Will Asia Repeat Europe's Mistakes?

By Alistair Burnett

Historical analogies often take the place of analysis - even more so when the implications of analogy are too horrendous to be spelled out. As we prepare to mark the centenary of the outbreak of First World War, ominous parallels are being drawn between rising tension between Japan and China and that between Germany and Britain before the outbreak of the World War. Such comparisons are relevant. China and the United States and its ally, Japan, today may not be the mirror image of European powers which came to blows, but the cascading alliances that led to the conflagration in 1914 still hold lessons for today.

The parallel to 1914 grabbed international headlines when, during a meeting in Davos Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe said the situation between China and Japan was similar to that between Germany and Britain a century ago. Officials tried to clarify afterwards, insisting Abe had not suggested there would be a war. By evoking 1914, the prime minister knew the image he conjured.

The reaction to Abe's comments suggest that drawing analogies between 2014 and 1914 may not only be potentially misleading, it can also add to the tension: China responded by accusing Japan of being a "troublemaker" - the role many have ascribed to Germany in the run-up to the First World War.

If those 1914 comparisons are to hold true, then China would be seen as playing the role of Germany, the rising power, challenging the established power, the United States, in the role Britain played a century ago. This is often called "the Thucydides Trap," named for the Ancient Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, during which Sparta had confronted the rising power of Athens.

Washington and Beijing are clearly wary of each other, yet it's also clear both want to avoid conflict. While Chinese economy will continue growing faster and top US GDP in the next decade or so, the two countries are economically and financially interdependent. China is also modernizing its military and developing its navy and air force, so it can secure the sea lanes it now depends on to import the energy and raw materials on which its economy depends, and this challenges the US dominance of the seas in Asia maintained since the Second World War.

The Obama administration has pursued its "rebalance" or "pivot" to Asia for the past three years. This has involved focusing military as well as economic attention on the region and has raised suspicions in China where many see it as a Cold War-style containment policy. American officials insist the pivot is not containment and avoid any appearances of the US calling the Chinese out; instead US officials are urging Beijing to be more transparent about its military capabilities and to develop crisis management mechanisms so accidental conflict can be avoided.

For its part, President Xi Jinping's government is calling for a new type of great power relations with the US, and although it's not clear yet exactly what this means in practice, Beijing seems to want to improve relations with Washington.

Yet tension in East Asia is rising - especially between China and Japan.Unlike relations between Germany and Britain a hundred years ago, the present-day tension between China and Japan has its roots in past conflicts between the two countries.

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Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight, a BBC News program. © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. Yale Global

(AP Photo)

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