As China asserts itself in its nearby seas and Russia wages war in Syria and Ukraine, it is easy to assume that Eurasia’s two great land powers are showing signs of newfound strength. But the opposite is true: increasingly, China and Russia flex their muscles not because they are powerful but because they are weak. Unlike Nazi Germany, whose power at home in the 1930s fueled its military aggression abroad, today’s revisionist powers are experiencing the reverse phenomenon. In China and Russia, it is domestic insecurity that is breeding belligerence. This marks a historical turning point: for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell, the United States finds itself in a competition among great powers.
Economic conditions in both China and Russia are steadily worsening. Ever since energy prices collapsed in 2014, Russia has been caught in a serious recession. China, meanwhile, has entered the early stages of what promises to be a tumultuous transition away from double-digit annual GDP growth; the stock market crashes it experienced in the summer of 2015 and January 2016 will likely prove a mere foretaste of the financial disruptions to come.
China and Russia may forge a tactical alliance based on their compatible authoritarian systems and aimed at managing their frontier areas and standing up to the West.
Given the likelihood of increasing economic turmoil in both countries, their internal political stability can no longer be taken for granted. In the age of social media and incessant polling, even autocrats such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin feel the need for public approval. Already, these leaders no doubt suffer from a profound sense of insecurity, as their homelands have long been virtually surrounded by enemies, with flatlands open to invaders. And already, they are finding it harder to exert control over their countries’ immense territories, with potential rebellions brewing in their far-flung regions.
The world has seen the kind of anarchy that ethnic, political, and sectarian conflict can cause in small