The Border Conflicts Between China And USSR In 1969

The historical reasons of the tension could be traced back for more than six decades. During Tsarist Russia and Qing Dynasty, there were disputes over lands that were traditional Chinese settlements, and the Russians performed massacres in several frontier villages, which led to historical disbelief and resentment to the Russians. It was during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, an international force was formed in order to fight the Chinese civilians that performed anti-foreign murders and conflicts. Among them most soldiers were Russians, finally they captured the capital of Qing—Beijing and looted the city (Britannica). Such violations alerted the Chinese citizens and they gradually became aware of the ambition of this territory-hungry neighbor to the north. Furthermore, another event which occurred almost at the same time was even more bloody and violent. It was called the Blagoveshchensk Massacre. The town of Blagoveshchensk was originally a military settlement of the Russians at Upper Amur River, later the administrative center of the Amur Province, which was a newly-founded political area. However, the economy of this town and surrounding area was highly dependent on Chinese traders, farmers and workers, while some nearby Chinese villages shared a stable trade relation with the settlers of Blagoveshchensk. The problem was that the Chinese culture and the one of the Russians failed to assimilate each other. In June, 1900, the Qing soldiers blocked a Russian steamboats on Amur River and found firearms and ammunition supplies, then the Chinese arrested the crew and, according to the Russians, fired at the Russian military boats. The town of Blagoveshchensk panicked and the presence of Chinese commoners made them even more nervous. Then, the military governor of the Russians in that region ordered the deportation of all Chinese citizens, including women, children, and elders in the town. The police forced them to cross the Amur River without enough boats. Any refusal or resistance would lead to beating or execution. Meanwhile, Russian soldiers also fired at innocent Chinese people living nearby in the Manchu villages. Later, the Russian army invaded north Manchuria following the Chinese Eastern Railroad, and finally gained total control of this region by August 28, 1900 (Flath and Smith). Such violations led to not only huge casualties on both sides,  but also a disrupted society with much restlessness, which civilians could not bear. Furthermore, not only in Manchuria, the Russians also advanced from the West, precisely, from the Central Asia and where today Xinjiang Province of China is. The Treaty of Kuldja in 1851 granted the Russians trading privileges in Chinese territory, and ensured that the Russians in that area were not subject to Chinese laws (Britannica).  In the 1850s and 1860s, the continuous revolts in Xinjiang weakened the Chinese control and the Russians gradually occupied the Ili Valley until 1882.  Although from 1876 to 1877, Qing general Zuo Zongtang reconquered most of Xinjiang and restored order, the Treaty of St. Petersburg in 1881 still benefited the Russians and allowed them to strengthen the control over significant trade network of Central Asia (Brophy).

Then came the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China. However, though both were communist countries, the Russians did not admit the unequal negotiations made during tsarist era with Qing, and China’s constant request for industrial assistance finally irritated the Soviet Union. In 1920, the Soviet government led by Vladimir Lenin claimed that all the treaties concluded with China by the Tsarist government were void, but the lost territories were never returned. Then in 1960, the Chinese government twice proposed negotiations to settle the border questions. The negotiation finally began in 1964; however, the Soviet clique refused to recognize these treaties this time and insisted that all occupied Chinese territory as legal properties of the Soviet Union. Such social-imperialist stand led to the disruption of negotiation, as well as the resentful response the Communist Party of China, or CPC (Low). And since the 1950s, the Soviet Union had been attempting to intensify its control over newborn P.R.C., China’s attempts to extend its own sphere of influence also weakened the relation between it and the Soviet Union, since the USSR’s ambition of controlling CPC would fail if the Chinese impact on the “liberation movements” in the Far East increases tremendously. The conflict of ultimate political goals also contributed to the tension. While the USSR was trying to create a Communist world with the Soviets leading the way, the Chinese government would not accept the domination of the Russians. Another reason is that the Chinese Communist program of industrialization and military modernization at that time hugely depended on the Soviet assistance, both materially and technologically; however, the Soviets were unable and unwilling to provide as much help as China desired, which was viewed as an offense to Chinese national pride (Relations Between The Chinese Communist Regime And The USSR: Their Present Character And Probable Future Courses).

