Given the strategic nature of relations between Moscow and Beijing, the parties should very carefully “remember the ravines” and agree on their plans for the development of transport routes, at least at the interdepartmental and intergovernmental levels, writes Andrey Gubin, Associate Professor of the Department of International Relations of the Eastern Institute of the Far Eastern Federal University (Vladivostok).
The Russian Far East (RFE) invariably attracts Beijing’s attention. Chinese researchers do not exclude that the PRC will be able to redirect some transcontinental transit flows through the region, including the Northern Sea Route, as well as form a sustainable resource base which would serve China’s interests in terms of security and development. For the Celestial Empire, this is especially important in light of the aggravation of relations with Washington and the deterioration of the situation in the East and South China Seas, which is now fraught with the risk of a disruption of sea transport capabilities. Russia’s interest is associated with the establishment of the “Greater Eurasian Partnership” as a non-Western vector of integration.
At the same time, it is still too early to talk about any significant role of the RFE, for example, in the Belt and Road project. Russian experts note that the Programme for the development of Russian-Chinese cooperation in the trade, economic and investment spheres in the Russian Far East for 2018–2024 does not contain a description of specific mechanisms for the implementation of joint initiatives or a detailed study of investment projects at a level that would allow funding from budget or private sources. This makes it difficult to find mutually acceptable business solutions and reduces the motivation of systemic players, forcing the parties to act independently of each other.
Today, even despite the fact that five Russian Far Eastern regions share a national border with two north-eastern provinces of China is not a significant factor in economic development. The experience of the implementation by both parties of “grey (economy) schemes” in the 1990s-2000s is not applicable in modern conditions, and numerous multi-billion dollar joint projects are more likely to resemble an “alternative reality” and exist only in reports and presentations.
The incident with the blocking of the Suez Canal by the Ever Given container ship in March 2021 demonstrated the vulnerability of the PRC’s maritime foreign trade infrastructure, which underscored the need for Beijing to explore alternative routes, including through Russia, using the Primorye-1 and Primorye-2 international transport corridors (ITC) (Harbin — Mudanjiang — Suifenhe / Dongning — Pogranichny / Poltavka — Ussuriysk — Vladivostok / Nakhodka / Vostochny ports, as well as Changchun — Jilin — Hunchun — Zarubino / Slavyanka ports).
According to the financial and economic model of the corridors, the total potential of their carrying capacity by 2030 will amount up to 45 million tonnes. At the same time, in these areas in 2019-2020, no more than 300 thousand tonnes of cargo were transported in total. According to the Development Concept of the ITC, a significant proportion of the cargo turnover should have been provided by Chinese shippers by sometime in 2020. Most likely, the planned targets will be not be achieved by 2030 — the implementation was influenced by several factors: from the coronavirus pandemic to changing preferences of Chinese investors. In particular, due to the growth in the volume of Russian raw materials exports to the PRC (timber, fish and agricultural products), the Chinese businessmen began to invest their capital in storage and processing infrastructure on their territory, as well as the construction of new and modernisation of existing ports in Liaoning province under a single management.
Among the obvious shortcomings, it is worth noting the underdevelopment of Russian border infrastructure facilities. Until now, the modernisation of the automobile checkpoints “Pogranichny” and “Kraskino” (Primorsky Territory) has not been carried out; the deadline announced by Rosgranstroy is 2024 (according to the original plan — 2012, in time for the APEC Summit). Part of the infrastructure has already begun to collapse (The remains of the “new” checkpoint Kraskino can still be seen when crossing the state border.)
To implement the idea of the ITC, Russian experts have proposed moving away from the concept of local routes, which depend on the cargo base and the preferences of China. It is advisable to combine “Primorye-1” and “Primorye-2” with the trade routes of the APR countries and use multimodal transportation schemes. Thus, it will be possible to avoid dependence on changes in the economy and the legislation of the PRC, reducing unwanted influence on the Russian market. In particular, Japan and Vietnam have already shown an interest in the further use of the Zarubino port (in 2020, agricultural products were shipped from there to these countries). Japanese and South Korean companies could expand their participation in the development of the East-West railway corridor through the ports of the Russian Far East and Transsib. A positive example is the trial dispatch in April 2021 by Maersk of a container train from the Vostochny port to Novorossiysk with cargo from China, South Korea and Japan, bound for Turkey and other countries of the Eastern Mediterranean.
There are additional opportunities for the development of Russian-Chinese cooperation. In particular, the Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation presented the option of an unmanned transport corridor within the framework of the Primorye-2 project. For this purpose, it is planned to build a new 30 km-road only for “robotic trucks”, which will connect the promising Chinese dry port with a proposed Russian sea terminal, which does not yet exist. Both facilities provide for a high degree of automation of cargo handling; the corresponding technologies have already been developed in the ports of Shanghai and Qingdao. It is also possible to assess positively the statements of the Chinese side about its readiness to use at least 10 ports in the south and east of the PRC for the transportation of goods to the north-eastern provinces, in transit through the Far Eastern ports of Russia, due to the over-occupancy of the internal railway network.
A certain optimism is also inspired by the opening in 2019 of an automobile bridge across the Amur River between Blagoveshchensk and Heihe, as well as the “almost completed” Nizhneleninskoe — Tongjiang railway crossing (the level of optimism is less here).
Despite the abundance of plans, to start specific activities in the “Chinese direction” will require at least the removal by Beijing of restrictions on passenger and freight traffic. According to some estimates, this may happen in the second half of 2022, while according to others it will take place a few months after the establishment of the zero threshold for the incidence of COVID-19 in China.
Of course, further actions will be determined by considerations of commercial benefits from the use of one or another “corridor”. However, given the strategic nature of relations between Moscow and Beijing, the parties should very carefully “remember the ravines” and agree on their plans for the development of transport routes, at least at the interdepartmental and intergovernmental levels. Without the elimination of “rusty armature”, queues of trucks lasting days and other domestic and infrastructure problems, as well as the establishment in the transport sector of uniform, understandable, transparent and unchanging rules and procedures, it will be quite difficult to talk seriously about confluence, “common destiny” and other undoubtedly important things.