Thu, Jul 21, 2016 - Page 9 News List

A bridge falls short, like other Russia-China ties

Russia has pledged to ‘pivot’ to Asia after its relations with the West soured over Ukraine, but despite grand promises of cooperation, its relations with China remain mired in inertia and mistrust

By Andrew Higgins  /  NY Times news service, NIZHNELENINSKOYE, Russia

Illustration: Mountain people

Trumpeted for the past decade as an emblem of Russia’s destiny as an Asian, as well as a European, power, the huge steel bridge thrusts out from the Chinese side of the Amur River, stretching more than 1.6km across the turbid waters that divide the world’s most populous nation from its biggest.

Then something strange happens: The bridge abruptly stops, hanging in the air high above the river just short of the Russian shore at Nizhneleninskoye, a remote frontier settlement nearly 6,437km from Moscow.

The gap between the bridge and the riverbank — left by Russia’s failure to build its own, much shorter share of the project — exposes the reality behind the pledges of an ever closer Russian-Chinese partnership made when Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Beijing last month with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平). It was their 15th meeting.

United by a shared distaste for Western models of democracy, wariness of US power and eagerness to find new sources of growth, Russia and China have never been closer, at least at the leadership level. With each meeting, leaders produce numerous agreements for joint projects and pledges to support a Russian “pivot to Asia,” an eastward shift in economic and political focus championed by Putin since his relations with the West soured over Ukraine in 2014.

However, the unfinished rail bridge across the Amur River offers a more realistic picture of the chasm separating what Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov recently described as the “truly inexhaustible potential” of Moscow’s “strategic partnership” with Beijing and the reality of unfulfilled promises and thwarted hopes.

Once completed, the bridge would slash the cost of transporting iron ore mined in Russia to China, cutting the journey to a big Chinese steel mill to just 233km, from 1,040km.

The only sign of construction in Nizhneleninskoye on a recent afternoon was a group of border guards from the Russian Federal Security Service, digging with their bare hands and a shovel near a security fence.

Russian officials insist that construction work is about to start and that the bridge will be ready to carry rail traffic within two years or so — a decade after the Russian and Chinese governments agreed to proceed on the project.

The gulf between expectation and reality has become a recurring feature of Russia’s relationship with China. For example, after promises by leaders to increase trade between the two nations to US$100 billion by this year and US$200 billion by 2020, two-way trade volume slumped last year by 28 percent to just US$68 billion. It picked up a few percentage points in the first few months of this year.

The sheen has also dulled on a 30-year gas deal estimated to be worth US$400 billion when it was signed during a visit by Putin to China in May 2014. A pipeline that Russia needs to build to transport the gas has stalled.

At a conference in May in Moscow, Chinese speakers complained that Russia needed to improve its performance.

Former Chinese ambassador to Russia Li Fenglin (李鳳林) expressed dismay over the slow pace of construction on the Power of Siberia gas pipeline and other projects.

“Don’t just drag your feet. You should start working energetically,” Li said.

He added that China and Russia had “a single destiny,” but would get their partnership into gear only if they moved away from mammoth state-sponsored ventures and shifted toward market-driven interaction between small and medium-sized companies.

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