The Bear versus The Dragon

Sino-Soviet Border Conflict 1969

by Nick Brazil

The uneasy relationship

The relationship between Russia and China has always been an uneasy one. In 1928, Stalin established the Birobidzhan Jewish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Far East. This oblast which bordered China, was partly an experiment to establish an agriculturally based Jewish homeland. However, it’s main purpose was to be a buffer against China. In those days, before the growth of China as a communist power, Russia regarded her as an imperialist threat. This was mainly based on many incidents of attempted infiltration into Soviet territory by Chinese and White Russian forces.

With the takeover of mainland China by Mao’s communist forces in 1948, relations with the Soviets considerably improved. On 14th February 1950, China and the Soviet Union signed The Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. Envisioned to last thirty years this mutual defence alliance bound the two countries close together. Not only did it commit them to coming to each other’s military aid in the event of an attack, but also to a common approach in international affairs.

Khrushchev comes to power

In the following few years, thousands of Russian technicians were sent to China to assist its military and economic development. Stalin also ensured China received advanced military technology such as jet fighters. The Soviets also advanced a $300 billion loan to China at one per cent interest. In return, the Russians were granted a lease on Dalien Harbour and the naval base at Lushan. Even as late as 1957 Russia was aiding China to develop nuclear weapons. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer to that was Stalin’s death in 1953. He was replaced by the combative and undiplomatic Nikita Khrushchev. Whilst Mao’s relationship with Stalin was often strained, it was based on mutual respect. On the other hand he really disliked Khrushchev. This as much as anything else would shape the troubled relationship between the two communist powers from 1954 onwards. In that year, the Soviet Premiere returned from a visit to Beijing exclaiming that “Conflict with China is inevitable.” From then on, Sino-Soviet relations steadily deteriorated.

Two years later, the final split occurred between the two countries. In 1956, Khrushchev made a secret speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union denouncing Stalin and all his works. Following this, he embarked on a wholesale campaign of de-Stalinisation to bury the dictator’s legacy. To Mao and the Chinese communists this was tantamount to heresy.  Mao had always revered Stalin as the leader of world communism. For Khrushchev to repudiate him so publicly was viewed by Mao as an act of treachery to the communist world. From then on, relations between the two communist giants went from bad to worse. In 1959 the Soviet Union ended co-operation in developing China’s nuclear weapons. A year later the Russians abruptly withdrew all their technicians from China.

The battle for leadership of the Communist world.

This had now become a bitter struggle for the prime position as leader of the communist world. The physical focus of this split was the disputed border between the Soviet far east and Communist China. More specifically, it homed in on two border rivers, the Amur and the Ussuri and an island called Zhenbao by the Chinese and Damansky by the Russians. This disputed territory lay in the middle of a bend on the Ussuri River. This is on Russia’s extreme far east border close to her major city of Vladivostok.

Bear & Dragon
Mao Tse-tung, facing Nikita Khrushchev, during the Russian leader's 1957 visit to Peking. Source WIKI

An arms race along the border

The Russians and Chinese had been squabbling over land ownership along their border region for at least 100 years. This area consisted of many thousands of square miles of sparsely inhabited land. Now, it had come to haunt them in a modern conflict. Throughout the early 1960s, both sides indulged in an arms race along the disputed border. Between 1961 and 1968 the Soviets increased the number of troops in the border region from 270,000 to 290,000. The number of aircraft based there rose from 200 to 1200. In 1967 they stationed Scaleboard (SS-12) nuclear missiles in the border zone. With their range of 500 kilometres these were a particularly potent threat to the Chinese. In 1966, the Russians had also signed a mutual defence treaty with Mongolia allowing them to establish a significant military presence in their territory The Chinese countered this with 1.5 million troops stationed in their border area.

War could easily have broken out from 1961 onwards. However, although they possessed a formidable range of nuclear weapons the Soviets were wary of China’s superior manpower. They were not confident they could win a war against such a numerically large foe. Arkady Shevchenko, the highest ranking Soviet diplomat ever to defect to the U.S. revealed the Russian leadership were terrified of a mass invasion of a million or more of Chinese troops swamping their far eastern provinces.

   “Despite our overwhelming superiority in weaponry, it would not be easy for the USSR to cope with an assault of this magnitude”.

Bear & Dragon
The Sino-Soviet split allowed minor border disputes to escalate to firefights for areas of the Argun and Amur rivers (Damansky–Zhenbao is southeast, north of the lake (2 March – 11 September 1969). Source WIKI

The threat of Chinese invasion

Premiere Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership also feared that crucial, strategic sites within their far east would be at risk of capture if the Chinese invaded. These included the Trans-Siberian Railway which was still strategically vital to the USSR and the port of Vladivostok. This was the home of Russia’s Far Eastern naval fleet and could be cut off from the rest of the Soviet Union in the event of hostilities.

