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assistance. (In other words, they wanted to receive Soviet weaponry and sensitive technology, but to use these in accordance with China's own doctrine, strategy, and political goals.) At Mao's behest, Chinese officials began speaking against the “mechanical imitation of foreign technology” and “excessive reliance on assistance from the Soviet Union and other fraternal countries,” and warned that “there is no possibility for us to make wholesale use of the existing experiences of other countries.” They emphasized that China “must carry out advanced research itself" instead of “simply hoping for outside aid.” For more on this point, see Ford, “The Eruption of Sino-Soviet Politico-Military Problems, 1957-60,” esp. 102-104; Lewis and Xue, China's Strategic Seapower, 3-4, and MacFarquhar, The Great Leap Forward, 36-40, passim. For a good example of Mao's own thoughts on the topic, see his secret “Address on March 10” at the Chengdu Conference, published in Issues & Studies 10:2 (November 1973), 95-98. 108. For Soviet officials' views of these ideological disputes, see the voluminous files in TsKhSD, F.5, Op. 30, Dd. 247, 301, 398, and 399.
Mark Kramer, a scholar at the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, contributes frequently to the Bulletin.
information needed to build nuclear weapons. But
Strategic Seapower, 15-17 and Whiting, “The Sino-
republished in XXII S”ezd
New Evidence on
EAST GERMAN DOCUMENTS have become available. 4
divided China, the Chinese leadership used ON THE BORDER CONFLICT, 1969 Border disputes between Russia and the conflict over the border to draw attention
China had a long historical tradition.5 Com- to Czarist imperial legacies in Soviet foreign by Christian F. Ostermann1 peting territorial claims and differences over policy and serve as proof for what was later
borderlines reached back to the seventeenth labeled Soviet “social imperialism.” MoreThe Sino-Soviet border crisis of March- century. In 1860, the conclusion of the
over, Beijing hoped that the incidents would September 1969 is one of the most intrigu- Treaty of Beijing provided for a temporary serve notice to the USSR that the PRC would ing crises of the Cold War. For several settlement of the dispute. Nevertheless, Chi- no longer put up with Soviet subversion in months, the Soviet Union and the People's nese and Russian cultures and territorial am- the volatile border regions. Chinese border Republic of China (PRC) stood on the brink bitions continued to clash in the border areas. violations had occurred in Xinjiang in 1959, of war which—on the Soviet side—in- Following the Communists' victory in the and continued in the early 1960s.8 volved the threat of nuclear strikes. It re- Chinese Civil War in 1949, and Mao Zedong's Moscow had initially refused to accept sulted in a sharp increase in Soviet military option for an alliance with Moscow (1950),
option for an alliance with Moscow (1950), the Chinese notion of “unequal treaties” and strength in Central Asia and a fierce Soviet- the Chinese Communists apparently accepted enter into negotiations which Beijing had Chinese arms race. Like the Cuban Missile the territorial status quo along the 4,150 demanded possibly as early as 1957 and Crisis, the 1969 border conflict also rein- mile-long border with Russia. Largely de
again in 1960. Negotiations, Moscow must forced the trend toward a fundamental re- pendent on the Soviet protection and sup- have felt, would call into question the legitialignment in the Cold War international port, the Chinese signed the 1951 Border macy of the border arrangement and open a system: polycentrism within world commu- Rivers Navigation Agreement which implied Pandora's box of questions. As Sovietnism, Sino-Soviet tensions, U.S.-Chinese their consent to the existing border regime. Chinese polemics and Chinese border intrurapprochement and “triangular diplomacy”. This included acceptance of armed Soviet
This included acceptance of armed Soviet sions mounted in the wake of the Cuban Unlike in the case of Cuban Missile Crisis of control of the Amur and Ussuri border rivers Missile Crisis, and as Beijing demonstrated 1962, however, the documentary evidence and of more than 600 of the 700 islands its readiness to employ its growing military on the crisis is extremely sparse. Both located in these strategically important wa- power in several military campaigns against Moscow and Beijing have published their terways in the extreme northeastern border India in 1962, Moscow finally agreed to mutual recriminations, but beyond official region. The agreement also required the Chi- consultations on the border. Following a notes and journalistic accounts, few sources nese to obtain Soviet permission before us- letter by Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev have become available on either side, nor, ing the rivers and the islands. Similar proce- to CCP Chairman Mao Zedong in Novemfor that matter, in the United States. 3 dures had been established for the use of ber 1963, secret negotiations began in Feb
Numerous questions remain unan- Soviet-claimed pastures by Chinese herds- ruary 1964 but soon stalemated over Chiswered: What was the motivation on both men in the northwestern Xinjiang border nese claims to large territories in Siberia and sides behind the 1969 border incidents? province. Disagreements over the border demands for recognition of the “unequal” How likely was the outbreak of a major never ceased to exist but local authorities nature of the historical border arrangement. war? How serious was the Soviet nuclear kept them at a low level.7
