The Debate

East Asia’s Lessons from World War I

China may unwittingly find itself facing a similar string of events to those that confronted Germany in 1914.

East Asia’s Lessons from World War I
Credit: United Kingdom Government

This summer’s 100th anniversary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination has ignited debate over the parallels and lessons that 1914 Europe affords the world today, particularly with regard to the question of whether such an all-consuming war is possible in the Asia-Pacific. Much ink has been spilled on economic interdependence, the role of nationalism, the chafing of a dominant power at the rise of another, and a naval arms race and its subsequent security dilemma. While very important, these preconditions and precipitants as Aristotle would call them, risk overshadowing a discussion of the specific triggers for the First World War, incidents that, however discrete or small, could draw in neighboring countries through their multilateral character, thus setting a fire far greater than the spark would suggest.

It is in the origins of World War I that the analogous triggers for a major conflict in the Asia- Pacific, particularly between the U.S. and China, are worryingly manifest. The U.K. declared war when Germany violated Belgium’s neutrality, which had been guaranteed by the Treaty of London in 1839. The mistake Britain made in the July Crisis of 1914 was that it did not send clear, timely signals to Germany that the U.K. would indeed intervene on behalf of Belgium; this was in light of previous crises, such as the Tangier Crisis and the Agadir Crisis, in which Berlin’s bellicosity went substantively unpunished. What Germany saw, therefore, was precedence for getting away with aggressive behavior against major powers in discrete incidents; facing another crisis caused by the archduke’s assassination, one can see why Berlin would choose to give itself the benefit of the doubt when considering the Schlieffen Plan’s strategic consequences. Had Germany understood the true import of its offensive through the Low Countries, history may have turned out very differently.

As Belgium represented both a geographic and strategic divide between Britain and Germany, so the East and South China Seas do for the U.S. and China today. Like two tectonic plates, a growing Chinese reach and geostrategic interests are pushing up against the status quo of U.S. dominance of the region. The preconditions and precipitants for war are already present, and some are growing. Moreover, the triggers for conflict are also conveniently present and are multiplying: China has taken a robust approach against the maritime neighbors with whom it has territorial disputes, which is to say, nearly all of them. Beijing has stepped up its presence in the East China Sea over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and it is seeking to create new facts in the South China Sea, whether it be strong-arming the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal and other land formations, or moving into Vietnamese-claimed waters to drill near the contested Paracel Islands. Looking ahead, it is even possible that the Taiwan Question – the region’s original island territorial dispute – will reignite. Triggers for conflict abound in Asia’s littoral waters, many concerning U.S. allies.

As problematic as these triggers are, the greater fear is that China could end up suffering from the same misperception that Germany did. China’s actions so far have been met with little substantive blowback from the U.S. or anyone else: the various takeovers in the South China Sea have not been reversed. One could try to explain away this success rate by arguing that China is not reckless, that Beijing only seeks confrontations that it knows it can win. Even if this were true, this perception would breed overconfidence and an assumption of future predictability on the part of other actors. Should Chinese actions over the next few years meet with no substantive blowback, or with failed attempts at punishment, then China may become increasingly bold in its provocations and may miscalculate other powers’ reactions as events escalate.

It could well be that the spark of a multilateral conflagration in the wider Asia-Pacific could be a dispute between China and a U.S. treaty ally or a non-allied third country, that escalates out of control and drags the U.S. into a war to fulfill its treaty obligations, or to uphold the peace and stability of the international system it created. Yet surely China would not want such a conflict? Perhaps, but Germany did not want the war it got one hundred years ago either. Berlin did not care enough about averting that conflict, beholden to a cavalier “cult of the offensive” attitude that believed war would be over by Christmas. The China of 2014 is not the Germany of one hundred years ago, but the perils of overconfidence and belief in success, coupled with the growing number of flashpoints over which to provoke other countries, are no less relevant now than they were in 1914. China must not make Germany’s mistake and think that it can endlessly provoke other countries and manage any subsequent escalation in tension. If China can keep its reach from exceeding its grasp, there may well be hope for avoiding the mistakes of the last century.

Brian C. Chao is a Contributing Analyst at the Asia-Pacific Desk at Wikistrat Inc. and is soon to undertake a Ph.D. at the Department of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania.