The tensions leading up to the fallout surrounded the border between the two countries on the Amur river, located at China’s northeastern edge and Russia’s southeast. In the 1828 Aigun Treaty, The Russian Empire and Qing Dynasty agreed to keep the territory open to both parties. Russia seized complete control of the region two years after signing the treaty, leaving many in China believing the deal was unfair.
Geopolitical tensions have existed ever since, and peaked when the Soviet Union and China broke ties in the Sixties, and then found themselves on the verge of all-out war in 1969.
The first round of conflict came on March 2, 1969, when Chinese soldiers launched a stealthy and ruthless attack Soviet border guards.
The CIA believed that the order came directly from Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing, and the assault saw KGB border troops ambushed, with seven initially dying before 300 more PLA (Chinese People’s Liberation Army) soldiers burst out of foxholes and shot at the remaining Soviet personnel.
The attack took place on the disputed Zhendao Island, lying in the Ussuri River, but the Soviets retaliated.
They launched a counter-ambush on the PLA forces, leading to hundreds of Chinese casualties according to the CIA.
What followed in the months to come was a tense political and military standoff between the two countries, which involved regular threats of nuclear war.
This was worsened when the London Evening News, a newspaper that was published from 1881 to 1980, before being incorporated into the Evening Standard.
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On September 16, 1969, the newspaper escalated Moscow-Beijing tensions when an article by KGB (Soviet security) linked Soviet citizen Victor Louis outlined chilling threats of nuclear aggression.
As Michael Gerson highlights in his paper titled ‘The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict’, Mr Louis wrote that the Soviet Union “prefers using rockets to manpower” and has “a variety of rockets to choose from.”
Indicating there was the possibility of a surprise attack, he added: “Whether or not the Soviet Union will dare to attack Lop Nor…is a question of strategy, and so the world would only learn about it afterwards.”
Mr Gerson also highlights that, in keeping with Moscow’s strategy of making nuclear threats and then denying any aggressive intentions, Louis concluded that there were “no noticeable preparations for a war” in Moscow.
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Despite Mr Louis’ conclusion, Chairman Mao Zedong’s government saw the article as evidence of yet more fearsome threats, especially given that in a meeting prior to the article’s publishing, the Soviet representative hadn’t ruled out nuclear aggression.
As a result, Beijing immediately ramped up war preparations and Mao ordered air force and tank units to move to the north.
Mr Gerson also highlighted that China even looked to move their nuclear programme to Tibet amid fears of a Soviet strike.
The conflict ended in September 1969 without nuclear strikes, and slowly but surely tensions in the region between Russia and China today have decreased.