Disagreement also existed regarding the threat? Were there divisions within the With the emerging Sino-Soviet split in exact borderline. While Moscow was ready Chinese leadership over the Zhen Bao/ the late 1950s and the open collision of to concede that the thalway—a line followDamansky Island Incident? What was the Soviet and Chinese leaders at the Interna- ing the deepest point of a valley or riverdebate in Moscow? How much did the tional Conference of Communist Parties in constituted the borderline in the northeastUnited States know about the conflict? What Bucharest in 1960, the dormant border issue ern border rivers, the Soviets were unwilling was the U.S. role in the dispute? How was resurfaced again. It now seems evident that to relinquish control over most of the 700 the crisis resolved? Even with the opening the border issue was a symptom rather than a islands in the frontier rivers. When Mao of the former Soviet archives, little new cause of heightening tensions between both publicized the controversy and accused the evidence on the crisis has emerged. The countries. Both sides, however, found the Soviets of “imperialism,” Khrushchev defollowing three documents, obtained by the issue extremely useful as an instrument in cided to suspend the talks (October 1964).9 author in the “Stiftung Archiv der Parteien their ideological and power-political rivalry. The onset of the Great Proletarian Culund Massenorganisationen der ehemaligen For the Chinese, the border incidents were a tural Revolution led to a further decline in DDR im Bundesarchiv” (SAPMO), the ar- way to underline their ideological challenge Sino-Soviet relations. Following an aborchives which house the records of the former by quasi-military means and to put the Sovi- tive meeting with Soviet premier Aleksei East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) in ets on the defensive. Claiming that the bor- Kosygin in February 1965, Mao broke party Berlin, are among the first authentic, previ- derline had been “dictated” by the Russian
relations with the CPSU in 1966 and reously secret documents on the crisis that Empire in “unequal treaties” with a weak and
Empire in “unequal treaties” with a weak and duced communications with Moscow to low
level contacts. Concurrently, the situation against China.
Soviet border patrol unit on the Zhen Bao/ on the borders worsened. In the spring, Despite heightened Chinese aggressive- Damansky Island in the Ussuri, killing the Beijing unilaterally announced stricter navi- ness and Soviet nuclear sabre-rattling, the Soviet officer and 30 soldiers. Document gation regulations governing“foreign” (thus border conflict did not immediately or inevi- No. 1 (printed below), an informational note Soviet) vessels on the border rivers. Later tably develop into shooting engagements. given to the East German leadership and that year small-scale skirmishes occurred Chinese fishermen and soldiers continued to circulated in the SED Politburo, provides along the Sino-Soviet and Chinese-Mongo- enter border islands on the Ussuri and Amur the first internal Soviet account of this crulian borders. Ever more aggressively, the which they claimed as their own, thus en- cial incident. Chinese asserted their claims to the islands croaching on territory controlled by Soviets The document accords with the publiwithin their half of the border rivers along border guards. In each case, the Soviets cized Soviet version of the incident, considthe Chinese Northeast. Groups of Chinese dispatched border guard units which ex- ered by scholars as closer to the truth than the soldiers and fishermen were now sent on the pelled the Chinese from the islands. Fight- opposing Chinese account which claimed border islands instructed to fight if their ing was usually avoided. Over the years, that the Soviets started the gunfire and thus normal patrol routes were blocked by Soviet Soviets and Chinese came to adopt a pattern broke the most significant tacit principle of guards. Later, Beijing claimed that a total of of almost ritualistic practices and unwritten confrontation.16 According to the docu4,189 border incidents had occurred between rules to resolve border violations in a non- ment, Soviet observations posts noted the 1964 and 1969 alone. 10
shooting fashion. Even after Mao turned presence of thirty armed Chinese soldiers on The new Soviet leadership under Le- toward a more aggressive policy of“forceful the island around 9 a.m. on March 2, causing onid I. Brezhney (which overthrew forward patrolling” (which implied fighting the Soviets to send a unit of border guards to Khrushchev in October 1964) had responded if necessary) during the Cultural Revolu- the island to expel the Chinese intruders. to Beijing's confrontational posture by in- tion, shooting engagements were avoided When, according to the long-established creased economic and military pressure. by both sides. Neither Beijing nor Moscow practice, the Soviet post commander and a Early on in the confrontation, the Soviets was apparently interested in starting major small advance contingent of border guards had withdrawn vital economic support and and fighting.
