There’s a whiff of the 1930s in the air in East Asia today

Could land and glory-hungry authoritarians conclude a standing alliance, an “Axis” of the type that bound Germany, Italy, and Japan to one another back then? Possibly. Few bonds of affection would hold a concert of evildoers together, but they might manage to collaborate for a while until their visions of a new regional or world order came into conflict. Germany and Japan could stand together because they lay on far sides of the world. (They did each other little good for the same reason.) Or, more likely, modern-day heirs of Hitler and Stalin might negotiate some sort of temporary non-aggression treaty, a Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of their own, in order to get part of what they wanted while postponing conflict between them.

Either way, what are today’s counterparts to Poland—the territories that adjoin both parties and appear susceptible to invasion and partition? There would be few direct candidates if China and Russia struck such a deal. Mongolia would fit the template from a purely geographic standpoint, lying squarely between them. Korea is a half-island grafted onto the East Asian landmass that shares frontiers with both China and the Russian Far East. Kazakhstan lies to China’s west and Russia’s south and once fell under Soviet rule. None of these prospective acquisitions seem especially rewarding as seen from Beijing or Moscow. In fact, if Chinese potentates were to cast covetous eyes northward, their gaze would alight on Russian Siberia as soon as it would Mongolia. Land hunger is land hunger. That would spell trouble for the partnership.