The pro-democracy camp, led by the U.S., and the China-Russia alliance of authoritarian regimes are moving to solidify their spheres of influence in many parts of the world.
This state of affairs resembles Japan on the eve of the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The battle was fought by daimyo, feudal warlords who were divided into two camps. One camp, led by Tokugawa Ieyasu, comprised the Eastern Army. The other camp was a coalition of anti-Tokugawa daimyo who led the Western Army. The battle took place a couple of years after the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who completed the 16th-century unification of Japan. Sekigahara is located in present-day Gifu Prefecture, in central Japan.
Pick a side
In a recent Australian TV appearance, Col. Tom Hanson, U.S. Army assistant chief of staff, said: "I think the Australians need to make a choice. It's very difficult to walk this fine line between balancing the alliance with the U.S. and the economic engagement with China." He was indirectly pressing the Australian government to make it clear that Canberra attaches greater importance to its relationship with the U.S. than with China. That was a blunt way to speak to another country, even considering that Hanson is a military officer, not a diplomat.
Hanson's warning is reminiscent of a war council held in Oyama, now a city in Tochigi Prefecture, before the Battle of Sekigahara. Tokugawa Ieyasu urged other warlords to side with the Eastern Army or the Western Army.
China appears determined to bring the South China Sea under its control using military bases built on the artificial islands it has constructed, despite a ruling by an international tribunal in July rejecting China's claims to most of the sea. China underscored that determination by launching large-scale naval exercises on Sept. 12 with Russia in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has deployed strategic bombers in Guam and South Korea to keep China in check. Vietnam has lately deployed mobile rocket launchers, capable of striking Chinese military installations, to several of the islands it controls in the South China Sea. On Aug. 18, the first of 10 patrol boats supplied by Japan arrived in Manila. The boats are aimed at helping the Philippines beef up its coast guard.
Skirmishes old and new
Returning to our ancient Japanese arena, before the final showdown in Sekigahara, the Eastern and Western armies began skirmishing in western Japan. Similarly, on Aug. 16, Russian military forces conducted airstrikes against Syrian militants using strategic bombers sent from an air base in Iran. Although Moscow and Tehran have had cooperative military relations for some time, the strikes marked the first time Iran offered Russian forces the use of its military facilities, a move that surprised military analysts around the world.
On Aug. 24, a U.S. Navy patrol ship in the Persian Gulf fired warning shots at a fast-attack craft belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps after the craft got too close for comfort.
Adding to the volatility is an apparent shift in the strategic balance in the Middle East. As Turkey's relations with the U.S. and Europe worsen in the wake of a failed coup in July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Aug. 9. The two agreed to work to improve bilateral relations. During the Cold War, Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, long kept a watchful eye on the Soviet Union's southern flank.
Turkey's apparent defection to the opposing side has yet another historical parallel to the Batle of Sekigahara. Kato Kiyomasa and Fukushima Masanori were one-time proteges of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, to whom they owed much for their rise as warlords. But they sided with the Tokugawa camp, not least because of their feud with Ishida Mitsunari, the de facto commander of the Western Army in the Battle of Sekigahara.
Kato Kiyomasa and Fukushima Masanori were exploited by Tokugawa Ieyasu, a highly experienced lord, and discarded once he had established his shogunate. Defectors and spies often fail to win the respect of those they help. The latest question in the present-day struggle for dominance in Asia is what role Erdogan's Turkey and the Philippines under China-friendly President Rodrigo Duterte will play.
In Europe, Sweden and Finland were not allied with either the Western or Eastern bloc during the Cold War, opting instead for armed neutrality. This summer, however, the two Scandinavian countries took part in NATO military exercises. Finland is reportedly working to forge a defense accord with NATO. Their cozying up to the Western military alliance in the face of a resurgent Russia is not unlike the response of daimyos who felt compelled by the growing might of Tokugawa Ieyasu to pick a side.
Heading toward a clash?
There are three reasons why a two-way split similar to what happened on the eve of the Battle of Sekigahara is occurring today. First, China continues to enhance its military capabilities as its economy grows. Russia is recovering in military terms, and both are challenging the current international order by displaying their military might.
Second, alarmed by these moves, military and intelligence organizations in the U.S., the U.K. and other Western countries (including Japan) are beginning to respond in kind. Third, both camps are trying to win over other countries to their side in an era when the line between peacetime and wartime has blurred due to growing cyberattacks and other factors.
As some experts in Japanese history see it, the Western Army was doomed to defeat in the Battle of Sekigahara, because despite its military superiority and an advantageous position on the battlefield, it lacked the solidarity to fight effectively. Shimazu Yoshihiro, the veteran military commander from the Shimazu clan in Satsuma (now Kagoshima Prefecture), argued the Western Army should attack the headquarters of Tokugawa Ieyasu at the opening of the battle. If Ishida Mitsunari had been a shrewd and capable military leader, he would have adopted Shimazu's plan. Shimazu's forces showed their prowess as a mobile fighting force late in the battle, when they forced their way through enemy lines, along with the forces of Ukita Hideie, a key unit of the Western Army. These two groups might have been able to assault the Tokugawa headquarters. If that attack had been carried out, it might have prevented a string of betrayals within the Western Army ranks, such as that of the forces of Kobayakawa Hideaki.
It remains to be seen who will emerge victorious in the present-day struggle between the democrats and the authoritarians. Unlike the Battle of Sekigahara, which ended in half a day, today's split, characterized by "warfare in peacetime," is likely to be prolonged. Both camps would lose too much if they resort to war too readily.
What is certain is that when it comes to a war or a strategic contest, the camp blessed with better leaders often comes out on top. In that respect, a look at the U.S., which in the postwar world has been the leader of the "free world," makes many people uneasy. The prospect of a faltering America is a frightening one for those who favor the democratic camp.
TETSURO KOSAKA, Nikkei senior staff writer