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War Drums in Asia: Back to the European Future?

This year marks the centenary of the First World War in Europe and has prompted comparisons with rising tensions between China and Japan, and the United States and China. A shifting balance of power adds to tensions. A small or accidental clash combined with alliance commitments could cause a wider war, suggests Alistair Burnett, editor of The World, a BBC News program. China’s fast-growing economy, increased military spending, growing influence and demands for resources have unnerved established powers and their close allies. China and Japan have strong trade tie, but the Japanese prime minister has pointed out that strong economic links between Germany and Britain did not prevent war in 1914. The Chinese contend that Japan has not atoned sufficiently for atrocities committed during occupations throughout the 20th century. The two nations also quarrel over small islands. Patrols and small clashes between the Japanese and Chinese could lead to larger conflict that could force Asian nations to take sides. – YaleGlobal

War Drums in Asia: Back to the European Future?

Old grievances, shifting power balance, spur Asian tensions as in 1914
Alistair Burnett
YaleGlobal, 11 February 2014
Echo of ancient war drums? Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in Davos compares tension in East Asia with that prevailing in Europe before 1914 (top); German officer announces the Kaiser’s order for mobilization leading to the Great War (Photo: © IWM)

LONDON: 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.

The United States and China are wary of each other, yet both want to avoid conflict.

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.

Tension between China and Japan has roots in past conflicts between the two countries.

Many Chinese do not think the Japanese leadership has fully accepted the country’s responsibility for the invasion of China in the 1930s and 1940s. Chinese students learn about the widespread atrocities committed by Japanese forces in gory detail, while Japanese nationalists play down the details and China says many Japanese textbooks whitewash the invasion – all of which means there’s been no real reconciliation. China and Japan also have a long-running territorial dispute over control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea arising out of the first Sino-Japanese war of the modern era in the 1890s. The islands were annexed by Japan after that war in 1895, but 50 years later, after the Second World War, unlike other territories conquered by the Japanese, they were not returned to China, but instead occupied by the Americans. By the time the United States decided it didn’t need the islands in the early 1970s, China was ruled by the Communist Party and Japan was a US ally, so Washington returned the islands to Japanese control.  

Growing more powerful in recent years, China has increased pressure on Japan to acknowledge there is a dispute over the islands. China now regularly sends ships and planes to patrol near the islands, the Japanese respond with patrols of their own, and the likelihood of an accidental clash is increasing.

So even if comparisons with 1914 are off the mark, conflict between China and Japan could still be a possibility.

Abe is a seen as a nationalist who would like Japan to move on from the pacifism imposed on it by the United States after 1945. He may not go as far as changing the pacifist elements of the constitution, but he wants to change Japan’s defense posture, so the armed forces take a more assertive role – up to now, Japan has relied heavily on the United States to defend the areas around it – and he justifies this by pointing at China’s growing military capabilities and doubts over Beijing’s intentions.  

Abe suggested that economic links between Germany and Britain did not prevent war in 1914.

In Beijing, Xi is focused on reforming the economy and cleaning up the corruption that’s undermining the Communist Party’s legitimacy, which would suggest he does not want a war. But for his reforms to succeed, maintaining tension with Tokyo and a sense of threat from abroad is useful as it encourages loyalty to the center. Xi will also need support of the military and security apparatus for his reforms as he takes on vested interests in the party leadership, provincial governments and large state enterprises, and this makes compromise with Japan more difficult. Chinese public opinion is also hostile to Japan, evident in opinion polls, social media and the ease with which anti-Japanese boycotts occur.

So, domestic politics as well as geopolitics are driving both China and Japan to be more assertive, and this worries Washington. When Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine for Japanese war dead at the end of December, it not only stoked tension with China and South Korea which issued strong protests, the United States publicly stated it was “disappointed.”

In his comments at Davos, Abe, presumably thinking of the strong trade links between his country and China, said the economic links between Germany and Britain did not prevent war in 1914. Some listening to the Japanese prime minister came away with the impression he thinks pecuniary interests may not be strong enough to deter a military clash.

