Sino-Soviet border conflict

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Sino-Soviet border conflict
Part of the Cold War and the Sino-Soviet split
China USSR E 88.jpg
Disputed areas in the Argun and Amur rivers. Damansky/Zhenbao is to the south-east, north of the lake
Date2 March – 11 September 1969
Border between China and the Soviet Union
Result Status quo ante bellum [1]
Dispute was resolved in a series of border agreements that Russia and China concluded in 1991, 1994 and 2004, as a result of which China received several hundred islands on the Argun, Amur, and Ussuri rivers, including Damansky (Zhenbao), Tarabarov (Yinlong) and approximately 50% of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island (Heixiazi Island) near Khabarovsk. [2]
Flag of the Soviet Union.svg  Soviet Union Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg  China
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the Soviet Union.svg Leonid Brezhnev Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg Mao Zedong
658,002 814,001
Casualties and losses
60 killed
95 wounded
(Soviet sources) [3]
27 Tanks/APCs destroyed
(Chinese sources) [4]
1 Command Car
(Chinese sources) [5]
Dozens of trucks destroyed
(Chinese sources) [6]
One Soviet T-62 tank captured [1]
72 killed and 68 wounded
(Chinese sources)
200~800 killed [7]
(Soviet sources) [3]

The Sino-Soviet border conflict was a seven-month undeclared military conflict between the Soviet Union and China at the height of the Sino-Soviet split in 1969. The most serious of these border clashes, which brought the world's two largest communist states to the brink of war, occurred in March 1969 in the vicinity of Zhenbao (Damansky) Island on the Ussuri (Wusuli) River, near Manchuria.

An undeclared war is a military conflict between two or more nations without either side issuing a formal declaration of war. The term is sometimes used to include any disagreement or conflict fought about without an official declaration. Since the United Nations' police action in Korea followed the example set by the United Kingdom during the so-called Malayan Emergency, a number of democratic governments have pursued disciplinary actions and limited warfare by characterizing them as something else such as a military action or armed response.

Soviet Union 1922–1991 country in Europe and Asia

The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was a Marxist-Leninist sovereign state in Eurasia that existed from 1922 to 1991. Nominally a union of multiple national Soviet republics, its government and economy were highly centralized. The country was a one-party state, governed by the Communist Party with Moscow as its capital in its largest republic, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Other major urban centers were Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Tashkent, Alma-Ata, and Novosibirsk. It spanned over 10,000 kilometers (6,200 mi) east to west across 11 time zones, and over 7,200 kilometers (4,500 mi) north to south. It had five climate zones: tundra, taiga, steppes, desert and mountains.

China Country in East Asia

China, officially the People's Republic of China (PRC), is a country in East Asia and the world's most populous country, with a population of around 1.404 billion in 2017. Covering approximately 9,600,000 square kilometers (3,700,000 sq mi), it is the third or fourth largest country by total area. Governed by the Communist Party of China, the state exercises jurisdiction over 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four direct-controlled municipalities, and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.


The conflict resulted in a ceasefire, with a return to the status quo. Critics point out that the Chinese attack on Zhenbao was to deter any potential future Soviet invasions; that by killing some Soviets, China demonstrated that it could not be 'bullied'; and that Mao wanted to teach them 'a bitter lesson'. [1]



Under the governorship of Sheng Shicai (1933–1944) in northwest China's Xinjiang province, China's nationalist Kuomintang recognized for the first time the ethnic category of a Uyghur people, following Soviet ethnic policy. [8] This ethnogenesis of a "national" people eligible for territorialized autonomy broadly benefited the Soviet Union, which organized conferences in Fergana and Semirechye (in Soviet Central Asia), in order to cause "revolution" in Altishahr (southern Xinjiang) and Dzungaria (northern Xinjiang). [9] [8]

Sheng Shicai Chinese warlord

Sheng Shicai was a Chinese warlord who ruled Xinjiang from 1933 to 1944. Sheng's rise to power started with a coup d'état in 1933 when he was appointed the duban or Military Governor of Xinjiang. His rule over Xinjiang is marked by close cooperation with the Soviet Union, allowing the Soviets trade monopoly and exploitation of resources, which effectively made a small part of Xinjiang a Soviet puppet state. The Soviet era ended in 1942, when Sheng approached the Nationalist Chinese government, but still retained much power over the province. He was dismissed from post in 1944 and named Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. Growing animosity against him led the government to dismiss him again and appoint to a military post. At the end of the Chinese Civil War, Sheng fled mainland China to Taiwan with the rest of Kuomintang.

