Why Russia and China fought a brief war half a century ago

The two communist powers shared different views on the border line.

After centuries of peaceful frictions over border and territories, in 1969, China and Russia engaged in a two-week armed conflict for a small island named Damansky – or Zhanbao Dao (“precious”) in Chinese – in the Soviet part of Manchuria. The border dispute strained the Sino-Soviet relations and divided the two communist allies.

Russian expansion into Chinese domains

The Russian and Chinese empires were never really happy about the border line between them, with Beijing continuing even today accusing Moscow of occupation of “historical Chinese lands” since the latter’s expansion into Siberia to the Pacific. In 1689, the two powers draw a border line on a map for the first time, but didn’t bother with its strict demarcation.

A view of the Zhanbao Dao Island from China.

The Russian-Chinese border remained very porous and easy to cross for merchants and hunters, and never properly guarded for more than two centuries.

According to the practice existing at that time, if the border lied along a river, then the actual demarcation followed along the main fairway, thereby providing equal access to water resources for both sides. In 1911, sensing the weakening of the Chinese state after the devastating opium wars, Russia forced its way with a deal that ultimately stripped China of its part of the Ussuri River along with all islands within it.

The location of the Zhanbao Dao Island. 

When the communists formed the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Soviet Union – which can be referred to as a communist-ruled Russian empire – stood by their Chinese brothers in ideology and the two countries became allies against capitalists. Although the Chinese never forgot about “the stolen lands,” the border remained open and transparent: Chinese farmers were free to bring their cattle to graze in Soviet border passes, gather firewood or cut grass on the disputed islands of the Ussuri River.

Dictator dies

Things changed, however, when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (Dzhugashvili) died in 1953. His death marked the beginning of political melting and condemnation of his cult of personality in the Soviet Union, which Chinese leader Mao Zedong wrongly perceived as a weakness of the Soviet system and a U-turn from communist ideology.

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Stalin was a model of leadership for Zedong, who both respected and was afraid of his Soviet counterpart. Once he was gone, Mao reflected, a small territorial victory over the northern neighbor could sell well to the starving masses poisoned by the “make China great again” dream.

Zedong’s increasing criticism determined Moscow to recall its industrial specialists from Chinese projects starting 1960. In response, the crossing of the Soviet/Russian border by Chinese farmers increased in number and frequency – from a dozen people a month to hundreds of individuals a day.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a meeting in Moscow.

By 1963, at least 100,000 Chinese nationals illegally entered the Soviet-controlled territory without any legal consequences. That year, Moscow proposed Beijing to settle the border differences and in 1964 the sides sat to draft an agreement. Within months, by August, they found understanding on all issues; China, in particular, regained the fairway demarcation clause and expected to get back the disputed islands in Soviet possession.

But in October 1964, Nikita Khrushchev was deposited from the Soviet Union leadership and the new secretary-general and premier, Leonid Brezhnev, had other priorities than China.

Some historians claim that Brezhnev was upset by Zedong’s tone of communication and ordered the military to seal off the border and prevent undocumented Chinese from entering the Soviet Union. He also prohibited the use of weapons against Chinese intruders.

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By other accounts, Khrushchev got enough of territorial concessions to Beijing and intended to pull out when he famously said at an official meeting that “China wants too much, so it’ll get nothing.” Perhaps his successor simply liked this idea.

Kung Fu vs. Box

The first clashes on the Damansky/Zhanbao Dao Island began in 1967. Chinese and Soviet border guards used to line up face to face, yelling, punching and pushing each other. Then the Chinese provocateurs armed themselves with sticks for hand-to-hand combat with the Soviet troops. Hundreds of fights took place between 1967 and 1969, each side fielding out between a dozen and 1,500 men to exchange blows and wrestle.

The Russians learned to bring tall and strong men in order to fend off the Chinese but their opponents soon called in martial arts masters to beat them back. The island turned into a true arena for kung-fu vs. box mass bouts, which frequently ended in broken jaws or ribs, bleeding and concussions on both sides.

Soviet border guards on armored personnel carriers heading to fend off Chinese counterparts with long sticks, February 1969.

Neither side used firearms or cold weapons during those altercations. Until March 1969.

