Damansky Island (Zhenbao Island)

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 to withdraw.

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 Chinese victory.

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.

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