Xinjiang Autonomous region of China

Xinjiang, officially the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), is an autonomous region in Northwestern China. Being the largest province-level division of China and the 8th largest country subdivision in the world, Xinjiang spans over 1.6 million km2. Xinjiang contains the disputed territory of Aksai Chin, which is administered by China and claimed by India. Xinjiang borders the countries of Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and India. The rugged Karakoram, Kunlun and Tian Shan mountain ranges occupy much of Xinjiang's borders, as well as its western and southern regions. Xinjiang also borders the Tibet Autonomous Region and the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai. The most well-known route of the historical Silk Road ran through the territory from the east to its northwestern border. In recent decades, abundant oil and mineral reserves have been found in Xinjiang and it is currently China's largest natural gas-producing region.

Kuomintang Political party in the Republic of China

The Kuomintang of China, also spelled as Guomindang and often alternatively translated as the Nationalist Party of China (NPC) or the Chinese Nationalist Party (CNP), is a major political party in the Republic of China based in Taipei that was founded in 1911. The KMT is currently an opposition political party in the Legislative Yuan.

Both the Soviet Union and the White movement covertly allied with the Ili National Army to fight against the Kuomintang in the Three Districts Revolution. Although the mostly Muslim Uyghur rebels participated in pogroms against Han Chinese in general, the turmoil eventually just resulted in the replacement of Kuomintang rule in Xinjiang (northwest China) with that of the Communist Party of China in the 1940s. [9]

White movement anti-Bolshevik movement

The White movement and its military arm the White Army, also known as the White Guard, the White Guardsmen or simply the Whites, was a loose confederation of anti-communist forces that fought the Communist Bolsheviks, also known as the Reds, in the Russian Civil War (1917–1922/1923) and that to a lesser extent continued operating as militarized associations of insurrectionists both outside and within Russian borders in Siberia until roughly World War II (1939–1945).

Ili National Army

The Ili National Army was the army of the East Turkestan Republic (ETR) that originally consisted of six regiments: the Suidun Infantry Regiment, the Ghulja Regiment, the Kensai Regiment, the Ghulja Reserve Regiment, the Kazakh Cavalry Regiment, the Dungan Regiment, the Artillery Subdivision, the Sibo Subdivision, and the Mongol Subdivision. The last two subdivisions were later reformed to regiments. All regiments were armed with mostly German-made weapons, provided by the Soviet Union by order of Joseph Vallieres; its personnel was trained in the Soviet Union. Rebel aviation included 42 airplanes, captured in Ghulja Kuomintang air base and repaired by Soviet military personnel.

Pogrom The deliberate persecution of an ethnic or religious group either approved or conducted by the local authorities

A pogrom is a violent riot aimed at the massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group, particularly one aimed at Jews. The Russian term originally entered the English language in order to describe 19th and 20th century attacks on Jews in the Russian Empire. Similar attacks against Jews at other times and places also became retrospectively known as pogroms. The word is now also sometimes used to describe publicly sanctioned purgative attacks against non-Jewish ethnic or religious groups. The characteristics of a pogrom vary widely, depending on the specific incidents, at times leading to, or culminating in, massacres.

Soviet historiography and more specifically Soviet "Uyghur Studies" were politicized in increasing measure to match the tenor of the Sino-Soviet split from the 1960s and 1970s. One Soviet Turkologist named Tursun Rakhminov, who worked for the CPSU, argued that it was the modern Uyghurs who founded the ancient Toquz Oghuz Country (744–840), the Kara-Khanid Khanate (840–1212), and so forth. These premodern states' wars against Chinese dynasties were cast as struggles for national liberation by the Uyghur ethnic group. Soviet historiography was not consistent on these questions: when Sino-Soviet relations were warmer, for example, the Three Districts Revolution was portrayed by Soviet historians as part of the greater Chinese anti-Kuomintang revolution, and not an anti-Chinese bid for national liberation. The Soviet Union also encouraged migration of Uyghurs to its territory in Kazakhstan along the 4,380 km (2,738 mi) border. In May 1962, 60,000 ethnic Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang Province crossed the frontier into the Soviet Union, fleeing the desperate economic conditions. [10]

Sino-Soviet split Cold War schism between communist states

The Sino-Soviet split (1956–1966) was the breaking of political relations between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), caused by doctrinal divergences that arose from their different interpretations and practical applications of Marxism–Leninism during the Cold War (1945–1991). In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Sino-Soviet debates about the interpretation of Orthodox Marxism became specific disputes about the Soviet Union's policies of national de-Stalinization and international peaceful coexistence with the Western world. Against that political background, the international relations of the PRC featured official belligerence towards the West, and an initial, public rejection of the Soviet policy of peaceful coexistence between the Eastern bloc and the Western bloc, which Mao Zedong said was Marxist revisionism by the Russian communists.