If a conflict between Beijing and Tokyo were to break out, the US could not bank on its other ally in the region, Seoul, given the tense relations between South Korea and Japan which have their own territorial and historical disputes. So Washington would choose between honoring its defense treaty with Japan and avoiding direct conflict with China. As Washington would stand to lose the trust of many allies in the region and is not noted for eating humble pie, the odds would suggest support for Japan. So if there is any parallel with 1914, it could turn out to be in how cascading alliance commitments can cause a wider war.  


Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight, a BBC News program.

Rights:Copyright © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

Comments on this Article

25 February 2014
Japan entered the negotiation with the United States in March 1941, not 1944. Prime Minister Konoe proposed in August 1941, not 1944, that he would go and meet with President Roosevelt. The President was willing to accept the proposal, but there was strong opposition to it. The Japanese Army and Navy had agreed, as this was necessary to work out some details with the United States, to let general, admirals and high-ranking officers accompany the Prime Minister.
I mentioned about a German woman who had a communist sister. I saw the TV interview in December about twenty years ago.
There were a lot in the Japanese leadership who were elated at the military successes of the Japanese Army and Navy. Was it because they thought that Japan would win and would be able to expel the United States and the United Kingdom from East Asia, thus installing Japan as the new hegemon all over East Asia? No, not at all. They had expected that Japan would encounter a formidable resistance of the US and the UK Forces; it was because Japan had an easy game, contrary to their misgivings. (Hitler had boasted that he would finish the Soviet Union in three weeks. The German soldiers had been supplied only with summer clothes and summer shoes. Unfortunately for them and fortunately for us, winter arrived in Moscow earlier than usual, in September.)
Konoe, ex-Prime Minister, had a very gloomy look on his face like many others. Was it because he had missed the great honor of being the Prime Minister who started the war? No, not at all. He was convinced that the battle would come to a standstill and that the United States would sooner or later begin to take the offensive and roll back.
Shigeru Yoshida had been Japanese ambassador to London. He had sent telegrams to Tokyo, warning that Hitler would not be able to win and that Great Britain would persist, endure and survive. After he came back to Tokyo, he kept in close contact with US ambassodor Joseph Grew and told him what was going on within the Japanese government, consulting with each other so that Japan and the United States would not fall into the catastrophe. He said to Konoe that he should go to Switzerland quickly and wait for a contact with the United States. What for? He wanted to put an end to the war as quickly and as soon as possible; he too was sure, in spite of the initial successes, that Japan was not able to resist an ultimate onslaught of the United States' might.
No country has been misunderstood, as far as the Second World War is concerned, like Japan.
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Japan the Never Normal
23 February 2014
Prof. Lehmann,
This is a very long story and I do not know yet how to make it short.
Tojo was not a dictator. Am I denying that Japan was an aggressor nation? Do I have to say, in order not to deny that, Tojo was single and did not have a wife like Hitler did not? Do I have to say that Tojo had a mistress like Hitler or that he was a vegetarian like Hitler? Hitler was a dictator to the end of the third Reich. Tojo became Prime Minister only fifty days before the Pearl Habor attack. He had to resign from that post when Japan lost the Island of Saipan in the summer of 1944, unlike Hitler.
Did Hitler want to avoid war with Stalin? No. Did he enter into a negotiation with Stalin to arrive at an agreement to keep peace? No. Didn't he want to enslave Slav people? Yes.
Japan had entered into the negotiation with the United States in March 1944. Prime Minister Konoe said to the US in August that he wanted to talk directly with President Roosevelt because he saw the army stood in the way of coming to an agreement with the US. His proposal was not accepted. Tojo, after becoming Prime Minister, cotinued with the US-Japanese talks in Washington. He asked Togo, one of the most dove-like doves, to be Foreign Minister. It was only after Japan received a note from Secretary of State Hull on Nov. 26 that Japan decided to go.
Hitler wanted war with Stalin. Japan did not want it. Japan wanted to extricate itself from the contiental war with China.
Japan did not have things like concentration camps, Gestap, or anti-Semitism. The Japanese had respect for and extended warm welcome to the Jewish people since 1868, because the Jewish people came from Germany, Russia or Poland as music or language instructors; they brought new European cuisine.
