China, Russia end border dispute

Pallavi Iyer

Both sides give up some of their territorial claims

Beijing: China, the world’s second largest consumer of oil and Russia, the world’s second largest oil exporter, put a formal end to their decades-old boundary dispute on Monday. An agreement signed by visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart in Beijing spelled out the details of the handover by Russia of two border islands, bringing to completion the final border delineation process agreed to in a landmark 2004 deal.

China and Russia share a 4,300 km-long boundary, the world’s longest land frontier. The border tug-of-war reaches back centuries to the competition for territory as imperial China and Czarist Russia expanded towards each other.

Monday’s agreement lays down the procedure for the Russian handover of the Tarabarov/Yinlong Island and half of the Bolshoi Ussuriysky/Heixiazi Island.

The islands are located at the confluence of the Heilongjiang/Amur and Wusulijiang/Ussuri rivers, an area that has see-sawed between Russian and Chinese control over the last three centuries. It became part of the Chinese sphere under the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, slipped back to the Russians in the disputed 1858 Treaty of Aigun and was ultimately occupied by the Soviet Union in 1929.

The current agreement sees both sides giving up some of their territorial claims.

While Russia has ceded 174 sq km of territory to China, Beijing has given up around half of its claims on Russian-controlled land. The actual handover of the islands will take place in August.

Though Monday’s accord was primarily a formality, giving closure to a bilateral negotiation process that had already seen the demarcation of the majority of the Sino-Russian border by the mid 1990s, the symbolism of the agreement, is significant.

Strategic partnership

It not only smoothes the way for the former rivals to focus on the strategic partnership it is their declared intent to establish, but is also indicative of Beijing’s focus on pragmatism and economic diplomacy when it comes to its foreign policy.

Russia and China have historically had a close, albeit, tumultuous relationship. Communist allies turned rivals, the two countries were hostile to each other for much of the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1960s and 1970s, the neighbours had clashed violently over border areas.

In recent years however, the deepening of military, security and energy cooperation has led to a cautious rapprochement. Moreover, Beijing and Moscow have also found themselves allying with each other on international issues, often in opposition to what they describe as American hegemony.

Last year, Sino-Russian trade hit a record $48 billion, and by the end of 2007 Chinese investment in Russia stood at $1.03 billion. The formal and final settlement of the boundary demarcation with Russia now clears the way for energy-hungry China to push for the construction of a cross-border pipeline as well as the prospects for an $18-billion project to take gas to China from Siberia. Beijing has thus far been frustrated by what it perceives to be Moscow’s foot dragging on the issue. With Monday’s agreement, China has now resolved the bulk of its border disagreements.

Apart from a dispute with Japan over the Japanese administered Senkaku (Diaoyu Tai) islands, the Sino-Indian border demarcation remains China’s major outstanding boundary dispute.

Recommended for you