Courtesy Reuters

Why the Russians Lifted the Blockade at Bear Island

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

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