Turkology is a complex of humanities sciences studying languages, history, literature, folklore, culture, and ethnology of people speaking Turkic languages and Turkic peoples in chronological and comparative context. This includes ethnic groups from the Sakha in East Siberia to the Balkan Turks and Gagauz in Moldova.

Communist Party of the Soviet Union Ruling political party of the Soviet Union

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was the founding and ruling political party of the Soviet Union. The CPSU was the sole governing party of the Soviet Union until 1990, when the Congress of People's Deputies modified Article 6 of the most recent 1977 Soviet constitution, which had granted the CPSU a monopoly over the political system.

Sino-Soviet border conflict
Zhenbao island.png
Zhenbao Island and the border.
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 中蘇邊界衝突
Simplified Chinese 中苏边界冲突
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 珍寶島自衛反擊戰
Simplified Chinese 珍宝岛自卫反击战
Literal meaningZhenbao Island self-defense
Russian name
Russian Пограничный конфликт на острове Даманский
Romanization Pograničnyj konflikt na ostrove Damanskij

Amid heightening tensions, the Soviet Union and China began border talks. In spite of the fact that the Soviet Union had granted all of the territory of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo to Mao's communists in 1945, decisively assisting the communists in the Chinese Civil War, the Chinese now indirectly demanded territorial concessions on the basis that the 19th-century treaties transferring ownership of the sparsely populated Outer Manchuria, concluded by Qing dynasty China and the Russian Empire, were "unequal", and amounted to annexation of rightful Chinese territory. Moscow would not accept this interpretation, but by 1964 the two sides did reach a preliminary agreement on the eastern section of the border, including Zhenbao Island, which would be handed over to China.[ citation needed ]

Manchukuo Former Japan puppet state in China

Manchukuo, also known as Manchuria and Manchutikuo, was a puppet state of the Empire of Japan in Northeast China and Inner Mongolia from 1932 until 1945. It was founded as a republic but in 1934 it became a constitutional monarchy. Under the de facto control of Japan, it had international recognition limited to its allies among the Axis Powers.

Chinese Civil War Series of conflicts within China, 1927 – circa 1950

The Chinese Civil War was a civil war in China fought between the Kuomintang (KMT)-led government of the Republic of China (ROC) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) lasting intermittently between 1927 and 1949. Although particular attention is paid to the four years of fighting from 1945 to 1949, the war actually started in August 1927, after the KMT-CPC Alliance collapsed during the Northern Expedition. The conflict took place in two stages, the first between 1927 and 1937, and the second from 1946 to 1950; the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945 was an interlude in which the two sides were united against the forces of Japan. The Civil War resulted in a major revolution in China, with the Communists gaining control of mainland China and establishing the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, forcing the Republic of China to retreat to Taiwan. A lasting political and military standoff between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait ensued, with the ROC in Taiwan and the PRC in mainland China both officially claiming to be the legitimate government of all China.

Outer Manchuria

Outer Manchuria or Outer Northeast China is an unofficial term for a territory in Northeast Asia that was formerly controlled by the Qing dynasty and now belongs to Russia. It is considered part of Manchuria by some definitions. Russia officially received this territory by way of the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 and the Treaty of Peking in 1860. The northern part of the area was also in dispute between 1643 and 1689.

In July 1964, Mao Zedong, in a meeting with a Japanese socialist delegation, stated that Russia had stripped China of vast territories in Siberia and the Far East as far as Kamchatka. Mao stated that China still had not presented a bill for this list. These comments were leaked to the public. Outraged, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev then refused to approve the border agreement.[ citation needed ]


The border dispute in the west centered on 52,000 square kilometres (20,000 sq mi) of Soviet-controlled land in the Pamirs that lay on the border of China's Xinjiang region with the Soviet Republic of Tajikistan. In 1892 the Russian Empire and the Qing Dynasty had agreed that the border would consist of the ridge of the Sarikol Range, but the exact border remained contentious throughout the 20th century. In the 1960s the Chinese began to insist that the Soviet Union should evacuate the region.

From around 1900, after the Treaty of Peking (1860) had assigned Outer Manchuria to Russia, the eastern part of the Sino-Soviet border had mainly been demarcated by three rivers, the Argun River from the tripartite junction with Mongolia to the north tip of China, running southwest to northeast, then the Amur River to Khabarovsk from northwest to southeast, where it was joined by Ussuri River running south to north. The Ussuri River was demarcated in a non-conventional manner: the demarcation line ran along the right (Chinese) side of the river, putting the river itself with all its islands in Russian possession.