confronted the Chinese and protested the advisers from the PRC. Moscow had also The Sino-Soviet “cold war” on the bor- border violation, demanding that the Chiinitiated a major long-term build-up of its der turned hot in the aftermath of the Soviet nese leave the island, the Chinese opened military power in the Soviet Far East. Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (August 1968) fire. In the ensuing fight, the Soviet comconventional force levels rose dramatically and the Soviet enunciation of the “Brezhnev mander and thirty Soviet soldiers were killed. after 1965, from approximately 17 divisions doctrine.” It is likely that the Chinese lead- Artillery fire was also opened on the unit to 27 divisions by 1969 (and about 48 divi- ership perceived the Soviet claim to inter- from larger and well-equipped Chinese forces sions in the mid-1970s).11 Moscow also vene in any socialist state where socialism hidden on the island and from the Chinese decided to deploy SS-4 MRBMs as well as was considered “in danger”—and the poten- shore. Only after Soviet reinforcements short-range rockets (SCUD and FROG). tial application of the Brezhnev doctrine to arrived were the Chinese expelled from the Other initiatives aimed at strengthening bor- Asia—as a threat and challenge to Chinese island. der controls along the frontier with the PRC. security interests. PRC Defense Minister Despite the assertion that the incident Increasing the geostrategic pressure on Lin Biao, Mao's heir apparent, allegedly was the “logical consequence” of previous Beijing, Moscow also concluded a twenty- warned the CCP Politburo and the Military border provocations, the memorandum to year treaty of friendship with Mongolia. Affairs Commission that China would be the East German leadership, communicated The treaty provided for joint Soviet-Mongo- attacked by the the Soviet Union. In October a few days after the event took place, reflects lian defense efforts and led to the stationing 1968, he issued Directive No. 1 which put
Soviet anxiety over the new level of prepaof two to three Soviet divisions in the Mon- the People's Republic on war footing. Oth- ration, violence and weaponry exhibited by golian People's Republic. 12
ers within the Politburo—including Premier the Chinese in carrying out the ambush. The Most importantly, Moscow did not shy Zhou Enlai and probably Mao Zedong, document reveals that the Soviet were nothaway from thinly veiled nuclear threats. As apparently doubted Moscow's readiness for ing less than stunned over the fact that the early as September 1964, Khrushchev had war with China.15 These differences not- Chinese had departed from the long-estabannounced that the Soviet Union would use withstanding, the Chinese leadership opted lished practice of resolving border violaall necessary measures including “up-to
“up-to- for a more forceful attitude towards Russia.
