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2014 won’t be like 1914

Don’t assume China’s aggressive territorial claims will lead to an all-out war in east Asia

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

The Jeremiah strategists are coming out of the woodwork to predict that Asia in 2014 will be a repeat of Europe in 1914. In other words, that there will be an outbreak of war between the major powers in our region, just like in Europe 100 years ago. This line of reasoning predicts that a rising China will inevitably go to war with the United States, either directly or through conflict with Japan.

Some commentators are even suggesting that the Sarajevo incident that provoked the first world war will be replicated between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Kevin Rudd has likened this situation to what he calls ‘a 21st-century maritime redux of the Balkans a century ago — a tinderbox on water.’ My colleague Hugh White has proclaimed that the risk of war between China and Japan is now very real.

There is undoubtedly a significant risk that China’s increasing aggressiveness in the East China Sea and the South China Sea over its territorial claims will result in a military confrontation, either by miscalculation or design. But a warship being sunk or military aircraft colliding is a long way from all-out war. These sorts of incidents have occurred in the past and have not escalated — for example, the North Korean sinking in 2010 of the South Korean warship and the Chinese collision in 2001 by one of its fighters with a US reconnaissance aircraft. Unfortunately, however, a military incident between China and Japan might be more serious than this.

The commander of US air forces in the Pacific has said in an interview on 9 February that the recent comments by the leaders of Japan and the Philippines drawing parallels between China’s assertiveness in the region and events in prewar Europe are ‘not helpful’. But he did caution that any move by China to extend unilaterally an air defence identification zone over the South China Sea would be ‘very provocative’.

It is true that whereas a war in Europe these days has become inconceivable that is not the case in Asia. In our region there is a potentially potent combination of rising military capabilities and ugly nationalisms. But, unlike in Europe 100 years ago, there is no sense of the inevitability of war and, unlike in the Kaiser’s Germany in 1914, there is no fear in Beijing that time is not on its side. The distinguished British historian Max Hastings points out in his book, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, that there was nothing accidental about the first world war. Germany was bent on launching a European war because of its fears of a rising Russia in the east, a strong France and Britain on its west and unrest at home. From Beijing’s perspective today, the strategic correlation of forces in Marxist-Leninist terms is much more favourable than this. Moreover, China continues to need to give priority to economic development if it is to avoid domestic upheaval.

The current German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has recently highlighted the diplomatic failures that led to the outbreak of the first world war when there were rash predictions of a swift, successful military campaign that in the event lasted for four years and resulted in 17 million dead. This was a failure of political and military elites, but also of diplomacy.

And this is where there is a concern about Asia. The fact is that the multilateral organisations in our region are immature when it comes to developing arms control and disarmament agreements and concrete approaches to conflict avoidance. There is a lot of talk and plenty of meetings and that in itself is a good thing. But we desperately need such confidence-building measures as an avoidance of naval incidents at sea agreement — along the lines of the one that was agreed between the US and the Soviet Union in 1972.

Even so, the key underpinnings for my confidence about a major power war in Asia being unlikely are twofold. First, there is the iron discipline of nuclear deterrence. For almost 70 years now the fear of nuclear war, even at the most dangerous heights of the Cold War, has prevented a major war. An all-out nuclear war between the US and China would involve the deaths of hundreds of millions of people on both sides in a matter of hours. For all intents and purposes, they would cease to exist as modern functioning societies. This is an existential threat unlike any faced by humankind previously. Once nuclear weapons are used it would be practically impossible to avoid full-blown escalation.

The second factor is the unprecedented economic and technological interdependence that now intertwines all our economies with each other in a way that has never existed before. It is simply untrue to assert that globalisation was even deeper in 1914 than it is today. Global supply chains for almost every product we consume make every country in our region crucially vulnerable to the outbreak of war. And that includes China as much as any other country — or even more so. China is now crucially dependent on imports for its economic security (for example, it accounts for 60 per cent of global seaborne iron ore trade and by 2030 it will have to import 80 per cent of its oil).

So, as the doyen of US international relations studies Joseph Nye argues, we should be wary of analysts wielding historical analogies, particularly if they have a whiff of inevitability. War, he observes, is never inevitable, though the belief that it is can become one of its causes.

Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

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