A Japanese Coast Guard flotilla patrols waters off the coast of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, October 2, 2012. (Al Jazeera English/Flickr)

A Japanese Coast Guard flotilla patrols waters off the coast of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, October 2, 2012. (Al Jazeera English/Flickr)

A century after the outbreak of World War I, concerns are mounting that new actors are poised for a repeat performance. Nervous voices caution that China may reprise the role originally played by Germany—a late industrializing, illiberal power with a rapidly expanding military that comes bearing grievances— and the United States may play Britain as a declining global hegemon and guardian of a liberal world order. Back then, dense trade relations, social exchange, and intermittent attempts at cooperation could not avert a collision, and some argue this danger is looming again.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons to question the analogy. Neither the United States nor China face the existential threats that affronted Britain and Germany before the Great War. Germany’s growing navy endangered Britain’s sea-borne lifelines. Facing expanding Russian military capabilities, Germany worried for its survival, driving its willingness for war. Today’s great powers are neither preparing for a Darwinian struggle between races nor locked in a zero-sum competition for colonies. Moreover, many believe nuclear weapons make all out war between the United States and China almost unthinkable.

That said, the pre-history of the Great War contains specific lessons about instability and tension, and many are relevant to East Asia today. This remains the case even if overarching analogies comparing pre-World War I Europe and contemporary East Asia are problematic. Three themes stand out in particular. Read more