tions short of firefights. Was this a prelude date weapons of annihilation” to defend its Chinese border guards were now instructed to a full-fledged war? To some extent, the borders. 13 Repeatedly throughout the bor- to carry uniforms and weapons and to con- document thus corroborates evidence by der crisis, Moscow secretly and publicly front the Soviets and shoot if necessary. high-level Soviet defector Arkady N. aired the possibility of a pre-emptive nuclear Incidents of growing violence (though still Shevchenko who has argued that “the events strike against Chinese nuclear installations. non-shooting) occurred in late 1968 and in on Damansky had the effect of an electric Faced with the PRC's growing military ca- January and February of 1969. But it was shock in Moscow. The Politburo was terripabilities and Mao's apparent “mad” “op- not until 2 March 1969 that the transition fied that the Chinese might make a largeportunism”, Moscow increased its nuclear from non-shooting confrontations to fire- scale intrusion into Soviet territory. A strength in Asia and, by 1969, had installed fighting was made. On this day, Chinese nightmare vision of invasion by millions of an anti-ballistic missile system directed soldiers ambushed and opened fire on a Chinese made the Soviet leaders almost fran
tic. Despite our overwhelming superiority East German Embassy in Beijing in early between June and August alone. Considerin weaponry, it would not be easy for the April 1969, documents one of the early ing the concurrent hints of potential nuclear USSR to cope with an assault of such mag- Soviet peace feelers. The telegram reports attack, the summer of 1969 can be seen, as nitude."17
information provided by the Soviet chargé the Thomas Robinson has put it, “as a textSoviet concerns that the border conflict d'affairs in Beijing according to which book case of the use by Moscow of comwould spin out of control were central to the Kosygin, acting on behalf of the CPSU polit- bined political, military, and propaganda Soviet response to the Chinese challenge. buro, tried to contact Mao on March 21 means to force Peking to take an actionYet so was the specter of an even more through the existing hotline between Mos- renew the talks—it otherwise resisted....”23 radical shift in Chinese foreign policy evi- cow and Beijing. The Chinese, however, Soviet strategy in the border conflict dent in the offensive posture displayed in refused to put Kosygin through. Reflecting proved successful with regard to the rethe ambush and atrocities. For Moscow, the Moscow's concern over the crisis, Kosygin sumption of border talks. In May, the ChiMarch 2 incident also carried geostrategic reportedly indicated that, “if necessary,” he nese Government signaled its readiness for meaning: it revealed “Beijing's intention to would agree to meet even with Zhou Enlai. talks through an official government note. activate its opportunistic political flirtation When the Soviet Embassy communicated Contrary to their refusal in previous year, the with the imperialist countries—above all the Soviet desire for talks to the Chinese Chinese, in June, agreed to hold a meeting of with the United States and West Germany.” Foreign Ministry the following day, the So- the Commission on Border Rivers Naviga
The Brezhnev-Kosygin leadership viets were informed that a direct line be- tion which had been created by the 1951 adopted a carrot-and-stick approach in re- tween the CPSU Politburo and the CCP was Agreement. After an abortive Chinese walksponse to the crisis: First, Moscow sought to no longer “advantageous.” Mao's intransi- out, negotiations resulted in the signing of a isolate Beijing further and increase military gence may well have stemmed from the new protocol in August. More significantly, pressure on the PRC. The March 2 clash had realization that Moscow had only limited the Chinese finally agreed to a high-level initially provoked a heated debate within military leverage. Moreover, by publicly meeting: on 11 September 1969, a meeting the Soviet leadership. Soviet Defense Min- degrading Moscow, Mao probably sought to between Kosygin and Zhou Enlai took place ister Andrei Grechko reportedly advocated strengthen his position at the Chinese Com- in Beijing which laid the foundations for the a “nuclear blockbuster” against China's in- munist Party conference in April 1969.21 eventual resolution of the border crisis. 24 dustrial centers, while others called for sur- Soviet overtures for border discussions Document No. 3, an informational gical strikes against Chinese nuclear facili- continued, however. On March 29, Moscow memorandum handed by the Soviets to the ties.18 Brezhnev eventually decided to opt publicly called for negotiations on the border East German leadership, is a record of the
a for a more vigorous build-up of Soviet con- issue. Two weeks later, on April 11, a Soviet meeting which took place between Kosygin ventional forces in the East (including relo- Foreign Ministry note to the PRC again pro- and Zhou Enlai. Few details of this crucial cation of Soviet bomber fleets from the posed the immediate resumption of the bor- meeting have become known. According to West), not necessarily precluding, however, der talks, to no avail. Major Chinese intru- the memorandum, the meeting was the rethe use of tactical nuclear weapons.
