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Russia and China have a troubled past — but in one border town, they appear be growing closer

The two countries’ close ties were on vivid display in the trading outpost of Heihe when NBC News visited this month.
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HEIHE, China — For about 1,000 miles, China and Russia are separated by the vast Amur River — a symbol of the countries’ tense and complicated history. 

A Russian flag could be seen fluttering across the frozen river from the Chinese border town of Heihe. From here, the two look a lot more like friends than rivals. 

The two countries’ close ties were on vivid display in this trading outpost when NBC News visited recently. Trucks loaded with goods regularly crossed the Amur, known in China as the Heilong, along a new bridge linking Heihe to Blagoveschchensk, its sister city in Russia.

The Russian influence in Heihe, such as the Russian-style domes or spires that top Chinese-style apartment towers, schools, museums and even some government buildings, draws tourists from all over China.

People cross the road outside a mall emblazoned with Russian and Chinese inscriptions in the city of Heihe in northern China last month.
People cross the road outside a mall emblazoned with Russian and Chinese inscriptions in the city of Heihe in northern China last month.Fred Dufour / NBC News

Sanctioned by the United States and allies for its war on Ukraine, Russia has found an economic lifeline in neighboring China, with which it declared a “no limits” partnership weeks before the Ukraine invasion in February 2022. Bilateral trade grew almost 30% last year, according to Chinese customs figures, and Russia was China’s top oil supplier in the first two months of the year.

“It’s very obvious Russia is increasingly dependent on China, even though Russians may not like that,” said Jon Yuan Jiang, a China-Russia relations expert in Sydney.

Heihe, a city of some 1.5 million people, is largely bilingual, with shop names, street signs and menus written in Chinese and Russian. Local business owners, even fruit vendors and roadside popcorn makers, greet foreigners in simple Russian, a skill they learned before the pandemic when Russian customers came in large numbers.

“When the border trade was not affected by the pandemic, we could see Russians everywhere on the street, just like meeting with old friends,” a man who identified himself only by his surname, Shi, 70, told NBC News while walking his dog in a riverside park with large sculptures of Russian dolls.

Between the Ukraine conflict and strict “zero-Covid” policies that China only recently ended, there have been fewer visitors from across the border, said Tang Lu, the owner of a Russian-style bar whose customers are mainly Russians.

“But Chinese people also like this place, and they may sing and interact with Russians,” she said.

A customer at an Epinduo supermarket in Heihe, China
A customer shops underneath a Russian flag in a supermarket in Heihe. Bloomberg via Getty Images file

While China and Russia have a long and often acrimonious relationship dating back centuries, the war in Ukraine has pushed them closer together, with China supporting Russia politically and economically and repeating Russian talking points.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to strike a delicate balance in his approach to the Ukraine conflict, Jiang said. China has sought to portray itself as neutral, refusing to condemn Russia’s aggression or even call it an invasion, while also calling for peace talks. 

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who describe each other as friends, have talked multiple times since the war began and met in Moscow last month. Meanwhile, there is no indication when Xi will speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with whom he spoke late last month for the first time since the invasion.

“China doesn’t really want to support Russia in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but China does not want Vladimir Putin to fail as well,” fearing he could be replaced with a pro-Western government, Jiang said. 

Chinese efforts to appear aloof from the conflict took a hit after Beijing’s ambassador to France said the countries in eastern Europe that gained independence following the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991 did not have “effective” sovereign status in international law, prompting a furious response from European officials.

The cross-border bridge that links the Chinese city of Heihe with the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk.
The cross-border bridge that links the Chinese city of Heihe with the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk.Fred Dufour / NBC News

China appeared to downplay Lu’s remarks, affirming the former Soviet nations’ sovereignty and emphasizing its preferred role as an honest broker in the war.

A major reason China has avoided supporting Russia too openly, Jiang said, is it doesn’t want to jeopardize its vision of a multipolar international order that is less dominated by the United States. It especially wants to avoid alienating Europe, which also aspires to a larger global role.

“If China is still trying to have a multipolar world, China needs the support of the E.U.,” he said.

For that same reason, Jiang said he did not think China would provide Russia with lethal military assistance, which the Biden administration has warned Beijing against. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said this month that China would not sell weapons to either side in the war. 

China has tried to position itself as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine, releasing a 12-point proposal in February that the West has dismissed as too favorable to Russia. The attempts at mediation are part of a broader effort by Xi to present himself as a global statesman and China as an alternative to American power. Last month, Beijing brokered a surprise deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties for the first time in seven years.

Experts say the shifts in the China-Russia relationship have mostly been to China’s benefit. Western sanctions have made Russia more dependent on China’s currency, the yuan, which Beijing is trying to internationalize. The yuan has replaced the U.S. dollar as the most traded currency on the Moscow Exchange, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, and Bangladesh recently agreed to use yuan to pay for a nuclear plant Russia is building in the South Asian country, Reuters reported.

Russia’s growing isolation has also created opportunities for Chinese companies. With tech giants like Apple and Samsung having reduced their operations in the country, more than 70% of Russia’s smartphones now come from Chinese manufacturers like Xiaomi, Reuters reported, citing a statement from the consumer electronics retailer M.Video-Eldorado.

But the war in Ukraine still casts a big shadow in border towns like Heihe.

“I was in shock and disbelief when the war broke out,” said Shi, the resident in the park. “After all, the war can only bring harm to the people of two countries. I wish the war can end as soon as possible.”

CORRECTION (May 20, 2023, 5:45 p.m. ET) A previous version of this article misstated the timing of when Chinese President Xi Jinping and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy were last in contact. The pair spoke last month, which was after Russia invaded Ukraine; their last contact was not prior to the invasion.