Although there were hawks in the Kremlin hierarchy who argued that Russia’s nuclear weapons should be used to knock out China’s fledgling H-Bomb programme, wiser heads such as Major General Nikolai Ogarkov prevailed. He held up the prospect of an endless post-nuclear war with an inexhaustible guerilla army. This caused the Kremlin leadership to stay their hand.

The catalyst for hostilities occurred thousands of miles from this tense border. On 21st August 1968, Soviet tanks crashed over the Czechoslovakian border to crush Alexander Dubcek’s brave experiment of Communism with a human face. As the Prague Spring was brutally stamped out by Soviet Forces, rifts appeared in the Eastern Bloc. Nikolai Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator publicly denounced the Invasion. The Chinese sided with him. Premiere Zhou Enlai publicly accused Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev of practising “Fascist politics” and woundingly compared the Soviets of behaving like Adolf Hitler.

Preparations to provoke a border war

Bear & Dragon
A Soviet ship using a water cannon against a Chinese fisherman on the Ussuri River, 6 May 1969. Source WIKI

In fact, the Chinese leadership had already been preparing to provoke a border war with the Soviets long before their invasion of Czechoslovakia. On 2nd March 1969 a force of about 100 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army ambushed a group of Russian Border Guards on the disputed Zhenbao (Damansky) Island. The ensuing firefight was bloody with a high number of casualties on both sides. Quite how many soldiers were killed and injured in this incident is disputed. The Chinese claimed that fifty-eight Russians were killed and ninety-four were wounded with sixty-eight PLA deaths and seventy-one wounded. Other sources put the number of Russians killed at 31 with an unknown number of Chinese casualties.  Whatever the figure, this was undoubtedly a serious confrontation. Since the early 1950s there had been many hostile encounters between the border guards of both countries on the disputed islands on the Ussuri River. However, none had actually led to bloodshed. 

Why the Chinese initiated hostilities probably had as much to do with The Cultural Revolution which was in full swing in China at that time. The country was in turmoil with xenophobia, particularly against Soviet Russia running at a very high level.  The PLA ambush was a side effect of this. After the ideological split in 1956, Mao was keen on a “Peoples War” With the Russian “heretics”. Perhaps rather unrealistically he always believed that in a war China’s sheer force of numbers would trump Russia’s military technology.

Soviet tanks attack

Whatever the reason, the Soviets were caught completely unawares. Maybe they should not have been since there had been a number of minor skirmishes between the two sides since the beginning of 1969. After the first incident sporadic, fighting occurred with increased seriousness. On 15th March, the Russians mounted three attacks with four T-62 Tanks but were repulsed by the Chinese with the loss of eleven combat vehicles and a T62 Tank. As he struggled to escape this damaged tank, the commander of the attacking tanks, Colonel Demokrat Leonov was killed by a Chinese sniper. Along with a number of other officers some of whom were also killed, he was awarded the Hero of The Soviet Union medal.

Bear & Dragon
The Soviet T-62 tank captured by the Chinese during the 1969 clash, now on display at the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution

Soviet forces retaliate

With the Chinese now in control of the island, the Russian commander General Oleg Losek, ordered his men to open fire with a BM 21 Grad multiple rocket launcher. This unleashed a withering barrage of fire on the PLA positions. Over the next nine hours the Soviet Forces fired a total of 10,000 rounds on the Chinese troops. This eventually forced them to retreat from the island. At the end of the day, with the Russians on one bank of the frozen Ussuri and the Chinese on the other, neither side had ownership of the island.

 The following day, the Russians collected their dead under a temporary truce. However, when they tried to recover the T-62 tank, the Chinese opened fire and beat them back. On 21st March the Soviets sent in a demolition squad to destroy the tank and deny it to the enemy. Once again intense fire from the Chinese forced them to abort this mission. The PLA eventually managed to recover the tank and it now resides in the Chinese Military Museum.

With neither side able to take control of the disputed island, the result of this first battle was indecisive. However, both the Russians and Chinese claimed they had actually won. However, the loss of such a piece of high technology as the T-62 with its revolutionary smooth bore gun and infra-red night vision was a severe blow to the Russians.

Between these bouts of border violence, Russia attempted to coerce China into negotiations with veiled threats of using its nuclear arsenal in the conflict. On 27th August 1969, Richard Helms, the Director of the C.I.A., publicly revealed that the Soviets had been canvassing various countries about their attitude to a nuclear first strike by the Russians against Chinese nuclear facilities. This so unsettled the paranoid regime in China, they took drastic action. On 18thOctober, Mao and other Chinese leaders left Beijing and placed their fledgling nuclear force on red alert. This created a dangerous situation where a nuclear war could easily have broken out by accident.

A state of near war

With the two Communist powers now in a state of near war, Brezhnev embarked upon a diplomatic campaign amongst other socialist states to whip up support against Mao’s China. On 17th March 1969, Brezhnev called an emergency meeting of the Warsaw Pact to condemn China’s aggression. However, the meeting backfired for the Soviets. In an acrimonious exchange Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu refused to condemn China’s action. Instead of the meeting ending with a message of solidarity by all Pact members condemning China, no such message was released.

