Treaties of Aigun and Beijing

Treaties of Aigun
Treaties of Aigun

The Russian Empire made important gains at the expense of China between 1858–60. The Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty’s easy defeat by Great Britain in the first Anglo-Chinese Opium War had made its glaring weakness apparent to the world. Russian leaders, including Czar Nicholas I, feared British dominance in East Asia and resolved to expand into Chinese territory first.

In 1847 Nicholas appointed Nikolai Muraviev, an energetic proponent of Russian imperialism, governor of Eastern Siberia. Muraviev built up a large Russian force that included Cossack units, a naval squadron in the Far East, and set up forts and settlements along the Amur River valley in areas that the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) between Russia and China had recognized as Chinese territory.

The small and ill-equipped Chinese frontier garrison in the region was no match for the Russians when Muraviev demanded in May 1858 that China recognize Russian sovereignty on the land north of the Amur riverbank.

With more than 20,000 troops and naval support, he was able to force the Chinese representative to agree to the Treaty of Aigun, named after the frontier town where the meeting took place.

Under its terms, China ceded to Russia 185,000 square miles of land from the left bank of the Amur River down to the Ussuri River and agreed that the territory between the Ussuri and the Pacific Ocean would be held in common pending a future settlement.

The Chinese government was furious with the terms and refused to ratify the treaty but was helpless because of the ongoing Taiping Rebellion and others and a war with Great Britain and France, known as the Second Anglo-Chinese Opium War.

Events played into Russian hands in 1860, because resumed warfare between China and Britain and France had led to the capture of capital city Beijing (Peking) by British and French forces.

The incompetent Qing emperor Xianfeng (Hsien-feng) and his court fled to Rehe (Jehol) Province to the north and left his younger brother Prince Gong (Kung) in charge. Russia was represented in Beijing at this juncture by the wily ambassador Nikolai Ignatiev, who had recently arrived to secure Chinese ratification of the Treaty of Aigun.

Ignatiev offered to mediate between the two opposing sides; by deception, maneuvering, and ingratiating himself to both parties he scored a great victory for Russia in the supplementary Treaty of Beijing in November 1860.

It affirmed Russian gains under the Treaty of Aigun and secured exclusive Russian ownership of land east of the Ussuri River to the Pacific Ocean to Korea’s border, an additional 133,000 square miles, including the port Vladivostok (meaning “ruler of the East” in Russian).

In addition Russia received the same extraterritorial rights and the right to trade in the ports that Britain and France had won by war. China also opened two additional cities for trade with Russia located in Mongolia and Xinjiang (Sinkiang) along land routes.

Through astute diplomacy and by taking advantage of the weak and declining Qing dynasty Russia was able to score huge territorial gains from China without firing a shot between 1858 and 1860.