Threats of war are coming from a new alliance. Led by Russia and China this “Axis of Outcasts” also contains such troubled stakes as North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Venezuela and anyone else who is an outcast in the international community. This is eerily similar to the 20th century coalitions that, in the two World Wars, were the enemy (that is, the side that lost). This 20th century axis of outcasts had at its core Germany and Austria, plus Turkey and Bulgaria during World War I and, during World War II Italy joined what was called the “Axis” along with Japan and several smaller nations. Turkey wisely decided to sit out World War II and what was left of the Austrian Empire was absorbed into Germany before the war began.
Then as now, the axis began with a vibrant new economic superpower (Germany then, China now) looking for more respect, territory and a “place in the sun.” The 20th century axis also had a declining empire (Austria-Hungary) playing the part of the hapless sidekick during World War I while Italy assumed that role in World War II. These days the loser sidekick is Russia, an empire no more but still eager to recapture past glories at any cost. Both China and Russia have collected allies in the form of outcast nations who do business with China and Russia because these two dictatorships have long had a policy of dealing with anyone who could pay, no matter how nasty and dysfunctional the customer was.
What is different in the 21st century is that the two major players in the axis are also rivals. While Germany was definitely the dominant power in the axis alliance for both World Wars in the 21st century both China and Russia are trying to create and lead coalitions and are often competing. Neither are as successful at it as Germany was in the early 20th century but both Russia and China keep at it.
In the early 1990s, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed by Russia. The CIS was sort of a successor of the Soviet Union. But after the 1990s, the CIS began to fall apart. Some members, especially Armenia, Ukraine, Georgia and Turkmenistan, drifted away. Or at least tried to. Apparently you could join the CIS, but not leave it and those frictions turned the CIS into a powerless fiction by the 21st century.
China has been more successful, but not by much, with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This is a regional security forum founded in Shanghai in 2001 by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China. The main purpose of the SCO was originally fighting Islamic terrorism. Russia, however, hoped to build the SCO into a counterbalance against NATO. SCO members conduct joint military exercises, mostly for show. They also share intel on terrorists, which is often useful. Iran, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Turkey also want to join the SCO. These nations are allowed to send observers to meetings. China has put more emphasis on economic cooperation because greater Chinese economic power means that China is replacing Russia as the principal investor and trading partner throughout Eurasia, especially areas long considered “Russian” like Central Asia. Russia does not like to dwell on this, because it means China is expanding its economic and political power at Russian expense. On paper China is now the dominant military power in Eurasia, a fact that Russia prefers to downplay. Many Russians fear that the aggression China is demonstrating with India and everyone bordering the South China Sea will eventually be turned towards Russia as well. What may be delaying this is another big difference between the 20th and 21st century coalitions. Today all the major powers have nukes. For the second half of the 20th century the nuclear weapons discouraged outright wars between the major powers. But both China and Russia are pushing the limits on the unwritten peace deal and there is growing fear that the nuclear peace may be coming to an end.
The SCO also, unofficially, exists to keep the peace between China and Russia over economic rivalries in Central Asia. At the moment, China is winning the race to develop large oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and become the major investor and exporter in Central Asia. China needs the energy, and is willing to pay whatever it takes. With a much larger economy than Russia, China is better able to invest and export. Since the Central Asian nations are run by corrupt leaders, often dictators, the Chinese have an easy, if expensive, way to gaining control of natural resources and markets.
The 21st Century Axis is less stable than the 20th century ones although in both centuries the major nations in the coalition managed to independently start wars that then merged into one vast conflagration. This is especially true during World War II when Germany got several wars going in Europe while Japan set East Asia on fire. Today we have Russia threatening to set East Europe ablaze while China threatens most of its neighbors. Given the dependence of both countries on exports (oil and gas for Russia, manufactured goods for China) for internal stability, triggering a major war is a very risky business. The exports and economy angle was less of a factor in the 20th century but was still there and was swept away by risk-taking leaders who were willing to gamble big and lose everything. That is an old story, repeated endlessly throughout thousands of years of recorded history. And here it is again.