October 18. 2021. 6:19

The Daily

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Russia and China deepen ties as Amur river neighbours await post-Covid reunion

People look out over the Amur river from Blagoveshchensk in Russia to Heihe in China. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin


Before becoming a businessman and an official in Blagoveshchensk, a Russian city that faces China across the fast-flowing Amur river, Boris Beloborodov served here in the Soviet military.

“I taught Chinese to would-be saboteurs,” he says with a smile, at a cafe that looks out over the water to the city of Heihe on the other embankment. “But thankfully we didn’t have a war with China.”

Beloborodov (58) is now chairman of the new Russian-Chinese Friendship Society in the Amur region, a formerly contested territory that hopes to benefit from a growing Russia-China partnership that is worrying the West.

The current interests of the vast neighbours have been described as “a perfect match”.

Russia sees a golden chance to sell fuel and arms to China until it transitions to cleaner power and starts producing more high-tech weaponry of its own, and to gain additional leverage in energy talks with the EU and fund construction of pipelines, refineries and other infrastructure in under-developed Siberia and the Far East.

Trade and technology ties with China also ease the impact of western sanctions on Russia, and both countries hope closer diplomatic co-ordination will help them resist pressure from the United States and other western powers, against which they often forge a common front in the UN Security Council.

That all feels a long way from Blagoveshchensk, a sleepy city of 200,000 people six time zones east of Moscow.

Yet warming relations have a direct impact in a city that was closed to foreigners until 1989, after an ideological split between the Soviet Union and China in the 1960s made this riverine border a potential flashpoint.

“There are no major enterprises here now. In the Soviet days there were several factories, but they went down with the command economy,” says Beloborodov.

“This city can only live by developing its small- and medium-sized businesses and services. A major part of our economic base is tourism and hospitality, so we need to attract people here – and having China just across the river is a big opportunity that we have to use.”

Halted trade

But for 18 months now, only border patrol boats and lumbering cargo barges have plied the Amur between Blagoveshchensk and Heihe, after the Covid-19 pandemic halted flourishing cross-river tourism and trade.

“People loved going over there to wander around, to do some shopping when the rouble was strong, and particularly for the food – you can’t get Chinese food like that over here,” says local man Ilya as he walks beside the river.

“We didn’t need a visa to go across, and they didn’t need one to come here. People went to and fro as often as they liked,” explains his wife, Gulya.

Tatyana and Galina, who sell knitted toys on the embankment, say there is no end in sight to travel restrictions that have slashed the tourist trade on both sides of the river.

“It’s been hard for the city without Chinese visitors and obviously we’ve had fewer customers. This is probably the last day that we’ll set up stall this year. The weather will change soon,” Galina says on a bright but chilly October day.

“Now they say the border won’t open at all this year, and maybe not even next year,” adds Tatyana. “People miss how it used to be, of course.”

Cargo traffic can still travel between Russia and China, but with strict controls, and the pandemic struck just as the two countries prepared to open their first ever cross-border road bridge, linking Blagoveshchensk and Heihe.

“Everything here has been affected by the pandemic,” says Beloborodov.

“The bridge was completed and we planned to open it in April 2020, and then in the summer. It’s ready but we had to put our plans on hold. Now we hope to open it before New Year or just afterwards.”

Goods to market

When the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago allowed people to travel between Blagoveshchensk and Heihe, some of the first to do so regularly were traders lugging huge bags of goods to market – even walking directly across the frozen river in the depths of winter.

The €220 million road bridge, which developers hope will increase cross-river freight traffic tenfold in a decade, shows how the scale of trade here has changed, as does completion this summer of the first rail bridge between China and Russia some 600km downriver towards the Pacific Ocean.

Restricted to their side of the Amur, people in Blagoveshchensk gravitate towards a redeveloped waterfront and its pleasant array of playgrounds, basketball courts and a beach volleyball area, as well as stalls selling coffee and snacks.

