1914 and the China Syndrome

January 1, 2014

The hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War is hardly upon us and the air is already thick with speculation it might happen again.

At one level, this is completely understandable.

The First World War, and its continuation in the 1930s and 40s, was the most calamitous event in human history.

It showed the full, horrific potential of the industrialized art of killing. It started for no reason that seems reasonable or logical in retrospect. It led to the collapse of the global empires of the British, the French and the Germans.

What it did produce, however, was the American imperium, which, despite some faults and failures, is the most positive and useful empire the world has seen.

That is because the Pax Americana is not an empire of territorial occupation, but one of ideas and universal human values. With a few notable exceptions – the criminally unjustifiable 2003 invasion of Iraq stands out – United States power has been used to expand human potential, not to subjugate it.

Now, however, the U.S. is being widely portrayed as a failing super power. This is probably an exaggeration. America has more capacity for revival and reinvention that most other societies.

It is undeniable, though, that largely as a result of the American administration of global affairs over the last 70 years that several other nations have emerged as major actors on the world stage.

Most of these new powers, such as India and Brazil, have adopted the civic values that Washington has evangelized.

One, China, has not. Indeed, the ruling Communist Party in Beijing has with vigour and persistence not only dismissed as inappropriate what have become universal human values, it continues to suppress them wherever they germinate within its reach.

As China has become wealthy it has also become an expansionist power. Beijing portrays its territorial ambitions as merely the re-assertion of its sovereignty over lands that were stolen from it during the “century of humiliation” after its disastrous collision with the industrial powers starting in the 1840s.

For the most part these claims are bunk. Beijing’s loud and often belligerent claims to ownership of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the island nation of Taiwan, and most of the South China Sea as far as the territorial waters of Indonesia are modern fabrications of little or no merit.

At the same time, Chinese officials have studied the history of the European empires of the 18th and 19th centuries and concluded that their survival and expansion depended on the control of far-flung resources. Because of its communist and authoritarian heritage and instincts, Beijing continues to shy away from the message of the American imperium and to trust the market place to provide what is necessary to fuel its economy.

To these ends to control of territory and resources, China has in the last 20 years been pursuing the ability to project power to defend its interests. The key ingredient of this effort has been the construction of a massive and modern blue water navy, whose evident purpose is to challenge the supremacy of the U.S. navy.

It is this that carries echoes of the years leading up to 1914 and the start of the First World War.

In the early 1900s Germany, Europe’s rising power a century ago, embarked on construction of a great battle fleet whose express objective was to overcome the global supremacy of Britain’s Royal Navy.

To a significant degree this was a self-destructive diversion on the part of Germany, whose major anxiety was the rising power of Russia to its east. It was, of course, another 40 years before that struggle played out in the ruins of Berlin.

Although American strategists and political leaders are watching China’s growing naval power with evident concern, it is inconceivable that the U.S. would launch a pre-emptive war against China to halt Beijing’s emergence as a rival in Asia and beyond.

There are other troubling scenarios, though, that while not exact fits for the 1914 template, have echoes of the start of the First World War.

China’s growing military power, backed by government-inspired virulent nationalism among its people, is troubling its neighbours. China’s use of harassment tactics against Vietnam and the Philippines over the possession of islands, islets and reefs in the South China Sea, backed by outrageously belligerent rhetoric in its state-controlled media, has sparked an arms race in Southeast Asia.

As well as bolstering their own defences, especially by acquiring modern submarines, several of the 10 countries of Southeast Asia are developing military alliances with the U.S. and with one of China’s regional rivals, India.

It is, however, perhaps with China’s other regional rival, Japan, that the greatest danger lies.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking full advantage of anxiety at home and in the region, in response to China’s strident assertiveness, to dismantle the pacifist constitution imposed on the Tokyo government at the end of the Second World War.

These changes are being presented as a legitimate need for Japan to be able to play a full part with its allies, especially the U.S., in the defence of peace and security in Asia and beyond.

Beijing sees it differently. It loudly proclaims that this is a return to the imperial militarism of the 1930s and 40s, which saw Japan invade China and much of Southeast Asia.

There are now almost daily confrontations between Japanese and Chinese forces around the Sekaku Islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu, and in the waters of the East China Sea. So far, the confrontations have not exploded into serious clashes, but the longer this goes on, the more likely it is that mistakes will be made and events spiral beyond control.

That’s what happened in 1914, when the assassination on June 28 in Sarajevo of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that still define our age.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2013

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com