Talking Point

An intractable problem?

Lessons from a century ago in ongoing Sino-Japanese island dispute

Patriotic guy: Abe's new government has fuelled China tensions

Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared-up and happy.” That may sound like the workings of a deranged mind; in fact they are the words of Winston Churchill, written to his wife on July 28 1914, just days before Britain went to war with Germany.
It was a continental conflict of the type that Churchill and his cabinet colleagues hadn’t really expected. Only a month before the British government’s main preoccupation was unrest in Ireland.
Rather than the dangers of war, the French population was far more interested in Madame Caillaux’s murder trial. The wife of the former prime minister had fired six bullets into the chest of the editor of Le Figaro in revenge for embroiling her in a scandal. As the historian Christopher Clark points out, the verdict for her case on July 29 got twice as many column inches in Le Temps as the looming crisis provoked by the assassination of Austria’s Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
Clark’s excellent account of the mix of personalities and national rivalries that led to the First World War is aptly named The Sleepwalkers. The title is apt as this was a conflict that very few Europeans saw coming. Nevertheless a complacent continent was drawn into war by a combination of paranoia, belligerent egos and bluffs that were called.
Suddenly a conflict in the Balkans sparked a war that would kill 16 million and wreck most of Europe. Among its many economic consequences: decades of tariff walls and protectionism. It wouldn’t be until the 1990s that globalisation returned to pre-1914 levels.
Next year will be the centenary of the First World War’s outbreak. But its significance should not be lost on us today. Part of the historical narrative is that a rising Germany turned Europe into a powder keg, which brings us to a contemporary parallel: is the rise of an increasingly assertive China likely to lead Asia in a similar direction?
Lessons from history…
Clark’s book should be required reading for anyone interested in China’s impact on geopolitics and the international balance of power. That’s because the current escalation in tensions between China and Japan have striking parallels with Europe’s march to war a century ago.
While the assassination of the heir to the Habsburg throne was the immediate catalyst for the conflict in 1914, the seeds of the war date back to 1908 when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The act angered Belgrade, which harboured ambitions for a ‘greater Serbia’ that included Serb-domiciled areas in Bosnia and Herzogovina. Austria’s unilateral decision to absorb the territories stymied that goal and led to rancorous relations. It was a situation that Vienna had not fully anticipated when it announced its Bosnian fait accompli.
It was a classic example of the butterfly effect, explains Clark, and it took many by surprise. The historian explains: “Since these two formally Ottoman provinces had been under Austrian occupation for thirty years and there had never been any question of an alteration of this arrangement, it might seem that the nominal change from occupation to outright annexation ought to have been a matter of indifference. The Serbian public took a different view. The announcement created an unparalleled outburst of resentment and national enthusiasm, both in Belgrade and in the provinces. More than 20,000 attended an anti-Austrian rally at the National Theatre in Belgrade, where the leader of the Independent Radicals gave a speech declaring Serbians must fight the annexation to the death.”
Bosnia and Herzogovina became an open wound for many Serbians and led directly to the nationalist plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand in the Bosian capital in 1914. This directly led to war between Vienna and Belgrade (and triggered the various treaty alliances that started the First World War across a much wider range of countries).
This bring us back to current Sino-Japanese relations, and their ongoing dispute.
There are similarities between the Bosnian annexation and the current debacle over a group of stony islands in the East China Sea. Think of this: Austria formally occupied Bosnia and Herzogovina for 30 years; similarly Japan has administered the islands (known by Tokyo as the Senkakus and by Beijing as the Diaoyus) since 1972. In another parallel: Serbia had previously been content to tolerate Austria ‘running’ Bosnia. Likewise the Chinese had accepted Tokyo’s administrative role over the islands (Deng Xiaoping agreed it).
However, that status quo was disrupted last September when the Japanese government purchased  the islands (from the Kurihara family,  see WiC164). Like the Serbians in 1908, the Chinese saw it as a provocation. Diplomatic relations became icy, Japanese goods were boycotted and there were violent demonstrations against Japan in  Chinese cities. Japan – like Austria – seemed to have made a fundamental miscalculation. In both situations a long-held position of de facto control turned alarmingly ideological as the polities tried to assert sovereignty more directly over the territory.