"The modern method (used for the past 200 years) of demarcating a river boundary between states today is to set the boundary at either the median line (ligne médiane) of the river or around the area most suitable for navigation under what is known as the 'thalweg principle.'" [11]

China claimed these islands, as they were located on the Chinese side of the river (if demarcated according to international rule using shipping lanes). The USSR wanted (and by then, already effectively controlled) almost every single island along the rivers.

Chinese and Soviet government views

The USSR had nuclear weapons for a longer time than China, so the Chinese adopted an asymmetric deterrence strategy that threatened a large conventional "People's War" in response to a Soviet counterforce first-strike. [1] Chinese numerical superiority was the basis of its strategy to deter a Soviet nuclear attack. [1] Since 1949, Chinese strategy as articulated by Mao Zedong emphasized the superiority of "man over weapons". While weapons were certainly an important component of warfare, Mao argued that they were "not the decisive factor; it is people, not things, that are decisive. The contest of strength is not only a contest of military and economic power, but also a contest of human power and morale". [1] To Mao 'non-material' factors like 'creativity, flexibility and high morale' were also 'critical determinants in warfare'. [1]

The Soviets were not confident they could win such a conflict. A large Chinese incursion could threaten strategic centers in Blagoveshchensk, Vladivostok, and Khabarovsk, as well as crucial nodes of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. [1] According to Arkady Shevchenko, a high-ranking Russian defector to the United States, "The Politburo was terrified that the Chinese might make a mass intrusion into Soviet territory. [1] A nightmare vision of invasion by millions of Chinese made the Soviet leaders almost frantic. "Despite our overwhelming superiority in weaponry, it would not be easy for the USSR to cope with an assault of this magnitude." [1] Given China's "vast population and deep knowledge and experience in guerrilla warfare", if the Soviets launched an attack on China's nuclear program they would surely become "mired in an endless war". [1]

Concerns about Chinese manpower and its "people's war" strategy ran so deep that some bureaucrats in Moscow argued the only way to defend against a massive conventional onslaught was to use nuclear weapons. [1] Some even advocated deploying nuclear mines along the Sino-Soviet border. [1] By threatening to initiate a prolonged conventional conflict in retaliation for a nuclear strike, Beijing employed an asymmetric deterrence strategy intended to convince Moscow that the costs of an attack would outweigh the benefits. [1] China had found its strategic rationale. While most Soviet military specialists did not fear a Chinese nuclear reprisal, believing that China's arsenal was so small, rudimentary and vulnerable that it could not survive a first strike and carry out a retaliatory attack, there was great concern about China's massive conventional army. [1] Nikolai Ogarkov, a senior Soviet military officer, believed that a massive nuclear attack "would inevitably mean world war". Even a limited counterforce strike on China's nuclear facilities was dangerous, Ogarkov argued, because a few nuclear weapons would "hardly annihilate" a country the size of China and in response China would "fight unrelentingly". [1]

Eastern border: Heilongjiang (1969)

The Soviet Border Service started to report intensifying Chinese military activity in the region during the early 1960s. The tensions were rising – first, slowly, then, with the advent of the Cultural Revolution, much faster. The number of troops on both sides of the Sino-Soviet border increased dramatically after 1964. Militarily, in 1961, the USSR had 225,000 men and 200 aeroplanes at that border; in 1968, there were 375,000 men, 1,200 aeroplanes and 120 medium-range missiles. China had 1.5 million men stationed at the border and it had already tested its first nuclear weapon (the 596 Test in October 1964, at Lop Nur basin). Political rhetoric on both sides was getting increasingly hostile.

Zhenbao surprise attack

Zhenbao (Damansky) Island incident
Date2 March 1969 – 17 March 1969
Result Ceasefire [12] [13]
Soviet and Chinese withdrew from the island.
Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg  China Flag of the Soviet Union.svg  Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg Sun Yuguo
Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg Chen Xilian
Flag of the Soviet Union.svg Demoklat Vladimirovich Leonov  
100 [14] 300 [14]
Casualties and losses
29 killed
1 missing
62 wounded [14]
58 killed
94 wounded [15]
A Soviet ship using a water cannon against a Chinese fisherman on the Ussuri River on 6 May 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict May 1969.jpg
A Soviet ship using a water cannon against a Chinese fisherman on the Ussuri River on 6 May 1969

On 2 March 1969, a group of People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops ambushed Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island. According to the Chinese sources, the Soviets suffered 58 dead, including a senior colonel, and 94 wounded. The Chinese losses were reported as 29 dead. [14] According to the Soviet/Russian sources, no less than 248 Chinese troops were killed on the island and on the frozen river. [16] That day, 32 Soviet border guards were killed, 14 wounded. [17]