sions occurred, according to these informa- sult of “one more initiative” on the part of the onstrating their determination to retaliate tional notes given by the Soviets to the East CPSU Central Committee to effect a peacewith superior force, the Soviets, after a 12- Germans, throughout May, climaxing in in- ful resolution of the crisis. The Chinese day stand-off, attacked Chinese positions cursions on May 2, 9, 13, and 14 in the responded "pretty quickly” to the Soviet on the island with heavy artillery and over- western border regions as well as along the proposal to take advantage of Kosygin's whelming force, foregoing, however, the controversial border rivers in the east. presence in Hanoi on the occasion of Ho Chi use of air or nuclear strikes 20
Facing Chinese intransigence, Moscow Minh's funeral. The Soviet delegation unTo some extent, the Kremlin's forceful continued its “coercive diplomacy” through- der Kosygin, however, learned of Chinese but limited military response was influ- out the summer of 1969, launching a further readiness to talk only one hour after its enced by heightened concern over the mili- military build-up to ensure complete superi- departure from Hanoi. Indicative of tarization of the crisis among Moscow's ority in strategic and conventional weapons. Moscow's strong interest in de-escalation, European and Asian allies. Moscow, how- Indeed there is every reason to believe that Kosygin, who had already reached Soviet ever, had no interest in escalating the crisis following the March 2 engagement, the So- Central Asia, turned around and flew to beyond control for other reasons as well. viets were largely responsible for incidents Beijing, there he was met by Chinese leaders Added pressure on the PRC would not in- along the Sino-Soviet border, the most im- Zhou Enlai, Li Xiannian, and Xie Fuzhi.25 duce Mao to forego his “political flirtation” portant of which occurred on August 13 The four-hour talk apparently centered with the West—in fact, it might reinforce along the Central Asian border in Xinjiang, on the border issue. According to the Soviet such a move, which would run counter to six miles east of Zhalanashkol.22 Taking account, Zhou Enlai declared that “China Soviet geostrategic interests. Thus, advantage of their superiority in armor and has no territorial pretensions toward the Brezhnev also sought to defuse the crisis by weaponry, the Soviets sought to demonstrate
the Soviets sought to demonstrate Soviet Union” and—despite his assertions resuming negotiations with the Chinese. to the Chinese their determination through about the unequal nature of the treaties, Within a week of the March 15 incident, repeated border infringements. Apparently “recognizes that border which exists in acMoscow sought to re-establish contact with more anxious about Soviet policy, the Chi- cord with these treaties.” While Zhou stated
nese, by September, were charging the Rus- that China had no intentions of attacking the Document No. 2, a telegram from the sians with 488 “deliberate” border violations
sians with 488“deliberate” border violations Soviet Union, Kosygin denied assertions of
“contrived imperialist propaganda” that Chinese soldiers violated the border at the liquor bottles (which had obviously been Moscow was “preparing a preventive strike” Damansky Island several times, operating used by the Chinese provocateurs and the
” | against the PRC. Preparatory to further from Hunzy. After protests by the Soviet participants in this adventure beforehand to | negotiations on border issues in Beijing, border guards, the Chinese military returned gain courage) were found.
both sides were reported to have agreed to to their border posts or marched along the There are no settlements on the Island three principles: (1) the observance of the line which constitutes the border between of Damansky and it is of no economic imexisting border; (2) the inadmissibility of China and the USSR.