A nationalistic raw nerve was jarred. Tokyo’s fait accompli infuriated the Chinese government – leading Beijing to describe Japan’s annexation as a “theft”. Always touchy on issues of sovereignty, the Chinese government has argued since that the Diaoyus have been part of China since the Ming Dynasty (more on which later).
Have tensions escalated?
Yes, the situation is increasingly serious. Last week’s issue of The Economist carried a story with the headline: “The drums of war”. If you watch Chinese television, the article suggested, “you might conclude that the outbreak of war with Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyus is only a matter of time. You might well be right.”
WiC first mentioned Sino-Japanese tensions over the islands as far back as issue 78, but the nastier mood since December has been particularly disquieting. For example, on January 11 the Global Times, a Beijing-controlled newspaper, made the alarming comment: “A military clash is more likely. We shouldn’t have the illusion that Japan will be deterred by our firm stance. We need to prepare for the worst.”
A hundred years ago, the misconceived boast in Britain was that any hostilities would be “over by Christmas”. And Major General Zhang Zhaozhong has been quoted in the Chinese press giving a similarly upbeat verdict: “The Chinese military could win a war over the Diaoyu Islands in half an hour.”
Events haven’t been helped by the election of Abe Shinzo as Japanese prime minister last month, and his subsequent appointment of a new cabinet that’s much more nationalistic than its predecessors (see WiC177). China has also been alarmed by his talk of changing the pacificist constitution to allow the Japanese military to fight overseas, as well as his decision to up the defence budget.
Abe immediately struck an intransigent note over the disputed islands. TIME reports that he has made clear that Japan views the question of their Japanese sovereignty as non-negotiable. The magazine said the prime minister further stirred things up by claiming Beijing was “wrong” for allowing damage to Japanese-owned factories and stores in China during last year’s street demonstrations.
The sense of diplomatic brinksmanship has since spread to the sea and air surrounding the uninhabited islands (they cover 7 square kilometres and count feral goats among their few full-time residents). Chinese vessels have been entering the contested waters blaring “This is historically Chinese territory” from loudspeakers. More serious still, Chinese marine surveillance aircraft have flown through disputed airspace, leading Japan to scramble F-15 fighter jets in response. Japanese defence minister Onodera Itsunori said last week that Japan would fires flares and warning shots to deter Chinese aircraft from “ violating Japanese airspace” around the islands again.
Another Chinese general, Peng Guanqian, retorted that such ‘warning shots’ would count as the start of “actual combat”. He added that China should then “respond without courtesy”. One interpretation: a single Japanese warning shot could trigger an escalation to war.
Chinese public opinion is a factor too. If anything it’s egging the leadership in Beijing to take a harder line. For example, one of the most forwarded comments on Tencent’s online news portal is proclaiming: “Evacuate all Chinese people from Japan, seize all Japanese businesses in China and prepare the people for war.”
This was by no means an isolated urging. Millions have read and forwarded inflammatory comments by the military blogger Nanhai Yunlu too. It stated: “All of China’s humiliations and shame in modern times are related to Japan. Of course, China hates Japan the most. If Chinese people find an object of revenge, Japan is really very appropriate and the Diaoyu Islands is also a very appropriate place.”
Loss of face is an issue?
When Austrian emperor Franz Josef declared war on Serbia in 1914, he explained to his subjects: “The intrigues of a malevolent opponent compel me, in the defence of the honour of my monarchy, for the protection of its dignity and its position as a power, for the security of its possessions, to grasp the sword after long years of peace.”
What European monarchs the called ‘honour’, might be termed ‘face’ in an Asian context. And it’s very evident that neither the Chinese nor the Japanese want to lose it in the island dispute. Conceding sovereignty is not an option for either country – as it would constitute a massive loss of face.
Miyake Kuni, a former Japanese foreign ministry official, admitted something similar when he told the Financial Times: “There is the face issue.” But in China’s case there is the added anti-Japanese dimension. Tokyo’s invasion of  China in the 1930s is viewed by Chinese as a humiliating period. Thanks to the school textbooks it isn’t likely to be  forgotten in future, either.
