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Friendship between Russia and China on display in border town of Heihe


HEIHE, China — For about 1,000 miles, China and Russia are separated by the vast Amur River — a symbol of the country’s tense and complicated history.

A Russian flag could be seen waving on the frozen river from the Chinese border town of Heihe. From there, the two seem much more like friends than rivals.

The close ties between the two countries were clearly visible in this commercial outpost during the recent visit of NBC News. Trucks loaded with goods regularly crossed the Amur, known in China as Heilong, along a new bridge linking Heihe with Blagoveschchensk, its sister city in Russia.

The Russian influence in Heihe, such as Russian-style domes or spiers that top Chinese-style apartment towers, schools, museums, and even some government buildings, attracts tourists from all over China.

People cross the road outside a shopping center with Russian and Chinese markings in the northern Chinese city of Heihe last month.
People cross the road outside a shopping center with Russian and Chinese markings in the northern Chinese city of Heihe last month.Fred Dufour/NBC News

Sanctioned by the United States and its allies for its war on Ukraine, Russia found an economic lifeline in neighboring China, with which it declared a ‘limitless’ partnership weeks before the invasion of China. Ukraine in February 2022. Bilateral trade increased by almost 30% last year. , according to Chinese customs figures, and Russia was China’s top oil supplier in the first two months of the year.

“It’s very obvious that Russia is becoming increasingly dependent on China, although the Russians may not like that,” said Jon Yuan Jiang, an expert on Sino-Russian relations in Sydney.

Heihe, a city of around 1.5 million people, is largely bilingual, with store names, signage and menus written in Chinese and Russian. Local business owners, even fruit vendors and roadside popcorn makers, greet foreigners in simple Russian, a skill they learned before the pandemic when Russian customers came in droves number.

“When border trade was unaffected by the pandemic, we could see Russians all over the street, just like meeting old friends,” a man who identified himself only by his first name told NBC News. family, Shi, 70, walking his dog. in a park by the river with large sculptures of Russian dolls.

Between the conflict in Ukraine and the strict “zero-Covid” policies that China has just ended, there have been fewer visitors from across the border, said Tang Lu, owner of a style bar Russian whose customers are mainly Russian.

“But the Chinese also love this place, and they can sing and interact with the Russians,” she said.

A customer at an Epiduo supermarket in Heihe, China
A customer shops under a Russian flag at a supermarket in Heihe. Bloomberg via Getty Images File

While China and Russia have had a long and often acrimonious relationship for centuries, the war in Ukraine has brought them closer, with China supporting Russia politically and economically and repeating Russian talking points.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to strike a delicate balance in his approach to the Ukraine conflict, Jiang said. China has sought to portray itself as neutral, refusing to condemn Russia’s aggression or even call it an invasion, while calling for peace talks.

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who describe themselves as friends, have spoken several times since the start of the war and met in Moscow last month. Meanwhile, there is no indication when Xi will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with whom he has not had contact since before the Russian invasion.

“China doesn’t really want to support Russia in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but China doesn’t want Vladimir Putin to fail either,” fearing he might be replaced by a pro-Western government, he said. Jiang.

Chinese efforts to appear aloof from the conflict took a hit over the weekend, after Beijing’s ambassador to France said that Eastern European countries that had gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not have “effective” sovereign status under international law, prompting a furious response from European officials.

The cross-border bridge that connects the Chinese city of Heihe with the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk.
The cross-border bridge that connects the Chinese city of Heihe with the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk.Fred Dufour/NBC News

China appeared to play down Lu’s remarks, asserting the sovereignty of former Soviet nations and emphasizing its preferred role as an honest broker in the war.

One of the main reasons China has avoided supporting Russia too openly, Jiang said, is because it doesn’t want to undermine its vision of a less US-dominated multipolar international order. Above all, it wants to avoid alienating Europe, which also aspires to a greater global role.

“If China is still trying to have a multipolar world, China needs EU support,” he said.

For that same reason, Jiang said he did not believe China would provide lethal military assistance to Russia, which the Biden administration has warned Beijing against. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said this month that China would not sell arms to any warring party.

China has tried to position itself as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine, releasing a 12-point proposal in February that the West dismissed as too favorable to Russia. The attempts to mediate are part of a broader effort by Xi to portray himself as a global statesman and China as an alternative to American power. Last month, Beijing brokered a surprise deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties for the first time in seven years.

Experts say the changes in Sino-Russian relations have mainly benefited China. Western sanctions have made Russia more dependent on the Chinese currency, the yuan, which Beijing is trying to internationalize. The yuan has replaced the US dollar as the most traded currency on the Moscow Stock Exchange, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, and Bangladesh recently agreed to use the yuan to pay for a nuclear power plant that Russia is building there. of South Asia, Reuters reported.

Russia’s growing isolation has also created opportunities for Chinese companies. With tech giants like Apple and Samsung having reduced their operations in the country, more than 70% of Russian smartphones now come from Chinese manufacturers like Xiaomi, Reuters reported, citing a statement from consumer electronics retailer M.Video- Eldorado.

But the war in Ukraine still casts a long shadow over border towns like Heihe.

“I was in shock and disbelief when the war broke out,” said park resident Shi. “After all, war can only harm the peoples of two countries. I wish the war could end as soon as possible.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.