To this day, the sides blame each other for the start of the conflict. However, a scholarly consensus emerges that the 1969 Sino-Soviet border crisis was a premeditated act of violence orchestrated by the Chinese side. Even most of the Chinese historians now agree that on 2 March 1969, PLA forces planned and executed an ambush, which took the Soviets completely by surprise. Why the Chinese leadership opted for such an offensive measure against the Soviet Union remains a disputed question. [18]

On 2 March 1969, Damansky (Zhenbao) Island was under the Soviet control, regularly patrolled by the Soviet border guards. Occasional incursions of the Chinese peasants and fishermen were blocked and repelled without use of deadly force. The Chinese attack on 2 March was led by 3 platoons of specially trained troops, supported by one artillery and two mortar units. It started unprovoked with the illegal crossing of the Sino-Soviet border by a group of 77 PLA soldiers, and took the Soviets by surprise. When a squad of seven men under the command of Sen Lt Ivan Strelnikov approached the Chinese with a verbal demand to leave the island, the Chinese troops opened fire, killing them all. This had started a day of hostilities that saw a Chinese regular army detachment attacking two small groups of Soviet border guards comprising no more than 30 soldiers.[ citation needed ]

The Chinese believe a different version of the conflict took place. The Chinese Cultural Revolution increased tensions between China and the USSR. This led to brawls between border patrols, and shooting broke out in March 1969. The USSR responded with tanks, APCs, and artillery bombardment. Over three days the PLA successfully halted Soviet penetration and eventually evicted all Soviet troops from Zhenbao Island. During this skirmish the Chinese deployed two reinforced infantry platoons with artillery support. Chinese sources state the Soviets deployed some 60 soldiers and six BTR-60s and in a second attack some 100 troops backed up by 10 tanks and 14 APCs including artillery. [14] The PLA had prepared for this confrontation for two to three months. From among the units, the PLA selected 900 soldiers commanded by army staff members with combat experience. They were provided with special training and special equipment. Then they were secretly dispatched to take position on Zhenbao Island in advance. [6] Chinese General Chen Xilian stated the Chinese had won a clear victory on the battlefield. [6]

On 15 March the Soviets dispatched another 30 soldiers and six combat vehicles to Zhenbao Island. After an hour of fighting the Chinese had destroyed two of the Soviet vehicles. A few hours later the Soviets sent a second wave with artillery support. The Chinese would destroy five more Soviet combat vehicles. A third wave would be repulsed by effective Chinese artillery which destroyed one Soviet tank and four APCs while damaging two other APCs. By the end of the day, with the Chinese in full control of the island, Soviet general O.A. Losik ordered to deploy then-secret BM-21 "Grad" multiple rocket launchers. The Soviets fired 10,000 artillery rounds in a nine hour engagement with the Chinese along with 36 sorties. [19] The attack was devastating for the Chinese troops and materiel. Chinese troops left their positions on the island, following which the Soviets withdrew back to their positions on the Russian bank of the Ussuri river. [20] On 16 March 1969, the Soviets entered the island to collect their dead; the Chinese held their fire. On 17 March 1969, the Soviets tried to recover a disabled T-62 tank from the island, but their effort was repelled by the Chinese artillery. [14] On 21 March, the Soviets sent a demolition team attempting to destroy the tank. The Chinese opened fire and thwarted the Soviets. [14] With the help of divers of the Chinese navy, the PLA pulled the T-62 tank onshore. The tank was later given to the Chinese Military Museum. Until 1991, the island remained no one's land.

The Soviet T-62 tank captured by the Chinese during the 1969 clash, now on display at the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution Captured T-62 tank.jpg
The Soviet T-62 tank captured by the Chinese during the 1969 clash, now on display at the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution

Soviet combat heroes

Five Soviet soldiers were awarded the top honour of the Hero of the Soviet Union for bravery and valor during the Damansky conflict. Col. D.V. Leonov led the group of four T-62 tanks in a counter-attack on 15 March and was killed by a Chinese sniper when leaving the destroyed vehicle. Sen. Lt. Ivan Strelnikov tried to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal of the Chinese commandos from the island and was killed for his troubles while talking to the enemy. [21]

Sen. Lt. Vitaly Bubenin led a relief mission of 23 soldiers from the nearby border guards outpost and conducted a BTR-60 raid into the Chinese rear that left 248 attackers dead. Junior sergeant Yuri Babansky assumed command in a battle on 2 March, when the enemy had a 10:1 superiority, after the senior lieutenant Strelnikov was killed. He later led combat search and rescue teams that retrieved bodies of Sen. Lt Strelnikov and Col. Leonov. Junior sergeant Vladimir Orekhov took part in the 15 March battle. As a machine-gunner he was part of the first attacking line against the Chinese forces encamped on the island, he destroyed the enemy machine gun nest, and was wounded twice but continued fighting until he died of his wounds. High military orders of Lenin, The Red Banner, The Red Star and Glory were awarded to 54 soldiers and officers; medals "For Courage" and "For Battle Merit" – to 94 border guards and servicemen.