As long as the sovereignty issue remains unresolved, the islands will be a potential source of conflict. You don’t have to be a military hawk to think an accident could provoke war at any time.
Falling back on an ever-favoured Chinese proverb, Phoenix TV ominously asked: “Can one mountain accommodate two tigers?”
The not-so-quiet Americans?
Hillary Clinton waded into the dispute last Friday, when she met with Japan’s new foreign minister. While she reiterated to Kishida Fumio that the US takes no position on the sovereignty of the islands, she said that Washington acknowledges they are under Japanese administration.
In fact, she went further, adding that: “we oppose any unilateral action that would seek to undermine Japanese administration”. That constituted a fairly unequivocal warning that China should not use force against America’s treaty ally Japan.
The statement immediately drew verbal fire from Beijing. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman told media: “The comments by the US side are ignorant of facts and indiscriminate of rights and wrongs.” He added that China still blames the Americans for placing the rocky outcrops under Japanese control after the Second World War, despite Chinese objections.
The Chinese press was also vociferous in its criticism. An editorial in the China Daily warned: “The United States is sending a dangerous message on the territorial dispute between China and Japan, which may lead the tension in the East China Sea to spin out of control.”
The same newspaper also carried a long think-piece by Yang Yi, a navy rear admiral. Its tone was threatening too: “The US politicians may hope that their latest move will appease Japan and put pressure on China. But they have not realised, or do not want to realise, that the move will eventually harm the US. If Japan, backed by the US, adopts a more aggressive attitude over the Diaoyu Islands, it will undoubtedly meet a staunch reaction from China politically, economically, diplomatically and militarily.”
Yang continued: “China never fires the first shot, but it will resolutely fight back if its national interests are violated. Should a violent confrontation occur between China and Japan, it will not only harm the interests of both countries, it will also drag the US into the abyss of war.”
Again that has echoes of 1914, where a treaty alliance forced France and (a largely unenthusiastic) Britain to fight on Russia’s side against Germany and Austria-Hungary. This alliance was triggered by Russia’s defence of Serbia, against whom Austria had declared war. Theoretically a Chinese attack on Japanese forces stationed around the contested islands would oblige the US to defend Japan.
For the moment, the risk of such an event occurring remains underrated in the West. Indeed, after President Obama’s inauguration this week the priorities of his foreign policy were listed by pundits as the withdrawal from Afghanistan, dealing with Iran, resolving the crisis in Syria and advancing the Middle East peace process. The risk of a Sino-Japanese war occurring in the next four years got scant mention. It remains an ‘unthinkable’ scenario, but nevertheless one that could wreak more havoc on the global economy than virtually any other foreign policy crisis the US might face.
The new Prussia?
WiC is not alone in drawing historical parallels between events in Asia-Pacific and the lead up to 1914. Another comment from last week’s Economist was that “a jumpy nationalistic China could become the equivalent of Prussia a century ago” and there are two clear lessons we can draw from comparisons with Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany (for whom Prussia was the military and political heartland).
The first is that Imperial Germany was obsessed with being encircled, flanked on either side by the entente allies of Britain and France (to its west) and Russia (to its east). China is continental in size but it too is fearful of a strategic encirclement, a concern that seems to be driving border disputes with practically all of its neighbours (especially from India to its west, the Philippines to its south and Japan to its east).
Thus when Prime Minister Abe made a tour of Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia this month it sparked dark analysis in Beijing.  “He has unveiled his grand strategy with a perspective of the world map,” the China Daily warned. “He reached out to the leaders of Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, India, Russia and Britain in late December over the phone. On a world map, all of these countries, except Britain, encircle China.”
