The growing tensions between Japan and China are coinciding menacingly with the 100th anniversary of the First World War. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe evoked this parallel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week when he said the two countries must avoid the fate of Britain and Germany. A Chinese government source helpfully responded by stressing that China’s senior leadership had formally decided not to have a war with Japan (well, that’s a relief…). But another senior Chinese business leader at Davos said that China could put an end to the impasse by suddenly seizing the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by force before Japan or the United States had time to respond. This same bravado and visceral anti-Japanese sentiment was on display with recent senior visitors from Beijing to Washington just before Davos.
If there are parallels to be drawn to 1914, they had better be the right ones. The prevailing narrative in Barack Obama’s administration seems to be drawn from Christopher Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers, which portrays the Great War as a tragic escalation by all sides with equal complicity and moral failing. The administration has formally accepted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposal for a "new model of great-power relations," despite high-level démarches from some allies that it not do so. Why? Because Xi has described this formula as the best way to avoid the tragic wars between rising powers in the past. This may be a perfectly reasonable approach by Washington, if not for the great uncertainty surrounding China’s strategic aims. For example, what does Xi have in mind? A peaceful handover of the reins of global leadership from Washington to Beijing? It is unclear that Washington has thought through the implications of this "new model" for global order. And what the rest of Asia sees, even if this is not what the administration intended, is a deliberate shift in Obama’s second term toward a bipolar condominium with China. Those living in Beijing’s neighborhood want China to emerge as one of many, hopefully democratic, powers in Asia with the United States as the security partner of first resort.
A better read on 1914 comes in Max Hastings’s new book, Catastrophe 1914, or the classic studies on origins of war by Donald Kagan. Here the narrative is not a failure to accommodate a rising power, but rather the failure by Britain, then the prime actor in the international system, to maintain a favorable balance of power and meet its alliance obligations, and the resulting imperative to fight rather than have Germany upend the prevailing European order. Not that he wants to fight, but this is much closer to the scene that Abe and many of his Asian neighbors see unfolding in Asia, with the United States now wavering in similar ways as did Britain before World War I. It is China’s use of military, diplomatic, and mercantilist coercion in an effort to undermine Japan’s current administrative control that is at the heart of current tensions. But China’s current coercion of Japan over the islands is but a symptom of a larger illness in the international system. China has been leveraging its naval modernization to increase its movements through the seas and choke points surrounding Japan to break out into the Pacific. 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. China is changing the regional balance with little resistance from the United States. Counter to Chinese public claims of surprise at a U.S. "overreaction," recent discussions with Chinese officials over Beijing’s December air defense identification zone announcement suggests that the United States’ response was much weaker than the response the Chinese leadership had expected.
What is Japan really doing do merit all this venom from China? What we have asked for since John Foster Dulles: reorienting its self-defense forces to help defend the first island chain — a key part of U.S. defense strategy in the Pacific since the end of World War II — and revising interpretations of the Japanese Constitution to allow for more collective self-defense with the United States and other partners like Australia. Abe has increased Japan’s defense budget by less than 1 percent after a decade-plus of slow decline. China’s military has exploded with double-digit defense budget increases for decades. And Abe’s changes are occurring in an entirely transparent and incremental manner under close scrutiny from the Diet and the media.
Since the end of the Cold War, successive U.S. administrations have dealt with China’s rise through a combination of engaging Beijing and balancing with closer alliance ties. This approach is now out of equilibrium. It is time for tighter security relations and clearer commitments to Japan and other allies like the Philippines that are now under pressure from Beijing. If the administration maintains a cool distance in hopes it will prevent escalation, the result will be more hedging by America’s allies and a greater temptation for Beijing to think a quick grab of disputed territories will go unanswered. In other words, the current state of affairs increases the chance of escalation. Nobody is sleepwalking in Beijing. It seems as though Washington is.