If you want to understand Sino-Russian relations, the frozen border town of Heihe is a good place to start.
It’s a dreary, freezing place, even at this time of year.
Its most impressive feature is by far the frozen Heilongjiang River that runs alongside it. On the other side, Russia.
It’s a much quieter place than before. covida closed border and then a sanctions-induced squeeze on the Russian economy stifled much of the previously booming tourist trade.
Before the pandemic, there was a lot of cross-border activity, with Chinese groups heading north to experience Siberia and Russians coming the other way.
Many people living in the border towns regularly crossed over to shop, do business or socialize.
But despite the drop in traffic, signs of that close affinity are everywhere here, from the imposing Russian architecture to the Russian shops filled with vodka, Russian dolls and (Vladimir) Lenin patterned wares.
Mr. Jia runs such a store filled with faux fur and real fur hats and gloves.
Friendship is good, he says. He used to live in Russia and the Russians are his clients and his friends.
“They are kind and direct,” he remarks with a smile.
It’s a common view here, as is his view of the war in Ukraine, the view that Russia is not entirely to blame.
“Wars have to be fought for a reason,” he says after thinking.
“Nobody goes to war if they don’t have to. Some things are like having a time bomb next to your pillow, and it won’t be easy to sleep.”
The autonomous region of Moldova where most people are pro-Russian
Conflict in Ukraine keeps Xi Jinping in a tight spot, but China still holds Russia above a barrel
This is an opinion encouraged in Chinathe true horror of war and who perpetrated it is largely censored here.
Indeed, China has taken a very cautious path throughout the conflict, never openly condemning or tolerating invasion while insisting that it is best placed to play the role of peacemaker.
But he quietly provided Russia with finance, technology and diplomatic cover and the West now fears he could go further.
There are signs of this tacit support all over Heihe and reminders of why China might want to maintain it.
Perhaps the best example is flowing beneath our feet – the huge pipes that carry Russian gas to China.
Heihe is the entry point for the Power of Siberia 1 pipeline and China is now buying more of this gas than ever before, compensating Russia for much of the trade it lost with Europe.
Further up the river, there is also a huge bridge that facilitates the trade in goods that still flow between the two.
It is also a reminder that this vast frontier is peaceful. This has not always been the case and the battles have destroyed the communities here. Maintaining the current peace allows both sides to focus their resources elsewhere.
“Nobody else wants to be friends with us”
It is at this bridge that we meet Slava, a Russian trucker who lives just across the river.
He drove to and from China for many years and spoke with unusual candor about the position Russians find themselves in.
“There is no one else,” he says of the incoming aid from China. “Nobody else wants to be friends with us.
“Europe doesn’t want to work with us or be friends with us, so we are left with our neighbors to work with. They give us work. We give them work. That’s all.”
“I hope they won’t send us to war,” he adds. “That’s the problem, Ukraine, you know? Ukraine.”
Indeed, while this relationship is nothing less than a lifeline for Russia, it also offers enormous value to China that goes far beyond trade.
Crucially, Russia is offering China a like-minded ally in what it sees as an overhaul of the world order and its growing power struggle with America.
In short, a defeated Russia and a united and victorious West would harm President Xi’s vision of a rising China.
It’s the big picture here, the dead end that brings two neighbors together.
China knows that Xi’s visit to Moscow speaks volumes, it’s a grand gesture that he chose to make regardless.
China is still treading its cautious path, but have no doubt that its number one interest is China.