China And Russia Are Building Bridges To One Another. The Symbolic Significance Is Clear.

For over a century, the Amur River has divided modern China and Russia — its waters cutting through nearly 1,000 miles of their roughly 2,500 border miles. But the bridge connecting its banks has been a constant pipe dream.

As Russia’s economic isolation due to its invasion of Ukraine pushes it closer to China, the two countries are working on new infrastructure links. Last Friday, Beijing and Moscow opened another bridge between them — what state media on both sides have called the first highway bridge over the Amur River. Rockets trailed colorful smoke bursting overhead, and local officials applauded from the riverbanks, while their superiors beamed in from Moscow and Beijing on giant television screens specially brought in for the day. A second crossing — only a railway bridge connects the countries across the river — is expected to open soon. Eight freight trucks from China and eight from Russia drove in procession over that kilometer-long bridge last week; each bearing two oversized national flags on either side of their cabs as they glided by each other in choreography captured by aerial drones.

The Chinese freighters transported electronics, machinery, and tires, whereas the Russians sailed soybean oil and lumber, as reported by Moscow. If some people involved were curious about the symbolic significance of all this — coming as the war in Ukraine has caused Moscow to be eager to maintain ties with trade partners — a Russian deputy prime minister explained exactly what happened.

The Blagoveshchensk-Heihe bridge connects the twin cities of Heihe city in China’s Heilongjiang province with the Amur region’s capital Blagoveshchensk in the Russian Far East, and it’s expected to clear some four million tonnes of goods and two million passengers each year when fully operational. Moscow expects it to become yet another thread of friendship linking Russia and China.  Yury Trutnev, an envoy to the Russian Far East, remarked on the project’s special symbolic significance in today’s disunited world.

Bilateral trade between Russia and China is anticipated to increase as Russia gradually turns to Beijing for economic support, though questions about Beijing’s willingness to support Russia trickle down.

The bridge’s opening came at a time when China was tightening its control over its land borders with Myanmar and North Korea, even as it has continued with an unrelenting “zero-Covid” regime. Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua said that the country was “ready to meet Russia halfway,” and that it was “ready to work with Russia to continuously advance connectivity cooperation.”

 

Meeting halfway

The two bridges have been under construction for nearly a decade, with the train route — further east along the Amur in China’s Tongjiang city and Russia’s Nizhneleninskoye — breaking ground in 2014. Friday’s opening of the road bridge followed a similar path construction started in 2016 but was interrupted by the pandemic.

The new crossings highlight burgeoning ties between the countries. These have grown under Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who expressed an aim this spring to hit $200 billion in trade by 2024. The total broke a record set last year: $146 billion.

Recently, China and Russia did not have a single bridge across the Amur River. Now, however, they have as many as two bridges. The current pattern is evident: The number of bridges must increase.

But the bridges and the river they traverse also underline how tenuous that relationship still is. The Amur River, known as Heilongjiang in China and the Amur in Russia, was once a zone of tense, heavily patrolled borders. In 1969, it was the site of a border conflict between China and the Soviet Union—the result of rising tensions between two young communist countries—and it wasn’t until the 1990s that territorial disputes were largely settled. Agreements at that time to develop cooperation across the river stalled for years as pontoons, hovercrafts, seasonal ice roads and other routes served as means of ferrying people and goods across while land connections elsewhere handled more trade volume than maritime routes did. Previous routes weren’t sufficient to handle growing trade between Russia and China—according to Lukin.

China has placed a great deal of emphasis on the construction and development of port infrastructure over the years, while Russia was hesitant to do so until recently for fear that doing so might lead to economic dependence.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ensuing Western backlash, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been “much more open” to Chinese initiatives to develop cross-border infrastructure.

 

New era?

The bridge’s original purpose was not merely to transport goods; it was intended to enable new trade routes and mutually beneficial passenger travel between the Chinese city of Heihe, which is located within the Heihe region, and Blagoveshchensk, which is a part of Russia.

China’s closed-door policies may put plans for a bridge connecting the Russian border town of Heihe and Blagoveshchensk on hold for now, as the bridge will start only with freight traffic. And even during Friday’s opening ceremony, workers in hazmat suits were along the roadside welcoming Russian trucks, a reminder of tight controls. However, the prospect of even closer cross-border ties for Heihe and Blagoveshchensk could usher in a new phase for the region. The government has ordered all students in Blagoveshchensk to study Chinese from September 1st onward.

Yu Bin, a professor of political science at Ohio’s Wittenberg University, claimed that at the beginning of the 21st century, the opening may have helped a “thinly populated” region of Russia to increase economically.

China’s growing trade with Russia’s Far Eastern regions may signal a shift away from Moscow’s belief that such links would lead to an influx of Chinese nationals into those areas, according to Yu Jianhua, a senior official at the Chinese Embassy in Russia. Beijing has long been concerned about Russia’s perception that the growth of Sino-Russian trade would lead to an influx of Chinese immigrants into Heihe and other parts of Heilongjiang province. But there has been scant evidence of such a trend, Yu told reporters Tuesday during a press briefing on bilateral ties. Blagoveshchensk, which lies opposite Heihe across the Amur River, has seen slower growth and long experienced a population drain to western Russia like larger Far East region. However, “this time Western sanctions against Russia seem to have helped alleviate these misperceptions and concerns about China’s potential immigration,” he said.

The ongoing bridge — conducted as an essential diplomatic and economic challenge by Russian state media — strings a question regarding the extent to which Beijing will go to assist Russia amidst the international crisis it’s precipitated following its invasion of Ukraine.

China has said it upholds a rules-based world order while refusing to join most of the world in condemning Moscow’s move. It has also boosted some imports from its heavily sanctioned neighbor while trying not to incur any sanctions itself. It has even used state media to blame the United States and NATO for the crisis. “The first batch of cargo which crossed into China from Blagoveshchensk on the day of the official opening, soybean oil … underscores this role which Russia plays for China economically as a provider of natural resources and commodities,” said Far Eastern Federal University’s Lukin. “The more interesting question,” he said, “is what will be coming from China via this bridge?”

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