Thursday, February 07, 2013


"The flickering black and white films of men going “over the top” in the first world war seem impossibly distant. Yet the idea that the great powers of today could never again stumble into a war, as they did in 1914, is far too complacent. The rising tensions between China, Japan and the US have echoes of the terrible conflict that broke out almost a century ago. The most obvious potential spark is the unresolved territorial dispute between China and Japan over the islands known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and the Senkaku to the Japanese. In recent months, the two countries’ aircraft and ships have shadowboxed near the islands. Alarmed, the US dispatched a top-level mission to Beijing and Tokyo in late October, made up of four senior members of the US foreign policy establishment: including Stephen Hadley, who ran the National Security Council for George W. Bush, and James Steinberg, who served as Hillary Clinton’s number two at the State Department. This bipartisan US delegation made clear that a Chinese attack on the islands would trigger the security guarantees that America has made to Japan. The obvious danger is that, as in 1914, a small incident could invoke alliance commitments that lead to a wider war. The American group was well aware of the risks. As Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor who was part of the four-person mission, puts it: “We discussed the 1914 analogy among ourselves. I don’t think any of the parties wants war, but we warned both sides about miscommunications and accidents. Deterrence usually works among rational actors, but the major players in 1914 were also rational actors.” Graham Allison, Mr Nye’s Harvard colleague, who has written a classic study of the Cuba missile crisis, also believes that there is a danger of war by miscalculation. He says: “The mechanism in 1914 is instructive. Who could imagine that Serbian terrorists could kill an archduke no one had heard of and trigger a great war, at the end of which all contestants were devastated? My view is that the Chinese leadership has no intention of challenging the US militarily, yet. But what about the hothead nationalists in China or Japan?” Such “hotheads” could be very low down the chain of command. In September 2010, a crisis over the islands was provoked when a Chinese trawler captain confronted Japanese patrol ships. It later turned out that the captain had been drunk. Back then, the Japanese government took a fairly conciliatory approach. However, the US is concerned that the new Japanese cabinet is full of hardline nationalists, who are more inclined to confront China. Shinzo Abe, the new Japanese prime minister, is the grandson of a wartime cabinet minister and rejects the “apology diplomacy”, through which Japan tried to atone for the war. America’s security guarantee is meant to reassure Japan, but there is also a danger is that it might tempt Japanese politicians to take unnecessary risks. Some historians argue that in 1914, the German government had concluded that it needed to fight a war as soon as possible – before it was encircled by more powerful adversaries. Similarly, some Japan-watchers worry that nationalists in the government may be tempted to confront China now – before the gap in power between the two nations grows too large, and while the US is still the dominant military force in the Pacific. The Americans’ concern about the nationalist turn in Japanese politics is amplified because they see the same trend in China. China now, like Germany 100 years ago, is a rising power that fears the established great power is intent on blocking its ascent. Deng Xiaoping, the father of modern China, pursued a foreign policy based on the adage: “Hide your strength, bide your time.” But his generation has been replaced by a new leadership group, which is more confident and assertive. The Chinese military is also increasingly influential in shaping foreign policy.... If things got really dangerous, there is also some wiggle room in the US-Japan security treaty. Article V of the treaty is commonly believed to commit the US to defend its ally by military means. In fact, it simply commits the two nations to “act to meet the common danger” in the event of an attack on Japan. That ambiguity could be dangerous, if it tempts China to call America’s bluff. But it could also be useful at a time of crisis. In July 1914, leaders on all sides felt helpless as they were swept towards a war that most of them did not want. A study of that history might help the Chinese, Americans and Japanese to avoid a similar fate in 2014".
Gideon Rachman, "The shadow of 1914 falls over the Pacific." The Financial Times. 5 February 2013, in
"Reuters - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged China on Wednesday not to stoke tension over disputed East China Sea isles, a day after Japan said a Chinese vessel directed radar normally used to aim weapons at a target at a Japanese navy ship. A Chinese government spokeswoman said she was not aware of the details of the incident, and focused instead on China's stance that Japan should stop sending its ships into what China considers its territorial waters around the islands. "The incident is a dangerous conduct that could have led to an unforeseeable situation. It is extremely regrettable that China carried out such a one-sided, provocative act when signs are emerging for dialogue," Abe told parliament. "I ask the Chinese side to return to the spirit of mutually beneficial, strategic relations and prevent the recurrence of an incident like this. I strongly ask them for restraints so that the situation will not escalate further." Fire control radar is used to pinpoint the location of a target for missiles or shells. Directing the radar at a target can be considered a step away from actual firing".
Reuters, "Japan PM urges Chinese restraint after radar lock-on." 6 February 2013, in
I would like to publish here, a letter to the editor that I have sent off, to the Financial Times, which I believe puts paid to the type of wrong-headed and indeed dangerous sort of analysis which finds that there are two parties, equally to blame for the current tensions in the Far East. As it is quite clear to anyone who possesses eyes to see, or ears to hear, there is only one party to blame in the stoking the tensions, and that indeed is China. Something which David Stevenson of the London School of Economics points out in his own response to Rachman's erroneous piece, noting:
"In China, in particular, some of the rhetoric now employed suggests a willingness actually to welcome hostilities in a way not seen in the western world for decades" 1.
The upshot of this situation is that unless and until the Western powers, headed by the United State show complete backing for the Japanese Government's position that any change in the territorial status quo ante as it relates to the Senkaku Islands is something which can only be negotiated if and when the Japanese Government so pleases, then we will indeed have a possible 1914 scenario to be afraid of. As the regime in Peking will see anything else as carte blanche to endeavor to exercise coercion, either diplomatically or militarily.
1. David Stevenson, Letter to the Editor: 'Hostilities yet to reach pitch to making Sino-Japanese War inevitable." The Financial Times. 7 February 2013, in
"In his piece on the dangers that tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands may result in a reply of 1914 ("The Shadow of 1914 falls over the Pacific Ocean." The Financial Times, 5 February 2013), Gideon Rachman makes nonsense of the underlying issues involved. Per contra to Rachman's thesis that the gravest threat to peace is that a 'new Japanese cabinet is full of hardline nationalists who are more inclined to confront China', the fact of the matter is that the only threat to peace in the Far East, comes from an aggressive China which aims to overthrow the territorial status quo ante of more than one-hundred years as it relates to the Senkaku. In the absence of militant Chinese rhetoric (both governmental and non-governmental) and dangerous Chinese military actions (the sending of ships and aircraft into internationally recognized Japanese sea and air space), there would be no 'crisis' to speak of. The only way in which this crisis can be positively resolved is by the West, lead by the United States, standing firmly by Japan and facing down China's treats to overthrow the territorial status quo".


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