The Ukraine crisis may well become a tipping point, sealing the fate of Eurasian alignments. The Western push to punish and isolate Russia is drawing Moscow closer to Beijing, which, tellingly, has taken a stance of benevolent neutrality towards the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine and its takeover of Crimea. One may suspect that, in exchange, Beijing would expect from Moscow the same kind of "benevolent neutrality" regarding its assertions in East Asia and the Western Pacific.
Those who are wary of the honeymoon between Korea and China say that the current bilateral relationship is like a big snake wrapped around a rabbit. It is an awful comparison. But if we are overly carried away by the closest relationship with China since Korea tied a diplomatic knot with the superpower in 1992 and fall into Xi's dream of regaining the glory of the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty -- who controlled Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mongolia and other islands of the East and South China Seas -- then inter-Korean relations, Korea-U.S. ties and Korea-Japan relations will cross a bridge of no return.
Xi Jinping and his associates at the top levels of the Chinese government have been on the move. They have been pushing a society-wide anti-corruption campaign, targeting in particular some high-ranking rivals, and in recent weeks have been unusually aggressive with their neighbors Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, unusually harsh in their anti-U.S. rhetoric, and unusually repressive of dissident voices inside China. They have moved to re-shape the internal workings of the government to concentrate more power in personal authority at the top and less in written rules or in government bureaucracies. They have floated the idea of a new Chinese "strongman," clearly intending to suggest that Xi Jinping might be one. Mao Zedong is the best model for all of this, but Xi Jinping is no Mao, and how things will actually end up is anyone's guess.
Chairman Mao's "little red book" is no longer a fashion accessory in Beijing, but China's leaders seem to be drawing inspiration from one of its aphorisms: "There is great disorder under the Heavens and the situation is excellent." Judging by the calculatedly risky steps they have taken -- like moving a gigantic drilling rig deep into Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone -- China seems to have concluded that, with the West preoccupied with Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, Southeast Asia divided over how to respond to its aggressive moves, and with Japan and the U.S. unsure as to how respond to North Korea's saber rattling, the situation is indeed excellent.
Both men are taking a turn toward nationalism as they confront internal threats to their leadership. Both countries are facing a slowdown in economic growth that has been the cornerstone of popular support over the past decade, and both are seeing increasing public anger over corruption at the highest levels of government.