China’s Jilin to ship goods via Vladivostok

China’s Jilin to ship goods via Vladivostok

China will ship commodity products from Jilin province to its southern coastal cities through Vladivostok in a bid to show its strengthening economic ties with Russia amid western sanctions.

The General Administration of Customs announced on Monday that, as these goods will head to Zhoushan and Jiaxing in Zhejiang, their temporary import will not be subject to Russian tariffs. It said both China and Russia will benefit from the arrangement, which will take effect on June 1.

Chinese commentators said Russia is permitting China to use Vladivostok – or Haishenwai, as it’s named in Mandarin – as a transit port because it has faced setbacks in the Ukraine war and needs to lean towards China to boost its economy.

Some “patriotic” writers even said the new arrangement is a big step for China to recover the Qing Dynasty’s Far East city, which became a part of the Russian Empire in 1860.

However, logistic experts said people should not be over-excited about the new route as it may turn out not to be economically viable.

‘Cross-border domestic trade’

To implement strategic planning for reviving old industrial bases in China’s Northeastern region, Beijing will further expand the existing “cross-border domestic trade” scheme in Jilin province to allow the use of Vladivostok as a transit port, according to a statement posted on the Customs website on May 4. 

Photo: Google Maps

The statement was not widely reported by Chinese media until Customs highlighted it in a social media post on Monday.

“Haishenwai has now officially become an overseas transit port for China to transport its domestic goods,” Da Zhigang, director of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times. “This is a new breakthrough in Sino-Russian economic and trade cooperation amid the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as well as a new breakthrough in Sino-Russian local cooperation.”

Da said that there is great potential for economic and trade cooperation between Russia’s Far East and Northeast China, and that such potential will grow further with the opening of the new Jilin-Haishenwai logistic route.

“In the past, Russia remained skeptical about every move of China in its Far East region as it was afraid that it would lose certain control in the region due to an influx of Chinese people,” Shu Chang, a Chinese commentator, says in a video posted on a social media account on Tuesday. “But now Russia has cleared its doubts and urgently wants to open its Far East region to China. Why? The Russian-Ukrainian conflicts are definitely a key reason.”

Shu says notes that, since the conflicts broke out last year, Russia has faced unprecedented sanctions from the West. She says Russia has to strengthen economic cooperation with China, which is now its biggest trade partner.

“For the development of the Far East region or the promotion of Sino-Russian trade, Russia has no reason to close Haishenwai again,” she says. “In fact, Russia has no choice. It clearly knows which country is the most trustworthy.”

The Treaty of Peking

In 1860, the Qing government and the Russian empire signed the Treaty of Peking, which allowed Russia to acquire Haishenwai and the Stanovoy Range. Having lost the Sea of Japan coast, Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces have had to transport their goods, mostly fuels, natural resources and grains, via land routes connecting them to Yingkou, Dalian and Dandong – Yellow Sea ports in Liaoning province for shipment.

Although small boats can navigate between Jilin province’s Hunchun city and the Sea of Japan along the Tumen River, sizeable cargo ships are blocked by shallow waters and a bridge connecting Russia and North Korea.

An international passenger train travels on the Korea–Russia Friendship Bridge, leaving North Korea (right) and crossing the Tumen River to enter Russia. Northeastern China is upstream and Beijing yearns for a shipping outlet to the Sea of Japan, but the river – without a major feat of engineering, which has been talked up for more than three decades but not implemented – is shallow and the bridge isn’t far enough above the water. .Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In China, “patriotic” columnists are welcome to criticize western powers for acquiring Qing lands by force during the 19th century. Some said following the successful handovers of Hong Kong and Macau from Britain and Portugal, respectively, that Beijing should consider recovering Haishenwai and the Stanovoy Range from Russia.

Such a call has grown among Chinese netizens since the Ministry of Natural Resources on February 14 published a new version of its world map – directing a return to using the Chinese names of eight cities and areas occupied by the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

On Monday evening, a Zhejiang-based writer published an article headlined, “Haishenwai is basically in a state of semi-recovered.”

“After so many years, Northeast China has finally gotten back the Haishenwai seaport,” the article says. “The port will help boost our external trade, while a prolonged energy crisis will drag the European economy.”

The writer says Russia chose to cooperate with China because it was sanctioned by the West. He says if the Ukraine war lasts for three to five more years, Russia will further ease its trade and investment rules for China, which will then see an economic boom in its northeastern region.

A Sichuan-based columnist says that the opening of Haishenwai has been the biggest good news for China’s Northeastern region over the past 163 years, and is especially welcome at a time when G7 countries during their summit in Japan this weekend are going to discuss new measures to suppress China. 

He says Russians have banned Chinese trade ships from using the Haishenwai port since the 19th century and treated the Far East city as a military base and a strategic channel to the Pacific Asia region. He says the opening of the port can help increase China’s status in global trade.

Not a short cut

However, these columnists may have exaggerated the benefits that China will get from the deal, judging from what a Jiangsu-based writer says in his article published Tuesday.

Exporters in Heilongjiang have been able to transport their goods from Suifenhe to Haishenwai since 2007 while those in Jilin have been able to move theirs from Hunchun to Rajin Port in North Korea since 2010, he says. It means that the two northeastern provinces have had access to Japan Sea ports and maritime routes to connect with other coastal Chinese cities for years, he says.

Farther upstream, the Tumen River crossing from Namgang in North Korea (right) to China consists of a railway bridge and a highway bridge.. The river’s shallowness comes through clearly. You’re not about to see containerships plying these waters. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Baycrest, Wikipedia user CC-BY-SA-2.5

The latest arrangement will allow exporters to choose to transport their goods from Hunchun to Haishenwai, instead of Rajin Port, he says. But the route does not make sense as goods in Hunchun will have to go north by land route for 250 kilometers before heading south, he says.

The total distance between Jilin’s Changchun and Haishenwai is 770 kilometers, longer than the traditional route (680 kilometers) between Changchun and Dalian, he adds.

He says the Jilin-Haishenwai route will only be meaningful if it can serve international trade. He suggests that China talk to Russia and North Korea and propose to build a deep-water port at the entrance of the Tumen River so Jilin can access the Sea of Japan directly and support the future development of the polar route proposed by Moscow.

Read: China’s ironic reticence on land grab in Ukraine

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3