In the river traffic that swings past the great Soviet city of Khabarovsk this summer, down the Amur and back up the Ussuri and in the opposite direction, there are Chinese as well as Soviet vessels. The great bulk of the traffic is Soviet: passenger ferries, freighters, barge trains loaded with raw materials, agricultural machinery and other cargo for the development of Siberia and the Soviet Far East, occasionally a rakish gunboat setting off upstream to its patrol station. But now, after a ten-year break, some Chinese ferries and cargo boats carrying coal or agricultural produce pass that way too. Such passage of Chinese boat traffic through the confluence of the rivers and past Khabarovsk reflects the lifting last year of a blockade which the Soviet Union had imposed in 1967. The circumstances and motivation behind that action, hidden until now, indicate an important shift of power in the historical confrontation of China and Russia over these river frontiers - in China's favor.

In 1967 the first Chinese river boat attempting after the thaw of that year to navigate down the Amur to the confluence, intending to turn there and go back up the Ussuri, was stopped by Soviet gunboats some 40 kilometers upstream from the confluence, boarded, detained, and finally sent back. Establishing a matching blockade on the Ussuri, the Soviet Union, by the exercise of superior military force, thus denied China the right, which it had exercised since the establishment of the People's Republic, to send vessels from one river to another through the confluence. The blockade forced Chinese vessels wishing to travel from one river into the other to try to navigate through a narrow channel that connects the rivers upstream from their true confluence. At this point the question of navigation rights on the border rivers interlocks with the Sino-Soviet quarrel in its most vexed aspect, the dispute over territory.

The 1860 Treaty of Peking, which made the Amur and the Ussuri Rivers the boundary between the empires of China and Russia, stipulates that the boundary lies through the rivers' confluence. The Soviet Union, however, basing its claim on maps exchanged between Russia and China in 1861, maintains that the boundary runs instead along the interconnecting channel above the meeting point of the rivers' main streams, known to the Russians as the Kozakevicheva Channel and to the Chinese as the Fuyuan Stream. The alignment claimed by Moscow makes the reaches of the Amur and Ussuri between the Kozakevicheva/Fuyuan channel and the main confluence Soviet inland waterways, and the delta-shaped island between those stretches of water, Soviet territory. The Soviet Union has occupied that island, known to the Chinese as Hei Hsia-tzu or "Bear Island," since the late 1920s; Peking maintains that it is legally Chinese territory, and the stretches of the border rivers alongside it, international waterways. In the Chinese view, the Kozakevicheva/Fuyuan channel is legally a Chinese inland waterway.

The territory involved here is small - Bear Island has an area of only about 300 square kilometers - and the upstream channel makes an economical short-cut for small boats when the rivers are high. But from the Soviets' point of view the security of Khabarovsk is involved: reversion of Bear Island to Chinese control would put them directly across the river from that city. From the Chinese viewpoint, on the other hand, this dispute rests on a fundamental matter of principle: whether Moscow will unilaterally decide the lie of the Sino-Soviet boundaries, in accordance with the Russian perception of Soviet interest, or whether the boundaries will be settled through negotiation on the basis of their only legal foundation, the alignments described in the Treaty of Peking.

The blockade established by the Soviet Union in 1967 not only imposed Moscow's reading of the boundary at the rivers' meeting point, but also marked the most severe step to that date in a progressive attempt to force China to recognize Moscow's sovereignty over the entire width of the border rivers, or, failing such acknowledgment, to deny China all use of the rivers. The intensifying Sino-Soviet quarrel through the 1960s made the question of navigation rights in the rivers a fundamental test of resolve and strength between the two contestants.


Like so many other aspects of the hostility between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, this one has deep historical roots. The dispute over navigation rights on the Amur and the Ussuri goes back over a century. Tsarist Russia regarded and used the Amur and Ussuri as its own national waterways through most of the nineteenth century, and particularly after the treaties of Aigun and Peking (1858, 1860) made great tracts of what had been Chinese territory part of Imperial Russia and the rivers the boundary. Chinese vessels were excluded. China seized the opportunity in 1918 after the Russian revolution to gain access to the Amur and Ussuri. But the new Soviet authorities excluded Chinese vessels from the Amur once again in 1923, imitating their Tsarist predecessors by using gunboats to block the mouth of the Sungari on the Amur. An agreement signed the following year reopened the common stretches of the Amur and the Ussuri to Chinese navigation; and that was confirmed in an agreement on river navigation reached between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic in 1951.

But beneath those agreements lay a profound and potentially explosive disagreement. Moscow claims that the treaties of Aigun and Peking place the boundary line along the Chinese bank, giving the Soviet Union "exclusive rights of possession and sovereign jurisdiction" over the border rivers in their entirety, and that therefore any Chinese navigation on them, or use of river islands, requires Soviet approval. That Soviet claim, based upon the maps exchanged by Russian and Chinese boundary commissioners in 1861, Peking rejects. China maintains that the texts of the treaties, which cite the rivers as the actual boundary, imply a Chinese right to equal use of their waters for navigation or other purposes. Ownership of islands in the rivers, the Chinese contend, is decided by the run of the deepest part of the main channel (the thalweg), along which lies the actual line of separation.