The second parallel with the Kaiser’s Germany involves perception. In 1914 the democracies cast Berlin as the rising and aggressive power that was the key threat to world stability. Today the narrative about China is being similarly framed by the democracies of India, Japan, the Philippines and the US too. Western estimates of China’s annual military budget at $200 billion are used to cast Beijing as a militarist hegemon in-the-making.
In fact, the perception that Germany was aggressor in 1914 became conventional wisdom after 1918 (solidified when the Treaty of Versailles forced Berlin to accept the blame for starting the conflict). But one of striking achievements of Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is his measured analysis of who upped the ante most on the road to war.
He suggests that Germany wasn’t the most belligerent or even the most culpable of the main powers. The most aggressive statesman that summer was the anti-Germanic president of France, Raymond Poincaré, who had long viewed a conflict in the Balkans as an “optimal casus belli” for drawing Moscow into a two-front war against Berlin – a situation he judged would allow France to exact revenge for its territorial losses in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Others in Paris agreed with him. The Belgian minister in the French capital sent back a report to Brussels: “The French general staff desires war, because in its view the moment is favourable and the time has come to make an end of it.”
But the move that ultimately provoked continental conflict  was Russia’s decision to order a general mobilisation. It was the first major nation to take this course,  and by doing so threatened Germany’s eastern border. As Clark points out: “It came at a moment when the German government had not yet even declared the State of Impending War… There would later be some discomfort among French and Russian politicians about this sequence of events. In the Orange Book produced after the outbreak of war by the Russian government to justify its actions during the crisis, the editors backdated by three days the Austrian order of general mobilisation so as to make the Russian measure appear a mere reaction to developments elsewhere.”
In fact, Clark’s analysis casts German policymakers as reactive rather than aggressive during the crucial month that saw Europe slide towards violence.
Chinese policymakers would do well to learn this lesson from history. As earlier quoted, Yang Yi, a senior naval figure pointed out China “never fires the first shot” and has argued that his country has pursued a peaceful, purely defensive approach. But Beijing will have to work hard (and learn some new PR tricks) to avoid losing the ‘perception war’, in which it is cast in the eyes of the world as Asia’s bullying militaristic aggressor.
The rights and wrongs of the dispute…
Returning to the disputed islands, and the respective claims of China and Japan: who has the stronger case for sovereignty? The Economist, whose coverage of the row has been strong for months, published an excellent story on the subject in late December.
Japan’s de facto control of the islands began in 1895 when Tokyo annexed them, having concluded they were a “no-man’s-land”, the magazine states.
The US returned administrative control to Tokyo in 1972, after temporarily seizing them for military purposes in the aftermath of the Second World War.
But China says its own claim dates back much further to 1403, when they were highlighted in a Ming Dynasty manuscript. In the sixteenth century, the islets were then given Chinese names. In fact, the rival sides are waging a propaganda war over the cartographical history of the area. As The Economist has pointed out: “Japanese diplomats do not bring it up, but the great Japanese military scholar Hayashi Shihei, followed convention in giving the islands their Chinese names in his map of 1785. He also coloured them in the same pink as China.”
But the Japan Daily had observations of its own this month, suggesting that many of the maps previously put forward by the Chinese have rarely depicted them in much detail.
Can it be resolved?
Apart from the issue of face, are there other reasons why both countries refuse to negotiate in a more flexible manner? Aside from a rising wave of nationalism in both countries, another factor is the belief that 250 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lies untapped in the East China Sea. “Energy is clearly what is driving a lot of Chinese behaviour,” Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations told National Geographic last month.
For the optimists there was a welcome piece of news this Tuesday when an envoy from Japan visited Beijing. Yamaguchi Natsuo delivered a letter from Abe to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Its contents remain unknown but Yamaguchi told reporters that “one wise idea might be to leave it to future generations to solve the issue”.
Whether or not that advice is heeded, logic dictates that such a course would only postpone rather than resolve the issue. The intractable nature of the sovereignty question will remain – possibly to be fought over at a later date…

“Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared-up and happy.” That may sound like the workings of a deranged mind; in fact they are the words of Winston Churchill, written to his wife on July 28 1914, just days before Britain went to war with Germany.

It was a continental conflict of the type that Churchill and his cabinet colleagues hadn’t really expected. Only a month before the British government’s main preoccupation was unrest in Ireland.

Rather than the dangers of war, the French population was far more interested in Madame Caillaux’s murder trial. The wife of the former prime minister had fired six bullets into the chest of the editor of Le Figaro in revenge for embroiling her in a scandal. As the historian Christopher Clark points out, the verdict for her case on July 29 got twice as many column inches in Le Temps as the looming crisis provoked by the assassination of Austria’s Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

Clark’s excellent account of the mix of personalities and national rivalries that led to the First World War is aptly named The Sleepwalkers. The title is apt as this was a conflict that very few Europeans saw coming. Nevertheless a complacent continent was drawn into war by a combination of paranoia, belligerent egos and bluffs that were called.

Suddenly a conflict in the Balkans sparked a war that would kill 16 million and wreck most of Europe. Among its many economic consequences: decades of tariff walls and protectionism. It wouldn’t be until the 1990s that globalisation returned to pre-1914 levels.

Next year will be the centenary of the First World War’s outbreak. But its significance should not be lost on us today. Part of the historical narrative is that a rising Germany turned Europe into a powder keg, which brings us to a contemporary parallel: is the rise of an increasingly assertive China likely to lead Asia in a similar direction?

Lessons from history…

Clark’s book should be required reading for anyone interested in China’s impact on geopolitics and the international balance of power. That’s because the current escalation in tensions between China and Japan have striking parallels with Europe’s march to war a century ago.

While the assassination of the heir to the Habsburg throne was the immediate catalyst for the conflict in 1914, the seeds of the war date back to 1908 when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The act angered Belgrade, which harboured ambitions for a ‘greater Serbia’ that included Serb-domiciled areas in Bosnia and Herzogovina. Austria’s unilateral decision to absorb the territories stymied that goal and led to rancorous relations. It was a situation that Vienna had not fully anticipated when it announced its Bosnian fait accompli.

It was a classic example of the butterfly effect, explains Clark, and it took many by surprise. The historian explains: “Since these two formally Ottoman provinces had been under Austrian occupation for thirty years and there had never been any question of an alteration of this arrangement, it might seem that the nominal change from occupation to outright annexation ought to have been a matter of indifference. The Serbian public took a different view. The announcement created an unparalleled outburst of resentment and national enthusiasm, both in Belgrade and in the provinces. More than 20,000 attended an anti-Austrian rally at the National Theatre in Belgrade, where the leader of the Independent Radicals gave a speech declaring Serbians must fight the annexation to the death.”

Bosnia and Herzogovina became an open wound for many Serbians and led directly to the nationalist plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand in the Bosian capital in 1914. This directly led to war between Vienna and Belgrade (and triggered the various treaty alliances that started the First World War across a much wider range of countries).

This bring us back to current Sino-Japanese relations, and their ongoing dispute.

There are similarities between the Bosnian annexation and the current debacle over a group of stony islands in the East China Sea. Think of this: Austria formally occupied Bosnia and Herzogovina for 30 years; similarly Japan has administered the islands (known by Tokyo as the Senkakus and by Beijing as the Diaoyus) since 1972. In another parallel: Serbia had previously been content to tolerate Austria ‘running’ Bosnia. Likewise the Chinese had accepted Tokyo’s administrative role over the islands (Deng Xiaoping agreed it).

However, that status quo was disrupted last September when the Japanese government purchased  the islands (from the Kurihara family,  see WiC164). Like the Serbians in 1908, the Chinese saw it as a provocation. Diplomatic relations became icy, Japanese goods were boycotted and there were violent demonstrations against Japan in  Chinese cities. Japan – like Austria – seemed to have made a fundamental miscalculation. In both situations a long-held position of de facto control turned alarmingly ideological as the polities tried to assert sovereignty more directly over the territory.

