A Sea of Troubles: Asia Today Compared to Europe Before World War I

In separate opinion pieces this week, two former Asian foreign ministers likened Asia now to pre–World War I Europe, then strung together by a tangle of imperial enmities and alliances

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ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP / Getty Images

A demonstrator is seen behind a flag of the People's Republic of China during a protest over disputed islands in the East China Sea at the Japanese embassy in Budapest on Sept. 24, 2012

Despite no one wanting to see conflict in Asia, the ranks of doomsayers and worrywarts seem to grow by the day. The specter haunting the continent is that of China’s geo-political rise. Governments near and far are watching warily as the budding nondemocratic superpower asserts itself on the international stage, tacitly challenging a Pax Americana that has existed since 1945. Some countries are already locked in combustible disputes with Beijing: the region’s waters have been roiled in recent years by standoffs over barren islands to China’s south and east; Chinese relations with Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines all soured as a result.

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The climate of tensions is thick enough to have drawn comparisons to a perilous moment a century ago. In separate opinion pieces this week, two former Asian foreign ministers likened Asia now to pre–World War I Europe, then strung together by a tangle of imperial enmities and alliances. The South China Sea — a pivotal, strategic body of water that China considers its “internal lake,” much to the ire of its neighbors — is, like the Balkans a hundred years ago, the supposed tinderbox that could spark a larger regional conflagration, if not a full-fledged war. Here’s Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister:

Like the Balkans a century ago, riven by overlapping alliances, loyalties and hatreds, the strategic environment in East Asia is complex. At least six states or political entities are engaged in territorial disputes with China, three of which are close strategic partners of the United States.

The perceived decline of Washington’s Pacific supremacy, at least set against China’s growing power, forms the backdrop to all the festering territorial disputes. The rules of the game are changing in the region and the uncertainty that creates raises the risk of confrontation. Yoon Young-kwan, a former South Korean Foreign Minister, points to another early 20th century parallel:

Back then, Great Britain’s relative power was in decline, while Germany’s had been rising since unification in 1871. Similarly, at least in terms of economic capability, the United States and Japan seem to have begun a process of decline relative to China. Major power shifts define eras in which key political leaders are likely to make serious foreign policy mistakes. Poor management of international relations at such critical junctures has often led to major wars.

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I don’t know of a Vietnamese fishing trawler named the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nor of a barren shoal called Sarajevo. Diplomacy is creaking along: Tokyo last week sent an envoy to hand-deliver a letter from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Chinese leader Xi Jinping; Xi agreed to consider a summit on territorial disputes. While talk of war is indeed alarmist, there are obvious reasons for concern. The main one is the hardening nationalism throughout the region. From Japan to India — and almost everywhere in between — bellicose rhetoric has been dialed up. China’s new leader Xi has promised no compromise on his country’s already absolutist claim to territories contested by others; some hawkish Chinese military officers can now speak of being able to “strike first” and wage “short, sharp wars.”

You can hear in that burgeoning confidence echoes of late 19th century Germany. Historians have already connected the dots linking China’s authoritarian state with that constructed by Germany’s architect, the Prussian Otto von Bismarck. The proud nationalism of Kaiser Wilhelm II isn’t out of place in contemporary China, where Beijing has made an art of whipping up nationalist flames in order to drown out other howls of protest. Don’t be that surprised if the phrase Wilhelmine Germany makes its way back into newspaper editorial pages.

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Still, China’s main agenda is a domestic one — the country faces tremendous pressures to maintain its whirlwind growth, close a yawning poverty gap and grapple with calls for more political openness. A muscular pose in foreign affairs can be an escape valve for tensions at home. In an interview excerpted in TIME’s international edition last week, former Singaporean Prime Minister and elder Asian statesman Lee Kuan Yew spoke of the “reawakened sense of destiny” among China’s people — what Lee deems “an overpowering force.” He goes on:

Will an industrialized and strong China be as benign to Southeast Asia as the U.S. has been since 1945? Singapore is not sure … [Neighboring nations] are uneasy that China may want to resume the imperial status it had in earlier centuries.

And that’s another episode in history none of China’s neighbors want repeated.

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31 comments
DungTran
DungTran

China just want to start a war all this time with any country! China know it will win in a war with smaller countries. After the war, China can take over more land and sea from other countries!

vstillwell
vstillwell

So if Walmart pulls out of China, WWIII starts? 

ptruong
ptruong

China will start WW3. Chinese people love to take over other countries. It's in their blood. History proved that. Now it time for them again. Chinese are over the world. They can take over the world easily.  Nobody can do about that. If Chinese can kill all people in this world, we are going to to do that with no mercy. Go China Go

ptruong
ptruong

China will take over Japan, Vietnam, Philippine...It is Chinese's time. Haha

org.charityservice
org.charityservice

China had claimed not to use nuclear weapon first in 1970, which is a huge peace claim I think (no other country said anything alike). So war won't be started so easily. The only danger will come from Japan, just like WW2, because it's lack of resource to accommodate its ambition or crisis, which finally lead its attack on Pearl Harbor

ptruong
ptruong

Proverb: China says but never do; China signs but never applies

Leon
Leon

I think this article is the production of being totally unfamiliar with Asia situation. It is based on the writer's subjective imaginative connection rather than the truth.

Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf

The comparison between Europe before the FWW and Asia today is not very true. Yes, you can find some similarities. Also with middle age Europe or China itself and many historical events. Last but not least we didn't see Pax Americana in Vietnam but a helo scaping from the top of the US Embassy.

splash
splash

The Japanese need to have their nuclear arsenal, and ensure that the Chinese are kept on a leash. The Chinese already proved to the world over and over again they will boss around as many folk as they can, and threaten them with annihilation if they don't comply to their greedy territorial demands.

org.charityservice
org.charityservice

@splash ok, then next Japs will bomb Pearl Harbor with nukes... this time no counterattack can be possible for U.S army

jtchun777
jtchun777

This article is an example in which my theory is applied: Historical Justiceism. This is a theory that any society develops according to a certain order, which is different from Marxism by theoretically denying the necessity of communist society. And it well fit Asian society too, in which Marxism is incoherent. Applying my theory, we can see the historical stage of Chinese society development is approaching pro-imperialism. Whether actually entering imperialism or not depends on whether they learn or not from historical experiences in Europe ( the structural view is Historical Justiceism).

GloriaHiggs1
GloriaHiggs1

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phankane
phankane like.author.displayName 1 Like

I have to say that Most people of the world are quite ignorance about China. For thousands of years China emperors have been conquering their neighbors for more power and wealth.
 
Many stupid people do not know that China helped North Korea to almost wiped out Koreans. China defeated the Americans in Vietnam using the blood of the stupid Vietnamese. 

While 'helping' the lowly educated in North Vietnam to atack their people in South Vietnam, China attacked South Vietnam and took Vietnam territories, the Spaltry archipelagos in 1974, again in 1988 and again 2001. Now they took the whole South East Asian sea.

Viet Nam means Southern part of Viet; the Viet kingdom successfully repulsed Han's China invasions without scat, they lost their northern province of Guan Dong and Guan Xi  to Han's China. These two provinces are southern part of China now.

Their 'dream' has only accelerated, they want to conquer the whole Asia. Only the blinds don't see this.


mrbomb13
mrbomb13 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

China will not be going to war anytime soon.  The reality is that it needs international investment to continue its blistering pace of growth.  In order to encourage investment, one of the basic principles of Business/Economics is national-level stability (i.e. a prevailing peace in the area).  That investment will not come if China starts gobbling up surrounding, innocent nations.

Furthermore, China is facing an impending population crisis.  Its unceasing 'one-child policy' will result in a drastically rising elderly population by year 2030.  Additionally, it will result in fewer younger Chinese entering the workforce to support that burgeoning older demographic.  Therefore, China cannot afford to lose any of its young/younger men to poorly conceived wars.  

Lastly, China does not possess the military might to take on all of Southeast Asia (and, indirectly through alliances, the US).   China's military spending is dwarfed by the US, and the quality/quantity of their equipment (i.e. planes, submarines, ships) is all inferior.  

dengauss
dengauss

That will work as long as China's domestic situation remains stable.If things go pear shaped then desperate times would call for desperate measures.An example is the Argentinian Juntas attack on the Falklands,they knew they were in trouble and had to create a distraction.

BorisIII
BorisIII

@dengauss I think all developed countries should sign a pact.  If any country shoots a nuclear missile first, all other countries will take over their country and execute, imprison or kick them out of that country anyone who was in that gov.

Dachman
Dachman

Any country will to nuke another will not submit to a pact they signed.

sanmartinian
sanmartinian like.author.displayName 1 Like

If you like parallels, a little before 1904,  the Russian Prime Minister finding himself in a position similar to China today said what the country needed was a "small short war". So he attacked Japan, an "insignificant" power then. Russia got her most humiliating defeat ever. To the point of being comical if all wars weren't tragic. Maybe any power contemplating wars to boast internal morale ought to study the Russian Japanese 1904 in full detail.

BorisIII
BorisIII like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Thanks to the US, I think Asia has seen enough modern warfare to not go into more wars.

buzzbee
buzzbee

It is like you bullied me first, I will find a time to get it back. Fair enough.

buzzbee
buzzbee

China is just to get its own properties back which were engulfed by many imperialists and their followers (Japan, US,....)during the weakest time of China back to 1 century ago.

HazeAndDrizzle
HazeAndDrizzle

Currently the main scary thing is  the silly, belligerent dialogue reminiscent of pre-World I diplomacy. Perhaps these kind of things pop up at the turn of centuries.The build up of military power, shifting economic power, and national identities grievances rooted in ancient and more modern wrongs compound the worry. Asia is becoming almost as dangerously tribal as the most tribal continent on the planet, Europe. So yes, there is reason to fear a replay of  historical precedent.

rutnerh
rutnerh

This pre WW1 comparison focusing on military dominance by a single world power is no longer valid since we are now a global interrelated community focused on economic survival under diverse political systems. Far more threatening is the millennia old desire of fundamentalist Koranic Islamists for worldwide conversion by world conquest, as part of Osama's 3 part strategy, 2 of which already achieved.

JoeMartinez
JoeMartinez like.author.displayName 1 Like

Power does create mania that come to be believe invincibility. China detest the Japanese for past atrocities and will eventual settle the score.

nghk
nghk like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@JoeMartinez The Japanese are keenly aware that they have not earned the forgiveness from its former victims.  They worry about being called to the carpet by a stronger China.  This paranoia is whipping up Japanese nationalism.

rorywong654
rorywong654 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Like our government told the world,Chinese don't cause trouble and won't walk away trouble when it's dish up

Meow_Ming
Meow_Ming

@rorywong654

ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha....."Chinese don't cause trouble and won't walk away trouble when it's dish up".....ha ha ha ha ha ha ha....nice joke....next.