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Monday, November 10, 1997 Published at 20:48 GMT

World: Analysis

Russia and China end 300 year old border dispute

Where 2 huge countrys meet

Russia and China have apparently come to an understanding on how to endtheir centuries-old border dispute, agreeing to the joint development of several islands on the Amur and Ussuri rivers, which divide the countries. President Boris Yeltsin has spoken of it as a possible model for settling of other border disputes in the region. Is this just a pious hope, or a real possibility? Here's our regional analyst, Malcolm Haslett.

The islands in the middle of the rivers which separate Chinese and Russian territory have been one of the main causes of the border disputes between the two countries. In 1969, for example, there was a major gunbattle on Damansky island [Chinese - Zhenbao] on the Ussuri [Wusuli] river, in which dozens of soldiers were killed on both sides.

[ image: There have been border clashes for 300 years]
There have been border clashes for 300 years
The dispute, however, dates back much longer, to the time in the early 17th century when the first Russian settlers reached the sparsely-populated regions north of the Amur river.

This was territory already claimed by the Chinese Empire, though never effectively controlled. There was sporadic fighting between the two sides before the Treaty of Nerchinsk, in 1689, defined the border well north of the Amur river, along which it runs today.

But later, with China weakened by the various Opium wars of the 19th century, Russia was able to force the local Chinese commander to sign the Treaty of Aigun, ceding everything north of the Amur, and the large slice of land east of the Ussuri, to Russia. This in effect established today's frontiers.

[ image: Troops still patrol the area]
Troops still patrol the area
But China has never acknowledged the legitimacy of the "unequal treaty" of Aigun. And disputes continued until the fighting of 1969. That was ended after talks between prime ministers Zhou Enlai and Kosygin in that same year.

But efforts to resolve the issue permanently only began again when Mikhail Gorbachov was in power in the 1980s. The improvement in relations has continued under Boris Yeltsin.

[ image: Jiang Zemin and Boris Yeltsin shake on the deal]
Jiang Zemin and Boris Yeltsin shake on the deal
Both sides are hailing the new "understanding" as the effective end of their border dispute. But it's only been made possible by the introduction of the idea of "joint exploitation" of a number of islands in the Amur, Ussuri and Argun rivers. The details of how this is to be done, contained in a separate agreement, are not yet clear.

Clearly if joint exploitation goes ahead as planned, it would help greatly to overcome past suspicions. A lot remains to be done, however, to put them into practice.

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