The construction of the Heilongjiang-Blagoveshchensk bridge is under way in Heihe, a border city in Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. [Photo: Chen Qingqing/GT]
Work on the long-awaited highway bridge project across the Heilongjiang River, also known as the Amur River in Russia, is progressing smoothly in Heihe, a border city in Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. When completed, the bridge will be integrated into the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC) and boost the capacity of Heihe port.
On Wednesday at a construction site in Changfa village, a southeastern suburb of Heihe, dozens of workers were building bridge piers. The 1,284-meter structure will connect Heihe and the Russian Far Eastern city of Blagoveshchensk, which will further stretch to Vladivostok, a major commercial port on the Pacific Ocean.
The Heilongjiang-Blagoveshchensk bridge will complement the CMREC, Li Dan, deputy chief of the Belt and Road office of the Heilongjiang Provincial Development and Reform Commission, told the Global Times.
"The project, as well as the Tongjiang-Nizhneleninskoye railway bridge project and the further opening-up of Heixiazi Island, all aim at better connecting Russia's Far Eastern regions," she said.
"Particularly, they will be integrated to the Trans-Siberian Railway," she added.
The Chinese and Russian governments began discussing the Heilongjiang bridge project as early as 1998. However, concrete progress was made only in 2013. Construction finally began in December 2016, after 33 rounds of meetings between officials from Heilongjiang and Russia's Amur Oblast.
The bridge will reshape the connectivity between Heihe and Blagoveshchensk and boost the capacity of Heihe port, noted local officials and business representatives.
In the first half of 2017, Heihe port handled 175,000 tons of cargo, down 11.6 percent year-on-year, according to the Heihe Port Authority.
"The decline was mainly due to a summer drought" that caused low water levels at the port, said Xu Mingfeng, an official from the authority.
"Some large cargo could not be transported during this period by ship, which is currently the only way of moving products from and to the Russian city across the river," he told the Global Times on Wednesday.
Heihe has a geographically advantageous position on the border between China and Russia, and it was among the first batch of opened-up border cities in the country. The city thrived in recent decades as trade with Russia grew.
But trade between Heihe and Russia decreased 22 percent year-on-year to $228 million in the first half of 2017, reflecting a sluggish economy in Russia and the ruble's depreciation, according to the local department of commerce.
Some traders in Heihe said that cargo shipments are limited not only by the port's capacity but also by extreme cold during the winter.
"We import about 40 cubic meters of wood board every month, which is a relatively small amount, and during certain periods, we can't ship anything," said an entrepreneur surnamed Wang at a local lumber processing factory. "It's not a very profitable business," he noted.
During the winter when the river is frozen, traders must ship their products by a floating bridge, which costs 1,000 yuan ($150) more per cargo truck than by ship, Wang told the Global Times on Wednesday.
The bridge is designed to handle 3 million tons of cargo a year, which will be a 10-fold increase from the current port capacity, according to documents provided by the operator of the bridge.
The slow progress of the Tongjiang-Nizhneleninskoye railway bridge project was a lesson to the operator of the Heilongjiang-Blagoveshchensk bridge, Huang Yunyong, general manager of the Sino-Russian joint venture that operates the project, told the Global Times.
"A major problem of the Tongjiang-Nizhneleninskoye bridge project was the absence of a unified entity that could take charge of everything from planning and design to fundraising and construction," he said.
In contrast, the Heilongjiang-Blagoveshchensk bridge is operated by one company, which can carry out planning more effectively. The joint venture called Heilongjiang Bridge Co was established in March 2016, and its affiliate in Russia was set up six months later.
Total investment in the project has been estimated at up to 2.47 billion yuan, and investment so far has reached 230 million yuan, of which the Chinese side has contributed 143 million yuan.
"The construction operator on the Russian side is also our contractor. We'll make progress payments to ensure that the project is delivered on time," Huang noted.
Although the Russian side is progressing relatively slower than the Chinese side, the general manager of the project said he remained confident but also cautious.
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