Chinese combat heroes

During the Zhenbao Island clashes with the Soviet Army in March 1969 one Chinese RPG team, Hua Yujie and his assistant Yu Haichang destroyed four Soviet APCs and achieved more than ten kills. Hua and Yu received the accolade "Combat Hero" from the CMC, and their action was commemorated on a postage stamp. [22]

Western border: Xinjiang (1969)

Tielieketi incident
China-USSR border. LOC 2007628762 cr.jpg
Western part of the China-USSR border, 1988 map
Date13 August 1969
Result Soviet victory
Tielieketi came under de facto Soviet control, but was returned to China by Kazakhstan in 1999
Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg  China Flag of the Soviet Union.svg  Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg Long Shujin
Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg Fan Jinzhong
Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg Pei Yingzhang
Flag of the Soviet Union.svg Vladimir Viktorovich Puchkov
100 300
Casualties and losses
28 killed
1 captured
40 wounded [23] [24]
2 killed
10 wounded

Further border clashes occurred in August 1969, this time along the western section of the Sino-Soviet border in Xinjiang. After the Tasiti incident and the Bacha Dao incident, the Tielieketi Incident finally broke out. Chinese troops suffered 28 losses. Heightened tensions raised the prospect of an all-out nuclear exchange between China and the Soviet Union. [25]


Near-war state

In the early 1960s, the United States had "probed" the level of Soviet interest in joint action against Chinese nuclear weapons facilities; now the Soviets probed what the United States' reaction would be if the USSR attacked the facilities. [26] While noting that "neither side wishes the inflamed border situation to get out of hand", the Central Intelligence Agency in August 1969 described the conflict as having "explosive potential" in the President's Daily Briefing. [27] The agency stated that "the potential for a war between them clearly exists", including a Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear facilities, while China "appears to view the USSR as its most immediate enemy". [28]

As war fever gripped China, Moscow and Beijing took steps to lower the danger of a large-scale conflict. On 11 September 1969, Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, on his way back from the funeral of the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, stopped over in Beijing for talks with his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai. Symbolic of the frosty relations between the two communist countries, the talks were held at Beijing airport. The two premiers agreed to return ambassadors previously recalled and begin border negotiations.

Possible reasons for attack

The view on the reasoning and consequences of the conflict differ. Western historians believe the events at Zhenbao Island and the subsequent border clashes in Xinjiang were mostly caused by Mao's using Chinese local military superiority to satisfy domestic political imperatives in 1969. [29] Yang Kuisong concludes that "the [Sino-Soviet] military clashes were primarily the result of Mao Zedong's domestic mobilization strategies, connected to his worries about the development of the Cultural Revolution." [30]

Russian historians point out that the consequences of the conflict stem directly from the desire of the PRC to take a leading role in the world and strengthen ties with the US. According to the 2004 Russian documentary film, Damansky Island Year 1969 ("Остров Даманский. 1969 год"), Chairman Mao sought to elevate his country from the world's periphery and place it at the centre of world politics. [31]


China gained the respect of the US, who began seeing it as a competent partner against the USSR during the Cold war.

Seen against the background of the Brezhnev-Nixon détente talks, the Damansky incident could serve the double purpose of undermining the Soviet image of a peace-loving country—if the USSR chose to respond with a massive military operation against the invaders—or demonstrating Soviet weakness, if the Chinese attack had been left without response. The killing of Soviet servicemen on the border signaled to the US that China had graduated into high politics and was ready for dialog.

After the conflict, the US showed interest in strengthening ties with the Chinese government by secretly sending Henry Kissinger to China for a meeting with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in 1971, during the so-called Ping Pong Diplomacy, paving the way for Richard Nixon to visit China and meet with Mao Zedong in 1972. [32]

China's relations with the USSR remained sour after the conflict, despite the border talks, which began in 1969 and continued inconclusively for a decade. Domestically, the threat of war caused by the border clashes inaugurated a new stage in the Cultural Revolution; that of China's thorough militarization. The 9th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, held in the aftermath of the Zhenbao Island incident, confirmed Defense Minister Lin Biao as Mao's heir apparent. Following the events of 1969, the Soviet Union further increased its forces along the Sino-Soviet border, and in the Mongolian People's Republic.

