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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Deal Hands Islands Back to China

APForeign Minister Sergei Lavrov sitting with Chinese President Hu Jintao during their meeting Monday in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.
Russia and China on Monday signed a pact demarcating their 4,300-kilometer border, an issue that has been a bone of contention for more than three centuries and that led to armed clashes as recently as the late 1960s.

And although Russia is returning one island and part of another -- 174 square kilometers of territory -- in the Amur River, near the regional capital of Khabarovsk, political analysts said the move was positive for a Russia looking to secure its eastern borders in the face of its increasingly powerful Communist neighbor.

The protocol was signed Monday in Beijing by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jeichi, bringing an end to more than 40 years of negotiations.

"It shows that as long as we strive to find solutions on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, all questions, even complicated ones, can be solved," Lavrov told reporters, Interfax reported.

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement Monday saying the demarcation of the border will boost Russian-Chinese relations and cooperation between border regions.

Yang also told reporters in Beijing that strengthening ties between the two countries was a strong factor in the negotiations.

Relations with China, the object of vicious rivalry for much of the Cold War, grew warmer during Vladimir Putin's presidency, as the two sides found common foreign policy objectives, including countering U.S. influence at the global level and in Central Asia in particular.

China has been the biggest buyer of Russian weapons since the collapse of the Soviet Union and remains its most promising client for natural gas.

Under the agreement signed Monday, Russia returns Yinlong Island (known as Tarabarov Island in Russian) and half of Heixiazi Island (Bolshoi Ussuriisky) to China. The territories were seized by the Red Army in 1929.

China's entanglement in regional and internal conflicts in the following decades prevented it from turning its attention back to the last territory until the 1960s.

But talks and the implementation of agreements dragged on and generated tensions that climaxed in 1969, when the Chinese army attacked a Soviet border post on Zhenbao Island (called Damansky Island in Russian), killing dozens of servicemen. The Soviet army replied with a rocket attack, wiping out hundreds of Chinese soldiers who had occupied the island.

The demarcation negotiations were revived in 1991, and the final phase began in October 2004, when Putin signed an initial protocol during a visit to China on the last remaining disputed area, a stretch of border territory including Yinlong and Heixiazi islands.

That protocol was ratified by the State Duma in 2005, with only one deputy from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, Boris Reznik from Khabarovsk, joining a majority of opposition faction members in abstaining or voting against the agreement.

Work on the construction of new border facilities on the islands and the shores of the Amur River that began in 2005 is now nearing completion.

Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin spin doctor and deputy with United Russia in the State Duma, called the decision to return the islands and finalize the setting of the border with China "Putin's strategic decision to solve a possible problem for our children today."

"While China was weaker than our country, this was not a hot topic," Markov said. "But as China quickly becomes strong, and if a nationalist government comes to power there, the unsettled border could become a real problem."

Vladimir Portyakov, the head of the Research Center for Russian-Chinese relations at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, said the decision to finalize the border region was largely Russia's decision.

"Historical justice has also prevailed, because [imperial] Russia, and then the Soviet Union, have pushed China to revise the border at times when China was weak," Portyakov said.

The first border agreement between the two countries, called the Treaty of Nerchinsk, dates back to 1689.

Through most of modern history, the Russian and Soviet states were stronger than China, but that situation changed in the 1990s, said Dmitry Trenin, a senior foreign policy analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"Having a disputed border with China now is dangerous," he said. "China is not pressuring Russia, but Russian leaders clearly feel how its might is growing."

Given the hard line Russian officials have taken over similar calls from Japan for the return of the Kuril Islands, which were seized by the Soviet Union in the dying days of World War II, Putin's decision in 2004 to open negotiations on passing Yinlong and Heixiazi islands back to China surprised many.

Khabarovsk region officials immediately complained in the media that the local authorities had not been consulted about the future of the islands, which are home to about 16,000 dachas owned by Khabarovsk residents. Heixiazi Island is located across the channel from Khabarovsk and was slated for a major commercial development, regional officials said at the time.

Portyakov and Trenin both said that, although the Japanese government is watching the return of the islands to China closely, this will not become a precedent for the Kurils, as it was Russia that was looking for a speedy settlement in the talks with the Chinese.

But whether the protocol has managed to secure Russia's borders with China from possible territorial claims in the future remains a question, said Alexander Khramchikhin of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis.

China's growing economic and military capabilities and the fact that its regions bordering Russia's sparsely populated Far East and Siberia are home to hundreds of millions of people could cause further tensions in the future, Khramchikhin said.

"There is a Chinese proverb that says you should cross rivers by grabbing stones under water," he said.