portance at all; there are no villages in the armed confrontations; and (3) military dis- In the events of March 2, 1969, the vicinity for dozens of miles. One can obviengagement from disputed border areas. border control forces at Hunzy played only ously draw the conclusion that it [the island] Kosygin also proposed the expansion of a secondary role. An especially trained unit was chosen as the site for the provocatio trade relations and economic cooperation as of the Chinese People's Liberation Army because such an endeavor could be prepared well as the normalizing of railroad and avia- with a force of more than 200 men was used there secretly and then presented to the world tion connections. Significantly, the Soviet for the staging of this provocation. Secretly, in a version advantageous to the organizers. premier also acquiesced when Zhou declared this unit was brought on the Island Damanskiy During the provocation, the Chinese that Beijing would not curtail its political during the night of March 2. The men in this military committed incredibly brutal and and ideological criticism of the Soviet Union. unit had special gear and wore camouflage cruel acts against the wounded Soviet border Letting the Chinese save face, Kosygin con- clothes. A telephone line to the unit was guards. Based on the on-site inspection and ceded that, while Sino-Soviet disagreements installed from the Chinese shore. Prior to the expert knowledge of the medical com"played into the hands of world imperial- this, reserves and munitions, among others mission which examined the bodies of the ism," Moscow considered polemics on con- PAC batteries, mines and armored artillery dead Soviet border guards, it can be stated troversial issues as “permissible” if con- and heavy fire guns, had been pulled to- that the wounded were shot by the Chinese ducted in a “fitting tone.”
gether near the Chinese shore. The stabiliz- from close range [and/or] stabbed with bayoMoscow was successful in forcing the ers, shelling, mines and grenade splinters, nets and knifes. The faces of some of the Chinese to accept the status quo along the and the kind of crates left in the tanks that casualties were distorted beyond recogniSino-Soviet border. But this victory came at were hit, found later provided the proof that tion, others had their uniforms and boots a price in ideological and geostrategic terms. these weapons had indeed been used. taken off by the Chinese. The cruelties Not only did the Soviets concede the validity Around 2 o'clock Moscow time (9 committed by the Chinese toward the Soviet of a direct challenge to its leadership within o'clock local time), our observation posts border guards can only be compared with the the Communist bloc in ideological terms, a noted the advance of 30 armed Chinese worst brutalities of the Chinese militarists development long evident but rarely formu- military men on the Island of Damansky.
military men on the Island of Damansky. and Chiang Kai-shek's [Jiang Jieshi’s] men lated as explicitly as in the Beijing meeting. Consequently, a group of Soviet border during the '20s and '30s.
. In the long run, Moscow's coercive diplo- guards was dispatched to the location where The crime by the Mao Zedong group macy worsened relations with the United the Chinese had violated the border. The which caused loss of lives has far-reaching States and helped drive China into a rap- officer in charge of the unit and a small objectives. prochement with the West, thus altering the contingent approached the border violators The Maoists exacerbate the anti-Soviet balance of power in Asia to Soviet disadvan- with the intention of registering protests and hysteria and produce a chauvinist frenzy in
demanding (without using force) that they the country, creating an atmosphere which leave Soviet territory, as had been done enables them to establish Mao Zedong's repeatedly in the past. But within the first anti-Soviet and chauvinist-great power
minutes of the exchange, our border guards course as the general line of Chinese policy Document No.1: Soviet Report to GDR came under crossfire and were insidiously at the IX Party Convention of the CPC.
Leadership on 2 March 1969 shot without any warning. At the same time, It is also obvious that the Mao group has
opened from an ambush on the island and chosis it created for its subversive and divi5 Copies
from the Chinese shore. The guards then sive policy in the international Communist 3/8/69
assumed combat order, and, reinforced by movement. The Maoists apparently strive to
the approaching reserve from the nearby make an all-out effort to complicate and On March 2, 1969, at 11 o'clock local border post, threw back the Chinese surprise prevent the convention of the International time, the Chinese organized a provocation attack, and expelled them through decisive Consultation of Communist and Workers' on the Island Damansky which is located on action from Soviet territory.
Parties in order to create distrust in the the river Ussuri south of Khabarovsk, be- There were casualties and wounded men Soviet Union and the CCPU among the tween the points Bikin and Iman (Primorsky on both sides.
fraternal parties. Region).
When the location on the island where The new dangerous provocations of the The ascertained facts are that this action the incident had happened was inspected, Maoists reveal Beijing's intention to actihad been prepared by the Chinese govern- military equipment, telephones, and phone vate the opportunistic political flirtation with ment for a long time. In December 1968 and lines connecting to the Chinese mainland, as the imperialist countries - above all with the in January/February 1969, groups of armed well as large numbers of scattered empty United States and West Germany. It is no