I've a lovely little painting in my study of Germany's first modern emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm I.
It was painted soon after the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War that led to the creation of a united Germany with Prussia's King Wilhelm as its monarch -- thanks to the great German statesman, Prince Otto von Bismarck.
United Germany's fast-rising economic and military power was seen by the British Empire, which then ruled a quarter of the globe, as a dire threat.
However, Bismarck managed to cleverly divide or distract Germany's foes or rivals and maintain Europe's balance of power. But the new, headstrong young kaiser, Wilhelm II, foolishly dismissed the domineering Bismarck and soon plunged his nation into confrontation with Imperial Britain over naval power, colonies, and trade.
Britain's imperialists determined to crush rival Germany. The fuse of World War I was lit.
We see the first steps of a similar great power clash taking shape today in South Asia.
China is usually very cautious in its foreign affairs. But of late, Beijing has been aggressively asserting maritime claims in the resource-rich South China Sea, a region bordered by Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and China.
Japan, India, South Korea and the United States also assert strategic interests in this hotly disputed sea, which is believed to contain 100 billion barrels of oil and 700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
China has repeatedly clashed with Vietnam and the Philippines over the Spratly and Paracel islands and even mere rocks in the China Sea. Tensions are high.
In 2010, the US strongly backed the maritime resource claims by the smaller Asian states, warning off China and reasserting the US Navy's right to patrol anywhere. Beijing took this as a direct challenge to its regional suzerainty.
Last week, Washington raised the stakes in this power game, announcing it will permanently base 2,500 Marines at the remote northern Australian port of Darwin.
A Marine regiment can't do much in such a vast, remote region, but Washington's symbolic troop deployment is another strong signal to China to keep its hands off the South China Sea. China and nearby Indonesia reacted with alarm. Memories in Indonesia of 1960's intervention by CIA mercenaries and British troops remain vivid.
The US is increasingly worried by China's military modernization and growing naval capabilities. Washington has forged a new, unofficial military alliance with India, and aided Delhi's nuclear weapons development, a pact clearly aimed at China. China and India are locked in a nuclear and conventional arms race.
US military forces now train in Mongolia. China may deploy a new Fourth Fleet in the South China Sea. Washington expresses concern over China's new aircraft carrier, anti-ship missiles and submarines, though these alarms coming from the world's leading naval power seem bit much.
The US is talking about selling advanced arms to Vietnam, an historic foe of China. The US is also modernizing Taiwan's and Japan's armed forces.
These moves sharpen China's growing fears of being encircled by a network of America's regional allies.
The recent ASEAN summit in Indonesia calling for a US-led "Trans-Pacific Partnership" was seen by Beijing as an effort to create an Asian NATO directed against China.
Rising tensions over the South China Sea disturbingly recall the naval race between Britain and Germany during the dreadnaught era that played a key role in triggering World War I.
We should also recall the pre-1914 great power race to build railroads, such as the famed Berlin to Baghdad line, that were that era's version of today's energy pipeline competition.
As a historian, I'm most concerned by what I see. Youth in China and India are seething with mindless nationalism caused by too much testosterone and childish government propaganda. A decade ago, I wrote a book, War at the Top of the World, that dealt with a possible future war between China and India over the Himalayas and Burma.
The United States, the inheritor of Britain's Empire, is struggling to continue financing its vast sphere of influence. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is in the grip of extreme elements and primitive nationalism.
The Pacific Ocean has been an American lake since 1944. Washington's biggest foreign policy challenge is keep peace with China by gradually allowing China to assert its inevitable sphere of influence in the region while gradually lessening American domination of the Asian Pacific coast,
The bankrupt US cannot hope to compete long term with cash-rich China to be top dog in south Asia. But history shows that managing the arrival of a new super-power is dangerous, tricky business.
Clever diplomacy, not more Marines, is the answer. The over-extended American Raj has got to face strategic reality or it risks going the way of the Soviet Empire.
But Washington's global domination crowd won't face facts. The US, which accounts for 50% of world military spending, is now sending troops to East Africa, Congo, West Africa, and now, Australia.
US foreign policy has become almost totally militarized; the State Department has been shunted aside. The Pentagon sees Al-Qaida everywhere.
The US needs the brilliant diplomacy of a Bismarck, not more unaffordable bases or military hardware.
A clash in the Pacific between China and the US is not inevitable. But events last week brought one a step closer.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011
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