This dispute, though narrow in its territorial scope, has profound implications for relations between the two neighbors. The Chinese would see any coerced surrender of their treaty rights as a return to the old relationship of superiority and inferiority, which could be applied in other realms of Sino-Soviet dealings and certainly in other sectors of their borders. Assertion of right of access to the rivers thus appears to Peking as crucial to China's whole relationship to the Soviet Union and therefore its standing in the world. That perception, not, as some analysts concluded, an exaggerated concern for a tiny and useless patch of territory, led China in March 1969 to give battle on Chenpao Island.

In that winter the Soviet side had brought to maximum pitch its measures to keep the Chinese off the frozen surface of the rivers, and the Chinese at last had no alternative except to concede defeat or to fight. They fought. And since they chose as battleground an island not only close to their own bank but also dominated by a substantial hill on which they could deploy artillery, they won. The Soviet forces could have gained control of Chenpao (which they call Damansky) by landing on the Chinese bank and capturing that hill; but such a tactic would have escalated the conflict from a skirmish in disputed territory to an invasion of China. Moscow pulled back from that brink.

The Chinese thus kept control of Chenpao, as they proved when they let this writer visit it in 1973. Their victory there kept their access to the rivers intact, though challenged. When Soviet Premier Kosygin met Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in Peking later in 1969, they negotiated a ceasefire on the rivers. But the Soviet side maintained the blockade at Bear Island.

For China to attempt to force the blockade was always out of the question. The Soviet Union has absolute superiority on the rivers when those are not frozen; the Chinese have nothing which could stand up to the powerful gunboats with which the Soviet side patrols them. Beyond that, to initiate open conflict with Soviet patrol boats could be seen by Moscow as an act of war. China had to submit to the blockade.1 The Chinese withdrew cooperation in navigational matters (meetings of the joint commission on navigation in 1973 and 1974 broke up without achieving any agreement except on meeting again), but otherwise did nothing about the blockade except protest it.

In May 1974, Moscow made a conditional offer to lift the blockade. Chinese vessels could navigate through the confluence when low water made the Fuyuan Channel unusable - provided that the Chinese acknowledged that in doing so they were using Soviet national waterways with Soviet permission. That "good will offer," as Pravda described it, Peking angrily rejected as a "hypocritical and shameless attempt at blackmail." The Chinese read Moscow's démarche as a ploy, put forth in order to be rejected and thus make Peking look intransigent; acceptance would have collapsed the whole Chinese negotiating position on the border question by making China accept the Soviet claim to Bear Island in order to obtain permission to navigate around it. In rejoinder, Peking asserted "the inalienable right for Chinese boats to navigate the main channel [of the two rivers] through the confluence." The deadlock appeared complete.

But last year the joint Sino-Soviet commission on river navigation met again, this time in the Chinese river port of Hei-Ho (the commission meets alternately in Hei-Ho and Blagoveshchensk, just across the Amur), and the two sides announced in October that they had reached agreements. Victor Louis, the journalist and putative KGB agent whom Moscow uses to float ideas in quasi-official form (in 1969 he reported that Soviet patience was at an end and that war with China was at hand), reported from Blagoveshchensk to the London Evening News later that month that "Russia and China are getting friendly again." Louis ascribed the improved atmosphere, with Chinese waving across the waters and being "tactful and courteous" in their dealings with Russians, to a "peace overture" just made in a speech by Brezhnev.

It later transpired that in September the Soviet Union had lifted the blockade, and thereafter Chinese vessels had been able to navigate past Khabarovsk, from one river to another. Neither side drew attention to the ending of the decade-long blockade, which consequently passed almost unnoticed in the West. Both sides are still being reticent on this score, but from diplomatic and other sources in Peking and elsewhere it has been possible to put together the background.

One factor that changed the situation behind the apparent deadlock lay in the rivers themselves. Silting in the Kozakevicheva/Fuyuan channel had made navigation there increasingly difficult, even for small boats and at high water. (Help to dredge out an all-summer channel had been part of the Soviet "goodwill" package offered and rejected in 1974.) More important, the vagaries of the river's flow in another stretch of the Amur, well upstream from the confluence, had turned the main channel to run between the Chinese bank and a Chinese-held island. This shift did not affect either side's interpretation of the legal position of the rivers. In Moscow's view only Soviet traffic has unqualified right on the rivers. Peking's position in this regard was spelled out in the 1961 Sino-Burmese boundary treaty: "In case the river changes its course, the boundary line between the two countries shall remain unchanged in the absence of other agreements between the two sides." But since the Chinese perceived the Soviet Union as acting illegally in maintaining a blockade on one sector of disputed waterway, the changed course of the navigational channel, which sent Soviet river traffic through what Peking regarded as a Chinese arm of the river, offered the opportunity to apply reciprocal pressure - by tacitly threatening a counter-blockade.