Overall, the Sino-Soviet confrontation, which reached its peak in 1969, paved the way to a profound transformation in the international political system.

Border negotiations 1990s-present

Serious border demarcation negotiations did not occur until shortly before the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. In particular, both sides agreed that Zhenbao Island belonged to China. (Both sides claimed the island was under their control at the time of the agreement.) On 17 October 1995, an agreement over the last 54 kilometres (34 mi) stretch of the border was reached, but the question of control over three islands in the Amur and Argun rivers was left to be settled later.

In a border agreement between Russia and China signed on 14 October 2003, that dispute was finally resolved. China was granted control over Tarabarov Island (Yinlong Island), Zhenbao Island, and approximately 50% of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island (Heixiazi Island), near Khabarovsk. China's Standing Committee of the National People's Congress ratified this agreement on 27 April 2005, with the Russian Duma following suit on 20 May. On 2 June, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov exchanged the ratification documents from their respective governments. [33]

On 21 July 2008, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, signed an additional Sino-Russian Border Line Agreement marking the acceptance of the demarcation of the eastern portion of the Chinese-Russian border in Beijing, China. An additional protocol with a map affiliated on the eastern part of the borders both countries share was signed. The agreement also includes the PRC gaining ownership of Yinlong / Tarabarov Island and half of Heixiazi / Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island. [34]

In the 21st century, the Chinese Communist Party's version of the conflict, present on many official websites, describes the events of March 1969 as a Soviet aggression against China. [35]

See also

Related Research Articles

Ussuri River river which runs through Russia and China

The Ussuri River or Wusuli River, runs through Khabarovsk and Primorsky Krais, Russia, and the southeast region of Northeast China. It rises in the Sikhote-Alin mountain range, flowing north and forming part of the Sino-Russian border until it joins the Amur River as a tributary to it at Khabarovsk. It is approximately 897 kilometers (557 mi) long. The Ussuri River drains the Ussuri basin, which covers 193,000 square kilometers (75,000 sq mi). Its waters come from rain (60%), snow (30–35%) and subterranean springs. The average discharge is 1,150 cubic metres per second (41,000 cu ft/s) and the average elevation is 1,682 metres (5,518 ft).

Zhenbao Island island

Zhenbao Island or Damansky Island is a small island measuring 0.74 square kilometres (0.29 sq mi). It is located on the Ussuri River on the border between Primorsky Krai of Russia and Heilongjiang province, People's Republic of China (PRC).

Second East Turkestan Republic Former state in northern Xinjiang

The Second East Turkestan Republic, commonly referred to simply as the East Turkestan Republic (ETR), was a short-lived Soviet-backed Turkic socialist people's republic. The ETR existed in the mid-1940s in northern Xinjiang. It began as a revolution in three northern districts of Xinjiang Province of the Chinese Republic, resulting in the Ili Rebellion, in 1946 it canceled the independent participation and joined the Xinjiang Provincial Coalition Government, but de facto autonomy. The rest of Xinjiang was under Kuomintang control. This region is now part of the northern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China (PRC). ETR was the first phase of the Three Districts Revolution (1944–1949).

Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance Former military alliance treaty

The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, or Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance for short, is the treaty of alliance concluded between the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union on February 14, 1950. It was based to a considerable extent on the prior Treaty of the same name that had been arranged between the Soviet Union and the Nationalist government of China in 1945 and it was the product of extended negotiations between Liu Shaoqi and Joseph Stalin. By its terms the Soviet Union recognized the People's Republic of China and recalled recognition of the Republic of China.

The 1991 Sino–Soviet Border Agreement was a treaty between China and the Soviet Union that set up demarcation work to resolve most of the border disputes between the two states. Initially signed by China and the Soviet Union, the terms of the agreement were resumed by Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The treaty resulted in some minor territorial changes along the border.

