When Vladivostok, the main city of the Russian Far East, marked the 160th anniversary of its founding on July 2, it resulted in a wave of abuse from Chinese social media users across various platforms who claimed that the territory of Primorsky Krai of which Vladivostok is the administrative capital, historically belonged to China.
While these claims were not officially endorsed by China’s foreign ministry, they come at a time when the country has been particularly aggressive in the context of its territorial disputes in the region. At present, China is embroiled in fresh disputes involving Bhutan, in addition to its ongoing territorial disputes involving India, Tibet and the South China Sea.
Before Primorsky Krai became Russian territory in 1860, it was a relatively small Manchu settlement under the sovereignty of the Qing dynasty. At that time, Vladivostok was called Haishenwei or the Bay of Sea Slugs.
Artyom Lukin, Deputy Director for Research, School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, explains that during the First Opium War that occurred between September 1839 and August 1842, fought between Britain and the Qing Dynasty, the former began exploring and mapping this stretch of the coast. During that time, Lukin says the Vladivostok harbour was named Port May by the British.
In discussions concerning the Opium Wars, the focus is mostly on Britain, France and China under the Qing dynasty, while Russia is often neglected. However, it is because of its unique role, particularly during the Second Opium War, that Russia acquired a significant amount of former Manchu territory, including Vladivostok that is its largest port on the Pacific coast.
The south eastern part of Russia, that borders North Korea and China, has historically been a bone of contention between Russia and China, in part because of China’s claims that this region once formed ‘Outer Manchuria’. Some researchers believe that the term ‘Outer Manchuria’ was coined by China in an attempt to lend credence to their territorial claims over this region.
The first territorial disputes between China and Russia can be traced to the 1600s when Russia encouraged its people to settle down in the region. By 1680, however, China took over control of this region, that eventually led to the signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 between the Qing Dynasty and Russia. Under the terms of the treaty, Russia agreed to give up its claims to this area.
Although Russia had given up this territory to the Qing dynasty, it had by no means forgotten its interests in the area. The right time to strike would come 167 years later, with the start of the Second Opium War in 1856. Having been battered by British and French during this war, China learned of Russia’s strategic build-up of military presence on its shared northern border. Russia was only willing to withdraw troops if China were to cede territory along this border.
Facing potential attacks by Russia from the north and the onslaught of British and French forces on the south, the Qing dynasty was compelled to comply with Russia demands to stave off invasion on at least one front. This led to the signing of the Treaty of Aigun in 1858, that formed much of the present day borders between Russia and China, along the Amur River. The Chinese have historically called this treaty an “unequal treaty”, one in a series of treaties signed between the Qing dynasty and neighbouring states in the region.
Russian diplomat Count Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev had witnessed the havoc and plunder that the British and French had unleashed upon Beijing, including engaging in loot and plunder and the burning down of the Old Summer Palace, specifically ordered by Britain’s Lord Elgin. Elgin, having set his eyes on the loot and destruction of the Forbidden City next, urged the Chinese to sit at the negotiating table with Ignatyev as the mediator in what came to be known as the Convention of Peking between China, Russia, Britain and France.
As a result of this convention, in October 1860, the British acquired the Kowloon Peninsula and control over Hong Kong. Among other agreements, opium was made legal, a move that economically benefited France and Britain. From China’s perspective, these agreements were exploitative and sharply skewed in favour of the two western nations.
Knowing how desperately China was trying to protect its capital, Ignatyev pushed for the Qing rulers to accept the terms of the agreements, and also threw in what the Chinese call “Outer Manchuria” for Russia, an area significantly larger than what it had originally desired. One part of this territory is now called the Primorsky Krai. According to Lukin, the Russian government had already established a military outpost in the region even before signing a formal treaty of cessation with the Qing dynasty.
This area of the Primorsky Krai, along with the Golden Horn Bay, with its administrative capital as Vladivostok, became an important sea port for Russia and allowed the country to expand economic and military influence in this part of the Pacific. It is also known as the Russian Maritime Province. Today, Vladivostok is the base for the Russian Pacific Fleet.
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The Chinese did realise that they had been shortchanged in the agreements, but only years later, and resented the unfairness of the negotiations. In her 2007 book ‘Russian Policy Towards China and Japan: The El’tsin and Putin Periods’ Natasha Kuhrt writes that during the tenure of Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, the first Russian president, between 1991 to 1999, Chinese presence in the Russian Far East increased significantly as a result of the opening of the border and the growth in trade between China and Russia.
Kuhrt writes that there were concerns in Russia that this could lead to the Russian Far East becoming slowly absorbed within Greater China. Kurht writes: “In the 1960s, the German Sinologist Klaus Mehnert asked young Chinese who had grown up in Mao’s China what they had been taught about Vladivostok: ‘Almost all of them replied that they had been taught that the place [ie: Vladivostok] had been called Haishenwei “before the Russians took it away”.
This past week, when the Russian embassy posted a video on Weibo to acknowledge the 160th anniversary of the founding of Vladivostok, several Chinese diplomats and journalists took to social media platforms to lambast Russia for what the Chinese consider to be historical wrongs committed against them with regard to this territory. Shen Shiwei, a reporter for the state-owned broadcaster CGTN, tweeted that the Russian embassy’s Weibo post “recalled people’s memories (of) those humiliated days in (the) 1860s”.
This “tweet” of #Russian embassy to #China isn’t so welcome on Weibo
“The history of Vladivostok (literally ‘Ruler of the East’) is from 1860 when Russia built a military harbor.” But the city was Haishenwai as Chinese land, before Russia annexed it via unequal Treaty of Beijing. pic.twitter.com/ZmEWwOoDaA
— Shen Shiwei沈诗伟 (@shen_shiwei) July 2, 2020
But the fact is that territorial disputes between Russia and China were resolved in a series of border agreements in 1991, 1994 and 2004. As part of these agreements, China received hundreds of islands on the Argun, Amur, and Ussuri rivers. These included the islands of Damansky (renamed Zhenbao), Tarabarov (renamed Yinlong) and approximately 50% of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island (renamed Heixiazi Island) near the city of Khabarovsk in southeastern Russia.
In July 2008, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, signed an additional agreement known as the Sino-Russian Border Line Agreement, that marked the mutual acceptance of the demarcation of the eastern portion of the Chinese-Russian border. Researchers say the status of Vladivostok never arose during those talks, indicating that perhaps China did not consider it disputed territory.