|Sino-Soviet border conflict|
|Part of the Cold War and the Sino-Soviet split|
Disputed areas in the Argun and Amur rivers. Damansky/Zhenbao is to the south-east, north of the lake
|Commanders and leaders|
|Leonid Brezhnev||Mao Zedong|
|Casualties and losses|
27 Tanks/APCs destroyed
1 Command Car
Dozens of trucks destroyed
One Soviet T-62 tank captured
72 killed and 68 wounded|
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.
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'.
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. 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).
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.
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.
|Sino-Soviet border conflict|
Zhenbao Island and the border.
|Alternative Chinese name|
|Literal meaning||Zhenbao Island self-defense|
|Romanization||Pograni?nyj konflikt na ostrove Damanskij|
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.'"
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.
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. Chinese numerical superiority was the basis of its strategy to deter a Soviet nuclear attack. 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". To Mao 'non-material' factors like 'creativity, flexibility and high morale' were also 'critical determinants in warfare'.
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. 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. 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." 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".
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. Some even advocated deploying nuclear mines along the Sino-Soviet border. 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. 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.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".
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 (Damansky) Island incident|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Demoklat Vladimirovich Leonov †|
|100 at the beginning||300|
|Casualties and losses|
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. According to the Soviet/Russian sources, no less than 248 Chinese troops were killed on the island and on the frozen river. That day, 32 Soviet border guards were killed, 14 wounded.
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.
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.
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. 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. Chinese General Chen Xilian stated the Chinese had won a clear victory on the battlefield.
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. 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. 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. On 21 March, the Soviets sent a demolition team attempting to destroy the tank. The Chinese opened fire and thwarted the Soviets. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Western part of the China-USSR border, 1988 map
|Commanders and leaders|
|Vladimir Viktorovich Puchkov|
|Casualties and losses|
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.
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. 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. 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".
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.
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. 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."
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 (" . 1969 "), Chairman Mao sought to elevate his country from the world's periphery and place it at the centre of world politics.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.