Does World War I Echo in East Asia’s Growing Tensions?

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.

First, be cautious of complex alliance dynamics. Europe on the eve of WWI was a tangle of security arrangements. Insecure states fearing abandonment tied themselves tightly to their allies, ensuring they would be pulled in to conflict—such was the Franco-Russian alliance. More secure states, such as Britain vis-à-vis France, sought ambiguity in their obligations to avoid emboldening their partners, eliciting misjudgment by outside observers like Germany. This hodge-podge web of uncoordinated, interwoven, and unclear commitments increased the chances of miscalculation and entrapment.

A complicated mix of disparate security commitments similarly characterizes contemporary East Asia. The United States has explicit partnerships or arrangements with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, and Singapore; implicit commitments to Taiwan; and emerging security relations with Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Several of these states have ongoing territorial disputes, notably with China. States such as Japan and the Philippines are binding themselves closer to the United States as Chinese military power grows.

These entanglements increase the chances the United States will be pulled into a regional conflict and, by extension, other actors as well. The United States is walking a fine line to reassure and restrain partners while deterring challengers. Such balancing acts are difficult to maintain and invite dangerous misconceptions by friends and rivals. China has an uncertain security relationship with North Korea, capable of provoking confusion, even if it has fewer commitments. Such dynamics do not augur well for stability.

Second, nationalism remains a concern. Nationalist attitudes were strong in virtually all the major players in WWI, and were especially a force in illiberal states such as Imperial Germany and Czarist Russia. Where domestic dislocations and tensions provoked elite anxieties, nationalism became a counterweight to cries for social and political reform. Nationalist forces, generally speaking, sought a strong state, were anti-democratic, and militaristic. They were natural—or even manufactured—allies for oligarchic regimes seeking to limit democratic and socialist advances.

These same nationalists sought muscular foreign policies, disdained compromise, and were quick to advocate the sword. A functioning foreign policy requires concessions that from a nationalist perspective can verge on traitorous. Tsar Nicholas II believed on the eve of war that his subjects would never forgive him should he back down, and chose mobilization. The more a regime leans towards a nationalist constituency internally, the less flexibility it enjoys externally.

Nationalism may be making a comeback in East Asia. The Chinese government actively cultivated a narrative of humiliation and suffering at the hands of foreign actors, expecting allegiance and a rejection of “Western” political reforms. Nationalist sentiment in China has become more important for the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy following the upheavals of 1989. Facing active “netizens” who denounce signs of weakness, the Party no longer has a monopoly on nationalist discourse. To the extent the Chinese government needs to respond to nationalist pressures, it may lose room for maneuver. Chinese nationalism may, in turn, inspire nationalist backlash in Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Third, beware repeated crises. World War I came in the wake of a series of crises. With each crisis—be it in North Africa or the Balkans—antagonisms increased while underlying issues remained unresolved. Whether parties saw themselves as winners or losers, the lessons were identical: might works. Those who triumphed perceived vindication in threatening aggression; those who backed down became determined to avoid being cowed again. As positions hardened, a contradictory effect emerged: complacency. The fact that war was previously prevented nurtured a misplaced faith in the ability of statesmen to avoid conflict. In July 1914, actors initially confident in a diplomatic solution—such as Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey—did not realize the danger they faced until it was too late.

Present-day East Asia has its share of confrontations and crises. These include the 1995-6 Taiwan Strait Crisis, repeated South China Sea impasses since the late 2000s, and China’s contestation of Japanese administration of the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands from 2010. More recently, there are the Japanese, South Korean, and American challenges to China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, and Chinese energy exploration in waters disputed with Vietnam. Many actors believe that effective coercion can strengthen their hand and force rivals to back down, prompting expectations that rivals will fold before carefully calibrated threats. Such behavior exacerbates antagonisms and raises risks for miscalculation.

The international system today differs much from that of the early 20th century, making comparisons about relative rise and decline difficult except in the broadest sense. More enduring are challenges of alliance management, domestic pressures, and complacency over coercion at moments of heightened uncertainty. These are, after all, mechanisms through which crises and conflict take place.

Ja Ian Chong is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore and author of Imposing States: External Intervention and State Formation– China, Indonesia, Thailand, 1892-1952. Todd H. Hall is an Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.