Heixiazi Island (Bolshoi Urrusiysky Island to the Russians) is a 327square km sandbar in the middle of the confluence of the Heilongjiang and Wusuli Rivers (also known as the Amur and Ussuri Rivers). The Russians have occupied the island since 1929, when Soviet troops took it during a border clash, but the two countries reached an agreement in July 2008 to share it. The Russians simultaneously returned Yinlong Island (Tarabarov Island). The agreement officially marked the end of demarcation of the 4,300km Sino-Russian border.
The Chinese half of the island is currently off limits, and guarded by the military, and the local Heilongjian government is planning to develop it into a northern winter resort, drawing tourists from nearby Russia, Japan and South Korea. The local government plans to invest some US$1.47 billion in Heixiazi, with plans for hotels, a free trade shopping centre and an industrial park. The Russians have previously used the island as a military base, and it is only sparsely inhabited.
Much of the Chinese development plans are directed at the Russians. The industrial park, for example, will house factories making products for the Russian market. Khabarovsk, one of the largest cities in Eastern Russia, is nearby Heixiazi, and is set to be linked with the island through jointly-developed roads, bridges, ports, a railroad and possibly an airport. Khabarovsk is well connected to the rest of the country by rail, thereby enabling Heixiazi’s products to reach the wider Russian market.
Heilongjiang province has had considerable success developing its tourism industry. Sun Island, in the middle of the Songhua River near Harbin, is a summer resort, featuring beaches, theme parks and a reserve for the endangered Siberian tiger. In the winter, it is the site of the popular Harbin Ice Festival.
Not everyone in China was happy about the resolution of the border disputes with Russia. Much of what is now the Sino-Russian border was a legacy of treaties between first the Qing Dynasty and the Russia empire, and later the various Chinese governments dealings with the Soviets. Many in China consider these treaties to be ‘unequal’, especially regarding territory in Manchuria and Mongolia. Many in China thought they rightfully deserved the whole of Heixiazi island, not only half.
Still, with property developers ready to move in, and northern China set to benefit from wealthy Russian and Japanese tourists, those who were against the agreement may come to see half as better than nothing.