Exploring China’s Border with Russia

This August, I will be departing on a 4,300 km expedition, tracing the length of the China-Russia border to locate, track, and document the progress of flagship and lesser-known Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects. Although this border region lies several thousand kilometers away from Beijing, its relevance and importance to China’s security, economy, and broader relations with Russia cannot be understated.

This project will supplement a 23,000 km expedition I undertook in 2017, driving from Venice to Beijing to gain a broad and global view of the BRI, with a detailed study of Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy on the ground. Through interviews with local stakeholders, from construction company managers to business owners, I will investigate what the BRI means for citizens living in a region of strategic importance to China and Russia.

This is an ideal time to travel the border: 2019 marks both the 70-year anniversary of Sino-Soviet diplomatic ties and, perhaps more crucially, the 50-year anniversary of the Sino-Soviet border war of 1969. Flash forward to today and both countries’ leaders and media claim that bilateral relations have never been better. By contrast, commentators in Washington maintain that Sino-Russian solidarity is, at best, an axis of convenience, suspecting that behind closed doors, the two countries have yet to escape their mutual distrust.

Away from the high-level rhetoric, 109 million ordinary Chinese citizens reside in China’s northeastern provinces of Jilin, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, and Inner Mongolia, separated from their Russian counterparts primarily by the Amur River, known in Chinese as the Heilongjiang (literally, black dragon river). The region is frequently the focus of a narrative claiming China poses a threat to Russia’s control over its Far East. While this rhetoric has cooled down recently, these regional dynamics remain integral to understanding overall cooperation between these two vast countries.

In recent years, with border disputes considered to be a thing of the past, the China-Russia border has been heralded as the newest area for Sino-Russian cooperation, receiving media attention due to the construction of a number of BRI infrastructure projects. Yet, as has been the case since the initiative was announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013,
the sheer scale of investment in BRI projects has become a superficial way to measure or qualify the state of relations between the two countries. Beyond the billions of dollars reportedly spent on bridges and railways in the region, the local inhabitants have many unheard stories to tell about the impact of these projects on life at the border.

To date, most of the English-language literature on the border, its economy, and the BRI remains written by analysts who have not visited the region. As a consequence, there remain many mysteries, myths, and gaps surrounding what is known about the region. Even Sino-Russian experts who study the border have long struggled to find reliable information about its demarcation. Simple, yet significant, facts regarding which nation controls which islands along the River Amur and where China’s border ends and Russia’s begins, have been concealed and manipulated by states or poorly reported by the media.

By traveling the entire length of the border, this project aims to fill a key gap in the literature: what does the BRI mean for people-to-people relations and daily life for Chinese and Russian citizens living on the border? Through my travel, I hope to elucidate those realities, 50 years after the 1969 border conflict. Little effort has been made to document the life of the people that inhabit these unknown border areas, despite their importance to bilateral relations.

This project aims to move beyond the simplistic metrics used to evaluate the importance of the BRI to the Sino-Russian relationship today. So far, the impact of most infrastructural projects in this region has been measured purely by the size of the economic investment, but this project aims to move past this one-dimensional view by looking at how the BRI impacts the lives of locals residing along the border. It challenges the assumption that these projects should be measured simply by the value accrued at the “grand strategic level.”

Beyond simply locating and tracking the progress of BRI projects in the region, I have arranged interviews with relevant local stakeholders, such as managers of construction companies and business owners. My priority, however, is to engage as much as possible with the locals that inhabit these borderlands.

This is a novel approach which seeks to move past strategic assumptions to look at a new level of analysis: the human impact of these vast infrastructural developments. On the border, Sino-Russian relations are a feature of everyday life. By failing to capture local perceptions regarding individual infrastructure projects as well as the BRI overall, we are leaving a rich data source untapped.

Sino-Russian relations are seemingly smooth at the government-government level, but understanding how the people-to-people exchanges are being shaped by the BRI is essential in understanding the trajectory of cooperation between these two countries.

Areas to watch: Hunchun, 珲春:
Hunchun is nestled between Russia and North Korea in China’s Jilin province. It is a county-level city within Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in which one in every three people is ethnically Korean.

Hunchun is also home to a number of key infrastructural developments, including the Jilin–Hunchun intercity railway and Quanhe-Wonjong Bridge. This region’s strategic importance stems from the fact that it is landlocked by Russia, leaving China dependent on its northern neighbor for access to the sea.

Between Suifenhe, 绥芬河, and Fuyuan, 抚远:
Fifty years ago, in March 1969, this section of China’s northeastern border with Russia saw a series of violent border clashes with the Soviet army on Zhenbao Island (known in Russian as Damansky Island). This border war transformed the trajectory of the Cold War, driving both China and Russia to better their ties with the United States.

Another key disagreement during the border war was over the territory of Heixiazi (known in Russian as Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island) located near the Russian city of Khabarovsk. The island has been touristified on the Chinese side, attracting over 600,000 tourists a year. Understanding how this history is sold to tourists today will be of particular interest.

Tongjiang, 同江, and Heihe, 黑河:
Tongjiang and Heihe are cities in China’s Heilongjiang province, sitting opposite their Russian counterparts, Nizhneleninskoe and Blagoveshchensk respectively, separated only by the River Amur. This year Russian and Chinese state media have relentlessly celebrated the completion of two cross-border bridges, both due to be operational this year: the Tongjiang-Nizhneleninskoye railway bridge and the Heihe-Blagoveshchensk Heilongjiang (Amur) Bridge, a highway bridge.

Manzhouli, in Inner Mongolia, is located along the Western section of the border, at the crossroads between Mongolia, Russia, and China. It has attracted significant media attention in Chinese sources since the announcement of the BRI. One of the key BRI projects in Manzhouli is the land port, otherwise known as the “New International Freight Yard,” which has been marketed as a major connectivity hub along the China-Russia-Mongolia Economic Corridor, part of China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt.”

Follow the Expedition

During this project, I will be sharing my route through real-time geolocation updates here and by posting updates on social media with partners like the CSIS Reconnecting Asia Project.

I will be periodically sharing photography and analysis I learn along the expedition via LinkedIn and Twitter (see below). After the expedition ends, I intend to publish a summary of my findings for the Reconnecting Asia platform, thus bringing some of these hidden truths to light.

Ankur Shah is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University, a National Geographic Young Explorer and writes regularly for UNESCO about the Silk Roads. He formerly received an MA in Chinese and Russian studies from the University of Edinburgh. Ankur previously worked with CSIS on his 23,000km Silk Roads expedition, in which he drove from Italy to China, researching the BRI. This expedition is supported by a grant from the FutureMap Foundation. Learn more about Ankur and contact him via LinkedIn, or on Twitter @ankursamirshah.