A nationalistic raw nerve was jarred. Tokyo’s fait accompli infuriated the Chinese government – leading Beijing to describe Japan’s annexation as a “theft”. Always touchy on issues of sovereignty, the Chinese government has argued since that the Diaoyus have been part of China since the Ming Dynasty (more on which later).

Have tensions escalated?

Yes, the situation is increasingly serious. Last week’s issue of The Economist carried a story with the headline: “The drums of war”. If you watch Chinese television, the article suggested, “you might conclude that the outbreak of war with Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyus is only a matter of time. You might well be right.”

WiC first mentioned Sino-Japanese tensions over the islands as far back as issue 78, but the nastier mood since December has been particularly disquieting. For example, on January 11 the Global Times, a Beijing-controlled newspaper, made the alarming comment: “A military clash is more likely. We shouldn’t have the illusion that Japan will be deterred by our firm stance. We need to prepare for the worst.”

A hundred years ago, the misconceived boast in Britain was that any hostilities would be “over by Christmas”. And Major General Zhang Zhaozhong has been quoted in the Chinese press giving a similarly upbeat verdict: “The Chinese military could win a war over the Diaoyu Islands in half an hour.”

Events haven’t been helped by the election of Abe Shinzo as Japanese prime minister last month, and his subsequent appointment of a new cabinet that’s much more nationalistic than its predecessors (see WiC177). China has also been alarmed by his talk of changing the pacificist constitution to allow the Japanese military to fight overseas, as well as his decision to up the defence budget.

Abe immediately struck an intransigent note over the disputed islands. TIME reports that he has made clear that Japan views the question of their Japanese sovereignty as non-negotiable. The magazine said the prime minister further stirred things up by claiming Beijing was “wrong” for allowing damage to Japanese-owned factories and stores in China during last year’s street demonstrations.

The sense of diplomatic brinksmanship has since spread to the sea and air surrounding the uninhabited islands (they cover 7 square kilometres and count feral goats among their few full-time residents). Chinese vessels have been entering the contested waters blaring “This is historically Chinese territory” from loudspeakers. More serious still, Chinese marine surveillance aircraft have flown through disputed airspace, leading Japan to scramble F-15 fighter jets in response. Japanese defence minister Onodera Itsunori said last week that Japan would fire flares and warning shots to deter Chinese aircraft from “ violating Japanese airspace” around the islands again.

Another Chinese general, Peng Guanqian, retorted that such ‘warning shots’ would count as the start of “actual combat”. He added that China should then “respond without courtesy”. One interpretation: a single Japanese warning shot could trigger an escalation to war.

Chinese public opinion is a factor too. If anything it’s egging the leadership in Beijing to take a harder line. For example, one of the most forwarded comments on Tencent’s online news portal is proclaiming: “Evacuate all Chinese people from Japan, seize all Japanese businesses in China and prepare the people for war.”

This was by no means an isolated urging. Millions have read and forwarded inflammatory comments by the military blogger Nanhai Yunlu too. It stated: “All of China’s humiliations and shame in modern times are related to Japan. Of course, China hates Japan the most. If Chinese people find an object of revenge, Japan is really very appropriate and the Diaoyu Islands is also a very appropriate place.”

Loss of face is an issue?

When Austrian emperor Franz Josef declared war on Serbia in 1914, he explained to his subjects: “The intrigues of a malevolent opponent compel me, in the defence of the honour of my monarchy, for the protection of its dignity and its position as a power, for the security of its possessions, to grasp the sword after long years of peace.”

What the European monarchs called ‘honour’, might be termed ‘face’ in an Asian context. And it’s very evident that neither the Chinese nor the Japanese want to lose it in the island dispute. Conceding sovereignty is not an option for either country – as it would constitute a massive loss of face.