But by night it is outshone by Heihe, where illuminated tower blocks provide a brilliant red backdrop for Chinese characters that scroll in gold over their facades, casting shimmering reflections across the dark water towards Russia.

Perhaps partly in response, at a vast construction site where diggers churn beneath an enormous Russian flag, Blagoveshchensk is now building a riverside complex that is expected to include a concert hall, hotel, shopping centre and a terminal for what officials say will be the world’s first cross-border cable car, designed by Amsterdam-based architects.

“It is possible that the decision to change the image of Heihe – which is above all the waterfront – may have been one reason to improve our own embankment,” says Beloborodov.

“It’s not so much rivalry between us as healthy competition – everyone benefits from this.”

Western concern

Watching the bigger picture, the West sees only trouble arising from deeper Russia-China co-operation in energy, security, diplomacy and other fields, across areas including the Pacific, Central Asia and potentially even in Africa and the Arctic.

“China is Russia’s biggest neighbour, they have a very long border [4,300km] so – whoever it might cause to worry – it would be absolutely crazy for Russia not to have the best possible relations with such a neighbour,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, chief editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal.

“Another factor is the growing pressure from the West on both Russia and China. Both countries feel under attack . . . and that brings them together in efforts to resist and respond.”

Russia’s falling out with the West over its 2014 annexation of Crimea and continuing undeclared war against Ukraine has only accelerated a pivot to Asia that some people around Vladimir Putin have been seeking since he took power in 2000.

“If geo-economics were Tinder this would be a perfect match,” says Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

“Russia has an abundance of natural resources, it needs capital and technology, and is blessed to sit between the two largest markets for hydrocarbons, metals, fertilisers and so on – the EU and China. Russia has for centuries put lots of eggs in the European basket and is now trying to rebalance its trade structure, where it can ship to both Europe and China,” he explains.

“Russia still does much more trade with the EU than with China, but since 2013 [before the annexation of Crimea] China’s share has almost doubled, and I think that trend will continue.”

Major projects

Major infrastructure projects including the Power of Siberia gas pipeline to China and the Vostochny cosmodrome 200km from Blagoveshchensk can also help improve economic prospects for Russia’s Far Eastern federal district, which is more than 1.5 times bigger than the entire EU but home to just 6 million people – and has seen its population shrink by about a quarter in 25 years.

Yet fears often heard in the 1990s, of a rapidly growing and resource-hungry China swallowing up the huge empty spaces of Siberia, have receded since the neighbours resolved all border disputes more than a decade ago.

“This claim that hundreds of thousands of Chinese will occupy Siberia just hasn’t happened. China’s problem is that its people are moving from north to south, so they would be even less inclined to move to Siberia,” says Lukyanov.

Gabuev sees sprouting cross-border infrastructure as evidence of Russia’s growing confidence in the relationship.

“The fear was that profitable trucks of cargo might be crossing the bridge today, but tomorrow it could be Chinese tanks rolling into the Far East. I think that fear has gone now.”

Yet many Chinese people still resent the 19th-century treaties that gave Russia control over Amur region, while in Blagoveshchensk statues, banners and souvenir T-shirts laud a key figure of the time, Nikolai Muravyov-Amursky.

Another wound in relations are the pogroms that occurred here in 1900, when thousands of local Chinese residents were attacked and drowned in the Amur.

“That is not forgotten. It is a tragedy and it’s painful, but at the same time everyone knows that modern Russia is not to blame for that. Many similar things have happened elsewhere, including in Europe,” says Beloborodov.

“For the Chinese, the official position is ‘peace, friendship and co-operation’ . . . and people genuinely feel this is how things are,” he explains.

“I think we should be friends with everyone. But if Europe thinks Russia is wrong – then fine, think that, and we’ll wait until its politicians change and others take their place . . . And when the border here reopens, we’ll have celebrations and cultural events. And we’ll go straight over the river to see our Chinese friends.”