"Yet, if we compare Japan to other countries where political terror was in use, either by government or by rival political groups, we find that in Japan the actual number of acts of violence was relatively small. There was no mass terror in Japan as there was in Germany of the 1930s. Political rivals in Japan did not assassinate each other, nor the government liquidate its opponents. Except for communists, who were jailed, most dissenters remained free. The worst that happened to people who disagreed with the government was usually that they had to renounce public office. Unlike Germany. Communist Russia or Kuomintang China of that decade, people did not disappear in Japan. No liberal lost his life because of his oppinions. Liberal writers and politicians like Ozaki Yukio...were restricted in their public utterances, but they were neither arrested nor exiled. Despite the denuciations of the West, no Westerner was assassinated in Japan in the 1930s (Ben-Ami Shillony, Myth and Reality in Japan of the 1930s, edited by W.G. Beasley, Modern Japan, Tuttle.)"
Westernization, particularly Americanization, went on in many aspets of life in the 1930s as before, particularly in urban areas. Jailed communists were released from prison if they recanted their communist belief.
The main theme of Japanese foreign policy since 1868 was to coorinate Japan's national interests with the those of the two important Anglo-Saxon countries, the UK and the US. Japan's war with the United States was not the result of its challenge to American hegemony in East Asia but its diplomatic failure to make compromises. But the blame should not be put only on Japan. Secretary of State Hull was not flexible enough, I think. Japanese foreign policy was adrift, quite unlike Hitler's. "When we are confronted with policies of drift rather than of clear purpose, the identification of initial decisions becomes a futile game, as exemplified in the sequence of events leading to the war between Japan and the United States (Joseph Frankel, The Making of Foreign Policy, Oxford university Press, 1968.)"
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Japan, the Never Normal
23 February 2014
Thank you very much for your reply, Prof. Lehmann.
Prof. Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth Colleges said, "For some reason we scholars, policy analysts, and journalists seem unable to see Japan as normal. No matter what Japan does, people view it through the lens of extremes ( (or the Council on Foreign Relations/Asia Unbound/Jennifer Lind/Japan, the Never Normal.)"
I wrote about the absence of anti-Japanese feeling in the 1950s through the 80s. But it was artificially roused in the mid-1990. The reason is recounted in Prof. Ezra Vogel, Deng Xiaoping, Chapter 21: Standing Firm 1989-1992. International sanctions had been imposed on China on account of the Tiananmen Massacre, but Japan was the first to relax its part in 1991. Beijing coveted the visit of the Japanese Emperor and Empress to break the international encirclement. The Japanese government agreed to it in 1992. "...the Chinese have never reciprocated the warm feelings of the Japanese, viewing them with distrust and more than a little contempt. The Japanese nostalgia for China has been a classic case of unrequited love (Edwin O. Reischauer, the Japanese.)"
The Chinese who have ruled have had enormous power and enormous wealth as they do now and the gap in power and wealth has been enormous between those who rule and those who are ruled as it is now. The enormous gap has required an enormous ideology, namely enormous lies. In today's China enormous lies are prevalent.
I do not deny the atrocities committed by the Japanese, but I do not think that I have to take in enormous lies in order to keep from being labelled suffering amnesia. I think that Japan should not be condemned for what it did not do.
As for Korean comfort women, as I have not a memo with me here, I cannot give exact years nor dates. Korean did not blame the Japanese for this until around 1990. it all started with a Japanese who said in about 1988 that he had abducted Korean women and handed them over to brothels. He published a book, which was translated into Korean, which set the affair on fire. Of course I do not deny the existence of Korean and Japanese comfort women. But the Koreans now think that Korean women were abducted or conscripted and forcefully made to work in prostitution. Prof. James Auer of Vanderbilt University met with a group of South Koreans, all of a considerably good social status last June. They were all surprised to know that there were Japanese comfort women too, and that there were far more of them than Korean women. They do not seem to know the truth. In most cases, these Korean women were sold by their parents or told by agents that they would work in restaurants, wearing nice clothes. When Japan was defeated, they had American soldiers as new customers. Confort women referred until around 1990 in South Korea women doing businesse with the new soldiers. The natural logic should be that Koreans claim apologies from US Congress.
