China and Russia settled a territorial dispute Monday when Russia agreed to return Yinlong Island (known as Tarabarov Island in Russian) and half of Heixiazi Island (Bolshoi Ussuriysky) to China. The 67 square miles of territory are on the northeast border with China.
No doubt some would read this as China flexing its growing international muscle. After all, who'd thought Putin and Medvedev's Russia would voluntarily cede its territories, no matter how small.
Besides, the sprouting Chinese presence in the Russian Far East, particularly in Vladivostock, has been viewed with ill ease by ordinary Russians. They're not comforted by the fact that many Chinese continue to refer to the port city by its Mandarin name Haishenwai (海参崴), even though the erstwhile Manchu fishing village has not been under Chinese sovereignty since 1860.
For over a century, Chinese school children were taught that Vladivostock, and a good chunk of the Russian Far East, were given to Czarist Russia in the unequal treaties of Aigun (1858) and Peking (1860). Near the nadir of its existence, a weak Qing Dynasty, fearful of the superior guns and boats of the west, surrendered acres of its ancestral lands without a shot being fired.
As China grew in strength over the last quarter century, the Chinese sought to right some historical wrongs. Flush with cash, China also had the option of settling border disputes without the use of force. The framework of the agreement was first negotiated in 1991 and continued through 2004. On the surface, the Chinese seemed to be getting the better of the Russians.
While the Chinese were busy earning the all-important "face" for the benefit of an increasingly nationalistic populace, Russia got what it wanted, too. For the price of a few small islands on and around the Amur River, Russia got China -- at least the PRC -- to renounce all future claims in the Russian Far East.
But the real worrisome fact from this China-Russia peace fest was just that. Once bitter rivals who fought several border skirmishes along a frozen river, China and Russia, each with its own anti-West ambitions, are closer than ever. Joined by a common desire to check American hegemony, the former communist rivals are putting their differences aside.
Any wonder why these guys are getting along famously at U.N. Security Council meetings?