01/28/2014 09:46 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2014

The (Mis)Uses of History: Give a Bow to the Japanese Prime Minister

You want ominous? Then offer a deep bow to conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a man eager to turn the Japanese military into an ever less defensive force, fully breach his country's "peace constitution," and assumedly someday end Japan's "nuclear allergy" when it comes to a future weapons program. In the process, rising tensions with and increasingly belligerent acts by China have proven helpful domestically. And give Abe special credit for the provocative way he's been using history to push his domestic agenda and increase those regional tensions. In late December, as his first year in office ended, he paid a 30-minute visit to the notorious Yasukuni Shrine for Japan's war dead, where 14 convicted war criminals from World War II are buried. Both the Chinese and the Koreans, brutally mistreated by Japan in those years, were horrified and angered, though Abe, having purposely stuck the needle in, denied that his visit had anything to do with honoring war criminals.

Then, last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Japanese prime minister reached even deeper into the history of disastrous global wars to up the ante again. In the year of the 100th anniversary of World War I, at an on-the-record briefing, he likened his country's relations with China to those of Germany and Great Britain on the eve of the Great War; that is, he compared the present situation in Asia to the moment when the two strongest imperial powers of the early twentieth century ignored their deep economic ties (like China's and Japan's) and went to war, turning parts of Europe into a charnel house. Happy anniversary!

Asked whether, given his analogy, he would consider deescalating tensions with China at the moment, Abe evidently said no, not as long as that country continues to build up its military. (Japan's chief cabinet secretary quickly insisted that the prime minister was not predicting a new war.) Given a rising anti-Japanese nationalism in China, a growing regional arms race, and increasingly aggressive Chinese claims to islands near energy-rich deposits in regional seas, this might seem to be a moment to calm the waters, so to speak.

But not for the Obama administration, which recently welcomed Abe's decision to put more money into new weaponry for the Japanese military. To this world of rising tensions Washington has, in recent years, added a much ballyhooed new focus on Asia, a "pivot" or "rebalancing" to the region. Its emphasis has clearly been on heightening tensions by organizing a string of countries against a rising China, triggering old Cold War-era Chinese fears of encirclement (or "containment," as it was called in those days).

Admittedly, as John Feffer, co-director of the website Foreign Policy in Focus, so cannily explains in his "Pacific Pivot," Obama's pivot is proving remarkably heavy on the rhetoric and light on new military might. Fans of World War I will, however, remember that enough heated rhetoric, combined with unexpected small "incidents," can be quite effective in ratcheting up tensions to the breaking point. "Retreat" can sound like "charge" in the right mouths.

Of course, this is neither 1914 nor 1941, though you might not notice, given the old-fashioned thinking behind Washington's pivot, Japan's military growth, and China's territorial claims. Nonetheless, the thought that, on our present planet, the "capitalist road" version of a Communist Party, precariously balanced over a slowing economic "miracle," is likely to take China to dominance as a future hyperpower should be viewed with a jaundiced eye. In fact, Washington should be asking whether, on a planet in a state of incipient environmental breakdown and blowback, the rise of a new empire is even possible. In the meantime, its pivot to Asia reminds us that the leading brains in the Pacific might as well still be in the pre-World War I era.