Now, as Russia’s economic isolation following its invasion of Ukraine pushes it closer to Beijing, the tide is changing with fanfare.
Last Friday, Beijing and Moscow celebrated the launch of yet another new link — what state media on both sides described as the first road bridge over the Amur — with rockets trailing colorful smoke overhead as local officials cheered from the banks of the river as they the authorities were broadcast from Moscow and Beijing on giant television screens, specially brought for this day.
On this first highway trip last week, eight trucks from China and eight from Russia drove in procession across the kilometer-long bridge, each with two huge national flags on either side of the cab, as they glided over each other in a choreography captured by aerial drones.
“The Blagoveshchensk-Heihe Bridge has a special symbolic meaning in today’s divided world. It will become another thread of friendship linking the peoples of Russia and China,” said Yuri Trutnev, the Kremlin’s plenipotentiary in the Far East.
This point was further underlined during a telephone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday, where they discussed the opening of their new cross-border link and their “steadily developing” economic ties, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry report. Ministry.
The bridge “will create a new canal connecting the two countries,” Xi said during the call, which took place on his 69th birthday.
“The Chinese side is willing to work with the Russian side to develop practical bilateral cooperation on a sustainable and long-term basis,” Xi said.
This is likely to further boost bilateral trade between China and Russia, which is already projected to rise as Moscow increasingly turns to Beijing for economic partnerships, although questions remain about how far China will go to support its neighbor hit by sanctions. .
China is “ready to meet Russia’s needs,” Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Hu Chunhua said at his inauguration on Friday.
“Until recently, Russia and China did not have a single bridge across the Amur, and now they have two bridges … so the trend is clear,” said Artem Lukin, associate professor of international relations at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok.
But the bridges, each in two parts, by the Chinese on one side and the Russians on the other, and the river they cross over, also highlight the complex underpinnings of this relationship.
Known as Amur in Russia and Heilongjiang in China, its shores were once busy and heavily patrolled areas. The Amur tributary was the site of a 1969 border conflict sparked by heightened tensions between the Soviet Union and young communist China, and it was not until the 1990s that territorial disputes were largely settled.
According to Lukin, previous routes were not enough, which led to an increase in trade between Russia and China.
“China has always insisted on expanding port infrastructure, but until recently Russia was somewhat reluctant to build such 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 resulting backlash from the West, Russia has become “much more open” to Chinese initiatives to develop cross-border infrastructure.
China’s Covid-19 policy could put this on hold temporarily as the bridge only runs with freight traffic, officials said. And even during Friday’s opening ceremony, the country’s infamous workers, dressed in chemical protection, stood on the side of the road, hailing Russian trucks, a reminder of tight controls.
But the prospect of even closer cross-border ties for Heihe and Blagoveshchensk, which already thrived on tourism and trade before the pandemic, could usher in a new phase for the region. According to local media, since September 1, the government has obliged all schoolchildren in Blagoveshchensk to learn Chinese.
The discovery could ensure the economic viability of Russia’s “sparsely populated” region, said Yu Bin, a professor of political science at Wittenberg University in Ohio and a senior fellow at the Center for Russian Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai.
It could also signal a move away from Russia’s “perception or misperception” that such ties could trigger an influx of Chinese nationals into Russia’s far east, Yu said.
There was little evidence of such a trend, but these concerns were due to differences between the two banks of the river. Heihe, part of Heilongjiang province with a population of about 31 million, has evolved over the past decades into a bustling city with a bright skyline that is reflected in the Amur River at Blagoveshchensk.
However, “this time around, Western sanctions against Russia appear to have helped alleviate these misconceptions and concerns about potential Chinese immigration,” Yu said.
At the national level, the bridge, touted as a major diplomatic and economic victory by Russian state media, also highlights the burning question of how far Beijing will go to support Russia in the international crisis it unleashed after its invasion of Ukraine.
So far, China has been walking a fine line. Beijing has said it supports a rules-based world order but refuses to join the rest of the world in condemning Moscow’s actions and is using its state media apparatus to mimic the Kremlin’s line of blaming the United States and NATO for the crisis.
“The first cargo that crossed into China from Blagoveshchensk on the day of the official opening, soybean oil … highlights the role that Russia plays for China economically as a supplier of natural resources and goods,” said Lukin from Far Eastern Federal University. .
“The more interesting question,” he said, “what will go from China on this bridge?”