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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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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