The Heihe frozen border city is a great place to begin if you are interested in understanding the China-Russia relationship.
Even at this time of the year, it is dark and bitterly cold.
The most striking feature of the river is its sweeping, frozen Heilongjiang. Russia is on the other side.
It is a quieter place than it was before. COVID and a tightening of sanctions on Russia have severely impacted the once booming tourism industry.
Before the pandemic, there had been a lot of cross-border activity. There were groups of Chinese people heading north to Siberia, and Russians going the opposite direction.
Many people who live in border towns often cross the border to shop, do business, or socialize.
Despite the decline in traffic, there are still signs of this close bond, such as the Russian architecture and Russian-themed merchandise.
One such shop is owned by Mr Jia and stocked with faux fur hats, gloves and gloves.
He says the friendship is good. He has lived in Russia before and Russians are his friends and customers.
He smiles and says, “They’re nice and simple.”
This is a common view here.
After a moment of reflection, he said that wars must be fought for a purpose.
“No one goes into war if they don’t have to.” Certain things can be like a ticking bomb next to your bed, making it difficult to fall asleep.
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This is the opinion that is encouraged in China. However, the truth of war and the perpetrators thereof are largely suppressed.
China has been very cautious throughout the conflict. It has not openly condemned or condoned the invasion, but it insists that it is best placed as a peacemaker.
It has been quietly providing Russia with finance, technology, and diplomatic cover. The West fears that it may go further.
There are many signs that China may be tacitly supporting Heihe, and they can be seen everywhere.
Perhaps the best example is right under our feet: The huge pipes that transport Russian gas to China.
Heihe is where the Power of Siberia 1 gas pipe enters. China is now buying more of this natural gas than ever before to compensate Russia for many of its trade losses with Europe.
A bridge is located further up the river that facilitates trade in commodities between them.
It serves as a reminder of the peaceful nature of this vast frontier. This has not always been true and there have been many battles that have destroyed the communities. Both sides can focus their resources elsewhere by maintaining peace today.
“No one wants to be friends”
Slava, a Russian trucker driver, lives on the other side. We meet him at the bridge.
He drove to China many times over the years and was open about the Russian situation.
He said that there is no other person who would be interested in the help coming from China. “No one wants to be friends” with us.
“Europe doesn’t want to be friends or work with us, so we have our neighbors left to help. They provide work. They give us work. That’s it.”
He adds, “I hope they don’t send us to war.” You know what the problem is, Ukraine? Ukraine.”
This relationship is a lifeline for Russia. However, it also offers enormous value to China that goes beyond trade.
Russia provides China with a close ally in its vision of a reshaping the world order and its ever-increasing power battle with America.
A defeated Russia and a united, victorious West would both be detrimental to President Xi’s vision of an ascendant China.
This is the larger picture, the standoff which pushes two neighbours closer together.
China is aware that Xi’s trip to Moscow speaks volumes. It’s a huge gesture he chose to make regardless.
China is still on a cautious path but China’s number one priority is undeniable.