How explicit was the signal about river navigation sent by Peking to Moscow in 1977, through the usual diplomatic channels, is not known. But it linked the issues of the emerging impossibility of navigating through the Kozakevicheva/Fuyuan channel; the illegality of the blockade at Bear Island; and the fact that Soviet river traffic was now regularly navigating through what Peking saw as a Chinese arm of the Amur. The message clearly intimated that Soviet vessels could not expect to continue to use that passage unhindered unless the Soviets lifted their blockade down-river.

In the negotiations that followed, prior to and separate from the Hei-Ho meetings on navigation, the Chinese compromised. They agreed that if their vessels were again navigating through the confluence they would restrict themselves to daytime, and would give Soviet river traffic authorities notice when passage through the confluence was intended. China had, under protest, bowed to the same Soviet demands in the early 1960s, and Peking now saw itself as merely reverting to the situation that had obtained before the imposition of the blockade. More important from China's point of view, the agreement was explicitly stated to be without prejudice to or bearing on either side's position concerning the boundary-cum-territorial dispute. Moscow's 1974 attempt to tie passage for Chinese traffic through the confluence to Peking's acknowledgment of Soviet sovereignty over Bear Island had no echoes in the 1977 agreement.

In its own perception, Moscow clearly made a substantial concession in removing its gunboats from the permanent stations they had kept at the ends of the Kozakevicheva/Fuyuan channel, and allowing Chinese boats to sail again past Khabarovsk. That there was no attempt to turn this to Soviet propaganda advantage by publicizing the ending of the blockade may seem surprising - until one reflects that the Chinese would surely have countered by calling attention to their own forbearance (and implied threat) toward Soviet traffic in the changed section of the Amur. Thus, publicity would have made the lifting of the Soviet blockade seem a retreat under pressure, rather than a concession.

Concession or retreat, the ending of the blockade must be seen as a significant development, perhaps the only such move that the Soviet Union has made in a territorial dispute since World War II. However Moscow sees it, from Peking's point of view it must be further evidence that the Soviet Union treats every issue, every aspect of the relationship, as a test of strength, and that only when equality of resolve, and even of local advantage, is demonstrated can equitable settlement of disputes be hoped for.


For all Victor Louis' report of an improved climate in relations across the rivers, later evidence shows that the situation there must still be tense. Whatever the explanation for the mysterious incident on May 9, 1978, when Soviet border guards in platoon strength, supported by helicopters, landed on the Chinese bank of the Ussuri and penetrated a couple of miles inland, it can only have expressed - and accentuated - tension. The Soviet Union's border guards are crack elements of the KGB, and that such troops, operating in their own familiar area, could mistake the Chinese bank for a river island, as Moscow claimed in its apology for the incident, is beyond credence. The only explanation seems to be that the local commander of the KGB took a deliberate risk, for a stake that was worth it, and lost.

What the stake was can only be guessed at. Moscow's apology said the Soviet force was hunting an armed criminal. But the Chinese charged that the Soviet troops put up heavy fire, and the Russians have apparently not denied it, although they do deny that any casualties were inflicted. One senior Soviet official told a visiting Western scholar in Moscow, just before this Ussuri incident, that Soviet border forces on the rivers had orders in case of clashes over territory "to shoot to kill first and inform the government only afterwards," which would at the least tend to make troops trigger-happy.

The situation along the rivers, as elsewhere along the frontier, is clearly such that armed conflict will break out whenever either side seeks to assert what it sees as its rights against the other's resistance. Tranquility could emerge only in the aftermath of a comprehensive boundary settlement, which would lay down river navigation rights and rules without reservation or dispute over what was exercised as a right, what simply permitted. Negotiations on the general issue of the boundaries continue sporadically in Peking. But those exchanges now focus on the Chinese insistence on implementation of measures for the defusing of flashpoints in disputed territory through the joint establishment of limited demilitarized zones. The Chinese side maintains that such measures were agreed at the 1969 Chou En-lai/Kosygin summit - but Moscow flatly denies that the Premiers reached any such agreement. This impasse seems to leave settlement of the boundary dispute itself remote indeed.


1 There was a different outcome when the Soviet Union used gunboats to close off a navigational channel of the Amur south of Blagoveshchensk in 1937. The Japanese, then the power affected, sank one of the Soviet boats and landed troops on islands they claimed. The Soviet side backed down.

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  • Neville Maxwell is Senior Research Officer at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Oxford University, Oxford, England. He is the editor of China's Road to Development and the author of India's China War, India and the Nagas, and other works. Copyright (c) 1978, Neville Maxwell.
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