First shots

During the night of 2 March 1969, a squad of Chinese military (from 77 to 300 men, according to various sources) secretly landed on the Damansky Island and began preparing firing positions. Everyone wore thick sheepskin coats and sweaters under white camouflage coats were on top, which made it possible to lie in the snow for quite a long time without freezing. Their weapons – automatic and machine guns – were wrapped in white material.

By the morning of that day, the intruders prepared hidden firing spots and trenches, covering them with camouflage nets. Neither the Russian night watch near the island, nor the morning patrol noticed or heard anything unusual.

Chinese military demonstrating captured Soviet helmets. 

At 10 a.m. the watch personnel reported the movement of some 30 Chinese soldiers towards the island and the Soviet border station deployed a similar number of border guards, armed with Kalashnikov rifles and pistols, to push them back.

When the first group of Russian border guards arrived at the scene, they were immediately shot down from close range by the squad hiding on the island. The second group lied down and returned the fire. A third group from a neighboring border station approached the battlefield and opened fire from the river bank’s hills, rescuing the few survivors. The remaining Chinese troops retreated. The 2-hour armed incident was over.

Second fight

While diplomats from Beijing and Moscow exchanged the protest notes and accused each other of escalation, the military were preparing for a continuation. China deployed around 5,000 troops, several artillery batteries, and a mine-throwing unit. The Soviets brought the 135th motorized rifle division (at least 10,000 men) and reinforcements for the Imansk border guard station, which was in charge with the given border sector. A back-up force consisting of a tank company, artillery, and the multiple rocket launch systems Grad – a new Soviet weapon – was on stand-by in the Russian rear.

Soviet border guards pushing Chinese counterparts out of disputed territory.

The second part of the armed incident took place on 14-15 March. The Soviets unexpectedly cleared the island – perhaps for de-escalation purposes, to avoid a full-fledged war – and stood ground on their side of the river. The Chinese soon moved in and seized the Ussuri Island for the second time; hundreds of Chinese soldiers took positions on their bank of the river.

In response, the Russians deployed eight armored personnel carriers, forcing the Chinese – armed with light weapons – to retreat. On the island, the 45 border guards dug trenches and the machines often changed their positions while another 80 border guards and seven armored personnel carriers waited for new orders on the Soviet side of the river.

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The next day, China bombed the island with artillery and mine throwers (60-90 pieces) and three companies launched an attack. After a half a day fight, losing communication with the superiors, the Russian border guards left the island, puzzled why the border guards didn’t receive the promised fire support from the army.

The Chinese military were again in control of the island.

Then four Russian tanks tried to cross the river on the thick ice, but the Chinese were prepared for this move, destroying a few of them before the machines reached the land; one T-62 tank was captured.

Only when the commander of the Soviet border station, Colonel Democrat Leonov, was killed, did the Russians wake up. The fire in three rounds from their secret weapon, Grad [pictured below], destroyed everything on the Chinese bank of the river – including troops and equipment – and put an end of the Sino-Soviet armed conflict.

The Kremlin, which still hesitated to let the army units take part in the fighting, issued a formal order in this regard hours after the battle was over.

Unresolved border disputes

The Russian sources claimed that China left between 800 and 1,000 military dead in the battle for Damansky, and the Soviet Union lost 58 lives (95 wounded). The Chinese sources mentioned “hundreds” of Russians killed and 27 war machines destroyed; the Chinese losses amounted to 72 men killed and another 68 wounded.

The 1969 armed conflict between the two communist powers terminated their 20-year-old alliance against the West. China made efforts to approach the United States and its European partners. North Korea and Romania defended Beijing and condemned Moscow.

In 1991, Russia ceded this tiny territory of just 0.74 square kilometers to China and recognized its sovereignty over what is now officially called the Zhanbao Dao Island.

A memorial praising the heroism of fallen Chinese border guards is now the only sightseeing on this island.

China still has unresolved border disputes with India, Bhutan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Although Russia is not on the list, even 55 years on Chinese propaganda perpetuates the territorial claims on large parts of the Far East and Siberia.

Russian politicians, on the other hand, have made repeated territorial claims on Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Baltic countries, Georgia, and Moldova. Today, Russia controls lands taken from Finland, Estonia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Japan. 

Sources: Wikipedia, British Encyclopedia, Asia Pacific Curriculum, Russian Military Archives, Military History

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