by Fang Ning, Xin Linxia, Wang Zichen
HARBIN, Feb. 26 (Xinhua) -- There is high hope of boosted China-Russia trade after construction began on Wednesday of a railway bridge, the first of its kind, to span the two countries' border over the Heilong River.
Designed with an annual cargo transport capacity of 21 million tonnes, the bridge will connect Tongjiang Port in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province with Nizhneleninskoye in Russia.
China and Russia negotiated for five years on the project, which will be of great significance in connecting railway networks on each side.
According to the final deal, the main Tongjiang-Nizhneleninskoye bridge spans 2,215 meters, with 1,900 meters in China.
Lu Chunfang, vice general manager of the state-owned China Railway Corporation (CRC), which is in charge of construction on the Chinese side, said China plans to invest 2.64 billion yuan (431 million U.S. dollars) in the project, including the construction of the main bridge and an approach road stretching 31.62 km. The work is due to be completed in two and a half years.
Foundation stone laying ceremonies were held on Wednesday on both sides of the river.
Alexey Tsydenov, deputy minister of Transport for the Russian Federation, said when at the ceremony that the railway will pave a new way to tap economic potential. Russia will provide sound public infrastructure and encourage investment in the bridge.
He said investment from the Russian side would exceed 500 million U.S. dollars.
According to the CRC's project design, the bridge will allow a maximum train speed of 100 km per hour.
Aleksey A. Maslov, head of the School of Asian Studies at the Russian National Research University Higher School of Economics, said there is urgent need for the railway link as a floating bridge, designed for temporary use, is put into use when the ice melts. It doesn't meet the requirements of growing cross-border trade.
Trade turnover between China's border city of Heihe and Blagoveshchensk, capital of the Amur region in the Russian Far East, reached 1.09 billion U.S. dollars in 2013, up 32.7 percent year on year.
"Many businessmen involved in bilateral trade have been waiting for the new bridge for years," Maslov said.
Bulk cargo transportation between China and Russia via the border river currently relies mainly on shipping, according to Yao Xiangjun, a customs official in Tongjiang.
He said China-Russia border railway transport is currently through two land ports -- Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Suifenhe in Heilongjiang, where railways were built a century ago. Manzhouli Port handles the majority of the trade, which neared 20 million tonnes in 2013.
Liu Ruxiang, deputy general manager of the China-Russia Ussuriysk Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, said the new bridge would end requirements for cargo transport via the Siberia Region to detour to Manzhouli and Suifenhe.
He forecast that the bridge will spur investment to set up industrial and logistic plants along the railway.
Liu said the economic zone invested in by China in Ussuriysk, in Russia's Far East, has been the No. 2 taxpayer in Ussuriysk for three years.
CHINA, RUSSIA TIES
Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Xinhua that cooperation between China and Russia remains intensive. China is crucial to Russia's plans to develop Siberia and the Far East.
The railway bridge will help grow overland trade and transit between the Pacific, Euroasia and Europe, according to Mankoff.
The high hopes for China-Russia trade echo those of top national leaders. Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first foreign trip of this year to Sochi in February to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games.
Xi told Russia media that China-Russia cooperation has so far borne rich fruit in fields including trade and the economy, energy, advanced technology, people-to-people exchanges and international affairs, not only promoting the development and prosperity of both countries, but also helping safeguard international justice, stability and peace.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in his meeting with Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Beijing in October that he is confident the two countries will fulfill the 100 billion U.S. dollar trade target in 2015.
Prof. Yuri Tavrovsky at the Moscow-based Peoples' Friendship University of Russia, said the biggest opportunity for bilateral economic cooperation may lie in Russia's Far East region, which is near China and currently Russia's major development focus.