Sino-Soviet Tensions Mount Along the Ussuri River Border Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Armed conflict along the Ussuri River deepened the hostility between the communist powers of the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. In the end, however, the conflict helped the United States in its relations with China and led to the creation of a new structure to global politics.

Summary of Event

The border dispute between China and the Soviet Union—a small war that came to be called the Sino-Soviet schism—along the Ussuri River Ussuri River from March 2 to October 20, 1969, was the culmination of a growing antagonism between the two communist superpowers that began in the late 1950’s. The schism’s roots were many: ideological differences, conflicts of national interests, the clashing personalities of Nikita S. Khrushchev and Mao Zedong, Moscow’s withdrawal of atomic and economic aid, Mao’s opposition to Khrushchev’s “peaceful coexistence” policy, and Beijing’s grievances against czarist Russia’s imperialism in the nineteenth century at China’s expense. Soviet-Chinese relations[Soviet Chinese relations] Chinese-Soviet relations[Chinese Soviet relations] Cold War;Sino-Soviet tensions[SinoSoviet tensions] [kw]Sino-Soviet Tensions Mount Along the Ussuri River Border (Mar. 2-Oct. 20, 1969)[SinoSoviet Tensions Mount Along the Ussuri River Border] [kw]Soviet Tensions Mount Along the Ussuri River Border, Sino- (Mar. 2-Oct. 20, 1969) [kw]Ussuri River Border, Sino-Soviet Tensions Mount Along the (Mar. 2-Oct. 20, 1969) Soviet-Chinese relations[Soviet Chinese relations] Chinese-Soviet relations[Chinese Soviet relations] Cold War;Sino-Soviet tensions[SinoSoviet tensions] [g]Asia;Mar. 2-Oct. 20, 1969: Sino-Soviet Tensions Mount Along the Ussuri River Border[10210] [g]China;Mar. 2-Oct. 20, 1969: Sino-Soviet Tensions Mount Along the Ussuri River Border[10210] [g]Soviet Union;Mar. 2-Oct. 20, 1969: Sino-Soviet Tensions Mount Along the Ussuri River Border[10210] [c]Cold War;Mar. 2-Oct. 20, 1969: Sino-Soviet Tensions Mount Along the Ussuri River Border[10210] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 2-Oct. 20, 1969: Sino-Soviet Tensions Mount Along the Ussuri River Border[10210] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 2-Oct. 20, 1969: Sino-Soviet Tensions Mount Along the Ussuri River Border[10210] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 2-Oct. 20, 1969: Sino-Soviet Tensions Mount Along the Ussuri River Border[10210] Mao Zedong Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;and China[China] Zhou Enlai Kosygin, Aleksey Kissinger, Henry Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;and China[China]

Antagonism became particularly intense during the three years leading up to the armed clashes of 1969. Domestically, China was going through the convulsions of its Cultural Revolution. In the highly charged atmosphere of this revolution numerous incidents exacerbated the hostile attitude of Beijing toward Moscow. One potentially troubling concern was the unstable border between China and the Soviet Union, a border that had never been fully and exactly demarcated. In the 1960’s numerous border incidents were reported, particularly along the Amur and Ussuri Rivers in 1967 and 1968. These incidents culminated on March 2, 1969, in a fight for a tiny island in the Ussuri River called Damansky by the Soviets and Zhenbao by the Chinese. Located about 250 miles north of Vladivostok, the island was uninhabited and of no economic or military significance. The Chinese claimed the island on the grounds that the border ran down the middle of the river and that Zhenbao was on their side of the line. The Soviets insisted that the island was on their side of the border.

The March 2 skirmish took place on Damansky Island Damansky Island as a result of what the Soviets termed an ambush by Chinese troops. Some three hundred Chinese frontier guards and regular soldiers crossed the ice and opened fire on a group of Russian soldiers who confronted them. A two-hour battle ensued, leading to the deaths of some thirty Russian border guards and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers. Both sides claimed victory although both withdrew from the island after the battle. Moscow was outraged and accused Beijing of aggression. A flurry of protests and propaganda followed from both sides.

Another battle followed on March 15. The forces, and the casualties, were greater. Beginning mid-morning, the nine-hour battle involved exchanges with mortar and artillery fire. The Russians suffered about sixty casualties (dead and wounded), and the Chinese forces, which numbered around two thousand at the start of the battle, lost several hundred to injury or death.

Possession of Damansky Island never was an objective of either side. The initial Chinese assault was intended to discredit the Soviet Union before the world’s communists and to bolster Mao’s image against his domestic enemies. Moscow’s retaliation on March 15 as well as all subsequent Soviet-initiated actions were designed to punish the Chinese for their initial actions on March 2 and to deter them from further actions. Over the course of the following months a flurry of accusations and counterclaims increased the tension between the two states. Border incidents increased all along the boundary between China and the Soviet Union.