The Battle of Zhenbao Island was the most obvious example of the tension between China and The Soviet Union, and the border conflicts were not successfully resolved after China occupied the island. On March 2, 1969, the first fight happened on this small piece of land in the Ussuri River, since the Soviet troops came and occupied the island and, according to the Chinese government, “used the island to launch artillery attacks deep within Chinese territory”. Then the Chinese counterattacked and killed thirty-one Soviet soldiers. Furious Soviet army attacked the Chinese border posts as a response with “armored vehicles, tanks and armed troops” (Gottfried). Sporadic battles continued in the following months (the Associated Press), and in August another major battle was fought along the frontier (Gottfried). Finally, The Chinese troops captured the island and constructed basic facilities on it. The border conflicts were discussed in October in Beijing, but the negotiation produced no effective results. While the Chinese wanted to prevent probable Soviet attacks, the Soviet Union was embarrassed politically and felt that they had been taken advantage by the Chinese (Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, Office of Current Intelligence). In August, another incident occured in Tielieketi, a disputed piece of land on China-USSR border near the Chinese city of Karamay. On August 13, the Soviets attacked a Chinese border patrol and thirty Chinese soldiers were killed (Hanhimaki). It was reported that the Soviets used armored vehicles and tanks with the assistance of two helicopters. The USSR officials later claimed that this ambush was to signal the Chinese government that they could not get away from the military movements along the border, which made Beijing worry about China’s vulnerable interests in this region (Gerson).

In order to justify the conflict, both countries accused the other for not practicing the true, pure, original Communism ideas, and various methods of propaganda were utilized. The Chinese government called the U.S.S.R as a nation that betrayed the Marxism and practiced “revisionism”, which was viewed by CPC as an equal evil as the imperialism. On the Ninth National Congress of the CPC, which was held right after the military conflicts of Zhenbao Island, Chinese Vice-Chairman, Lin Piao, even declared that all the world could clearly distinguish the concepts of Soviet revisionism from genuine Marxism-Leninism and claimed it was a shame to Lenin (Low). Meanwhile, on June 5,1969, the U.S.S.R. convened the International Meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parties in Moscow, and there the Soviets espoused their opposition to China and proposed a military encirclement to restrain PRC (Zhang). Actually, the anti-PRC acts of the Soviets could be dated back to 1963, when they gave Taiwan the status as a “sovereign state” to sign the notorious nuclear test ban treaty. Later, the Xinhua Press of China called it an “anti-China conspiracy” (Wei). From posters, we could clearly see how the Chinese perspective towards the Soviets has changed over time (see fig.1 and 2).


Fig. 1. A poster in Chinese, it says “The Soviet Union is our role model”


Fig. 2. A poster that says “Soviet Socialist Imperialism is The Universal Enemy of All Nations”

The Sino-Soviet border conflicts had great impact on the global power balance: the number of PLA forces and Soviet Red Army along the border increased, both were prepared for a large-scale, long-lasting war, and the relation between the United States and PRC became better. The possibility that Soviet Union would launch attack on Chinese nuclear facilities was considered. Italian Communist leader at that time, Rossana Rossanda claimed that in July he received a message from Moscow, asking how he would react if the USSR attacks Chinese missile or atomic installations in self-defense. Another reliable source also reports to possibility. Gvishiani, son-in-law of Kosygin, Premier of the Soviet Union said that the USSR would have to destroy China’s nuclear arsenal (Rogers). Several Chinese artillery units were also positioned near the communication joint near the border, in order to slow down the advance of Soviet military forces. A series of caves, tunnels and bunkers were constructed near the borders or in the mountain ranges in Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, as well as in Xinjiang, where several combats had occurred. A strategy of “luring deep” would be utilized together with guerilla warfare to weaken the Soviet army as they advance into China. And finally, the main forces of PLA (People’s Liberation Army)  would counterattack and destroy the invaders after some time (National Intelligence Estimate). Soon after the incident of Tielieketi, U.S. President Richard Nixon told his cabinet members that in his opinion, the Soviets were more aggressive in this event, and believed that the survival of China, as another major communist country, would be significant (Hanhimaki).  In 1970, the Chinese government began to show the sign of diplomatic renaissance. and it was willing to improve the relation with neighboring nations, in which its influence and interests were present (Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, Office of Current Intelligence). In late 1970, the pace of rapprochement of China towards the United States accelerated and China showed its interest in high level discussion with the U.S., trying to improve the broken relation (U.S. Department of State). The trade between these two countries also experienced an uplift in that period (Mei and Chen). Finally in 1971, “Ping Pong Diplomacy” started and in 1972, U.S President Richard Nixon paid a visit to China in 1972, which marked the beginning of the formal diplomatic relation.

This period of Sino-Soviet split and border clashes were inevitable due to historical and contemporary reasons, and had great influence on China’s relation with two superpowers. Russia’s invasion of Qing China and the conflicts among the communist bloc contributed to such a consequence, and the Chinese government finally turned, though slightly, but significantly, towards the West. This period of tension between China and the Soviet Union, as a military clash of ideology, territory, economics and status within the communist bloc, accurately and completely shows all key points in the term “Cold War”, which was a war that was featured by economic, political, and military competition and tension.


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