On the next day, further salt was rubbed into the Russian’s diplomatic wounds. At a meeting of 66 Communist delegations called ostensibly to discuss preparations for a world communist summit on 5th June 1969, the Soviets once again tried to raise a motion condemning China’s actions on the eastern border. However, representatives of Romanian, Spanish, Swiss and Austrian Communist parties refused to support it and backed China instead. Much to the ire of Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership their motion failed.

The Soviet leadership continued to be concerned about the border conflict escalating into full scale war. On March 21st and 22nd Soviet Premiere Kosygin tried in vain to contact Mao for talks but was rudely rebuffed with Mao refusing to take his phone calls.

Could the conflict turn nuclear?

It seemed that Mao and his faction including his odious wife Quang Jing and Lin Biao the hard core Defence Minister were all fired up for a total war with Russia. It was a conflict that could well have turned nuclear.

It was not just the Soviets who were aghast at this prospect. Chinese Premiere Zhou Enlai could foresee the disastrous consequences of such a conflict for both sides. He tried in vain to calm Mao down and negotiate with the Soviets but to no avail.

In August 1969, the crisis moved up a notch with a serious border incursion by the PLA at an obscure little settlement called Tielieketi at the far western end of the Sino-Soviet frontier. This was where the Soviet satellite of Kazakhstan bordered the Chinese province of Sinkiang. On the night of 13th August, a force of between 30 and 40 Chinese troops cut through the border fencing and attacked the Russian forces. In the ensuing battle, the Russian forces fired on the Chinese with heavy machine guns mounted on armoured personnel carriers. The PLA returned fire, shelling the Russian border force trenches. At this point, the action escalated with three more Russian APCs piling in with their heavy machine guns. During this intense action, Russian helicopters braved the crossfire to ferry in ammunition and evacuate the injured.

After a fierce four-hour battle, the Chinese were forced to retreat. According to Russian sources, ten of their border guards were injured and two killed. The Chinese lost 19 men and three were captured. One of the prisoners subsequently died of his wounds. According to contemporary Russian accounts, the PLA troops were heavily armed with RPD machine guns, carbines and anti -tank grenades. Significantly, they were also carrying cine cameras and film equipment. This would indicate the Chinese wished to take some of the Russian territory permanently by force filming the incident for propaganda purposes.

The funeral of Ho Chi Minh

Just when The Tielieketi Incident as this battle became known threatened a further escalation towards total war a seminal event occurred that would change everything. On 2nd September 1969 Ho Chi Minh the revered revolutionary leader of the North Vietnamese died in Hanoi. Both Kosygin and Zhou Enlai attended his funeral ensuring they did not actually meet at the event. When flying back to Moscow, Kosygin’s plane was denied access to Chinese air space forcing it into a lengthy detour via Calcutta. Whilst refuelling there, the Russian Premiere received a message from the Chinese leadership via the Indian Government. Apparently, they wanted to talk peace. Kosygin’s plane took off this time heading for Beijing.

At the subsequent rather frosty meeting in the city’s airport, the foundations of a peace between the two communist powers were laid. The short sharp border war that could easily have led to nuclear Armageddon was at an end. It took many years for tensions to finally subside. Negotiations to normalize the border only began shortly before the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. They were finally concluded with an agreement between the two countries on 14thOctober 2003. Ironically Zhenbao Island the scene of the first bloody encounter was ceded to the Chinese.

Chinese propaganda poster

Will the peace prevail?

Whilst the border has been peaceful in the subsequent twenty years, there is no guarantee it will remain that way. At the time of writing, Putin’s war against Ukraine shows little sign of abating. The outcome is unknown, but whether Russia ultimately wins or loses it is likely to emerge from the conflict weakened both militarily and economically. This, combined with Chinese Premiere Ji Jinping’s expansionist ambitions could reignite the border war. If Ji sees that Russia has become a much weakened military power, it could tempt him into a border invasion to grab Russia’s lands in the Far East.

China is also facing growing economic and environmental problems. These include a steady collapse of its distorted property investment market and a shortage of potable water due to widescale industrial pollution. Like many dictators in the past, Ji might also use a border war with Russia to detract attention from such pressing domestic problems. However, before he goes to war he should read the history books since these ventures invariably end in tears. Just ask Galtieri.

©  Nick Brazil 2022

About The Author

Nick Brazil is an author, film maker and photographer. He has made eight documentaries and numerous shorter videos for the internet. He has also published three books including “Cheating Death – The Story of a PoW” and “Billy Biscuit – The Colourful Life & Times of Sir William Curtis” which is the story of the man who coined the phrase “The Three Rs”. 
Nick Brazil self portrait
Nick Brazil

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