TOKYO -- The world in 2014 experienced a series of conflicts that shook up the existing international order. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. China turned up the volume of its saber rattling toward its neighbors around the East and South China seas. And the extremist Islamic State group took more territory in Iraq and Syria.
The new year will likely see more erosion of the old world order. In 12 months, it should be clear that the globe has split into three blocs.
The first of these blocs is non-democratic which includes countries like China and Russia. China appears almost ready to deploy patrol submarines armed with nuclear-tipped missiles. The country has made significant progress toward establishing a nuclear deterrence against the U.S. It continues to pose a military threat in Asia and has a significant number of highly advanced fighter jets and medium-range ballistic missiles.
Russia is keen to regain the former Soviet Union's status as a military superpower. It recently announced to resume sending patrol bombers over the Gulf of Mexico; it had halted these long-range missions after the Cold War ended around 1991. China and Russia plan to conduct joint naval drills in the Pacific Ocean in 2015. They also have plans for exercises in the Mediterranean Sea.
Despite speculation about deteriorating relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, China continues to provide North Korea with crude oil. The Kim Jong Un regime actually enjoys the backing of both China and Russia. Russia also maintains close ties with authoritarian governments in countries like Syria and Iran.
The second bloc is Islamist and militant. It is made up of groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaida and Boko Haram, which have global reach. In 2014, the U.S. and several European and Middle Eastern allies launched airstrikes on Islamic State targets. There are no prospects for an early completion to this mission. Escalation is more likely: Terrorist organizations in Africa and elsewhere have offered to join with the Islamic State group to fight the U.S.-led coalition.
The third bloc, of democratic nations, is under intense pressure from the rise of the first and second blocs. It consists of European countries, the U.S., Japan and Australia. In the wake of Russia's aggression in the Ukraine and the ongoing crisis there, the U.S. and Europe have been recasting the role of NATO so the alliance can respond faster to newly emerging threats.
To contain China's maritime militarism, Japan, the U.S. and Australia have held joint naval drills and are working together to develop a fleet of new submarines.
However, a functioning democracy involves real power shifts that always lead to inconsistent policymaking, which in turn hampers policy implementation. Budgetary constrictions also hinder today's democracies.
In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are in good, authoritarian positions to pursue consistent policies, which include military buildups. Countries with authoritarian leaders, therefore, have more opportunities to quickly expand their spheres of influence. Putin's seizure of Crimea is a perfect example.
The Islamic State group is actively encouraging its supporters in countries involved in the U.S.-led coalition to launch terror attacks at home. The call is intended to arouse panic and fear. It is also meant to persuade Canada and Australia to leave the coalition.
In 2015, the non-democratic camp and the Islamic extremist bloc are expected to try to dissolve the world order by striking soft targets. The East and South China seas, as well as Moldova, which borders the Ukraine, and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are likely flashpoints. If the Islamic State group can chip away at the U.S. and European powers, China and Russia would benefit.
Conflicts in the Middle East could also trigger armed clashes in Asia, Europe and other regions.
Because the world was divided into blocs before World War I and World War II, chain reactions began and took off like wildfire. The current situation is somewhat similar.