A new situation in Asia has the Western world on edge. The geopolitical seismic shift is a tinderbox that could blow up international relations.
A bromance is blossoming between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
Together, they've declared a new axis of power to counter US "interference". But it's a dangerous bond that could blow up Asia and send shockwaves through the world.
One surprise clash in July marked a seismic shift in international relations.
Two Chinese H-6K strategic bombers threaded their way above international waters to meet up with two Russian Tu-05 "Bear" bombers. They then "probed" the airspace of an island claimed by both South Korea and Japan. It resulted in 300 rounds of cannon fire being shot off as the air forces of four nations squared off in the skies of the Sea of Japan.
An international incident was barely avoided, but that was the least of it.
It represents the creation of a new axis of power: the combined military might of China and Russia. It's confirmation of a new cold war with the Pacific's free democracies, the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea and others.
It's being branded as a "clash of civilisations", but it's really about power.
"Russia and China will exchange information on the interference of the United States in the internal affairs of the two countries," the Beijing state-controlled news service Xinhua says.
It says Moscow is "aware" of statements by Beijing that the US is "interfering" in its internal affairs in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The Kremlin, it says, is treating the situation with "all seriousness".
Moscow has its own concerns: It says the US is inciting ongoing pro-democracy protests in Moscow.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also reportedly accused US secret services of using modern technology to destabilise the two nations — an accusation repeatedly levelled against its own electoral manipulations.
And both nations are struggling under the weight of US-backed international sanctions and trade-war tariffs.
Beijing says the broad scope of this "interference" is driving China and Russia together.
"It is clear that the China-Russian entente has now reached the quality of strategic co-operation partnership in the Western Pacific aimed at countering and deterring the US," an editorial in the state-controlled Global Times reads.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
"Judging by the genuine mutual warmth displayed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their recent get-together in St Petersburg in June, the Russia-China entente is growing ever stronger," the Global Times declares.
Russia began arming Chinese forces more than 30 years ago. While their economic circumstances have changed dramatically, Moscow is still seen as a desirable source of high-technology weaponry. Most recently, this has included the S-400 air defence system and long-range Su-35 fighter jets.
The first joint military exercises began about 15 years ago, gradually growing in scope to include recent joint naval operations in the South China Sea. Last year, China sent a brigade-sized unit to take part in Russia's massive Vostok military exercise in Siberia.
"In the near future, this interaction is set to become closer," the Global Times reports. "The just-released white paper on China's national defence in the new era has made many more references to Russia than its 2015 predecessor, all of them positive."
It also points to what may be to come:
"Military talks would become more frequent, with the parties consulting closely not only about increasing interoperability of their armed forces but also about possible contingencies in places like the Korean Peninsula."
By standing together — and sowing seeds of doubt and distrust among Western allies in the Pacific — Mr Putin and Mr Xi seek to strengthen their own positions.
Moscow and Beijing have been joining forces to enforce influence over what is called the "first island chain". It's a ring of islands linking Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Beijing claims this as its sphere of dominance.
A "second island chain" links Japan, Guam and Papua New Guinea. That's the next step.
Moscow, eager to expand its influence in the Pacific, agrees.
So it has been sending its warships — and now its aircraft — on joint war games with China. Now it's issued a decree recognising the negotiation of a new expanded military co-operation agreement.
It's an alliance identified by China's recent defence white paper, which welcomes a strengthened relationship with Russia as a united front against the "destabilising force" of the United States.
The joint bomber patrol, China's ministry of defence spokesman Wu Qian said, was "aimed at deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership of China and Russia and boosting the strategic co-ordination and joint combat ability of the two nations".
Both statements came just days after the US defence department's Indo-Pacific Strategy Report fingered both China and Russia as seeking to upset the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
"East Asia and the Western Pacific are becoming the world's top area of strategic competition, way ahead of Europe and the Middle East," China's state-controlled Global Times reports. "US military deployments in the area, which have been on the rise for some time, are being met with more co-ordination between China and Russia."
NEW WORLD ORDER
"Putin and Xi are on the same page when it comes to the fundamental concept of a desirable world order," Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank, recently wrote.
It's a vision of international division.
Not of unified international law.
It's a vision of "several independent power centres instead of a single-nation hegemony; protection of state sovereignty from foreign political and ideological influence; and full equality among peers, including the United States".
It rejects the concept of international human rights, of international accountability or standards.
It's about authoritarian rule.
Both Russia and China are single-party states, effectively under the rule of a single person. This puts both leaders at the apex on top of an unsteady pyramid of intimidation, repression and dodgy deals.
So it's in their best interest to keep any form of international law at arm's length.
"Regretfully, certain Western nations lay claims for becoming the world's sole leader," President Putin said in April this year. He went on to accuse the US of his own crimes: "They have been trampling upon the norms and principles of the international law; resorting to blackmail, sanctions and pressure; trying to force whole countries and peoples accept their values and questionable ideals."
But Mr Putin even then telegraphed how he would seek to secure his position.
"The Russian-Chinese co-operation in foreign policy is an important factor in stabilising global affairs, especially because our countries have overlapping or close stances on the key present-day issues," he said.
Beijing has since shared similar sentiments.
"US dual containment of Russia and China is producing a predictable result: the China-Russian strategic co-operation," The Global Times warns. "As they continue to compete, the major powers owe one huge responsibility to themselves and the rest of the world: They must make sure that their power games, heated and nerve-racking as they might become, do not lead to a real collision."