This past week the world witnessed the centennial anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His assassination 100 years ago sparked a crisis between Austria and Serbia that, due to the polarized alliance system of the day, quickly pit one group of great European powers against another in the greatest, most deadly war the world up to that point had ever seen. So terrible was that war that it sparked another, more terrible war barely 20 years later.
In so many ways the world today is still dealing with the fallout of that first war. In the Middle East, for instance, states jerry-rigged together by wartime promises and imperialist scheming are falling apart at the seams, releasing torrents of blood in the process. We are also still grappling with the legacy of chemical weapons, a new technology brought to the world by the First World War’s combatants. The war also marked the beginning of the end for one global power — Great Britain — and the beginning of the global rise to power of another — the United States.
What’s more important, though, is just how much the history of that era right before the outbreak of war in July 1914 seems to rhyme with our own. Then, as now, the global hegemon was finding its industrial leadership slipping into the hands of a powerful rising power, and then, as now, religious and ethnic nationalism were powerful forces that weighed heavily on the political leadership of the world’s most powerful countries. New technology was tying the world together in new and uncomfortable ways, while global capitalism was simultaneously making us all more economically interdependent and vulnerable, too.
While the analogies with the past are imperfect, they are nonetheless worrisome to consider, given that first era of globalization ended with two dead royals at one end of a narrow alleyway in Sarajevo and a smoking pistol held by a Serbian extremist at the other.
Thankfully, despite the similarities, times are just different enough to make what happened a century ago much less likely to take place today. Or, so we would like to think.
One major element lacking in today’s fin de siècle melodrama that was present in 1914 could be in danger of falling into place now. That piece is the lack of a polarized system of international alliances that could quickly turn a petty brushfire conflict in one area of the world into a global conflagration via a chain of defensive ties and mutual assistance pacts. 1914 had them, 1939 had them, and the Cold War had them, but since the end of that era of nuclear deterrence and war-by-proxy, the world has been dominated by only one country and its alliance partners and client states — the U.S.
Now, however, China’s steady rise since the 1980s has challenged that primacy in East Asia, the world’s most dynamic region and home to the majority of the world’s population and two of its three largest economies. For better or for worse, China is challenging the existing territorial status quo in East Asia on multiple fronts. In the south it is laying claims to huge swathes of ocean thought to be rich in oil and gas but legitimately claimed by several nations. Along its border with India, Chinese patrols are more aggressive, and on its official maps it shows large chunks of territory now controlled by Delhi to, in fact, be part of China. Beijing’s claim on Taiwan is well known. Finally, to its east, China has declared a pair of small islands claimed by Japan part of its territory.
Beijing has been flexing its newly acquired military muscles by sending ships and planes to show the flag and intimidate its neighbors into accepting China’s expanded claims. Some, like Vietnam, have actively resisted by engaging in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game of naval maneuvering that features attempted rammings and water cannons, but no use of live ordnance so far. Others, like the Philippines, have attempted to take their case against China to bodies like the World Court, only to see the powerless body be dismissed by Beijing as having no writ on territorial issues of this sort.
Beijing, like it or not, is correct, for only one thing will lead China to the bargaining table — power. Like a textbook case of the balance-of-power physics of international politics, Chinese actions have frightened its neighbors and led them to become closer with the U.S. and each other. Vietnam, which fought a devastating war against the U.S. during the Cold War, has seen visits by U.S. naval vessels and a Defense Secretary. The Philippines has invited the U.S. Navy back to the archipelago after throwing Uncle Sam out its military bases there in the 1990s. India, too, is now edging closer to the U.S. after decades of association with Russia. More important still, the states of South and East Asia are now cooperating with one another to potentially deter China via defense exchanges, diplomatic talks and joint military training.
It looks like even Japan is coming in on the act. Tokyo is allied with the U.S. and defense ties between the two countries go all the way back to the Korean War, when the post-war U.S. occupation of Japan ended and the two countries entered into a mutual defense pact aimed at deterring communist aggression against the defeated island state. At that time, Japan was in no state to protect itself, as it had just been soundly defeated — nearly destroyed, in fact — by its encounter with the U.S. during the Second World War. Ruined and occupied, Japan’s rulers depended on Washington for protection and remained content to be a loyal vassal of the U.S. and even swore off war as a means of national policy.
