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Eurasianet

Eurasianet

Eurasianet is an independent news organization that covers news from and about the South Caucasus and Central Asia, providing on-the-ground reporting and critical perspectives on…

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The Contested Island at the Heart of Russian-Chinese Relations

  • Heixiazi Island, once a source of armed confrontation, has now been declared a "place of friendship" by China and Russia.
  • The Russian side remains largely undeveloped, while the Chinese half of the island has been described as looking like Disneyland.
  • As Russia grows increasingly dependent on China, Chinese intentions in the region may be about more than simply friendship.
Russia China

Not too long ago, tension over possession of islands in the rivers that form the Russian-Chinese frontier led to armed confrontation. These days the same islands are declared “a place of friendship.” But those feelings of amity may not run deep.

Heixiazi, the Chinese half of a divided island at the confluence of the Ussuri and Amur rivers, looks “like Disneyland,” according to Akihiro Iwashita, a Japanese scholar who is an expert on Russia’s border issues with China and Japan.

He first visited the island, known on the Russian side as Bolshoy Ussuriysky, in 2008. At that time, the Chinese had made major improvements to its side, building a large nature reserve, border defenses, including a watchtower, and a bridge from the mainland to the island, Iwashita told Eurasianet in an email interview.

When he revisited in 2017, the Chinese wetland park was attracting more than 600,000 tourists a year. Other attractions, including a wild bear reserve, were quickly added to the complex.

Meanwhile, the Russian side remained largely undeveloped, Iwashita said. The only major improvement he noticed was the Amurskaya Creek Bridge, a car crossing that connects the island to the Russian mainland and, strategically, to the city of Khabarovsk.

Two decades have passed since the formerly contested island was divided between China and Russia on a “50-50” basis. “One island two countries” became the motto.

In May of this year, the island hit the headlines during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Beijing. There, the Russian leader agreed to a roadmap for the island’s joint development. In June, officials announced plans to build a transit checkpoint with China. By 2030, up to 1.5 million passengers and more than 1.3 million tons of cargo could pass through the crossing annually, Russian officials suggest.

The Russian Far East Development Ministry was euphoric: The island is becoming a “place of Russian-Chinese friendship.”

But is everything as rosy as it seems?

In August 2023, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources released a new edition of its “standard map.” According to defenseanalysts, it showed Bolshoy Ussuriysky, the Russian part of the island, as Chinese territory. Moscow’s response came three days later. “The Russian and Chinese sides adhere to the common position that the border issue between our countries has been finally resolved,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.

Referring to the once-contested island, she added: “The delimitation and demarcation of our common border has been completed along its entire length.”

The “joint development” formula, signed in May in the presence of Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a signal from Moscow to Beijing, Elizabeth Wishnick of the Center for Naval Analyses told Eurasianet. “I think it was more of a declaratory statement emphasizing Russian sovereignty over half of the island,” she said. In her assessment, by giving the green light to the roadmap, Moscow is keen to assert its “joint” nature rather than to push the “development” aspect.

Heixiazi/Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island has been a source of Chinese-Russian tension dating back to the 1858 Treaty of Aigun, under which Russia vastly expanded its Far Eastern territories at China’s expense. From the Chinese perspective, the Aigun pact is counted among the humiliating “unequal treaties” that the imperial government at the time was compelled to sign, granting technologically superior Western powers, including Britain, the United States, France, and Russia, broad economic and territorial concessions.

At the time the Aigun Treaty was signed, China had little ability to push back against Russian demands. The imperial government at the time it was confronting Russia was also struggling to contain the Taiping Rebellion, as well as fighting the Second Opium War against British and French forces.

Though the Aigun Treaty set the Amur River as the border, the frontier along the UssuriRiver was not well defined. China, accordingly, never accepted Russian control of the islands in the river.

The territorial issue was largely dormant until 1929 when the Soviet Union established a presence on Bolshoy Ussuriysky.

In 1969, two decades after Chinese communists had come to power in Beijing, bilateral tensions boiled over, prompting armed clashes over another island in the Ussuri River. The burst of fighting brought the two countries to the brink of nuclear war.

A turning point in bilateral relations occurred in 1989, when former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing just weeks before the Tiananmen massacre, succeeding in normalizing ties.

In 1991, China and Russia signed an agreement covering the 4,300 km-long (2,672 miles) border, followed by a supplementary document in 2004. It confirmed all river and lake boundaries and demarcated land borders, paving the way for the new phase of border cooperation in 2008.

Those pacts do not necessarily mean the frontier is settled in the minds of Chinese leaders.

In 2001, Russia and China signed a strategic Agreement on Long-Term Good-Neighborly Relations, Friendship and Cooperation. According to Article 6 of that agreement, which had a term of 20 years, Moscow and Beijing affirmed that they had “no territorial claims against each other,” going on to describe their existing border as “inviolable.” Nevertheless, in 2004, Putin acceded to Chinese efforts to gain territory, including the 50-50 partition of Bolshoy Ussuriysky. 

Despite the current status quo, “Beijing often draws “Greater China” as its territory,” Iwashita said, referring to the continuum that Chinese authorities see as part of their influence based on cultural, historical, or economic bonds. The 2023 “standard map” goes some way towards following this logic. It has caused an uproar in Japan and in other states in the South China Sea. Public reaction in Moscow, however, has been more muted.

The case of Bolshoy Ussuriysky is more complex than it seems. “The island is, in some ways, a strategic beachhead because it gives greater access to Khabarovsk,” Wishnick said. That city is the headquarters of the Eastern Military District, and an aviation regiment of the Russian Aerospace Forces is based there.

“I think [the roadmap agreement] is both an indication of greater trust in the relationship and greater distrust because they [the Russians] feel they have to reinforce the message that it’s a jointly administered island and [at the same time] say they want to cooperate with China in an area they consider strategic,” she added.

Russian sensitivities are likely heightened by the country’s growing trade dependency on China to maintain the Kremlin’s war effort in Ukraine.

Both Wishnick and Iwashita see no risk of heightened border tensions, at least not under current conditions. According to the Institute for the Study of War, elements of the Army Corps of the Eastern Military District are reported to be operating near Vuhledar in eastern Ukraine. “So, there must be at least some peace of mind about the state of border relations” in Russia’s Far East, Wishnick said, referring to the redeployment.

Since March 2023, China has stopped describing its partnership with Russia as having “no limits,” reverting instead to the “three noes” policy of the Deng Xiaoping era, Wishnick added. The bottom line is that there are no alliances, no confrontation, and no targeting of third parties.

At the same time, Moscow and Beijing are stepping up their military cooperation. In May, US  Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines warned that for the first time, China and Russia were exercising together “in relation to Taiwan.”

The extent to which this trust/distrust dichotomy will play out in practice over Heixiazi/Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island remains to be seen. The Russian side has already promised to present a detailed roadmap implementation plan at the Eastern Economic Forum in September.

By Ekaterina Venkina via Eurasianet.org

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