On the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, Europe is at peace. There are no major border disputes. The countries form a unified economic bloc instead of a patchwork of jostling alliances.
In the last 70 years, the only large-scale violence took place during the unraveling of Yugoslavia, which ended 15 years ago. In Sarajevo today, where World War I began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the residents endured a brutal siege in the 1990s, all is quiet on the Balkan front.
Not so in Asia. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently compared the brewing conflict between his country and China to the Anglo-German relationship of 1914. In both cases, the two countries maintained economic relations even as they built up their respective militaries. The trade relationship between Britain and Germany didn't prevent a catastrophic war from breaking out.
Japan and China have a long history of conflict. In the 13th century, Mongol China attempted to invade Japan on two occasions and was defeated both times by the kamikaze or "divine winds" of two separate typhoons. In the late 16th century, Japan invaded Korea with an eye toward conquering China but was ultimately forced to retreat.
In the modern era, the two countries went to war in 1894, and it took only nine months for Japan to come out on top, with Taiwan as the prize. It was the beginning of Japan's ascent to empire. It would later annex Korea, expand its influence in China during World War I, seize Manchuria, and go on to capture China's major cities in the lead-up to World War II.
Asian historians frequently cite the Chinese proverb that "two tigers cannot share a mountain" when discussing the quest for dominance by Japan and China over the last 1,000 years. For the most part, the two tigers have traded dominion over the region. In the last few years, however, a resurgent Japan and a still growing China have found themselves on the same mountain. Abe's reference to 1914, despite his other pleas for peace and stability in the region, suggests that a serious clash is in the offing.
The Japanese prime minister expressed his greatest concern over Chinese military spending. Having increased its defence budget by double digits annually over the last two decades, China now spends more on its military than any country in the world except the United States (which still spends approximately four times more than China). Japan, meanwhile, is the fifth leading military spender. The Abe government recently announced a five-percent increase in the country's military budget over the next five years.
The spark that might set off a replay of 1914 in Asia is the ongoing conflict over an island chain in the East China Sea called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. The uninhabited islands are no bigger than seven square kilometres in total. Japan currently controls the territory and dates its sovereignty claim to its defeat of China in 1895. China, however, argues that the chain was part of its domain during the preceding history. Taiwan also asserts sovereignty over the islands.
The islands themselves are less important than the sea around them. Japan and China are primarily interested in the fishing grounds, the potential oil beneath the waves, and control over shipping routes. In 2008, the two countries negotiated a deal on joint exploration of oil around the islands but never implemented the agreement. Collisions have taken place at sea, notably in 2010 between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese patrol, and the Japanese government has threatened to shoot down Chinese drones that have approached the islands.
The historical allusion to 1914 is troubling in another regard. Europe, prior to World War I, had enjoyed nearly a century of muted rivalry as part of the Concert of Europe that regulated relations among empires in the wake of Napoleon's defeat.
The dispute between China and Japan similarly takes place within a balance of power that has held in Northeast Asia, more or less, since the end of the Korean War. China and North Korea stand together as uneasy allies on one side -- along with the occasional participation of Russia -- and Japan, South Korea, and the United States form an alliance on the other.
World War I rapidly escalated because alliance obligations drew the major powers into a war that they might ordinarily have kept at arm's length. The United States has an alliance obligation to stand with Japan in the event of a clash with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Shinzo Abe has given every indication that he will not back down on this issue. He has cultivated the image of a proud nationalist. He has burnished this reputation at home and provoked his neighbors by visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of 14 Class A war criminals are enshrined. He has pledged to revise his country's "peace constitution" and restore a true offensive capability to Japan's Self-Defence Forces. He has pushed through a new law to establish a National Security Council and more strictly control domestic dissent.
This nationalism goes hand in hand -- rather than in opposition to -- U.S. security strategy. Although the Yasukuni visit and the harsher rhetoric toward China have displeased Washington, Abe has in other regards conducted an all-out charm offensive toward his U.S. ally. The military budget increase includes the purchase of 28 F-35 fighter jets and two Aegis-equipped destroyers. And a carefully calibrated promise of economic investment into Okinawa turned around the prefectural governor's position on the construction of a new U.S. military base on the island, which has been a major sticking point in U.S.-Japanese relations.
There are many reasons why 1914 is not an apt analogy for the situation in Northeast Asia today. The region, unlike Europe of 100 years ago, is not unbalanced by empires in decline. The presence of nuclear weapons is both a deterrent to escalation and also a guarantee that all-out war would have immediate, global consequences. And the earlier experience of World War I ensures that no national leader can pretend that the next conflict will be the "war to end all wars."
But wars are not rational affairs. China and Japan are on a collision course. If they don't find a way to back down and save face, no amount of historical knowledge and mutual commerce will prevent an Asian march of folly.
Originally published by Inter Press Service