The Treaty of Nerchinsk, penned in 1689, was a historic agreement between Russia and China. Besides being the first agreement by China with any western nation, it also brought semi-permanent borders to a colonial region, as well as re-uniting two groups who had once been unified under the Mongol conquests of 400 years prior. Most importantly, the treaty was unique in being a success for the Chinese rather than a European colonial power.

The treaty became necessary partially due to the Russian expansion across Siberia and partially because of the, then current, trend for China towards strengthening its ties with the nomadic peoples north of China (Mongolia and areas north of Manchuria) of the areas past the point of tribute collection only. Eventually this would result in Russia and China’s claims overlapping.

The Russian colonization of Siberia, during the 17th century, had been lightning quick in the scope of land claimed by the Russians. Colonization was primarily achieved through the use of Cossacks, who would move steadily eastward and build and fortify forts along a broad stretch of land. The few native peoples then came under the sway of Russia and paid their new tributes generally in the form of furs or precious metals. Overall there was very little colonization in the literal sense by bringing Russians to the new lands, just an acquisition of land under a military presence.

By the mid-17th century Cossacks had reached the Amur River in southeastern Siberia. The first expedition of the Amur region had been foolhardy and the Cossack unit that scouted the area had been said to resort to cannibalism, of the local Dauri population, in order to survive. Whether or not this was true, the Dauri believed it and would be very wary of the next Russia party that moved through the area.

One Erofei Khabarov would become the second Cossack to explore the area. In 1650 he led an expedition into Amur that would wreak devastation on the area. His force looted and burned all they found from Yakutsk, Russia’s then easternmost settlement, to the junction of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers. His main act that would go down in history though was the sacking, looting and burning of Albazin. The village, after being devastated by the Cossacks under Khabarov was rebuilt and fortified as an outpost. Unfortunately, it was now claimed by two empires, the Middle Kingdom and Russia. The Dauri complaints to their nominal liege in China would not go unheeded.

The Qing leaders in China responded to the Dauri complaints and sent a force to deal with the Russians. Meanwhile, Russia sent one Count Golovin to take over the defense of the area. The Russians though were forced back to the town of Nerchinsk, which was fortified and became the Russian headquarters in the area. Meanwhile Albazin was abandoned and became a headquarters to brigands. These brigands, who preyed on Russian, Chinese and Dauri alike, would force the Treaty of Nerchinsk over which Count Golovin, the first true Russian statesman, would preside for the Russian forces.

The Treaty of Nerchinsk

This treaty was different to almost all the Chinese treaties with European powers that would follow it. In most part, the treaty was pre-Westphalian; meaning that borders were only generally set. Part of the reason for the vague land claims was that neither side had a real understanding of the lay of the land with absolutely no surveys ever considered by the Chinese and none done by the Russians. Whole swathes of land were placed specifically under one side, but where borders came into play the treaty was vague at best. Another difference here was that China was in a position of strength at the time and Russia of weakness. In fact, it is said that the actual treaty was signed on the Russian’s part by a Russia delegation that was at that moment surrounded by Manchu forces.

Via the treaty:

  • The present-day Amur Province of Russia was given to China.
  • The southern half of the Khabarovsk region was assigned to China, as well as the whole of the maritime region associated with Khabarovsk.
  • Borders were non-specific, partially because China didn’t operate under the European view of borders and partially because no surveys of the area existed, and were left rather fluid. More specific, the areas agreed upon where generally regions with borders only to be guessed upon within a range.
  • In some areas no border was actually agreed upon and it was left unclaimed by both sides.

After the Treaty

The treaty was barely enforced for the next 40 years, with both Russia and China busy with border wars in other areas. During the next two hundred years though the Russians began the forced migration of peoples from the west into their claimed areas and the extensive development of fortifications and infrastructure across the entire area; and so it was that, with Russia’s rise in the world over this time and China’s continued fall in relation to Europe’s colonial powers, the next treaties between Russia and China would completely reverse China’s diplomatic coup of 1689.

Treaty of Aigun (1858)
Treaty of Peking (1860)

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