In South Korea, when the war with the North broke out, they forced commnunist women to engage in prostitution, sending each woman in an empty oil drum to the fronts. The Korean parliament should pass a resolution to condemn themselves.
I read that Germany forced on Eastern European women a choice, going to Germany to work in factories and on farms or staying in their own lands to make friends with German soldiers. Was this true? Did I read a faked story? About twenty years ago a German woman said to a Japanese TV, on condition that the interview should be broadcast only in Japan, that her sister was a communist and so she too was made as a punishment to work as a prostitute with German soldiers.
Yasukuni Shrine was a national shrine in pre-war Japan and those, men or women, who died during battle or died from the wounds of battle were commemorated. The Japanese government was told by the Allied forces to denationalize it and so it is a non-national or private institution. It has its own standard of enshrinement, but people like Tojo did not fall in battlefield and they were the ones who ought to have offered apologies. My preference is that the shrine did not do that. I would rather Abe had not gone to the shrine. However, ascribing his visit to his possible wish of remilitarizing Japan is completely beside the point.
It seems that American Japanologists, for instance, are devided in their opinion. Prof. Kevin Doak of Georgetown University seems to give a favorable rating to his visit.
I have a very different valuation or estimation about apologies German Style and Japanese Style, but I want to send this comment so far in case that I might fumble with my machine.
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Japan, the Never Normal
22 February 2014
Mr Moriyama's comments are a tiresome repetition of a Japanese sutra about the atrocities committed against fellow Asians (and some Americans and Europeans) in the last century. It is defensive, pedantic and parochial. On the war atrocities amnesia and provocations (à la Yasukuni visits) the only people who defend Japan are Japanese. The US expressed its "disappointment" at Abe's visit to Yasukuni. As authors such as Ian Buruma (Wages of Guilt and Year Zero) and David Pilling (Bending Adversity) have written there is such a stark difference between Germany and Japan, which, inter-alia, creates a stark difference in the European and Asia Pacific environments. The former is at peace, the latter is a cauldron. If someone were today to criticise the Germans for not having atoned for the past, many non-Germans would immediately come to their defense, including myself, a Frenchman with Jewish origins whose late father spent time in a POW (fortunately not concentration) camp. No one, but no one in Asia or for that matter on the planet rallies to the Japanese to echo or approve derogatory statements made by Japanese leaders about, say, the Korean sex-slaves. In their defiant and aggressive smugness, the Japanese are alone, alone, alone and alone. What is sad is that there are of course many Japanese who do not share the views of people such as PM Abe, NHK Director Momii, and others, but they should make their voices of opposition to the provocations and attacks louder. If, for example, a German political leader would say that Germany did not really "invade" Poland, as Japanese political leaders, including Abe, question the use of the word in respect to Japan and China, not only would citizens of Poland be out in the streets, but so would millions of citizens of Germany. Humane, internationally minded, peace desiring Japanese must stand up and be counted so that the voices of the reactionary xenophobic negationists can be silenced.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann
-Jean-Pierre Lehmann , War Drums in Asia: Back to the European Future?
15 February 2014
I forgot to say a few words about Abe's visit to the my first comment. I would like anyone interested to read my comments to Nye/1914 Revisited?/January 13/.
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Yasukuni Shrine, Tokyo
15 February 2014
If Mr. Burnett had been in China in the 1950s, he would have found the vehement anti-American feeling; and the as vehement anti-Russian feeling in the 1960s. The anti-American feeling of the 50s and the 60s disappered almost overnight with President Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972. The anti-Russian sentiment subsisted until about the demise of the Soviet Union. He would have wondered at the absence of anti-Japanese feeling throughout these four decades. In the 1980s, some generals of the PLA even went so far as to encourage their Japanese counterparts to increase Japan's defense expenditures beyond its self-imposed restriction of less than one percent of its GDP.
