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14 Oct, 2008 15:55

World’s biggest country becomes a little bit smaller

World’s biggest country becomes a little bit smaller

Russia has officially handed over part of its territory to China, settling a border dispute that goes back centuries. Following an agreement signed in 2004, China has been granted the whole of Tarabarov island and part of Bolshoy Ussuriysky island.

Russia has officially handed over part of its territory to China, settling a border dispute that goes back centuries. Following an agreement signed in 2004, China has been granted the whole of Tarabarov island and part of Bolshoy Ussuriysky island. Both islands are situated in the Amur river.

The ceremony was attended by Russian and Chinese diplomats, as well as local and military officials. Moscow and Beijing hope this will finally settle all frontier disputes between the two countries.

The long awaited transfer comes as part of the deal struck between the two nations in 2004.

About 170 square kilometres of Bolshoy Ussuriysky was transferred to China, while the rest will remain in Russia's jurisdiction.

The total area of these territories in the Khabarovsk region is approximately 340 square kilometres. The two sections make up less than two per cent of the Russian-Chinese border, which stretches to some 4,300 kilometres and is the longest land frontier on the planet.

Evgeny Bazhanov, an expert in relations between the two and who has spent years working on a solution to the island issue, sees the move as a geopolitical breakthrough.

“It was a long a tough process, but somehow both parties showed flexibility and found a resolution. Thanks to it we now have a multilaterally approved and documentarily stated border with China, which is a big breakthrough in international relations. Unlike, for instance, Russia’s relations with Japan, which are at a standstill because of four tiny disputed islands. Russia and Japan don’t have a peace agreement half a century after the war!” Bazhanov said.

“Nobody made any changes to the border. Back in the 19th century Russia's Tsarist government had signed treaties, which became the basis for the Russian-Chinese border. These treaties were never reviewed; the only update was the clarifying or demarcating of the borderline. It was needed as the treaties were signed more then a century ago and the marker signs placed back then were lost, certain islands appeared, while others went underwater, even the main channel [a conventional middle of the river, commonly used to determine borders in international law – RT] changed in some regions,” Bazhanov explained to RT.

Age-old misunderstanding

Territorial arguments between the countries dates back to periods of expansion by both Tsarist Russia and Imperial China.

Even before peasant Sergey Tarabarov settled on the island in the Amur river in 1912, giving it his name, Russia and China had their first agreement on a common border, the Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed as early as 1689.

However, seeking to gain access to the Pacific, Russia established outposts near the Amur and started to accumulate military presence in the region. China never really governed the area effectively, and these Russian advances went unnoticed.

By the late 19th century Russia convinced a China weakened by the Second Opium War to sign the Treaty of Aigun in 1859, according to which Russia gained the left bank of the Amur River, while the Amur, Sungari, and Ussuri rivers were to be open to both Chinese and Russian ships.

In the 20th century the socialist neighbours didn’t address the border problems for some time, but when Russo-Chinese relations hit rock bottom in the 1960s and 70s, Beijing insisted on reviewing the 19th-century treaties, as the weakening China was forced into signing them by Russia. The border ran on the Chinese bank of both the Amur and Ussuri rivers, entitling the Russian Empire and then the USSR to the whole of the two rivers. This by no means pleased the Chinese, with Mao Zedong going so far as to declare that all the territory east of lake Baikal belonged to China.

At some point the Soviet Union had as many as 658,000 soldiers stationed on the Chinese border. These were opposed by some 800,000 Chinese.

A conflict was looming, finally erupting into clashes in March 1969 in the vicinity of Damanskii (Zhenbao) Island. The fighting claimed 58 lives on the Soviet side and hundreds on the Chinese side.

However, after Mao Zedong’s death China acknowledged the treaties and expressed readiness to settle on border demarcation only. As a result of the latter some of the previously unaligned islands went to China, others to Russia.

According to a 2002 study by Akihiro Iwashita, a Japanese specialist on Slavic relations, “Most of Khabarovsk’s local elites, in particular military, considered the islands of strategic importance since they fenced off Khabarovsk from China. If the border was drawn, relying upon the ‘main channel principle’, the two islands would have passed to China. This is why the Soviet Union insisted on the legal exceptionality of the two islands in its negotiations with China during the late 1980s, while strengthening its de facto control of these islands”.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he said the border has to be determined by the main channel, to avoid future conflicts with China. Again the fate of most of the islands was determined individually.

On May 16, 1991 a new treaty was signed by Gorbachev and the Chinese President, Ziang Zemin, which set a deadline to settle the border demarcation in 1997. By the end of 1995 an agreement over the last 54-kilometre-long stretch of the border was reached, but the question of control over the Tarabarov and Bolshoy Ussuriysky island of Amur and the Bolshoy island of Argun river had to wait till 2004.