Prior to the fighting in March the prospect of a war between the two communist states had been remote. That changed in the spring and summer of 1969. Both states, particularly the Soviet Union, began a steady build-up of military forces along the border. In addition, Moscow increased Soviet forces along the entire length of the Soviet-Mongolian and Chinese-Mongolian border. The Soviet Union was clearly the stronger power militarily and was determined to use its power to coerce the Chinese into a settlement of their border and other differences. The border incidents initiated by Moscow were part of its strategy of coercive diplomacy.

Coercive diplomacy had a nuclear dimension. While building up militarily, Moscow hinted that it was prepared to initiate a nuclear attack on China. Such a threat was conveyed by Victor Lewis, a Soviet news correspondent in London. Rumors coming from Moscow also suggested the possibility of a Soviet air strike against the Chinese nuclear testing site at Lop Nor in Sinkiang, China’s southwestern province. It is highly unlikely that Moscow was actually prepared to initiate a preemptive nuclear strike against China, but the threat was clearly intended to pressure the Chinese. On August 18 an official with the Soviet embassy in Washington questioned a U.S. diplomat about what the American reaction would be in the event of a Soviet attack on China’s nuclear facilities. The Americans’ reaction was negative. Moscow also sounded out its Warsaw Pact allies on the possibility of a Soviet nuclear strike.

These threats and rumors were known to Beijing and were taken seriously. Reluctantly the Chinese agreed to a meeting at the prime ministerial level between Aleksey Kosygin and Zhou Enlai. They met in Beijing in September but did not reach a formal agreement. Authoritative sources reported that they did agree to cease armed provocations, resume border negotiations, restore diplomatic relations, and improve economic relations. The September negotiations failed to resolve fundamental differences, but on October 20, the two countries met again in Beijing, agreeing to disagree on the “border” matter. From that point on border incidents ceased to be a major factor in Sino-Soviet animosity. Not until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the 1980’s—a decade after Mao’s death—did Sino-Soviet relations normalize.

The biggest beneficiary of the border incidents in 1969 was neither China nor the Soviet Union but the United States. As the fissure in Sino-Soviet relations widened, Washington saw an opportunity to alter the global balance of power by fostering a Sino-American entente. In Washington the significance of the March, 1969, events took some weeks to become apparent, but both President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, quickly moved to improve ties with China. The diplomacy for this policy had to be subtle because of the bitter history of Sino-American relations that, at the time, went back to the Korean War of the early 1950’s. Slowly but relentlessly the United States cultivated China. Restrictions in trade and travel to the People’s Republic were eased. Third-party governments were advised confidentially to inform the Chinese of Washington’s desire for better relations. China responded positively. By the end of 1969, Nixon and Kissinger concluded that Beijing had made a strategic decision to seek a rapprochement with the United States.

Several years were required to reach that objective. In 1971, Kissinger made a secret visit to China to arrange a visit by Nixon in 1972 to meet with Mao. The detente that was formalized between the two countries was not a military alliance. Politically, however, the alliance changed global politics and contributed to the end of the Cold War some two decades later.


The border clashes in 1969 had profound consequences not only for the parties involved but also international politics. The Soviet military buildup imposed a heavy burden on its economy. Over time the demands of the growing military budget contributed to the economic paralysis that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. An immediate result of the Sino-Soviet rift was the weakening of international communism. Monolithic communism gave way to a polycentric movement that responded less and less to Soviet direction. Throughout the world communist states were forced to choose between an allegiance either to Moscow or to Beijing.

Perhaps the most profound consequence of the 1969 border clashes, however, was a change in the structure of international politics: they turned into a tripolar system. China came to view the Soviet Union as more of a threat to its national survival than the United States, notwithstanding the fact of a continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Accordingly, leaders in Beijing and Washington moved toward rapprochement to tip the balance of power against a common enemy. These factors contributed to the end of the Cold War in 1991. Soviet-Chinese relations[Soviet Chinese relations] Chinese-Soviet relations[Chinese Soviet relations] Cold War;Sino-Soviet tensions[SinoSoviet tensions]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borisov, O. B., and B. T. Koloskov. Soviet-Chinese Relations, 1945-1970. Edited by Vladimir Petrov. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. The official Soviet record of its conflict with the People’s Republic of China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kissinger, Henry A. “First Steps Toward China.” In The White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979. Includes an authoritative account of how the Ussuri battles moved U.S. policy toward a rapprochement. Kissinger was the author of that policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ostermann, Christian F., ed. East German Documents on the Border Conflict, 1969. Special issue of Cold War International History Project Bulletin, nos. 6/7 (Winter, 1995/1996). A useful collection of East German documents on Soviet policy on border conflicts with China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Thomas W. “The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict.” In Diplomacy of Power: Soviet Armed Forces as a Political Instrument, edited by Stephen S. Kaplan. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1981. Examines the concept of “coercive diplomacy” to describe how Soviets used the Ussuri incidents to pressure China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wishnick, Elizabeth. Mending Fences: The Evolution of Moscow’s China Policy, from Brezhnev to Yeltsin. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. Uses Russian and Chinese documents declassified in the post-Soviet period. Examines the forces driving Moscow’s China policy from one of antagonism to one of “strategic partnership.”

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Categories: History