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From Guns to Greetings: Defrosting China's Borders
2007-09-18 00:00

   On the winding Heilongjiang River, China's northeast border with Russia, Chinese soldiers ride in blue patrol boats, passing Russian houses on the other bank so swiftly that they soon look like matchboxes.

   Patrolling the river is now routine, but it was unimaginable when relations between the two nations were strained.

   "The border was once marked with barbed wire and dotted with blockhouses. Cannons were positioned against each other. The Heilongjiang River was a forbidden zone, and any approaches could have seen a flare up in the bitter bilateral relations," says Colonel Jia Lun, of the People's Liberation Army regiment stationed in Mohe County on the southern bank.

   But the same border is no longer a "sensitive" area, and sentry posts and lookout points are fewer, Jia says.

   And similar changes have taken place along other parts of China's 22,000-kilometer land border.

(A Chinese sentry post watching the Sino-Indian border, with an altitude of 4300 meters. Photographed by Quan Xiaoshu.)  

    According to China's white paper on National Defense in 2006, China has signed land border treaties or agreements with 12 of its 14 neighbors, with most of the demarcation disputes settled. It is currently negotiating with India and Bhutan to resolve boundary issues.

   "China now shares the most peaceful borders with its neighbors since the republic was established in 1949," says Teng Jianqun, deputy secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.

   China saw three major military conflicts along its borders from the 1950s to the 1970s. "Since the 1980s, no major border clashes have occurred and border troops have gradually expanded exchanges with each other," Teng says.

   He considers changes in the international environment, particularly the demise of the Cold War mentality, as a key factor in better border relations.

   "There did exist territory disputes along the borders, but the prevailing ideological bias during the Cold War period served as a catalyst and worsened conflict," Teng says.

   "The whole international climate has changed since the end of the Cold War, as a country is no longer judged as a friend or an enemy according to its political pattern, which has helped China to rebuild relations with its neighbors," he says.

   More importantly, the Chinese government has employed a practical attitude in solving border issues.

   "Following the foreign policy of building good neighborly relations and partnership with adjacent countries, China is more willing to solve border problems through negotiations, with both the confidence brought by its rapid economic growth and the consideration constrained by its 'peaceful development' promise," he says.

   "Now, border troops from China and its neighbors have very friendly exchanges and communication. Sometimes, they invite each other to parties or celebrations," he adds.

Basketball Diplomacy

   "We salute every time we meet the Russian soldiers on the river or patrolling on ice during winter. We shout hello in Russian, and they greet us in Chinese," says Jia Pengfei, head of a border sentry post.

   China and Russia share a 4,300-kilometer border, with most of the 3,800-kilometer eastern section sitting along the boundary of the Heilongjiang Province.

   There are no bridges spanning the Heilongjiang River and the border is crossed by boat. In winter, the frozen river can carry vehicles.

   Russian's Amur Region has agreed with Heilongjiang Province to build a bridge that links Heihe city with Blagoveshchensk city, but the date for construction is yet to be set.

   Jiang Yi, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), says that as relations between the two countries improve, the two militaries are transcending old conflicts to develop a solid friendship.

   In 1996 and 1997, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan signed agreements on disarmament and deepening military trust along borders, agreeing to restrict the scale, geographical limits and the number of troop exercises, to notify each other of large military activities and troop movements during emergencies and to allow temporary entry of armed forces to 100 kilometers across borders.

   "These joint endeavors have improved security along China's 7,000-kilometer border with the other four countries," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman has said.

   The agreements helped lay the groundwork for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) founded in 2001, which has brought about closer cooperation among the five member states and Uzbekistan on trade, energy and fighting terrorism.

   "Peace Mission 2007", an anti-terrorism drill on the SCO agenda, was staged in Chelyabinsk of Russia and Urumqi, capital of China's northwestern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, from August 9 to 17, 2007.

   Apart from increasingly frequent and deep military and political exchanges, China and Russia have been making agreements on their borders.

   In October 2004, the two sides signed the Supplementary Agreement on the Eastern Section of China-Russia Boundary Line, setting a deadline to complete demarcating the eastern boundary at the end of 2007.

   Chinese and Russian border troops have, since the 1990s, operated a regular meeting mechanism to increase trust and resolve problems.

