Border Disputes over Damansky Island and the Troubled Relations between Russia and China

Oct 25, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in May 2012]


The choice of a toponym one uses can be an incendiary matter: Persian Gulf or Arabian Gulf, the Sea of Japan or the East Sea, the Falkland Islands or the Malvinas Islands. Another case in point is an island on the Ussuri River, approximately 150 miles south of Khabarovsk and 350 miles east of Harbin, known as Damansky Island in Russian and as Zhenbao Island in Chinese. The Russian name honors a Russian railroad engineer Stanislav Damansky who died in the area in the late 1880s. The Chinese name translates as ‘rare treasure island’. But this tiny island is not much of a treasure from the economic point of view. Its territory is a mere 0.74 square kilometers (0.29 sq mi). During periods of high water on the Ussuri River it is flooded entirely. Nor does it come with its own exclusive economic zone, as do sea islands. Yet in March 1969 Damansky/Zhenbao island became the site of a bloodbath which left several hundred Soviet and Chinese military and border guards dead. And even today this speck of land, together with two bigger islands near Khabarovsk, remains the focal point of simmering Russian-Chinese tensions.

The casus belli for the 1969 conflict over Damansky Island was the controversial demarcation of the border. Since the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the accepted way to delineate a riverine border between countries has been along the middle of the waterway. However, the Russian-Chinese border has been decided in the nineteenth century, leaving the problematic island in Russian possession. In the 1960s the Chinese government declared that those borders had been imposed on the Qing Dynasty of China by the much stronger Tsarist Russia, and as such amounted to an unfair annexation of the Chinese territory. The Soviets countered that the 1919 international demarcation convention could not be applied to redraw the borders decided by an earlier treaty. Nonetheless, secret border talks were conducted in the early 1960s, and the Soviets agreed to transfer the island to China. But before Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev – well-known for his temper and less than cordial personal relations with his Chinese counterpart – could approve the agreements, Mao Zedong provoked the Soviets by stating in a July 1964 meeting with a Japanese delegation that Tsarist Russia had stripped China of vast territories in Siberia and the Far East, on the order of 1 million square kilometers. As a result, the border talks collapsed, and the number of troops on both sides of the border increased dramatically.


Five years later, the simmering tensions erupted into outright warfare. In the early hours of March 2, 1969, Chinese troops ambushed Soviet border guards on the island. Fighting continued for the rest of the day involving similar weaponry on both sides, including machine guns, artillery, and armored personnel carriers. The battle was decided when the Soviets brought in the new BM-21 multiple rocket launch vehicles, which inflicted heavy casualties on the Chinese forces. Exactly how many Chinese were killed remains controversial, with estimates varying from 100 to 3,000. The official Soviet figure, based on an estimate from a KGB investigation, is 248 dead Chinese troops. The Soviets casualties amounted to 58 dead, including an army colonel, and 94 wounded. According to forensic medical expertise, some of those Soviet troops who were wounded in battle were later tortured to death by Chinese troops.

Intermittent military attacks on the island continued for the better part of three weeks, and tensions spilled far beyond the border area. On March 3, a demonstration was staged in front of the Soviet embassy in Beijing, and on March 7, the Soviets responded in kind, bombarding the Chinese embassy in Moscow with ink bottles. The media on both sides picked up the fight as well. On March 4, the leading Chinese daily newspaper, People’s Daily (Rénmín Rìbào), ran a leading editorial titled “Down with the new tsars!”, claiming that the Soviet military “brassily encroached” onto a Chinese island and calling the incident “an extremely serious armed border provocation on the part of Soviet revisionism, an engineered maniacal anti-Chinese incident, a new self-denunciation of [Soviet revisionism’s] predacious social-imperialist nature”. With a clever citation of Lenin’s work, the editorial then blamed the Soviets for continuing the “criminal policy” of imperialist expansion initiated by the Russian tsars. In another clever move, the 1968 military aggression against Czechoslovakia was brought up as a handy example of the Soviets’ greedy appetite. Similar if more refined language was used in the diplomatic note that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented to the Soviet embassy in Beijing on the day of the incident. On the same day that the People’s Daily (Rénmín Rìbào) published its inflammatory editorial, its Soviet analog – the newspaper Pravda – countered with an opinion piece called “Down with the provocateurs!”, describing “a gang-like foray” of the Chinese “unexpectedly opening fire on Soviet border guards”. Both sides accused each other of abandoning the true Marxist path, and of attempting “to bury the great friendship between the Soviet and Chinese peoples, ideas of proletarian internationalism”.

