This huge steel bridge, jutting out from the Chinese side of the Amur river, stretches for more than a kilometer and a half across the murky waters of this river, which separates the largest country in the world and the most populous.
But then something strange happens. The bridge suddenly breaks off and hangs in the air high above the water, just before reaching the Russian coast near the isolated border village of nizhneleninskoe, located six and a half thousand kilometers from Moscow.
The reason for this gap between the bridge and the river Bank is Russia, which did not build its own, much shorter part of the bridge. This exposes the reality behind the promises to strengthen the Russian-Chinese partnership made by President Vladimir Putin when he met with the head of China and its Communist party, Ci Jinping, in Beijing last month. This was their fifteenth meeting.
United by a common dislike of Western models of democracy, wary of American power and eager to find new sources of development, Russia and China are closer than ever, at least at the leadership level. At each meeting, the leaders of the two countries sign numerous agreements on joint projects and make promises to support Russia’s economic and political “pivot toward Asia,” which Putin has been advocating since his relations with the West deteriorated over Ukraine in 2014.
However, the unfinished railway bridge over the Amur river presents a more realistic picture of the Gulf that separates the “truly inexhaustible” potential of the “strategic partnership” between Moscow and Beijing, as well as unfulfilled promises and unfulfilled hopes, as Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently put it.
When the bridge is completed, the cost of transporting Russian-produced iron ore to China will be drastically reduced, as the distance from a Russian Deposit to a major steel plant in China will be reduced from 1,000 to 230 kilometers.
The only noticeable sign of construction in Nizhneleninsky a few days ago was a group of border guards from the Federal security service, who were digging with their bare hands and shovels near the security fence.
Russian officials say that construction is about to begin, and that trains will be able to go over the bridge in a couple of years — that is, 10 years after the two governments agreed to implement the project.
The gap between expectations and reality has become a recurring feature of Russian-Chinese relations. Although the leaders of the two countries promised to increase trade from $ 100 billion this year to $ 200 billion by 2020, the volume of bilateral trade fell by 28% last year to $ 68 billion. In the first months of this year, it gained several percent.
The gloss has also dimmed on the 30-year-old $ 400 billion gas deal signed in may 2014 during Putin’s visit to China. Construction of the pipeline that Russia is supposed to lay for gas transportation has recently stalled.
Speaking at a conference in Moscow in may, Chinese speakers complained that Russia needed to improve its performance. Former Chinese Ambassador to Moscow Li Fenglin expressed dissatisfaction with the slow pace of construction of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline and other projects.
“Don’t sway, you need to start working more energetically”,– Lee said.
He added that China and Russia have a “common destiny”, but the partnership between them can only gain momentum if they abandon state — funded giant enterprises and switch to market cooperation between small and medium-sized companies.
There is also discontent on the Russian side, especially among businessmen who wanted to explore Chinese markets and get access to Chinese loans, but failed to realize their dream.
“The results of our last year’s work, it should be noted that the level of cooperation between Russia and China is catastrophically low”,– he said during a speech at the conference, the billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, is Chairman of the Russian part Russian-Chinese chamber on assistance to trade mashinno-technical and innovative products.
Ultimately, China and Russia have too much of what they desperately need: minerals and natural resources in Russia and a huge market and capital in China. Therefore, they can and should develop their friendship, not limited to loud, but often empty declarations of their leaders.
This is exactly what officials and managers of the mining industry are hoping for here in the Jewish Autonomous region, which is rich in resources but poor in capital. It has long looked at the railway bridge over the Amur river as a mechanism to take advantage of China’s economic dynamics. If completed, the bridge will be the first year-round crossing between Russia and China on a stretch of border longer than 3,000 kilometers.
The head of Leninsky district Valery Samkov (this is a border district, and it includes the village of Nizhneleninskoye) expressed hope that the bridge and the commercial opportunities that will appear after its construction will breathe new life into his district, whose population has decreased from 30,000 to 18,000 people since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
He is optimistic about the success that the Russian side is achieving in construction. After numerous visits of “people in ties with neat hairstyles”, which lasted for several years, Samkov notes, now visitors without ties come to him. These are people from construction companies asking where they can take construction debris and where to look for water when construction begins in earnest.
Why does it take so long to build? The answer is that Russia, despite the enormous concentration of power in the Kremlin under Putin, inherited many of the disadvantages of President Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic rule in the 1990s. Putin has promised to leave this era, but although the cacophony of Yeltsin-era democracy has subsided, competing interests in the fields of bureaucracy, security, and Finance have persisted, and they are hampering even those strategic projects that the Kremlin supports.
Putin strengthened the Russian state and gave it new strength, as well as disciplined the authorities to speak publicly with a single voice. But its many departments rarely keep up and often slow down, especially when it comes to the question of big money, which can profit their people with connections.
Viktor Larin, a leading Russian expert on China from the far Eastern branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, noted that delays in construction on the Russian side are evidence of the “Chinese threat syndrome”, which still affects part of the Russian elite. He is referring to deep-rooted fears in Russia that its neighbor’s population is almost 10 times larger, the economy is more than five times larger, and military spending is twice as much as Russia’s.
Because of the power that Putin has concentrated in his hands, Larin added, Russia was “manually controlled” by the Kremlin. This means that very little is being done in Russia without the direct and active intervention of the President, no matter what issues are being discussed.
Therefore, although the Kremlin approved the construction of the bridge, lower-ranking people in the Russian government slow down the project, officials from financial departments in Moscow complain about the high cost, and the military ask: “Why build a bridge that will be able to pass the Chinese tanks?»
According to Larin, the Kremlin has clear ideas about what areas it wants to develop cooperation with China, but “the lower you go, the worse it gets.” A significant part of the Russian elite “did not overcome the psychological barrier” and still sees China not as a reliable partner, but as a likely opponent.
Initially, the bridge over the Amur river was conceived as a private project, but it quickly turned into an enterprise funded and implemented by the governments of Russia and China. Such an organization, said Valery Gurevich, a former Vice-Governor of the Jewish Autonomous region, allowed China to take the lead.
“One party decides everything there. That’s why it’s much easier for them to work.”– he said.
According to Gurevich, even such a simple issue as the location of the bridge pillars caused a lot of interdepartmental disputes between the three state owners of land in Nizhneleninsky — the Federal security service, the state forest Fund and the municipal authorities.
“Sometimes you just want to hang yourself”,– he said.
But even more difficult is the question of who on the Russian side will receive a construction contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The Chinese decided a few years ago to entrust the construction of their part of the bridge to a state-owned developer firm, which quickly took up the work and, as reported by Chinese television, finished its part of the project two years ago.
But in Russia, where projects financed from the state Treasury are invariably budgeted, which creates extensive opportunities for theft of funds, until June, a construction contractor was chosen. There were many applicants, and each had influential patrons in Moscow. Won the group of companies “IC Bridge”. This is a private Russian company with connections, known for its participation in the construction of the bridge in Vladivostok, which eventually cost the state more than one billion dollars.