Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Guns of August in the East China Sea

Dark echoes of world war lurk in Asia's dangerous, contested waters.

By , the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images
JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images
JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

The parallels of history have obsessed the foreign policy elite for years, and are building towards a fever pitch: Is the Asia of 2014 the new Europe of 1914? China is a rising and assertive new power much like Kaiser Wilhelm II's Germany. An explosion of nationalism has taken hold among dynamic ethnic nations, from Beijing to Tokyo, Hanoi to Manila. And as Asia's middle-classes enjoy a new and ascendant place in the world, sustained capitalist prosperity has led to military acquisitions. An arms race in Asia is on the loose -- as the Australian analyst Desmond Ball reports, progressing to a dangerous phase of actions and reactions, as opposed to a normal, non-threatening build-up. If World War I was "the first middle-class war in history," as the Canadian historian Modris Eksteins writes, with literate masses bursting with patriotic pride, no wonder so many see the dark echoes in the Pacific becoming an armed camp. 

Historical analogy is useful for rough orientation. But it is dangerous when taken too far; each situation is its own thing, thoroughly unique. Indeed, great statesmen are those who exploit unique opportunities, even as they are aware of vague parallels to the past. The Pacific Basin now offers a signal illustration of vague parallels and yet telling differences to Europe on the eve of World War I.

The parallels of history have obsessed the foreign policy elite for years, and are building towards a fever pitch: Is the Asia of 2014 the new Europe of 1914? China is a rising and assertive new power much like Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany. An explosion of nationalism has taken hold among dynamic ethnic nations, from Beijing to Tokyo, Hanoi to Manila. And as Asia’s middle-classes enjoy a new and ascendant place in the world, sustained capitalist prosperity has led to military acquisitions. An arms race in Asia is on the loose — as the Australian analyst Desmond Ball reports, progressing to a dangerous phase of actions and reactions, as opposed to a normal, non-threatening build-up. If World War I was "the first middle-class war in history," as the Canadian historian Modris Eksteins writes, with literate masses bursting with patriotic pride, no wonder so many see the dark echoes in the Pacific becoming an armed camp. 

Historical analogy is useful for rough orientation. But it is dangerous when taken too far; each situation is its own thing, thoroughly unique. Indeed, great statesmen are those who exploit unique opportunities, even as they are aware of vague parallels to the past. The Pacific Basin now offers a signal illustration of vague parallels and yet telling differences to Europe on the eve of World War I.

Miscalculations in the balance of power were a factor in the outbreak of World War I, and with the rise of Chinese military power — Beijing recently announced a 12.2 percent increase in its military spending, bringing its total annual budget to roughly 25 percent that of the United States — the Pacific is no longer an uncomplicated U.S. naval lake. A more complex balance of power between the United States, China, Japan, and others is replacing unipolarity. Such an arrangement, because it promises more interactions, makes miscalculations easier. While the Obama administration’s 2011 Asia pivot was intended to indicate a shift in emphasis from the Middle East to Asia — and guarantee that the United States would remain globally engaged despite difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan — it was also an admission of geopolitical anxiety: that the stability of the Pacific could no longer be taken for granted. 

As naval warfare goes undersea — because surface warships are increasingly vulnerable to missiles — "submarines are the new bling, everybody wants them," says Bernard Loo Fook Weng, a Singaporean military strategist. Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan have all been adding to their undersea arsenals, and China is expected to have a fleet of around 75 subs in the coming decade or so, eventually surpassing the United States. Just as modernism — with its industrial militaries — allowed for the grim, interminable nightmare of World War I, there is the fear that the Pacific will show us the demonic lightning flashes of postmodernism, with nuclear-powered submarines, fifth-generation fighter jets, ballistic missiles, and cyberwarfare.

Though the islands in dispute in the East and South China seas are in many cases barren and below water during high tide, as Aristotle wrote, conflicts arise "not over small things but from small things." The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand that sparked World War I was one such small thing. Claims in the Pacific, however petty, if they are tied to vital interests, can lead to war. Indeed, the primordial quest for status still tragically determines the international system — just as it did prior to World War I. And these islets have become, because of their very barren abstraction, logos of nationhood in a global media age. 

