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For decades, the Amur River has separated modern China and Russia – its waters flowing through more than 1,000 of their approximately 2,500 border miles. But it still lacked one thing: a vehicle bridge.
Now that Russia’s economic isolation following its invasion of Ukraine is bringing it closer to Beijing, the situation is changing with fanfare.
Last Friday, Beijing and Moscow celebrated the launch of yet another link – what state media on both sides called the first road bridge over the Amur – with rockets trailing colored smoke bursting over their heads and local officials cheering from the banks while their superior beamed. Moscow and Beijing on giant TV screens specially brought in for the day.
Another crossing, the only railway bridge to connect countries across the river, is expected to open soon.
For this maiden voyage on the highway last week, eight trucks from China and eight from Russia drove in procession across the kilometer-long bridge, each with two oversized national flags on either side of their cabins. , as they slid past each other in a choreography captured by air 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 – to come while the war in Ukraine has left Moscow desperate to show that it still has friends and business partners – a Russian Deputy Prime Minister filled in the blanks.
“The Blagoveshchensk-Heihe Bridge has a special symbolic significance in today’s divided world. It will be a new thread of friendship between the peoples of Russia and China, “said Yury Trutnev, the Kremlin’s envoy to the Russian Far East.
This point was further emphasized during a call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday, where the two discussed the opening of their new cross-border connection and their “steadily advancing” economic ties, according to a reading from the Chinese Ministry. . Foreign Affairs. Ministry.
The bridge would “create a new channel connecting the two countries,” Xi said during the call, which took place on his 69th birthday.
“The Chinese side is ready to work with the Russian side to promote the stable and long-term development of practical bilateral cooperation,” Xi said.
The $ 369 million project connects the twin cities of Heihe City in China’s Heilongjiang province with the capital of the Amur region, Blagoveshchensk, in Russia’s Far East. Moscow expects to handle around 4 million tonnes of goods and two million passengers each year when 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 there are still questions about how far China will go to support its neighbor under sanctions. .
The timing of the launch of the bridge underscores Beijing’s interests in this partnership. This comes as China continues a tireless “zero-covid” regime that has seen the country repeatedly tighten border controls by land – setting up fences against Myanmar, delaying border crossings with strict controls and even urging its citizens on the North Korean border to close. their windows so that the virus does not explode.
China was “ready to face Russia halfway,” Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Hu Chunhua said at the inauguration on Friday.
Both bridges are years in the making, with the proposed railway – 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 in more than two years. since, but its opening was blocked due to the pandemic.
A 2,000-meter-long bridge connects Russia and China
The new passages highlight new ties between the countries. These have risen under Putin and Xi and include a goal, expressed by Moscow in the spring, of reaching $ 200 billion in trade by 2024, up from a record high of $ 146 billion last year.
“Recently, Russia and China did not have a single bridge across the Amur River, but now they have up to two … so the trend is clear,” said Artyom Lukin, an associate professor of international relations at the university. 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 underscore the uncertain basis 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 conflict 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 largely settled.
Agreements at the time to develop co-operation 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 connections elsewhere in the countries were about more trade.
Previous routes were not sufficient given the increased trade volume between Russia and China, according to Lukin.
“China has always been pushing for more port infrastructure, but until recently Russia was a bit reluctant 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 subsequent Western reaction, Russia has been “much more open” to Chinese cross-border infrastructure development initiatives.
The highway bridge, in its original design, was not only intended to allow 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 the metropolitan area. , and Blagoveshchensk, with a population of about a quarter of a million.
China’s Covid-19 policies could put it on hold for now, as the bridge will only start with cargo, officials said. And even at Friday’s opening ceremony, the country’s now infamous hazmat-clad workers stood along the road to greet Russian 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 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 and Shanghai.
It could also signal a change from Russia’s “perception or misunderstanding” 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 differences between the two sides of the river. Heihe, part of Heilongjiang Province and home to about 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 decline to western Russia, as has the larger region of the Far East. The region represents more than 40% of the country’s land, but its 8 million inhabitants represent only 5% of the population.
But “this time, Western sanctions against Russia seem to have helped alleviate these misconceptions and concerns about potential immigration from China,” Yu said.
Domestically, the bridge – proclaimed as a major diplomatic and economic victory by Russian state media – also underscores a long-standing question of how far Beijing will go to support Russia in the midst of the international crisis it faces, provoked after its invasion of Ukraine.
So far, China has gone on a thin line. Beijing has said it stands for a rule-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 the Kremlin’s accusing the United States and NATO. the crisis.
It has also boosted some of the imports from its heavily sanctioned neighbor, while at the same time appearing cautious about avoiding suffering itself, and carefully circumventing high-tech exports, which Western countries have largely blocked from exporting to Russia. .
“The first batch of goods that entered China from Blagoveshchensk on the day of the official opening, soybean oil … underscores this economic role that Russia plays for China as a supplier of natural resources and raw materials,” said Lukin of Far Eastern Federal University.
“The most interesting question,” he said, “is, what will come from China through this bridge?”