War drums in Asia: back to the European future?

opinion February 15, 2014 00:00

By Alistair Burnett

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Old grievances and shifting balance of power spur Asian tensions that echo 1914

Historical analogies often take the place of analysis – even more so when the implications of analogy are too horrendous to be spelled out. As we prepare to mark the centenary of the outbreak of First World War, ominous parallels are being drawn between rising tension between Japan and China and that between Germany and Britain before the outbreak of the world war. Such comparisons are relevant. China and the United States and its ally, Japan, today may not be the mirror image of European powers which came to blows, but the cascading alliances that led to the conflagration in 1914 still hold lessons for today.
The parallel to 1914 grabbed international headlines when, during a meeting in Davos Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the situation between China and Japan was similar to that between Germany and Britain a century ago. Officials tried to clarify afterwards, insisting Abe had not suggested there would be a war. By evoking 1914, the prime minister knew the image he conjured.
The reaction to Abe’s comments suggest that drawing analogies between 2014 and 1914 may not only be potentially misleading, it can also add to the tension: China responded by accusing Japan of being a “troublemaker” – the role many have ascribed to Germany in the run-up to the First World War.
If those 1914 comparisons are to hold true, then China would be seen as playing the role of Germany, the rising power, challenging the established power, the United States, in the role Britain played a century ago. This is often called “the Thucydides Trap”, named for the Ancient Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, during which Sparta had confronted the rising power of Athens.
Washington and Beijing are clearly wary of each other, yet it’s also clear both want to avoid conflict. While the Chinese economy will continue growing faster and top US GDP in the next decade or so, the two countries are economically and financially interdependent. China is also modernising its military and developing its navy and air force, so it can secure the sea lanes it now depends on to import the energy and raw materials on which its economy depends, and this challenges the US dominance of the seas in Asia maintained since the Second World War.
The Obama administration has pursued its “rebalance” or “pivot” to Asia for the past three years. This has involved focusing military as well as economic attention on the region and has raised suspicions in China where many see it as a Cold War-style containment policy. American officials insist the pivot is not containment and avoid any appearances of the US calling the Chinese out; instead US officials are urging Beijing to be more transparent about its military capabilities and to develop crisis management mechanisms so accidental conflict can be avoided.
For its part, President Xi Jinping’s government is calling for a new type of great power relations with the US, and although it’s not clear yet exactly what this means in practice, Beijing seems to want to improve relations with Washington.
Yet tension in East Asia is rising – especially between China and Japan. Unlike relations between Germany and Britain 100 years ago, the present-day tension between China and Japan has its roots in past conflicts between the two countries.
Many Chinese do not think the Japanese leadership has fully accepted the country’s responsibility for the invasion of China in the 1930s and 1940s. Chinese students learn about the widespread atrocities committed by Japanese forces in gory detail, while Japanese nationalists play down the details and China says many Japanese textbooks whitewash the invasion – all of which means there’s been no real reconciliation. China and Japan also have a long-running territorial dispute over control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea arising out of the first Sino-Japanese war of the modern era in the 1890s. The islands were annexed by Japan after that war in 1895, but 50 years later, after the Second World War, unlike other territories conquered by the Japanese, they were not returned to China, but instead occupied by the Americans. By the time the United States decided it didn’t need the islands in the early 1970s, China was ruled by the Communist Party and Japan was a US ally, so Washington returned the islands to Japanese control.  
Growing more powerful in recent years, China has increased pressure on Japan to acknowledge there is a dispute over the islands. China now regularly sends ships and planes to patrol near the islands, the Japanese respond with patrols of their own, and the likelihood of an accidental clash is increasing.
So even if comparisons with 1914 are off the mark, conflict between China and Japan could still be a possibility.
Abe is a seen as a nationalist who would like Japan to move on from the pacifism imposed on it by the United States after 1945. He may not go as far as changing the pacifist elements of the constitution, but he wants to change Japan’s defence posture, so the armed forces take a more assertive role – up to now, Japan has relied heavily on the United States to defend the areas around it – and he justifies this by pointing at China’s growing military capabilities and doubts over Beijing’s intentions.  
In Beijing, Xi is focused on reforming the economy and cleaning up the corruption that’s undermining the Communist Party’s legitimacy, which would suggest he does not want a war. But for his reforms to succeed, maintaining tension with Tokyo and a sense of threat from abroad is useful as it encourages loyalty to the centre. Xi will also need support of the military and security apparatus for his reforms as he takes on vested interests in the party leadership, provincial governments and large state enterprises, and this makes compromise with Japan more difficult. Chinese public opinion is also hostile to Japan, evident in opinion polls, social media and the ease with which anti-Japanese boycotts occur.
So, domestic politics as well as geopolitics are driving both China and Japan to be more assertive, and this worries Washington. When Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine for Japanese war dead at the end of December, it not only stoked tension with China and South Korea which issued strong protests, the United States publicly stated it was “disappointed”.
In his comments at Davos, Abe, presumably thinking of the strong trade links between his country and China, said the economic links between Germany and Britain did not prevent war in 1914. Some listening to the Japanese prime minister came away with the impression he thinks pecuniary interests may not be strong enough to deter a military clash.
If a conflict between Beijing and Tokyo were to break out, the US could not bank on its other ally in the region, Seoul, given the tense relations between South Korea and Japan which have their own territorial and historical disputes. So Washington would choose between honouring its defence treaty with Japan and avoiding direct conflict with China. As Washington would stand to lose the trust of many allies in the region and is not noted for eating humble pie, the odds would suggest support for Japan. So if there is any parallel with 1914, it could turn out to be in how cascading alliance commitments can cause a wider war.  
Alistair Burnett is the editor of “The World Tonight”, a BBC News programme.