Miyake Kuni, a former Japanese foreign ministry official, admitted something similar when he told the Financial Times: “There is the face issue.” But in China’s case there is the added anti-Japanese dimension. Tokyo’s invasion of  China in the 1930s is viewed by Chinese as a humiliating period. Thanks to the school textbooks it isn’t likely to be  forgotten in future, either.

As long as the sovereignty issue remains unresolved, the islands will be a potential source of conflict. You don’t have to be a military hawk to think an accident could provoke war at any time.

Falling back on an ever-favoured Chinese proverb, Phoenix TV ominously asked: “Can one mountain accommodate two tigers?”

The not-so-quiet Americans?

Hillary Clinton waded into the dispute last Friday, when she met with Japan’s new foreign minister. While she reiterated to Kishida Fumio that the US takes no position on the sovereignty of the islands, she said that Washington acknowledges they are under Japanese administration.

In fact, she went further, adding that: “we oppose any unilateral action that would seek to undermine Japanese administration”. That constituted a fairly unequivocal warning that China should not use force against America’s treaty ally Japan.

The statement immediately drew verbal fire from Beijing. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman told media: “The comments by the US side are ignorant of facts and indiscriminate of rights and wrongs.” He added that China still blames the Americans for placing the rocky outcrops under Japanese control after the Second World War, despite Chinese objections.

The Chinese press was also vociferous in its criticism. An editorial in the China Daily warned: “The United States is sending a dangerous message on the territorial dispute between China and Japan, which may lead the tension in the East China Sea to spin out of control.”

The same newspaper also carried a long think-piece by Yang Yi, a navy rear admiral. Its tone was threatening too: “The US politicians may hope that their latest move will appease Japan and put pressure on China. But they have not realised, or do not want to realise, that the move will eventually harm the US. If Japan, backed by the US, adopts a more aggressive attitude over the Diaoyu Islands, it will undoubtedly meet a staunch reaction from China politically, economically, diplomatically and militarily.”

Yang continued: “China never fires the first shot, but it will resolutely fight back if its national interests are violated. Should a violent confrontation occur between China and Japan, it will not only harm the interests of both countries, it will also drag the US into the abyss of war.”

Again that has echoes of 1914, where a treaty alliance forced France and (a largely unenthusiastic) Britain to fight on Russia’s side against Germany and Austria-Hungary. This alliance was triggered by Russia’s defence of Serbia, against whom Austria had declared war. Theoretically a Chinese attack on Japanese forces stationed around the contested islands would oblige the US to defend Japan.

For the moment, the risk of such an event occurring remains underrated in the West. Indeed, after President Obama’s inauguration this week the priorities of his foreign policy were listed by pundits as the withdrawal from Afghanistan, dealing with Iran, resolving the crisis in Syria and advancing the Middle East peace process. The risk of a Sino-Japanese war occurring in the next four years got scant mention. It remains an ‘unthinkable’ scenario, but nevertheless one that could wreak more havoc on the global economy than virtually any other foreign policy crisis the US might face.

The new Prussia?

WiC is not alone in drawing historical parallels between events in Asia-Pacific and the lead up to 1914. Another comment from last week’s Economist was that “a jumpy nationalistic China could become the equivalent of Prussia a century ago” and there are two clear lessons we can draw from comparisons with Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany (for whom Prussia was the military and political heartland).

The first is that Imperial Germany was obsessed with being encircled, flanked on either side by the entente allies of Britain and France (to its west) and Russia (to its east). China is continental in size but it too is fearful of a strategic encirclement, a concern that seems to be driving border disputes with practically all of its neighbours (especially from India to its west, the Philippines to its south and Japan to its east).

Thus when Prime Minister Abe made a tour of Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia this month it sparked dark analysis in Beijing.  “He has unveiled his grand strategy with a perspective of the world map,” the China Daily warned. “He reached out to the leaders of Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, India, Russia and Britain in late December over the phone. On a world map, all of these countries, except Britain, encircle China.”

