One hundred years after the beginning of World War I, many Asians fear history is repeating itself. The source of concern is China’s growing power and its demonstrated willingness to use that power coercively. While China’s claims on Taiwan and the uncertainty about its long-term aims on the Korean peninsula remain key regional flashpoints, China has also turned its gaze to the South and East China Seas.
So far this year, tensions have grown between China and Vietnam and China and the Philippines. But it is Sino-Japanese tensions that have the most potential for conflict. The two Southeast Asian nations are weak and can be coerced if the United States does not offer them its support. But Japan has both the strength and the will to stand up to Beijing on its own. What’s more, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is showing real leadership in organizing a counter-balance to China’s ambitions and assertions.
It was Abe who evoked the 1914 parallel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year, stating that China and Japan must avoid the fate of Britain and Germany. The analogy is imperfect but astute. China’s ambitions, particularly in the maritime sphere, bear some resemblance to those of the Kaiser’s Germany. Like Germany then, China now feels bottled up by its rivals’ navies, has increasing overseas interests to protect, and believes that great powers should have great navies.
For its part, Abe’s Japan is one of the prime recipients of unwanted Chinese vessels in and around its claimed territorial waters. Last November, for example, flotillas of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy destroyers and submarines backed by air power encircled Japan for the first time, as PLA officers bragged about splitting and demolishing the “first island chain.” Japan is also at the receiving end of Chinese economic coercion, including state-sanctioned boycotts of Japanese goods in China and a heavy dose of anti-Japanese propaganda and invective.
Abe’s response has been to shore up the U.S. alliance, build up relations with Southeast Asia, India, and Europe, and finally make the changes to defense policy that the United States has been asking of Japan for almost two decades. That is, he is reinterpreting the Japanese constitution to allow for collective self-defense (thus allowing for a real mutual alliance) and moving air and naval assets to Japan’s critical southern island chains.
Within the confines of its pacifist constitution, Japan is doing what it can to help its neighbors. Abe pledged support for building up Vietnam’s capacity to defend its waters in the aftermath of China’s deployment of an oil-rig into disputed territory.
Japan has not received the support it needs from Washington. Indeed, if China is behaving somewhat like Germany before WWI, the right analogue for early 20th century Britain is not Japan but contemporary America. As the prime player in international politics, it is Washington’s role to keep the peace. The most popular book on WWI within Barack Obama’s administration seems to be Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, which portrays the Great War as resulting from a tragic escalation by all sides with equal complicity and moral failing.
A better analysis of 1914 (and its menacing similarities to today’s Asia) comes in Max Hastings’s book, Catastrophe 1914, or Donald Kagan’s classic study, On the Origins of War. Hastings and Kagan argue that the war was not caused by too much accommodation of Germany. Rather, the chief cause was the failure of Britain, then the sole superpower, to maintain a favorable balance of power and meet its alliance obligations. After much accommodation, the UK left itself with stark choices: fight or let Germany dominate Europe.
Despite a declared “pivot to Asia” to deal with the China challenge, Washington is doing its share of accommodating the current rising power. For example, Japan was not much helped by the Obama administration’s acceptance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposal for a “new model of great-power relations,” despite appeals from allies that it not do so. Xi has said this type of relationship is the best way to avoid the conflicts that almost always arise when a rising power competes for primacy.
Deft statecraft can keep Washington and Beijing from conflict—but given the distrust of China among the allies, Xi’s formula will not. Allies like Japan want to know what Xi has in mind: a peaceful handover of the reins of global leadership from Washington to Beijing? Even if the administration did not intend to signal a shift in Asia policy by accepting Xi’s proposal, the rest of Asia sees one. Japan is concerned that the United States is slowly accepting a bipolar condominium with China. Those living in Beijing’s neighborhood prefer that China emerge as one of many, hopefully democratic, powers in Asia with the United States as the prime security partner. Xi’s “new model” sounds too much like a bipolar Asian order.
And while the administration often says the right things in response to Chinese aggression, the pivot has not amounted to much. Despite speeches and statements of U.S. intent to support allies and remain the decisive influence in Asia, the fact is that there still is a Chinese air defense identification zone over contested territory with Japan, the Chinese continue to control newly seized parts of the Spratly islands claimed by the Philippines, and as soon as President Obama left his “Asia alliance reassurance tour” in May, China contemptuously placed an oil rig in waters it disputes with Vietnam, accompanied by some 80 maritime vessels. The U.S. response has been minimal.
It is not just Washington’s modest responses to Chinese aggression that calls the “pivot” into question. The rest of the world has not acquiesced in Washington’s supposedly grand strategic move to Asia. Japan, for one, has noticed that the Middle East appears to be in drastic condition and that Russia has annexed Crimea. It is simply not possible for a superpower to silo one region from another: geopolitics connects all critical regions. Many Asian countries do not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and want energy to keep flowing freely from the Gulf. U.S. allies also fear that China will be emboldened by Washington’s weak response to Chinese aggression.
Therefore, it is no surprise that Abe fears a replay of 1914. Certainly the United States is leaving the impression that it is unsure whether or not it wants to defend the current order in Asia. The problem for the power charged with keeping order is that if you do not act to head off problems now, your choices will become starker in the future.
Today, the United States has enough military power, goodwill, and geopolitical legitimacy to aggressively push back against China’s aggression. It does not want to be, nor does it have be, left in the same position as Britain before World War I: fight or let the rising power dominate a critical region. By implementing such initiatives as a counter-coercion toolkit developed by the U.S. military to resist Chinese encroachment in its surrounding seas, Washington can avoid stark choices in the future.
If, however, the administration maintains a cool distance from its friends’ disputes with China, the result will be more hedging by America’s allies against the day when America is no longer a consequential power in Asia. This could go one of two ways: allies decide to acquire the ultimate weapons to maintain their strategic autonomy or allies decide to give in to China’s bid for dominance. Meanwhile, China will be tempted to grab even more territory. In other words, the current state of affairs increases the chance of conflict. Nobody is sleepwalking in Beijing. It seems as though the leaders in Washington are.
This piece was adapted by Dan Blumenthal from an article he co-authored with Michael Green for Foreign Policy‘s Shadow Government blog, entitled “Japan and China: Not Yet 1914, but Time to Pay Attention.”
Dan Blumenthal is the director of Asian Studies at the AEI, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations.