MOSCOW — China and the Soviet Union signed an agreement Thursday fixing the status of large stretches of their common border, the world's longest, but failed to agree on a disputed island their soldiers once fought over in fierce hand-to-hand combat.
Despite that sizable omission, the document signed by Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh and his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, in a Kremlin ceremony marked a "colossal achievement" in the improving relations between the countries, Soviet China-watcher Sergei N. Goncharov said.
Qian's spokesman, Wu Qianmin, called the document "an event of great meaning." Its signature came on the second day of a visit to Moscow by the Chinese Communist Party leader, Jiang Zemin, who also held talks with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
It was Gorbachev's professed willingness in 1986 to redraw the Sino-Soviet border that went a long way toward defusing one of the most contentious issues between the Communist giants.
With Gorbachev in power, the Soviet Union dropped its historic insistence that the border run along the Chinese banks of the Amur River and its tributary, the Ussuri, and agreed to a mid-channel definition.
Moscow and Beijing resumed border talks in February, 1987, as part of an effort to improve relations after almost three decades of hostility.
The new agreement concerns only the eastern segment of the 4,300-mile border and admittedly not even all of that.
"Both sides touched upon the subject of Damansky Island," Wu told a news conference. "That island is not mentioned in the agreement."
On March 2, 1969, the island, which the Chinese call Chenpao, saw a long-festering political duel erupt into armed conflict. On the island in the Ussuri between Manchuria and the Soviet Union's Maritime Territory, Chinese forces ambushed and mauled a Soviet unit.
Thirteen days later, the Soviets retaliated: A heavy armed battalion fell upon a Chinese garrison on the frozen island and defeated it decisively.
The spilled blood in those clashes between former Communist comrades had far-reaching effects. A large Soviet military buildup in the Far East began, and Chairman Mao Tse-tung began to seek an opening toward the United States.
Both countries saw Thursday's agreement as a point of departure that will lead to the resolution of remaining border disputes. Vitaly N. Churkin, the Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman, hailed the accord as "a major achievement that will facilitate further normalization and stabilization of Sino-Soviet relations."
For his part, Wu said the countries will continue talks "on the unresolved issues, including Damansky Island."