Shared Island between China and Russia to Become Eco-Tourist Zone

Heixiazi Island has long been a thorn in the side of peaceful Sino-Russian relations. In essence a 126 mi² (327 km²) sandbar bordered by the Amur and Ussuri Rivers (Heilongjiang and Wusuli Rivers, in Chinese), the island was seized by the Soviet Union in 1929 during a border clash.

Since then, both Heixiazi Island (Bolshoi Urrusiysky Island, in Russian) and the adjacent Yinlong Island (Tarabarov Island, in Russian) have remained in Soviet/Russian hands but China has relentlessly pursued its claim to both.

With the demise of the USSR and the rise of economic activity between China and Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the time was right to put the longstanding border dispute to rest.

The linchpin of the landmark border demarcation agreement signed by the two countries in July of 2008 was the status of the river islands which will be divided north to south.

More importantly, in November of 2010 the premiers of China and Russia issued a joint communique pledging to develop the islands together for mutual benefit.

The ultimate aim is to create a visa-free, eco-tourist zone that will make Heixiazi Island a popular leisure travel destination.

On July 20th of 2011, veteran China-watchers and local villagers witnessed an event they never thought they'd see when 150 Chinese tourists disembarked on the first official tour of Heixiazi Island. More will soon follow: authorities have approved a 6-hour boat tour and a separate land tour.

There are currently two tours designed for the island: a six-hour ship tour and a land tour. Among the highlights of the land tour are a former Russian military camp, the  former stone border marker and a designated rest spot from which visitors can enjoy an early sunrise. “I'm so lucky to be part of the first group of tourists to visit Heixiazi,” stated Yu Zaifu, who lives in the nearby city of Harbin. “I have been longing for this moment for quite a long time, and today I finally made it!”

The popularity of the new Heixiazi Island tours bodes well for the area's future as it  courts the trendy eco-tourism crowd with carefully guided, environmentally-friendly development from both China and Russia. About 75 percent of the Chinese side of the island has already been marked off for a wetland reserve.

In addition, the forests, meadows and swamps on Heixiazi Island have been found to harbor 7 species of endangered plants and 44 species of endangered animals. “The research that will be conducted on the island's ecosystem will mean a lot for local environmental protection and economic development,” explained Yan Shentang, an engineer with the forestry planning bureau in China's northeastern province of Heilongjiang.

Above all, the peaceful (and potentially profitable) plans for Heixiazi Island could serve as a precedent for a number of other border disputes involving China, Russia, Japan, Korea and other East Asian nations. Share, demilitarize, protect... profit? (via Xinhuanet and CRI)