It has recently become increasingly obvious that China and Russia together seek to challenge the current international ‘rules based system.’ The U.S.- enforced liberal internationalism of the last three decades may soon give way, at least partially by force, to a more traditional, realist world order dominated by a series of regional great powers. For various reasons, Russia and China are among those prospective powers, especially for fear of strategic vulnerability, a desire to control resources necessary to their economies and normative claims to regional dominance.
On one hand, Russia may have sufficient resources within its borders to drive necessary elements of its economy, but its borders themselves are a liability to protecting its own resources in any potential Western aggression. A buffer zone consisting of eastern European states is viewed as a Russian geopolitical necessity, driving its current strategy of brigandry which aims to overturn some of those states’ accession processes to American-led institutions and deter others from even thinking about drifting further into the American sphere of influence.
On the other hand, China’s domestic politics demand access to raw materials, especially oil, which has driven it to regard the United States’ influence over countries in its immediate proximity as an intolerable affront to its national interests. Taiwan is especially important in this respect, not only for the historical significance, but also because essential shipping from the South China Sea to Shanghai would be fully secured if China exercised direct control over the island, among other reasons.
Both nations also seek to regain a lost sense of pride. Putin has referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 21st century,” while Xi Jinping calls for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Russia and China each feel, to some extent, that they are entitled to more recognition than offered in the current international order and will take the means they see fit to gain that recognition.
Whether or not Russia and China will succeed in remaking the international order as they see fit remains to be seen. The most significant problems each nation faces are domestic. As I've described in a previous column, China faces significant demographic problems which will be hard to overcome to maintain economic growth and sustain its great power ambitions beyond the next decade. As for Russia, many parts of its economy are reliant on skilled Soviet workers who are now retiring, spelling trouble down the road. The biggest thing which Russia and China have on their side is that some American leaders, tapping into the public’s largely non-interventionist streak, have begun turning away from maintaining the unipolar status quo, providing an opportunity to be seized. Exact outcomes of current international dynamics may still be extremely uncertain, but one thing is clear: An extremely chaotic and almost certainly violent period of global history lies ahead as Russia and China attempt to retain global relevance and take advantage of a receding America.