While safe and secure under the apron strings of a protective Washington, Japan’s constitutional obstacles to using force abroad became enshrined in its culture. Though Japan’s right-wing would occasionally make waves by talking about junking the articles in Japan’s post-war constitution that prevented it from using armed force in anything but self-defense, or otherwise stir up trouble by visiting controversial shrines commemorating the country’s war dead — including war criminals — it seemed, at best, to be posturing to a domestic audience that actually had little impact abroad. Japan was pacifist, though it had a powerful and advanced military, and was content to be protected by Washington indefinitely as it suited nearly everyone, Japanese included, for that to be the case.
But this situation could last only as long as Washington’s security guarantees were credible, which they were, as long as any potential threat to Japanese security was relatively weak and could be easily defeated by the U.S. What’s more, countries in the region preferred it this way because Japan, so recently an imperial occupier itself, scared its neighbors more than the U.S. did. Thus, under the paradigm that ruled in East Asia for decades, security issues affecting Northeast, South and Southeast Asia were effectively delinked. Washington was active in all areas, but Japan’s non-participation in anything but home-island defense created a spoke-and-hub model for the region that kept conflict in one area more or less contained.
With China’s rise, however, the spoke-and-hub model is becoming strained, as the hub — Washington — isn’t as strong as it used to be. Likewise, the individual spokes — the states of Southeast Asia and South Asia, and Japan itself — are under much greater pressure. The obvious solution to all this is to replace the older model that kept the states of East Asia in separate security compartments all linked to Washington with something more comprehensive, like a sort of Pacific version of NATO that would bind them and Washington together in a more cohesive and comprehensive manner.
Given that the preferred U.S. strategy to fight China, AirSea Battle, requires an extensive network of regional bases and supply points stretching across the entire Pacific region to work effectively, the old spoke-and-hub model was becoming obsolete anyway. A more cohesive pact of anti-China Pacific nations is necessary because under this doctrine a huge amount of operational space is necessary for positioning air and naval units around the Chinese periphery in such a way that they cannot all be neutralized by a Chinese first strike on U.S. and allied forces stationed in a single country. Under AirSea Battle, U.S. and allied forces would act and support each other as one, ensuring that if China struck Japan or the Philippines, for instance, U.S. forces would be allowed to operate from one to support the other.
A huge stumbling block to this idea, though, is Japan’s constitutional pacifism, since if its powerful armed forces cannot be counted on to operate outside its own national territory, then the plan to militarily contain China from across the whole geographic extent of East Asia falls apart. It would be equivalent, for instance, to trying to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War without having a country like Germany or the United Kingdom on board — it simply wouldn’t work. But with Japan now moving to “reinterpret” those provisions in its constitution that prevent it from using force in association with military allies outside its home territory, the whole project becomes much more feasible.
Additionally, it should be noted, it would become a lot more dangerous for everyone. A Japan that is a more effective partner for the U.S. is naturally a much greater danger to China than one that is hobbled by self-imposed constraints on the use of its military power abroad. As consequence, China will have to take Japanese moves into its calculations when deciding on whether to use force against, say, Vietnam in its dispute with that nation in the South China Sea in the same way that Germany had to take Russian moves into account as it confronted France 100 years ago. Washington is gambling that the addition of a more assertive Japan to the list of military forces willing to fight China if push comes to shove in the region is enough to deter Beijing from making any rash moves.
However, it could also have the opposite effect in that if China decides to go ahead and strike at Vietnam or some other smaller power it will out of necessity have to strike at Japan or any other major U.S. ally in the region, too. Through alliances meant to contain China, in other words, a dispute in the South China Sea or the East China Sea could turn into war raging across the entire East Asian region. Would, for instance, such a war stay contained there? Would other regions be drawn in? If Beijing feels encircled in East Asia, might it not look for allies and openings elsewhere — just as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War and Imperial Germany did before the First World War — and thus spread conflict wherever such an opening is found?
All this is speculative, but the portents are not good ones. Japan’s re-emergence as a fully-fledged counterweight to China, like Germany’s rearmament and incorporation into NATO after World War II, sets a train in motion that no one may be able to stop.
East Asia is in the process of being divided into two armed camps led by Beijing and Washington, respectively. The orbit of nations around the U.S. is loose enough at the moment that Beijing has a significant amount of breathing room left to it.
Transforming Japan into a Pacific cornerstone of an East Asian version of NATO, however, would change all of that. The U.S.-led alliance will become tighter, stronger and more focused on Beijing, forcing Beijing to spend more time and energy neutralizing the web of alliances Washington is trying to ensnare it in. Where that will lead is anyone’s guess, but it’s not likely to be pretty.