China's Belt and Road Initiative heralds a new era with mega infrastructure projects dotting the landscape... If you are looking for the latest breakthroughs in trans-Eurasian geo-economics, you should keep an eye on the East - the Russian Far East.
One interesting project is the new state-of-the-art $1.5 billion Bystrinsky plant. Located about 400 kilometers from the Chinese border by rail and tucked inside the Trans-Baikal region of Siberian, it is now finally open for business.
This mining and processing complex, which contains up to 343 million tonnes of ore reserves, is a joint venture between Russian and Chinese companies. Norilsk Nickel, Russia's leading mining group and one of the world's largest producers of nickel and palladium, has teamed up with CIS Natural Resources Fund, established by President Vladimir Putin, and China's Highland Fund.
But then, this is just the latest example of Russian and Chinese cooperation geared around the New Silk Roads or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing is the world's largest importer of copper and iron ore, and virtually the entire output from Bystrinsky will go to the world's 2nd largest economy.
Naturally, to cope with production, a massive new road and rail network has been rolled out, as well as substantial infrastructure, in the heart of this wilderness. Yet there is another major BRI initiative about 1,000km east of Bystrinsky. Work started on the Amur River Bridge, or Heilongjiang as the Chinese call it, in 2016 and the road and rail links should be finished in 2019.
The project is being developed by Heilongjiang Bridge Company, a Russia-China joint venture, along a crucial stretch of the Russian-Chinese border. It will also be part of a huge trade corridor, which will transport iron ore to China from the Kimkan mine, owned by Hong Kong's IRC, in Russia.
The Amur River Bridge, linking Heihe, in Heilongjiang province, with Blagoveshchesnk in the Russian Far East, is a natural part of the New Silk Roads program. It is well connected to one of BRI 6 major corridors - the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor, or CMREC, via the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way to Vladivostok.
CMREC's additional importance is that it will connect BRI with the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union, or EAEU, as well as the Mongolian Steppe Road program. CMREC has two key links. One involves China's Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei to Hohhot before winding on to Mongolia and Russia. The other is from China's Dalian, Shenyang, Changchun, Harbin and Manzhouli to Chita in Russia, where the Bystrinsky plant is located.
Numerous aspects of the Russian-Chinese intranet were extensively discussed at the Third Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September. CMREC involves closer cooperation, especially in energy, mineral resources, high-tech manufacturing, agriculture and forestry. Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang had already announced even closer economic cooperation with Russia, including a $10 billion China-Russia Investment Cooperation Fund in yuan for BRI and EAAU projects.
Part of this will include Russian-Chinese investment funds, known as Dakaitaowa, or to open a matryoshka doll. Monetary integration and energy cooperation are all part of an ambitious Russian-Chinese package. This will allow trade to be settled in yuan, instead of U.S. dollars, in Moscow via the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Products promoted under the Made in Russia brand are bound to get a boost.
According to the China General Administration of Customs, Russia continues to be the country's leading crude oil supplier, exporting more than 1 million barrels per day, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Angola. Exports of Russian oil to China have more than doubled during the past six years.
Last month, the Russian parliament approved the draft of a conservative 2018-2020 Russian federal budget at $279 billion. This included increased spending in the social sector, a higher minimum wage, and increased salaries for teachers and healthcare workers.
Manufacturing in Russia has actually grown in absolute terms during the past decade along with a slight rise in GDP. Contrary to Western perceptions, energy revenue in Russia amounts to only around 30 % of the federal budget. In absolute terms, it actually fell from 2014 to 2016, while non-oil and gas income has increased steadily since 2009.
Those were the days when Saudi Arabia and the Gulf petro-monarchies were dumping excess capacity on the oil market in a price war that was bound to ruin Russia's finances. The draft budget assumes the price of oil will stay around at least $40 a barrel during the next few years. In fact, it may actually rise from its current $61 for the OPEC basket. Of course, that would boost Russia's reserves.
As for exports, oil accounts for around 26 % of Russia's GDP. Oil and gas as a percentage of total exports fell during the past 2 years from 70 % to 47 %, but they are still the country's top export money earners. When you add other commodities, such as iron, steel, aluminum and copper, revenue from natural resources come to more than 75 % of Russia's total exports.
But the key problem ahead for the country is the debt of provincial governments, and not defense, which is much lower than during Gorbachev's reign in the late 1980s. Still, the integration of BRI and EAEU now offers excellent opportunities for Russia.
To put this into context, we have to go back to the 1689 Treaty of Nerchisk at a time when Manchus, an ethnic minority in China and the people from whom Manchuria derives its name, were deeply concerned about Cossack incursions into their lands.
Nerchisk was the 1st Chinese treaty with a European power, and it safeguarded borders and regulated relations between the 2 neighbors for nearly 2 centuries. For the 1st time, Russians could trade directly with the Middle Kingdom and negotiate as equals. No Russian or Manchu was spoken, but Latin, via 2 Jesuit interpreters. They were well positioned in the Qing court by supplying the Kangxi emperor with weapons, as well as advanced courses in geometry and astronomy.
Century of humiliation
Now, compare this with the unequal treaties of the 19th century with England, France, the U.S. and Germany, known as the century of humiliation in China. It is true that Russia gobbled up Chinese lands back then, as well as securing the Amur basin and the eastern side of the Sikhote-Alin mountains, which denied the country access to the Sea of Japan.
At the time, the Qing dynasty was helpless. Everything was later formalized by, well, treaties. China lost what was known as Outer Manchuria and Eastern Tartary. Today this whole region is known as Primorsky Krai, Russia's Maritime Province. Then in 2006, President Putin solemnly announced the resolution of all border disputes with China along the Amur. Beijing de facto agreed.
With the integration of BRI and the EAEU, Russia has a great chance of fulfilling part of its Pacific Destiny, 1st envisaged when the Trans-Siberian rail link was finished in 1905. Today, that vision is alive with gold and timber in the mountains north of the Amur, fish in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea, and gas reserves from Sakhalin island all part of a modern export chain.