Resolving the militarised territorial disputes between China and Russia/Soviet Union


The long-standing border dispute between China and Russia (which almost sparked a war in the 1960s) was resolved, dramatically reducing the chance of an interstate conflict.

China and the Soviet Union shared a 4,300km border, much of which had been negotiated in the nineteenth century by the Russian Empire and had never been properly demarcated. Although the two states shared relatively cordial relations after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, geopolitical and ideological differences quickly soured this relationship. Beginning in the 1950s, this rivalry manifested itself in a series of increasingly deadly border clashes that culminated in March 1969 when, after Chinese troops ambushed a Soviet patrol on Zhenbao/Damansky Island in the Ussuri/Wusuli River. In response, the Soviets launched a major counterattack using heavy weapons which it claimed cost the lives of over 800 Chinese troops.1 Further fighting took place when Soviet troops attempted to recover equipment lost in the assault.2 In August 1969, Soviet troops ambushed a Chinese patrol in another part of the frontier, while artillery barrages continued for weeks at various points on the border, highlighting the potential for the conflict to spread.3 With 34 Soviet and 59 Chinese divisions deployed along the border, agreements in place to allow Soviet forces to use Mongolian territory, and both states transporting nuclear weapons to the region, this Sino-Soviet border conflict represented one of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War.4 Following the conflict, the border continued to be highly militarised and the potential of a similar incident sparking an unprecedented interstate conflict remained a constant danger.

Bilateral talks were held in September-October 1969 but ultimately failed to produce a resolution to the dispute. Indeed, military preparations continued apace after the negotiations and the border was closed entirely until 1982, when it was opened to low levels of trade. However, considerable military forces continued to be stationed on either side of the border and without a formal agreement in place, the risk of war remained a constant threat. In 1986, with the war in Afghanistan draining resources, Soviet leaders sought a resolution to the dispute with China and initial talks about the border began alongside incremental troop withdrawals from the frontier by both armed forces. Joint boundary commissions were put to work to demarcate the border, and on 16 May 1991 the Sino-Soviet Border Agreement was signed, settling the eastern section of the border.5 The western portion was resolved in 1994, and the remaining points of contention were addressed in 2005 during negotiations in Vladivostok. In 2008, the entire border was formally agreed at a ceremony in Beijing.6 These efforts have greatly reduced the risk of a potentially devastating interstate conflict.

1 Benjamin Brimelow. “A bloody battle over a tiny island raised fears that China and the Soviets would start World War III.” Business Insider. (10 March 2021) Available at: (Accessed 30/11/2021)

2 Neville Maxwell. “How the Sino-Russian boundary conflict was finally settled: From Nerchinsk 1689 to Vladivostok 2005 via Zhenbao Island 1969.” Critical Asian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2. (2007) p.248

3 Ibid. p.249

4 Thomas W. Robinson. The Sino-Soviet Border Dispute: Background, Development, and the March 1969 Clashes. (RAND, 1970) pp.35.8

5 Agreement on the Eastern Section of the Boundary between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People's Republic of China (1991 Sino-Soviet Border Agreement), 1991. Available at: (Accessed 30/11/2021)

6 Reuters Staff. “China signs border demarcation pact with Russia.” Reuters. (31 July 2008) Available at: (Accessed 30/11/2021)

Start Year


End Year




UN Regional Group


Type of Conflict

Risk of an interstate conflict

Type of Initiative

Resolution of a militarised territorial dispute, Stabilising international borders

Main Implementing Organisation(s)

The governments of China and Russia




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