Remember that the Pacific is the geographic organizing principle of world economic order to no less an extent than Europe was in 1914. The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans, where the most crowded global sea routes coalesce — the Mitteleuropa of the 21st century. The oil transported here from the Middle East en route to Asian megacities is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 15 times the amount that transits the Panama Canal.  

But before one buys the 1914 analogy, there are other matters to consider. While 1914 Europe was a landscape, with large armies facing one another inside a claustrophobic terrain with few natural barriers, East Asia is a seascape, with vast maritime distances separating national capitals. The sea impedes aggression to a degree that land does not. Naval forces can cross water and storm beachheads, though with great difficulty, but moving inland and occupying hostile populations is nearly impossible. The Taiwan Strait is roughly four times the width of the English Channel, a geography that continues to help preserve Taiwan’s de facto independence from China.

Even the fastest warships travel slowly, giving diplomats time to do their work. Incidents in the air are more likely, although Asian countries have erected strict protocols and prefer to posture verbally so as to avoid actual combat. (That said, the new Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone is a particularly provocative protocol.) Since any such incidents would likely occur over open water there will be few casualties, reducing the prospect that a single incident will lead to war. And because of the speed, accuracy, and destructiveness of postmodern weaponry, any war that does break out will probably be short — albeit with serious economic consequences. Something equivalent to four years of trench warfare is almost impossible to imagine. And remember that it was World War I’s very grinding length that made it a history-transforming and culture-transforming event: it caused 17 million military and civilian casualties; the disputes in the Pacific Basin are certainly not going to lead to that.

World War I also featured different and unwieldy alliance systems. Asia is simpler: almost everyone fears China and depends — militarily at least — on the United States. This is not the Cold War where few Americans could be found in the East Bloc, a region with which we did almost no trade. Millions of Americans and Chinese have visited each other’s countries, tens of thousands of American businessmen have passed through Chinese cities, and Chinese party elites send their children to U.S. universities. U.S. officials know they must steer between the two extremes of allowing China’s Finlandization of its Asian neighbors and allowing nationalistic governments in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan to lure the United States into a conflict with China.

Nationalistic as these democracies may be, the best way to curb their excesses and make them less nervous is to give them the assurance of a U.S. security umbrella, born of credible air and sea power. A strong U.S.-China relationship can keep the peace in Asia. (South Korea also fears Japan, but the United States is successfully managing that tension.) Unlike empires mired in decrepitude that characterized 1914 Europe, East Asia features robust democracies in South Korea and Japan, and strengthening democracies in Malaysia and the Philippines. An informal alliance of democracies — that should also include a reformist, de facto ally like Vietnam — is the best and most stable counter to Chinese militarism. Some of these democracies are fraught, and fascist-cum-communist North Korea could implode, but this is not a world coming apart. Limited eruptions do not equal a global cataclysm.

Yet the most profound difference between August 1914 and now is historical self-awareness. As Modris Eksteins meticulously documents in his 1989 book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, European capitals greeted the war with outbursts of euphoria and a feeling of liberation. Because 19th century Europe had been relatively peaceful since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, people had lost the sense of the tragic that enables them to avoid tragedy in the first place. Aging, one-child societies like those of China, Japan, and South Korea, with memories of war, revolution, and famine, are less likely to greet violent struggle with joy and equanimity. And the United States, the paramount military player in Asia, by its very conscious fear of a World War I scenario, will take every measure to avoid it.

A profusion of warships in the Pacific certainly suggests a more anxious, complicated world. But U.S. generals and diplomats need not give in to fate, especially given the differences with a century ago. The United States entered World War I too late. Projecting a strong military footprint in Asia while ceaselessly engaging the Chinese is the way that conflict can be avoided this time around.

Robert D. Kaplan is the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate; Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific; The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian; and other books.

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