   Under the mechanism, troops across the boundary have met for news briefings, joint patrols, holiday celebrations and even basketball matches and parties. Senior officers have also invited each other for family gatherings, says Song Wanjiang, deputy chief of a company stationed in Hunchun, northeast Chinas Jilin Province.

   "The meetings allow us to meet face to face, but we also have a direct telephone connection to the Russian border troops, just like the hotline used by heads of state, for daily contact," Song says.

   Inhabitants of border areas are the direct beneficiaries. Along the Sino-Kazakhstan border, Chinese soldiers worked with Kazak troops last summer to tame the flooded Ulken Ulast River, the border river, which could have ravaged areas in Kazakhstan.

   Locals recall how Kazakhstan soldiers helped a Chinese herdsman find a cow that disappeared across the border.

A Thaw in the Himalayas

   China's southwest border with India is also growing more amicable. From busy passes to lonely sentry posts high in the Himalayas, Chinese personnel are warming to the uniformed guards on the other side.

   Jin Guangyong, a soldier at a sentry post along China's southwestern border with India, says Indian soldiers often shout "Hello" to greet Chinese soldiers.

   Isolated by snow for eight months a year, the two sentry posts, separated by a canyon, are the only signs of human habitation, clinging to the black and bare mountain.

   "I can feel their loneliness, since we suffer it ourselves. We respond to their greetings. Even the guard dogs bark at each other," Jin says.

   But Major Ai Huaichun remembers skirmishes when troops from the two sides confronted each other on patrol just a decade ago.

   "In the 1990s, meetings usually ended in squabbles that solved nothing. The two parties could argue for hours about whether a soldier had trespassed or not," says Ai, who used to serve as interpreter at joint meetings for 11 years.

   China and India fought over the border in 1962 and hostility afflicted bilateral relations for decades until the end of the 20th Century.

   The year 2000 marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and India, which helped warm relations between the troops.

   In June 2006, the Nathu La Pass, a century-old trading post that sits 4,545 meters above sea level between China's Tibet and India's Sikkim, was reopened after being closed 40 years ago.

   "Border meetings have become more friendly. The two sides tend to reflect on progress in Sino-Indian relations and constructively plan for further exchanges," says Ai.

   "Now, if problems like trespassing come to the meeting table, both sides politely agree to further investigate and then settle it through negotiations."

  The regular meetings have resulted in the successful repatriation of soldiers who became lost and strayed over the border in 2003 and 2006.

   "The meetings have enabled both sides to exchange information promptly and resolve problems conveniently, which has better maintained peace and stability," says Colonel Zhang Weiguo, head of the Chinese delegation at a meeting with Indian border troops in May this year.

From Landmines to Tourism

   Tension has also eased at the Sino-Vietnamese border. In the Friendship Pass area, in China's southwestern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Chinese border troops have just finished clearing landmines left from confrontations in the late 1970s.

   Vietnam and China normalized relations in 1990, and in 2002, the two countries agreed to settle demarcation of the border by 2008. The troops have been ordered to step up mine clearances.

   In two campaigns from 1992 to 1994 and from 1997 to 1999, Chinese troops cleared more than 6,800 mines from 130,000 square kilometers along the Friendship Pass.

   "You face death every day," says Wei Lianhai, who has done the job for almost 10 years.

   In June 1998, Wei and his comrades were setting up detonation devices in a minefield, and one soldier was so nervous he pulled a fuse before the order was given. They had to evacuate immediately, but one was trapped in vines on the ground. They managed to pull him free and run to safety before the mine went off.

   When they cleared the last landmine on July 5, making the Friendship Pass zone a mine-free area, everybody roared with relief.

   They had reason to rejoice, as they had smoothed the way for the two countries to develop tourism, trade and regional integration.

   China has been the largest trade partner of Vietnam for two years running, with trade hitting almost 10 billion U.S. dollars in 2006, up 21.4 percent from 2005.

   Leaders of the two countries have set a target of 15 billion U.S. dollars by 2010.

   In addition, they have pledged to accelerate the establishment of sub-regional economic areas, including the China-ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) free trade zone and trade corridors along the Mekong River, which originates in China, runs through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and empties into the South China Sea.

   "A peaceful border is part of any promising relationship between two armies and two countries, and provides opportunities for increasing mutual respect and trust," says Jiang Yi, the CASS research fellow.

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