History of Sino-Russian relations

Prior to the 1600s China and Russia were on opposite ends of Siberia, which was populated by independent nomads. By about 1640 Russian settlers had traversed most of Siberia and founded settlements in the Amur River basin. From 1652 to 1689, China's armies drove the Russian settlers out, but after 1689 China and Russia made peace and established trade agreements. By the mid-1800s China's economy and military lagged far behind the colonial powers, so it signed unequal treaties with Western countries and Russia, through which Russia annexed the Amur basin and Vladivostok. The Russian Empire and Western powers exacted many other concessions from China, among which were indemnities for anti-Western riots, control over China's tariffs, and extraterritorial agreements including legal immunity for foreigners and foreign businesses. That happened at a time when Russian culture and society itself and especially the elite was westernized. During this time, the ruler of Russia officially was no longer called tsar, but emperor, which was imported from the European model. Contracts which only affected Russia and China mainly included questions about the Russian-Chinese border as Russia was, unlike the Western countries, a direct neighbor of China. Many Chinese people felt humiliated by China's submission to these foreign interests, and this contributed to widespread hostility towards the emperor of China. In 1911 public anger led to a revolution, which marked the beginning of the Republic of China. However, China's new regime was forced to sign further unequal treaties with Western countries, and Russia. In recent years Russia and China signed a border agreement.

Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island sedimentary island at the confluence of the Ussuri and Amur rivers

Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island, or Heixiazi Island, is a sedimentary island at the confluence of the Ussuri and Amur rivers. It is divided between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Russia. It has an area of about 327 to 350 km² and is bounded closely by Yinlong Island, and over ninety islets. Its position at the confluence of the Amur and the Ussuri and right next to the major Russian city of Khabarovsk, has given it great strategic importance.

Sino-Soviet relations Relations between China and the USSR

Sino-Soviet relations refers to the diplomatic relationship between the Chinese Republic and the various forms of Soviet Power which emerged from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

The incorporation of Xinjiang into the People's Republic of China in 1949, also known in Chinese historiography as the Peaceful Liberation of Xinjiang, refers to the takeover of the Republic of China's Xinjiang Province by the Chinese Communists and the People's Liberation Army, largely through political means, in the waning days of the Chinese Civil War.

Territorial changes of the People's Republic of China has frequently been revised since its formation on 1 October 1949.

Khoja Niyaz Chinese rebel

Khoja Niyaz, also Khoja Niyaz Haji, was a Uyghur independence movement leader who led several rebellions in Xinjiang against the Kumul Khanate, the Chinese governor Jin Shuren and later the Hui warlord Ma Chung-ying. He is best remembered as the first and only president of the short-lived Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan from November 1933 until the republic's defeat in 1934.

The Ili Rebellion was a Soviet-backed revolt against the Kuomintang government of the Republic of China in 1944. Following the rebellion, the rebels established the Provisional Government of the Second East Turkestan Republic in 1944. The Ili Rebellion was the start of the Three Districts Revolution which lasted from 1944 to 1949.

Islamic rebellion in Xinjiang (1937)

In 1937 an Islamic rebellion broke out in southern Xinjiang. The rebels were 1,500 Turkic (Uighur) Muslims led by Kichik Akhund, tacitly aided by the 36th Division against the pro-Soviet provincial forces of Sheng Shicai.

Soviet Union in the Korean War

Though not officially belligerent during the Korean War (1950–1953), the Soviet Union played a significant, covert role in the conflict. It provided material and medical services, as well as Soviet pilots and aircraft, most notably MiG 15 fighter jets, to aid the North Korean-Chinese forces against the United Nations Forces.

The Chinese–Russian border or the Sino–Russian border is the international border between China and Russia. After the final demarcation carried out in the early 2000s, it measures 4,209.3 kilometres (2,615.5 mi), and is the world's sixth-longest international border.

Xinjiang conflict Ethnic conflict in Western China

The Xinjiang conflict is a conflict in China's far-west province of Xinjiang centred around the Uyghurs, a Turkic minority ethnic group who make up the largest group in the region.

The East Turkestan People's Revolutionary Party was an Uyghur communist party and armed separatist group in Xinjiang. It was founded in 1969 or earlier during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, and was the largest armed separatist group in the Xinjiang conflict before its dissolution in 1989.

Return of the Chinese Eastern Railway

On December 31, 1952, the Soviet Union returned full control of the Chinese Eastern Railway to the People's Republic of China. The return of the railway marked the first time that the China Eastern Railway had been under full Chinese control since the railway was constructed in 1898. The handover of the railway was the result of negotiations between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China culminating in the signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance. The Friendship Treaty stipulated that the Chinese Changchun Railway (CCR) be handed over to China no later than December 31, 1952. On that date, China received all of the assets of the Chinese Changchun Railway including 3,282.7 kilometers of railway lines, 10,200 railcars, 880 locomotives, power plants, heavy industries, and coal mines as well as houses, medical facilities, and schools. The transfer of this fully operable railway gave the People's Republic of China control over a politically and economically significant rail line. The Chinese Changchun Railway connected the national railway system to the important ports of Dalian, and Lüshun as well as to international border crossings with the Soviet Union and to North Korea.


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