The second parallel with the Kaiser’s Germany involves perception. In 1914 the democracies cast Berlin as the rising and aggressive power that was the key threat to world stability. Today the narrative about China is being similarly framed by the democracies of India, Japan, the Philippines and the US too. Western estimates of China’s annual military budget at $200 billion are used to cast Beijing as a militarist hegemon in-the-making.

In fact, the perception that Germany was aggressor in 1914 became conventional wisdom after 1918 (solidified when the Treaty of Versailles forced Berlin to accept the blame for starting the conflict). But one of striking achievements of Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is his measured analysis of who upped the ante most on the road to war.

He suggests that Germany wasn’t the most belligerent or even the most culpable of the main powers. The most aggressive statesman that summer was the anti-Germanic president of France, Raymond Poincaré, who had long viewed a conflict in the Balkans as an “optimal casus belli” for drawing Moscow into a two-front war against Berlin – a situation he judged would allow France to exact revenge for its territorial losses in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Others in Paris agreed with him. The Belgian minister in the French capital sent back a report to Brussels: “The French general staff desires war, because in its view the moment is favourable and the time has come to make an end of it.”

But the move that ultimately provoked continental conflict  was Russia’s decision to order a general mobilisation. It was the first major nation to take this course,  and by doing so threatened Germany’s eastern border. As Clark points out: “It came at a moment when the German government had not yet even declared the State of Impending War… There would later be some discomfort among French and Russian politicians about this sequence of events. In the Orange Book produced after the outbreak of war by the Russian government to justify its actions during the crisis, the editors backdated by three days the Austrian order of general mobilisation so as to make the Russian measure appear a mere reaction to developments elsewhere.”

In fact, Clark’s analysis casts German policymakers as reactive rather than aggressive during the crucial month that saw Europe slide towards violence.

Chinese policymakers would do well to learn this lesson from history. As earlier quoted, Yang Yi, a senior naval figure pointed out China “never fires the first shot” and has argued that his country has pursued a peaceful, purely defensive approach. But Beijing will have to work hard (and learn some new PR tricks) to avoid losing the ‘perception war’, in which it is cast in the eyes of the world as Asia’s bullying militaristic aggressor.

The rights and wrongs of the dispute…

Returning to the disputed islands, and the respective claims of China and Japan: who has the stronger case for sovereignty? The Economist, whose coverage of the row has been strong for months, published an excellent story on the subject in late December.

Japan’s de facto control of the islands began in 1895 when Tokyo annexed them, having concluded they were a “no-man’s-land”, the magazine states.

The US returned administrative control to Tokyo in 1972, after temporarily seizing them for military purposes in the aftermath of the Second World War.

But China says its own claim dates back much further to 1403, when they were highlighted in a Ming Dynasty manuscript. In the sixteenth century, the islets were then given Chinese names. In fact, the rival sides are waging a propaganda war over the cartographical history of the area. As The Economist has pointed out: “Japanese diplomats do not bring it up, but the great Japanese military scholar Hayashi Shihei, followed convention in giving the islands their Chinese names in his map of 1785. He also coloured them in the same pink as China.”

But the Japan Daily had observations of its own this month, suggesting that many of the maps previously put forward by the Chinese have rarely depicted them in much detail.

Can it be resolved?

Apart from the issue of face, are there other reasons why both countries refuse to negotiate in a more flexible manner? Aside from a rising wave of nationalism in both countries, another factor is the belief that 250 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lies untapped in the East China Sea. “Energy is clearly what is driving a lot of Chinese behaviour,” Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations told National Geographic last month.

For the optimists there was a welcome piece of news this Tuesday when an envoy from Japan visited Beijing. Yamaguchi Natsuo delivered a letter from Abe to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Its contents remain unknown but Yamaguchi told reporters that “one wise idea might be to leave it to future generations to solve the issue”.

Whether or not that advice is heeded, logic dictates that such a course would only postpone rather than resolve the issue. The intractable nature of the sovereignty question will remain – possibly to be fought over at a later date…


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