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 radiated from Moscow and Beijing on giant television screens specially brought in for the day.
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 Blagoveshchensk-Heihe bridge has a special symbolic meaning in today’s disunited world. It will become another thread of friendship connecting the peoples of Russia and China,” said Yury Trutnev, envoy of the Kremlin in Russian Far East.
This point was further underscored during a call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday, where the two discussed opening their new cross-border link and their “steadily progressing” economic ties, according to a reading from the Chinese Ministry of 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 steady and long-term development of practical bilateral cooperation,” Xi said.
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.
China was “ready to meet Russia halfway,” Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua said at the inauguration on Friday.
“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 Far Eastern Federal University in 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 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.
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 initiatives to develop cross-border infrastructure.
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 Russian regions of the 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.
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 has caused by 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 in the world in condemning Moscow’s decision and using its state media apparatus to emulate Kremlin lines accusing the United States and NATO crisis.
“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 of raw materials,” said Lukin of the Far Eastern Federal University. .
“The most interesting question,” he said, “is what will come from China via this bridge?”