As the “the fog of war” covered Moscow and Beijing, many feared the prospect of a large-scale conflict or even a nuclear war between the two communist countries. The conservative French newspaper Le Figaro, referring to a Chinese historical military journal, claimed as recently as 2010 that “Moscow planned a nuclear attack in October 1969”, which the Chinese took seriously. China’s senior leadership hid in bunkers dispersed around the country; “orders were given to 940,000 soldiers, 4,000 planes, and 600 warships to leave their vulnerable bases, and arms were distributed to workers to shoot at Russian pilots or parachutists”. Yet according to this article, Moscow’s actual plan was only to test the American intentions. On August 20, the Soviet ambassador in Washington asked the United States to avoid taking sides. However, the U.S. administration viewed the USSR as the principal menace and did not want to see China unduly weakened. Moreover, a nuclear attack would have had disastrous effects on the 250,000 U.S. troops stationed in Asia. On October 15, Henry Kissinger responded that “the United States will not remain neutral in case of aggression and will attack 130 Soviet cities in reprisals”. In part because of the American decision to side with the Chinese, the Soviets stood down and took steps to diffuse the conflict. In September 1969, Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, flying back from Ho Chi Minh’s funeral in Vietnam, conducted talks with his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai, which – symbolic of the frosty relations between the two countries – took place at Beijing airport. The two premiers agreed to a ceasefire and to preserving the military status quo. However, since each side claimed to have military control over the island at the time of the agreement (although the island had no infrastructure for a real military base!), the matter ultimately remained unsettled for over two decades.

This border conflict over a minuscule island on the Ussuri River contributed to a major shift in the geopolitical balance of powers: China decisively broke off its formerly friendly relations with the Soviet Union and strengthened its ties with the United States instead. Western and Russian historians still argue about the cause-and-effect relationship between the Damansky incident and the change in political alliances, with Western historians suggesting that China’s rapprochement with the U.S. came about as a result of the incident, and Russian historians claiming that such a shift was China’s plan all along. One way or another, the conflict led to a re-appraisal of U.S. foreign policy as well: in 1971 Henry Kissinger was sent to China for a meeting with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, paving way for Richard Nixon’s historic visit in 1972.


The border dispute between China and the Soviet Union remained latent until shortly before the fall of the USSR, with serious border demarcation negotiations resuming in 1990. A series of agreements regarding the border were struck during 1990s and 2000s, focused on questionable areas including not only the Damansky/Zhenbao, but also Tarabarov Island (Yinlong Island) and approximately half of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island (Heixiazi Island), both located near Khabarovsk (see map). An agreement reached in 2004 and finalized in 2008 officially resolved the matter by granting control over the two and a half islands to China. However, while the Chinese have accepted this border demarcation, they continue to talk about “the lost territories”, referring to the 1 million square kilometers of southern Siberia and the Far East, which they claim to have been unfairly annexed by Tsarist Russia.


Unsurprisingly, the border demarcation issue is far from completely settled in Russia as well, as many Russians are resentful about the transfer of the islands to China. According to the Uh.Ru website, “whether we needed Damansky or not… after the events of March 2, 1969 we should not have transferred control over the island to China under any conditions or circumstances”. The same site published a poster with the photo of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin (see image) with an inscription in the style of early Soviet posters that reads “They gave them two islands. And what did you do for China?”