Japan proposed to China in 1880 on the advice of the then ex-Presiden Grant that China take the Yaejima islands which includeded the present-day Senkaku, but China said no thank you. If Mr. Burnett had read the minite of the 1895 Sino-Japanese Peace Conference and the treaty, he would have felt hesitant to say that Japan annexed it.
Japan has been apologetic. I do not remember, for instance, when Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin said the numbers, because Chinese do things like this very often. Deng said about fifteen million Chinese were killed by the Japanese. Jiang Zemin upped the number to thirty-five or so million when he visited Moscow. Mr. Xi Jinping can say seven billion but he must wait to say eight billion until the world populaito at least reaches that number though the 2 + 2 = 5 style logic is world-famous (Jeffrey Wasserstrom, China: In the Twenty-First Century.) When Japanese refuse to take that sort of lies, they pelt invectives like "The Japanese are not penitent. They are whitewashing their past."
Abe is just doing the job many Japanese politicians have been rather reluctant to do. It is strongly supported by the United States and all East Asian countries except China and perhaps South Korea. I know it gives a lot of displeasure to China.
South Korea is sitting on the US-Sino fence before deciding on which side to land, as Mr. Edward N. Luttwak says, "Only in South Korea has Chinese influence increased instead of declining, not least because of a South Korean cultural disposition to servility toward China and the Chinese (The Rise of China VS. The Logic of Strategy.)
Mr. Burnett seems to trace the present-day animosty of China and Japan to the two countries' past hundred or so years' relations. It is myopic and fails to see. Edwin O. Reischauer said, quite accurately, "the Chinese have never reciprocated the warm feelings of the Japanese, viewing them with distrust and more than a little contempt. The Japanese nostaligia for China has been a classic case of unrequited love (The Japanese.) The China's and South Korea's attitudes toward Japan cannot be understood without having at least some understanding of the metaphysical and moralistic philosophy of Confucianist Zhu Zi (Chu Hsi).
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Disemination of Lies
15 February 2014
Alistair Burnett's article makes interesting,though frightening reading. Not being a historian, I don't feel competent to comment on the appositeness of the China-Japan situation today, and the pre-1914 Germany-Britain parallel that seems to be the basis of this analysis.What I want to emphasize is the common knowledge of how different the world is today from what it was a century ago. The First World War itself, the Second World War and other skirmishes of significant, though more limited dimension, have highlighted the destructiveness of war. The phenomenal acceleration in globalization brings into focus the extent of interest in avoiding the deleterious consequences that a military conflict involving major powers such as the United States, China and Japan could inflict on the world's social, political and economic fabric. i feel persuaded that the experiences gained through the League of Nations, the United Nations and the flurry of diplomatic activity that characterizes modern international relations, should assist in assuaging the flames that may threaten the precipitation of a conflagration of the magnitude that may arise from such confrontation. That the world was spared the worst from the Cuban missile crisis of the cold war era, from the good sense that informed the crucial decisions of the opposing forces at the material time, gives me reason for optimism that the drift into war can again be avoided in this situation. In another sphere, I see the wisdom of accumulated experience in the handling of the financial crisis arising from the US sub-prime problems starting in 2007/2008, in comparison to policy in the the Great Depression of the 1930s. Allof this does not mean we should not be concerned by the emerging China-Japan tensions.One can just hope that similar good sense from accumulated experience will inform the handling of these delicate issues, which hold such tremendous potential for disruption of the world social order.
-Nat Wellington , War Drums in Asia: Back to the European Future?
12 February 2014
The China-Japan trade relationship is only strong in one direction.
a) For Japan, their most important trading partner by a large margin is China/HK, accounting for 22.2% of total trade. Figures taken from the trade section of the CIA factbook below
b) China has grown to become the world's largest trading nation, so Japan is only their 5th largest trading partner with 7.5% of total trade. See below
So Japan is much more reliant on trade with China, but China is not that reliant on trade with Japan, as China has alternative sources of trade and investment from Korea/Europe/America.
This also does not take into account how China continues to grow much faster and become more important. China will account for between one-third to one-half of global economic growth this year, which Japan is increasingly shut out of.
-Andrew , Trading Relations