Russia has definitely been bridge building these past few years, figuratively and literally. In writing about several projects such as the Crimea Bridge, the Russia-Sakhalin Bridge, The Sakhalin-Japan Bridge, and the dreams of the Bering Strait bridge/tunnel. There are two more new bridges under construction over the Amur River between Russia and China, which are now close to completion stages.
The Chinese name for the Amur River, Heilong Jiang, means Black Dragon River, and its Mongolian name, Khar Mörön, means Black River. The eastern border section is over 4,000 kilometers long.
Presently, three railway lines cross the entire Russo-Chinese border. The two railway border crossings at Zabaikalsk/Manzhouli and Suifenhe/Grodekovo are over a century old, brought into existence by the original design of Russia's Trans Siberian Railway that took a shortcut across Manchuria (the Chinese Eastern Railway). The third railway crossing, near Hunchun/Makhalino, operated between 2000 and 2004, was then closed for a few years, and only recently was partially reopened.
Construction has started a while ago on a cross-border Amur River railway bridge near Tongjiang/Nizhneleninskoye, which will become the fourth and the key railway border crossing of the Russian Far East. In fact, it is the only one so far in that vast region.
Not a lot has been reported in our English language press, nonetheless these bridges are key insofar as they represent the first that connect Russia and China by road and rail in what was previously an unbroken 3,000+ kilometer transportation void. The only ways to cross along this border-defining river was either by ferries, or over the winter ice by truck at one of the few border checkpoints along that huge expanse. The choices did not leave much room for freight or serious recurring trade.
Numerous metaphors arise from the concept of bridge building, not all of which concern bricks and mortar. For example Isaac Newton famously said, “We build too many walls and not enough bridges”, or Nikita Khrushchev who observed, “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build bridges even when there are no rivers”. There are many such sayings; even fortune cookies have a "wise men build bridges but fools build walls". Perhaps the best I heard here in Moscow is “Build a bridge and get over it” which seemed to me to be especially apt given our times and the geopolitical reality show once called diplomacy.
The bridges over the Amur between Russia and China are economic game changers. The Amur is the biggest shipping artery in the Far East of Russia. It has little spring flooding because of the limited snowfall in its basin; and in summer, the high-water mark is reached by monsoon rains. When it is ice free, which is seven months of the year (May to November); the entire Amur is open to navigation. The rest of the year, it is largely impassable, unless one risks travelling over river ice that even locals do not recommend.
Grain, salt, and manufactured goods are the most important cargoes moving downstream; oil, fish, and timber are the chief products moving upstream. The two bridges, one rail and the other road, will allow significant time, efficiency and distance savings as well as trans-shipment savings. Not to mention linkage to the “one belt, one road” Eurasian Economic vision while allowing pent-up investment demand to flourish dynamically.
The Nizhneleninskoe – Tongjiang Bridge over the Amur in the Jewish Autonomous Region (EAO) is scheduled to open shortly (September/October 2018). This will be the first railway bridge that will directly connect China and Russia along the eastern border.
The planned capacity is 20 million tons of cargo per year; the maximum train speed is 100 km/h. The bridge is designed for both trains of Russian and Chinese standards, which means a difference in rolling stock wheel widths. The length of the bridge is just over two kilometers.
The initial purpose for this bridge was to transport iron ore from the Kimkano-Sutarsk Mining and Processing Plant in Russia (owned by a Hong Kong listed company) to refineries in northern China. Since then, the vision has expanded and grown remarkably.
The Blagoveshchensk – Heihe automobile bridge is another key artery when finished in December 2019. Construction started in late 2016. The project cost is 18.8 billion rubles, of which 13.6 billion is Russia's share, while the Chinese side financed 5.2 billion rubles. More than 1,400 people are involved in its construction. A joint Russian-Chinese company will regulate the operation and maintenance of the bridge.
As an aside, work on a cable car spanning the Amur in Blagoveshchensk has now also been resumed. In the words of some officials, it will be a highlight and attract a goodly amount of cross-border tourism, especially among those residing on both sides of the border.
A trip to China by car for many Russians living in the region can finally become a reality as besides trucks and tourist buses; the bridge will be open to personal transport once the rules of the road are figured out and agreements on effective cross-border auto insurance are in place. Both are apparently in works and should be viable in fairly short order.
Just the other day I said goodbye to a Russian business friend who was heading out to Blagoveshchensk (the automobile bridge) to buy properties, both commercial and residential, and seeing what he can also buy up in China’s Heihe across the river. I have known him for many years, and he is a successful, conservative, serious long-term investor. The last time I saw him this excited was during and post-perestroika when he made his fortune. That should be an indicator, a very busy man who has set aside 9 months to be located in the Russian Far East to “give birth” to his investing vision.
He also plans immediately afterwards to go to Sakhalin and scout for properties at the southern end of the island where the future bridge/tunnel to Japan will be. His reasons are the same, and have a long time horizon. One comment he made was that since western politicians have seen fit to sanction their own investors out of these Russia opportunities, he has only to deal with local and Asian investor competition.
This is a huge relief for him as he is now unconcerned by the often over-the-top US Dollar or Euro investor/developer world which wields a large advantage club with cheap costs of money relative to Ruble and the Yuan rates. He told me with a smile that his grandchildren and great grandchildren will bless his memory and foresight fondly in the decades to come. He even half-jokingly said he might hop a flight to the coastal areas of Chukotka, just opposite Alaska on the Bering Strait and plop down some rubles for land to be given to his yet unborn great-great grandson or daughter. I guess that is ultimate forward planning, and the truly long game as who can truly say when America will decide to open up again with Russia, if ever.