Several other websites reproduce a map of Russia with a significant portion of southern Siberia and Far East labeled as “China” (see the green area on the map on the left); this map will be discussed in more detailed in a forthcoming GeoNote.






Another posted featured in several blogs shows an image of two Soviet tanks, its caption reading, “They did not allow the Chinese to enter in 1969. But now Medvedev and Putin did it”.

The border disputes concerning Damansky/Zhenbao, Tarabarov/Yinlong, and Bolshoy Ussuriysky/Heixiazi islands further feed into fears of Chinese demographic, economic, military, and possibly even political expansion into Siberia and the Russian Far East. Exactly how many Chinese currently live in Russia is not clear. The 2002 census counted only 34,500 ethnic Chinese residents . But many Russian demographers suggest that a number between 200,000 and 500,000 is more appropriate. Some analysts also claim that many if not most of these ethnic Chinese live in European Russia rather than in Siberia. Yet while the actual numbers remain relatively low, Russian nationalists paint frightening images of “yellow peril”: masses of cunning and crafty Chinese moving into Russia, intermarrying with Russians, buying Russian property, electing their representatives, and eventually stripping away Russian sovereignty over Siberia and the Far East, returning Russia to the borders of Ivan the Terrible’s days.  Similar voices are heard from the Russian Orthodox community and nationalist bloggers. Newspaper editorials carry headings like “China will capture Russia without a single shot”. A grotesque portrayal of Russia under Chinese domination is one of the main themes in Vladimir Sorokin’s 2006 anti-utopian novel Day of the Oprichnik and its sequel Sugary Kremlin. Similar comments are heard not only from nationalist or religious extremists, but even from supposedly level-headed analysts in think-tanks like the Center for Political Technologies. The rise of China at the expense of Russia has not gone unnoticed in the West too: according to Stephen J. Blank of the National Bureau of Asian Research, “China is expanding its capabilities to redefine the Asian security system through successful economic and military modernization. These gains, however, have come at Russia’s expense”. Zbigniew Brzezinski in his book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives also warns that the “empty territories” of Siberia and the Far East practically call for Chinese colonization. Even Putin has on occasion expressed a worry that if no practical steps are taken to develop the region, in a few decades, even the “Russian population” of the region would speak Chinese, Japanese, or Korean.

Russia has become the main supplier of crucial natural resources for the growing market in China, due to its geographical proximity to China and its status as one of the world’s largest exporters of oil, gas, and timber. But despite this mutual economic dependence, frequent declarations of goodwill, and co-membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Chinese-Russian relations have been marred by mutual suspicions, pricing concerns, and inadequate transportation infrastructure. Russian leaders have repeatedly expressed alarm over increased Chinese investment in and control of Russian energy ventures. Chinese involvement in timber processing projects in Siberia raises serious environmental issues. Russia-internal politics affect Chinese-Russian relations as well. A crucial issue here was the arrest and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as well as the tax sanctions subsequently imposed on his company Yukos, as Yukos had been the chief lobbyist for the construction of a pipeline from Eastern Siberia to China and increased oil export to that country. Conversely, Chinese-Russian relations affect Russia’s internal policies as well, marked by a growing pressure to strengthen Russian ethnic and cultural identity in the Far East.  One result is the move to celebrate all things Russian in widely publicized cultural events, such as the “Many-Sided Russia” festival in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. However, demographic data, especially concerning sex ratios in Siberia and the Far East, allay some of the fears of the “yellow peril”: because of their high sex ratios, the four regions bordering China directly – Amur Oblast, Khabarovsk and Primorsky Krais, and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast – may yet serve as a buffer for the alleged swarms of single Chinese men migrating across the border in search of potential wives. Needless to say, the relations between the two giants, China and Russia, remain crucial for the global geopolitical and economic balance.


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