Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 102

As Russia and China officially resolved their lingering border dispute, officials in Moscow hailed the agreement despite criticism from the opposition, the public, and the media. “For the first time in our history, bilateral relations with China will not be marred by a border dispute,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared.

On May 20, the Russian State Duma ratified (307-80) an agreement between Russia and China on the eastern sector of the 4,300-kilometer border, the longest land frontier in the world. The deal involves Bolshoi Island, in the upper reaches of the Argun River, Chita region, and the area of the Tarabarov and Bolshoi Ussuriisky Islands, situated at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers near Khabarovsk and not demarcated previously. Those two sections make up less than 2% of the Russian-Chinese border.

Under the agreement, the border will divide both areas (some 375 square kilometers) between Russia and China almost equally. Part of Bolshoi Ussuriisky Island and all of Tarabarov Island will be handed over to China. The terminology is crucial, because “We do not cede territory,” Lavrov repeatedly stressed during the Duma hearings.

Russian officials emphasized that the land transfer to China would not harm Russian interests. After the ratification of the border agreement, all the economic outlets in Khabarovsk city will remain on Russian territory, according to Konstantin Pulikovsky, special presidential envoy in the Far East (Russian First Channel TV, May 20).

General Alexander Rukshin, head of the operational department of the General Staff, told the Duma that there were virtually no Chinese troops near Khabarovsk, and he did not see any military threat in the Far East. However, Vladimir Pronichev, head of the Border Guard service, conceded that illegal Chinese migration does represent a potential threat.

Beijing dropped its insistence that all of the islands around Khabarovsk should belong to China, allowing the two sides to finally agree upon a legally binding border.

In parliament, only the pro-Kremlin United Russia party supported the agreement. Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Duma International Relations Committee and a member of the United Russia party, dismissed the “myths and lies” circulating about Russia’s alleged surrender of its territories.

In particular, the border agreement includes a solution to a longstanding issue. Russia and China agreed to equally share territory of Bolshoi Ussuriisky and Tarabarov Islands (known as Heixiazi Dao in China) on the Amur River near Khabarovsk, and Bolshoi Island on Argun River. Russia and China had been struggling to find a mutually acceptable solution on these areas since 1991.

Official media outlets quickly fell in line behind the deal. There are no more territorial disputes between Russia and China, the Russian First Channel said in its report on May 20. “The issue, which had poisoned bilateral relations for many years, was solved.”

China-Russia border disputes go back centuries, as tsarist Russia and imperial China expanded toward each other. The USSR and China were allies through 1950s, but bilateral ties became hostile as the two nations competed for supremacy in the Communist world in the 1960s and 1970s. Notably, in the late 1960s the two states were on the brink of war over the border dispute. At that time, the Soviet Union was believed to have as many as 700,000 soldiers on the border, facing as many as one million People’s Liberation Army soldiers.

Russia and China signed border agreements in 1991 and 1994 delimiting the eastern and western sections of their frontier, but several minor sectors were not resolved. In October 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited China for talks with President Hu Jintao, which resulted in an agreement in Beijing on final delimitation of the 4,300-kilometer border, bringing to an end a decades-long negotiating process. A joint statement described the agreement as “balanced” and a “win-win” solution.

However, Russian opposition politicians have questioned the strategic wisdom of the Kremlin’s policy to pacify China. The nationalist Rodina party declined to support the agreement. “We do not vote for ceding Russian territory,” Rodina party leader Dmitry Rogozin told Trud (May 20). “We cannot understand why Russia should pay for good relations with China by surrendering its territory,” he said.

Ratification of the border agreements could adversely affect Russia’s negotiating position in talks with other countries, communist deputy Ivan Zhdakayev told Ekho Moskvy Radio on May 20. “In international relations, ceding territory is associated with military or other defeat,” he said. He also warned that following a border deal with China, Russia could face more pressure on the Kuril Islands from Japan.

Most media outlets were equally uncertain about the alleged “win-win” formula of the border deal with China. Trud summed up the view in its May 20 editorial, titled “Russia hands out islands.” A total of 337 square kilometers (about 130 square miles) will be transferred to China, the newspaper noted. Russia will soon loose two of its islands, the Ekho Moskvy Radio agreed on May 20. The radio conducted an overnight opinion poll that found 82% of the listeners opposed the border agreement.

“Why should we transfer islands to the Chinese?” asked the popular Komsomolskaya pravda. The newspaper quoted Viktor Ishayev, governor of Khabarovsk region, as saying that the “yellow threat” could soon become a reality, notably by 2020 when China’s population is expected to reach 1.5 billion (Komsomolskaya pravda, May 21)

In recent years, Ishayev has vocally complained that Chinese cartographers have allegedly painted vast areas of the Russian Far East “in Chinese colors.” He speculated that China was considering annexing at least 1.5 million hectares of Russian territory. However, at a 2003 meeting of the Russian State Council, President Vladimir Putin strongly dismissed Ishayev’s concerns.