which is already expected to increase as Moscow increasingly looks to Beijing for an economic partnership, although questions remain over how far China will go to support his neighbor under sanctions.

The timing of the bridge launch underscores Beijing’s interests in this partnership. This comes even as China continues with an unrelenting “zero-Covid” regime, which has seen the country repeatedly tighten land border controls – erecting fences facing Myanmar, delaying border crossings with stringent checks and even urging its citizens on the North Korean border to close their windows lest viruses spread.

China was “ready to meet Russia halfway,” Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua said at the inauguration on Friday.

The country was “ready to work with Russia to continuously advance connectivity cooperation”, he said.

Halfway meeting

Both bridges are years in the making, with the railway project – further east along the Amur in the Chinese city of Tongjiang and Russia’s Nizhneleninskoye – in 2014. Friday’s opening of the road bridge followed a similar path: construction began in 2016 and was largely completed more than two years ago, but its opening was blocked due to the pandemic.

The new passages highlight emerging ties between countries. These have increased under Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping and include a goal, expressed by Moscow this spring, of reaching $200 billion in trade by 2024, up from a record $146 billion. last year.

“Just recently, Russia and China didn’t have a single bridge over the Amur River, but now they have up to two…so the trend is clear,” said Artyom Lukin, associate professor of international relations. at the Federal University of the Far East. University of Vladivostok.

But the bridges – each built in two halves, by the Chinese on one side and the Russians on the other – and the river they cross also underline the difficult foundations of this relationship.

Known as Amur in Russia and Heilongjiang in China, its shores were once tense and heavily guarded areas. A tributary of the Amur was the scene of a border dispute in 1969, the result of growing tensions between the Soviet Union and a young communist China, and it was not until the 1990s that territorial disputes were in largely settled.

Agreements at the time to develop cooperation on the river stalled for years, as pontoons, hovercraft and seasonal ice roads remained the means of transporting people and goods, while land and sea links elsewhere in the countries dealt with more trade.

Previous routes were not sufficient, given the increased volume of trade between Russia and China, according to Lukin.

“China has always pushed for more port infrastructure, but Russia was a bit reluctant until recently to build that kind of infrastructure for fear of becoming too dependent on China,” Lukin said.

“But now Russia has no choice,” he said, adding that since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ensuing Western reaction, Russia has been “much more open” to Chinese cross-border infrastructure development initiatives.

New era?

The highway bridge, in its original design, was not only intended to allow the transit of goods, but to lead to new economic zones and new passenger movements between the Chinese city of Heihe, which is home to approximately 1.3 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area, and Blagoveshchensk, with a population of around a quarter of a million.

China’s Covid-19 policies may put that on hold for now as the bridge will only start with freight, officials said. And even at Friday’s opening ceremony, the country’s now infamous hazmat-clad workers lined the road to greet Russian cargo trucks, a reminder of the tight controls.

But the prospect of even closer cross-border ties for Heihe and Blagoveshchensk, which had already thrived on tourism and trade before the pandemic, could usher in a new phase for the region. According to local media, the government has ordered all students in Blagoveshchensk to study Chinese from September 1.

Opening up could bring economic vitality to a “sparsely populated” region of Russia, according to Yu Bin, a professor of political science at Wittenberg University in Ohio and a senior fellow at the Center for Russian Studies at Normal University. Eastern China in Shanghai.

It could also signal a change from the Russian “perception or misperception” that such ties could trigger an influx of Chinese nationals into areas of Russia’s Far East, Yu said.

There has been little evidence of such a trend, but these concerns have been linked to disparities between the two sides of the river. Heihe, part of Heilongjiang Province and home to some 31 million people, has over the past few decades become a bustling city with a colorful skyline reflected in the Amur River in Blagoveshchensk.

Blagoveshchensk has grown more slowly and has long had a population drain to western Russia, like the greater Far East region. The region represents more than 40% of the country’s land, but its 8 million inhabitants represent only 5% of its population.

However, “this time, Western sanctions against Russia appear to have helped alleviate these misperceptions and concerns about potential immigration from China,” Yu said.

Domestically, the bridge – touted as a major diplomatic and economic victory by Russian state media – also underscores a lingering question about how far Beijing will go to support Russia amid the international crisis it is facing. provoked following its invasion of Ukraine.

So far, China has walked a thin line. Beijing has said it stands for a rules-based global order, while refusing to join most countries around the world in condemning Moscow’s decision and using its state media apparatus to emulate Kremlin lines accusing the United States and NATO crisis.

It has also boosted some imports from its heavily sanctioned neighbor, while appearing cautious to avoid suffering any itself, cautiously circumventing high-tech exports that Western countries have largely blocked for export to Russia.

“The first batch of goods that entered China from Blagoveshchensk on the day of the official opening, soybean oil…underlines this economic role that Russia plays for China as a supplier of natural resources and materials firsts,” said Lukin of the Far Eastern Federal University.

“The most interesting question,” he said, “is what will come from China via this bridge?”

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