© 2015 Elsevier B.V.. The age spectra obtained from 505 spots of detrital zircon U-Pb ages of five representative sandstone samples from the Sanjiang Basin in NE China point to a significant change in its provenance during the Coniacian-Santonian. The predominant detrital source for the Sanjiang Basin during the early Cretaceous was the Zhangguangcai Range magmatic belt and Jiamusi Block along its western and southern periphery, whereas it changed in the late Cretaceous to its eastern periphery. The timing of these inferred changes in the detrital source regions and drainage patterns nearly coincide with the age of a regional unconformity in and across the basin. The time interval of non-deposition and unconformity development was coeval with a transitional period between an extensional tectonic regime in the early Cretaceous and a contractional deformation episode in the late Cretaceous. The Sanjiang Basin evolved during this time window from a backarc to a foreland basin. The migration of the coastal orogenic belt and the fold and thrust belt development farther inland during the late Cretaceous marked the onset of regional-scale shortening and surface uplift in the upper plate of a flat (or very shallow-dipping) subduction zone. The stratigraphic record, the detrital source and geochronology of the basinal strata, and the internal structure of the Sanjiang Basin present, therefore, an important record of a tectonic switch in the nature of continental margin evolution of Northeast Asia during the late Mesozoic.