China / Society

China, Russia eye crossings on border island

By YUAN ZHOU/TIAN XUEFEI/WANG YANFEI (China Daily) Updated: 2016-08-08 08:05

China, Russia eye crossings on border island

China and Russia are considering setting up land crossings connecting through Heixiazi Island, which is jointly owned by the two countries.

Zhou Hong, director of the Heixiazi Island Development and Management Committee, said Russia has suggested cross-border checkpoints. These would allow eight-seater or smaller cars to travel between Khabarovsk, one of the largest cities in Russia's Far East, and Fuyuan in Heilongjiang province, the most easterly town in China.

Zhou said that once the checkpoints are set up, they could be the largest on the Sino-Russian border and handle a projected annual passenger flow of more than 2 million.

The 335-square-kilometer island at the confluence of the Heilongjiang and Wusuli rivers, known as the Amur and Ussuri rivers in Russia, will play a vital role in boosting the local economy both as a road link and as a tourist destination.

The island, about one-third the size of Hong Kong, was the last border sticking point between China and Russia until the two countries agreed to each taking half of it.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said after border markers were unveiled on the island in 2008, "The experience of China and Russia in resolving border disputes left by historical factors proves that peaceful dialogue and fair and reasonable consultation on an equal basis are effective."

However, considerable speculation arose over the use of the island-ranging from a tourist attraction to free trade zone to property development-until President Xi Jinping visited it in May and made an appeal for environmental protection.

Viewing the island and the rivers from a pagoda, he said ecological protection should be the priority for the island, especially as infrastructure would need to be built to encourage more tourists to visit the area, Xinhua News Agency reported.

In a written statement to China Daily on July 26, the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planning agency, outlined a three-pronged policy for the island's "protective development".

It called for it to be turned into a "model zone for China-Russia cooperation", while emphasizing ecological protection and moderate tourism growth for the island.

Zhou said that since Xi's visit, local strategies have shifted to focus on ecological infrastructure construction, such as roads on the island.

Tourists are being asked to leave their cars behind and to take electric carts to get around the island. It boasts the recently built pagoda, abandoned Russian barracks and wetland areas. Visitors can also see a Russian Orthodox church, patrol boats and more wetland on the Russian side.

To further ease environmental pressure on the island, a 6-square-km multipurpose complex is being built in Fuyuan, which is separated from the island by a river.

The 10-year project, costing more than 4 billion yuan ($601 million), will include service facilities for tourists to the island, a conference center and possibly a campus jointly run by Chinese and Russian universities.

Zhou, who is also the Party chief of the rural, pollution-free river town of Fuyuan, which has a population of less than 200,000, said more tourists using the land crossings could represent the "biggest opportunity" for local residents, who had incomes that averaged 20,993 yuan last year.

Fuyuan, which shares a border river with Russia to the north and east, is scores of kilometers from Khabarovsk, which has a population of about 600,000. In July, six vessels carrying more than 800 Chinese and Russian tourists and traders shuttled between Fuyuan and Khabarovsk each day.

A boat ride from Fuyuan to Khabarovsk takes 90 minutes, but a land drive would take just an hour. This could attract large numbers of Chinese and Russian tourists and revitalize local business that is usually halted in winter when rivers freeze, Zhou said.

Last year, 520,000 tourists visited Fuyuan and Heixiazi Island. This figure is expected to rise to 600,000 this year, according to local tourism officials.

While China has yet to reply to the Russian proposals on the crossings, Zhou is confident about the plan, saying, "It will only be a matter of time."

Qi Wenhai, a professor of China-Russia relations at Heilongjiang University, drawing on previous experience of local economic development in China, said a slower ecological approach to the island might be worthwhile if rapid growth means environmental sacrifices.

Qi said ecological tourism, green agriculture and full use of road and river ports with Russia were the right direction for the border area to take.

"My vision is for Fuyuan to become an international tourist resort," Zhou said.

Wang Yanfei contributed to this story.

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