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Sino-Soviet Border Clashes

Sino-Soviet Border ClashesThe close relations existing between Beijing and Moscow from 1949-58 represent an exceptional interlude in the much longer historical pattern of mutual suspicion and hostility between China and Russia. China and Russia had border disputes since the seventeenth century when Tsarist forces occupied Nerchinsk and Yakasa in the Amur region (north of Mongolia and west of northern Nei Mongol). The eighteenth century saw Russian incursions in the Lake Balkhash area, near Northwest Xinjiang. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Russians had seized a total 1.4 million square kilometers, and another 1.5 million by 1900. The Russians codified these gains through a series of 'unequal treaties,' as current Chinese histories call them.

The Beijing government began to challenge Soviet occupation of these disputed areas in 1963, and, with China's demonstration of its nuclear capability in 1964, the military build-up on both sides of the border began in earnest. In Japanese press, Mao was quoted as saying that both Vladivostok and Khabarovsk were on territory that had belonged to China save for 'unequal treaties.'

Soviet ground forces had been augmented in the last half of 1967 in regions bordering China in the Far East and Transbaykal Military Districts. From 1965 to the end of 1969, the USSR increased its deployment of ground forces in the military districts adjacent to the Chinese border from 13 divisions to 21 divisions.

The 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the buildup of Soviet forces in the Soviet Far East raised Chinese suspicions of Soviet intentions. China's deployment of missiles force began just as China's perception of the major military threat to its national security shifted from the United States to the Soviet Union.

Sharp border clashes between Soviet and Chinese troops occurred in 1969, roughly a decade after relations between the two countries had begun to deteriorate and some four years after a buildup of Soviet forces along China's northern border had begun. The Zhenbao/Demansky Island conflict flared up in March 1969, and then spread from the Ussuri River along the border into Central Asia. Particularly heated border clashes occurred in the northeast along the Sino-Soviet border formed by the Heilong Jiang (Amur River) and the Wusuli Jiang (Ussuri River), on which China claimed the right to navigate.

This conflict raised the prospect of a Soviet strike into China, a prospect supported by a widespread rumor that the USSR was considering a "surgical strike" on the Chinese nuclear testing facilities in Xinjiang. The veracity of this rumor was augmented by the appointment of Colonel General Tolubko, deputy commander of the USSR's Strategic Rocket Forces, to command the Soviet Far East Military District.

Increased Soviet military deployments and realignment of the military districts facing China in Central Asia added to China's perceptions of a growing Soviet military threat. The number of Soviet divisions increased to 30 in 1970 and to 44 in 1971. These forces, including two or three divisions in the Mongolian People's Republic (MPR), were supported by some 1,000 combat aircraft controlled by a coordinated air defense system that was established in the MPR sometime in 1970.

Tensions remained high until September 1969 when Zhou Enlai and Alexei Kosygin met in Beijing and announced resumption of border talks begun in 1964. In October 1969, Beijing published its 'basic principles' calling for, "...the eventual replacement of the unequal treaties with a new, equal Sino-Soviet treaty and for the erection of properly surveyed border markers."

By the time Henry Kissinger visited China in the summer of 1971, dominant voices in Beijing were convinced that China faced a potentially more dangerous and immediate adversary than the United States. This shift in primary adversaries from the United States to the USSR contributed to the achievement of a Sino-American rapprochement confirmed by President Richard Nixon when he visited China in February 1972.

The Sino-Soviet border dispute was particularly disturbing since both the USSR and China were now nuclear powers. However, in order to limit the danger of secalation, a tacit bargain was apparently reached that neither side would resort to air power. In the following years, annual rounds of talks were held, all without significant progress. Border provocations occasionally recurred in later years--for example, in May 1978 when Soviet troops in boats and a helicopter intruded into Chinese territory--but major armed clashes were averted.

In July 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev announced the Soviet Union's "...willingness to improve relations with mainland China," and settle the border dispute. Both parties signed a treaty in May 1991, and the Russian Federation ratified it the following winter. In April 1990, both countries also signed the "Agreement on Guiding Principles for the Mutual Reduction of Military Forces Along the Sino-Soviet Boundary and the Strengthening Confidences in the Military." This agreement provides for a mutual reduction of troops along the border and limits military activities to defense. In 1990, the Soviets had about a quarter of its ground and air forces and a third of its navy dedicated to the border, or 56 divisions containing 700,000 troops when fully mobilized. The Chinese had 1 million soldiers deployed along the 7500-kilometer border.

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Page last modified: 14-06-2019 18:04:42 ZULU