In 1969, the Soviet Union and Communist China had a brief but intense border clash over a tiny island that led to several hundred casualties on both sides, and changed the diplomatic and political course of the 20th century.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the Chinese Empire was weak and helpless. In a series of wars and diplomatic assaults, various countries carved her up, extracting trade concessions and grabbing areas of Chinese land as their own colonies. One of these was tsarist Russia. In 1900, Russia imposed a one-sided treaty onto the ruling Ching Dynasty which gave the Tsar control over almost a million square kilometers that had been part of Chinese Manchuria and the Pamirs. The border was set along three riverways; the Argun, the Amur, and the Ussuri. Standard diplomatic practice had always been to set international borders along rivers at the center of the waterway, with each nation owning half. But under the Tsar’s treaty with China, the border was set at the far bank of the river, giving the Russians ownership of the entire waterway and all the islands in it. The Chinese Empire resented what they regarded as a dishonest land grab, but were in no position to do anything about it.
In 1949, the Communists under Mao Zedong won the Chinese Civil War, and the People’s Republic of China joined the Soviet Bloc. The Chinese Revolution changed the Cold War balance of power: two of the largest nations in the world were now Communist. Proclamations were made by both countries about “proletarian solidarity”, while rightwing forces in the US argued over “who had lost China”, shortly leading to the McCarthyite Red Scare.
But the Communist monolith that the West feared, did not last long. Within 10 years there was open tension between China and the USSR. This was often couched in ideological terms, with both Maoists and Stalinists arguing that they were the “real” Marxist-Leninists and the other was a heretical “revisionist”. But the more basic cause of the conflict was geopolitical: Stalin expected every member of his “socialist fraternity” to become his unquestioning pawn and to follow the USSR’s interests above their own, and this was something that Mao, who had just fought a long and bloody civil war to free China from foreign domination, simply would not do. Both factions now began active campaigns to win various Third World socialists to their banner.
The political conflict soon developed into diplomatic tension, as China raised the question of the 1900 treaty and the borders. At first, Mao focused on a tiny island near the Chinese bank of the Ussuri River, called Damansky Island by the Russians and Zhenbao by the Chinese. The speck of land was only a little over a quarter of a square mile in size, had no inhabitants, and often disappeared underwater in times of heavy rains, but Mao asked for its return to Chinese control. Soviet Premiere Nikita Krushchev agreed in principle, and diplomatic talks were begun. They dragged on for a while and were given a low priority by the Soviets.
Then China decided to up the ante. In a July 1964 meeting with a delegation of Japanese Communist Party officials, Mao declared that the Russians had used an unfair treaty to steal a large area of China’s territory, sending a message to the Soviets that the Zhenbao/Damansky issue was just the beginning–China wanted all of its old territory back. The Russians responded by declaring that the treaty was not open for renegotiation, and broke off the talks over the river island. As tensions grew, both sides moved military border guards into the area.
On the evening of March 2, 1969, a small force of Chinese troops landed on Zhenbao/Damansky. They were spotted by Soviet border guards, who promptly landed on the island to “register a protest” and demand that they leave “Soviet territory”. Shots were fired, fighting broke out, and a couple dozen troops on both sides were killed or wounded before everyone withdrew.
Things escalated rapidly, and more troops poured into the area. On the morning of March 15, some 200 Soviet troops landed on the island and were met by twice as many Chinese. Both sides opened up with artillery and brought in tanks and more troops. The fighting lasted for seven hours, ending when the Russians managed to move their BM-21 multiple rocket launchers into range and pound the Chinese positions, forcing them to withdraw. In all the Chinese had suffered about 100 casualties and the Russians about 250. Over the following summer, there was almost a replay as border incidents broke out in the disputed Pamir region, with some minor skirmishes but no casualties.
For a moment, the world faced the prospect of a possible fullscale war between two of its largest countries. The two state-run media thundered belligerent accusations and threats at each other. There were reports that Mao and other Chinese leaders were sheltering in underground bunkers in the event of a Soviet air attack on Beijing. China quickly sent diplomatic messages to Washington, imploring the US to remain neutral. President Nixon, however, replied that the US could not remain on the sidelines, and ominously implied that any use of nuclear weapons by the USSR would lead to an American retaliation. With this rebuff, cooler heads began to prevail, and high-level talks were hastily organized between Alexei Kosygin and Zhou Enlai at the Beijing Airport. A cease-fire was put into effect which returned the situation to the status quo ante.
Both sides reacted to the incident. The Soviets began to build up their military forces along the Chinese border, eventually deploying 27 divisions in Siberia and Mongolia. The Chinese constructed a series of bunkers to protect against a Russian nuclear attack, and accelerated their own nuclear weapons program. But perhaps the most important longterm effect was Mao’s decision to sever relations with the Soviet Union and to quietly begin approaches to the United States. In the mid 1970’s President Nixon was invited to visit China, the two countries opened trade relations, and within two decades China was the second-largest economy in the world and a superpower.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China once again raised the border issue with the new Russian government, and in 2004 an agreement was reached which returned Zhenbao and two other river islands to Chinese control. But tensions remain: Chinese leaders still refer to the disputed Manchurian border regions as “the lost territories”, and rightwing nationalists in Russia still resent the return of the islands to China.