There was a time when the world's two largest militaries faced off in a tense stalemate across the frontier between China and Russia, but the talk today is of trade and development, not tanks and troops. A cross-border casino is even being planned for the popular tourist city of Suifenhe as the two countries work to set up a local free-trade zone. Gambling is illegal in China, but an exception would be made for the special zone. The 4.5 sq km zone will also include a Chinese medicine treatment centre, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and banks. Visitors will be able to enter the enclosed area with a special pass and buy up to US$3,000 worth of goods duty free. The 5 billion yuan (HK$4.7 billion) project is being developed by the two governments and Chinese company Zhicheng Shiye. Russia would provide 3 sq km of land and fund part of the construction work, Suifenhe mayor Tong Zuomin said. Russians have flocked to Suifenhe looking for a cheap holiday for more than a decade. The influx of tourist money has helped fuel a mini-boom in the region. Suifenhe is China's biggest trading port with Russia, accounting for about one-third of the total border trade in Heilongjiang province. The city government hopes the free-trade zone will boost economic fortunes even further. About 2,000 Russians crossed the border each day on shopping trips, spending at least 5 billion yuan each year, Mr Tong said. The free-trade zone was first proposed by the two central governments in 1999. A joint agreement to develop the project was signed in 2000. 'It would be like Chungying street at the Shenzhen and Hong Kong border. The Chinese side will focus on commerce and trading, while the Russia side would provide a variety of entertainment options for visitors,' Mr Tong said. 'We hope it will become a springboard for Chinese products to enter the Russian market. It will allow Chinese companies to build a bridgehead in Russia's Far East.' The Suifenhe government planned to send a delegation to Hong Kong next year to attract investors, Mr Tong said. They might invite the Russian officials to come with them. The first stage of construction will be finished next month. It is expected the project will take three to five years to complete. 'All the permits, administration regulations and electricity and water supply problems have already been solved. Once the construction is finished, we can start to serve visitors,' said Chen Jingshen, deputy director of Suifenhe Sino-Russia Intermarket Zhieheng Investment and Development Company. Cheng Zongyou, director of Suifenhe Border Control Committee, said the bidding process to select the casino operator would be handled by the Russians, but the Chinese government could provide assistance to interested Hong Kong or Macau investors.