The Damansky Island (Zhenbao dao) is located in the Ussuri
(Wusuli) River. It is about 200 meters to the Chinese side and 300 meters to
the Russian side. The total area of the island is 0.74 square kilometers. Its
middle part is a swampland with forests in the surrounding areas. Originally,
it connected to the Chinese side, but water erosion separated it to form an
independent island in 1915. Zhenbao in Chinese means “treasure,” a
name given to the island because a huge ginseng root was discovered there in
the nineteenth century by a Chinese fisherman. The Chinese claim that it has
been under the administration of Hulin County, Heilongjiang (Heilungkiang)
Province. This tiny island gained international fame due to the Sino-Soviet
border conflict in 1969.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the former Soviet
Union shared a nearly 7,000-kilometer-long border. During the 1950s, the
“brotherhood” between the two Communist states seldom reminded them
of their territorial disputes. After Joseph Stalin’s (1878-1953) death, Nikita
Khrushchev’s (1894-1971) de-Stalinization led to a bilateral ideological rift.
In 1960, Khrushchev was accused by the Chinese of “emasculating, betraying
and revising” Marxism-Leninism, while he labeled Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung)
(1893-1976) as “an ultra-leftist, an ultra-dogmatist and a left
revisionist.” After Leonid Brezhnev (1906- 1982) took power in 1964, the
ideological schism caused border clashes. The Chinese denounced the Soviet
Union for being a new Tsarist regime just like the Old Russian Empire that
seized over 1.5 million square kilometers of Chinese territory through unequal
treaties imposed by Russia on China. With no intention of compromise, Brezhnev
assumed a hard stance toward the border disputes by denying any treaties signed
between the two countries were unequal. The subsequent negotiations on border
issues brought no results. On the contrary, according to Chinese sources, the
Soviets invaded Chinese territory 4,189 times between October 1964 and February
1969. On Damansky Island, as the Chinese claimed, the Soviets violated their
territorial integrity 16 times from January 1967 to February 1969.
The military clash over Damansky Island occurred in March
1969. No third observer objectively reported it, and conflicting claims were
rendered by the two sides. Each accused the other of provocation and aggression.
However, a careful review of their existing sources reveals that the two countries
fought three major battles on March 3, March 15, and March 17 respectively.
These were not accidents, as both countries had stationed forces along the
border for a long time in preparation for war.
On March 2, one group of Chinese soldiers of the People’s
Liberation Army (PLA) camouflaged itself in snow in the wooded area in
preparation for an ambush, while another group marched toward Soviet soldiers.
As they got close, the Chinese opened fire. Both sides dispatched reinforcements,
and the fighting lasted until late after- noon. Each inflicted casualties on
the other side. The Soviets brought in four military vehicles yet were forced
On March 15, the Soviets sent 100 infantry and nearly 50
tanks and armored vehicles seeking retaliation. Three Soviet planes assisted
the assault. The Soviet artillery bombarded Chinese territory up to seven kilo-
meters beyond the border. The violent fighting lasted for nine hours, resulting
in heavy casualties on both sides. One foreign source claimed that Chinese
casualties on that day were over 800. The Chinese claimed to have repelled
Soviet soldiers from the island.
On March 17, the Soviets dispatched 70 soldiers to stop the
Chinese from towing away a newly invented Soviet T-62 tank left by the previous
battle on the ice near the Chinese side. The Soviets were not successful, and
the tank was soon dragged out and put on display in Beijing to show off a
The three days of heavy fighting shocked the world and made
the tiny island famous. Both sides claimed victory and decorated their heroes
with honors and promotions. Nobody knows the exact figure of casualties, even
though the Russians set their loss at 58 dead and 94 wounded, and the Chinese
announced their loss at 29 dead, 62 wounded, and 1 missing.
After Damansky, the skirmishes along the border continued,
but none of them matched the scale of Damansky. Only after the informal meeting
between Aleksei Kosygin (1904-1980) and Zhou Enlai (Chou Enlai) (1898-1976) at
Beijing Airport in September 1969 did the military confrontation subside,
thanks to their agreement to separate forces in disputed areas and to solve border
problems by peaceful negotiations.
Some scholars consider the Damansky clash a modern war since
both employed their most advanced weapons in the intensive fighting. It ushered
Sino-Soviet relations into a two-decade ebb during which both saw each other as
the arch enemy. The Chinese claimed that the Damansky battle enabled them to
smash the Soviet attempt to launch a major war against China, while the Soviets
argued that the clash thwarted China’s further territorial demands. The
Damansky incident cast a shadow upon the two countries as their ideological and
territorial disputes continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In a particular way, the Damansky clash changed Chinese
relations with the West. Soon after it, secret talks between China and the United
States resumed, which led to an eventual normalization of their diplomatic
relations. Indeed, the small war over the island triggered a significant shift
in global balance of power by shaping a new world order. After the clash,
Damansky Island has been under Chinese control. In 1991, China and the Soviet
Union signed an agreement to stipulate its belonging to China. In 1997, a
Sino-Russian agreement endorsed Chinese ownership. In 2005, both the Chinese
parliament and Russian Duma ratified a bilateral agreement to legalize Damansky
as Chinese territory.
References Ginsburgs, George. Damansky/Chenpao Island
Incident: A Case Study of Syntactic Pattern in Crisis Diplomacy. Edwardsville:
South Illinois University at Edwardsville, 1973. Hsu, Immanuel C. Y. The Rise
of Modern China. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000. Li, Xiaobing. A
History of the Modern Chinese Army. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky,
2007. Luthi, Lorenz, M. The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008. Robinson, Thomas W. “The
Sino-Soviet Border Disputes: Background Development and the March 1969
Clashes.” The American Political Science Review. (1972): 1199. Ryan, Mark
A., David M. Finkelstein, and Michael A. McDevitt. Chinese Warfighting: The PLA
Experience since 1949. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2003.