Is East Asia Headed for War?: Lessons from World War I
April 8, 2015
Rising tensions in East Asia have fueled concerns that the ongoing power shift in the region could climax in a hegemonic war. International security specialist Jitsuo Tsuchiyama maintains that the real threat to East Asian security is the growing risk of unintended conflict.
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A raft of new books and articles on the subject of World War I appeared in 2014, as the world observed the centenary of the Great War. In Japan, this renewed focus on World War I—a conflict almost no one anticipated—helped touch off debate on the potential for a comparable conflict in East Asia.
The question itself is not new. Princeton University scholar Aaron Friedberg, who served as a national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, raised it back in 2000 in a paper titled “Will Europe’s Past Be Asia’s Future?” Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor under President Jimmy Carter, drew troubling parallels in his 2004 book The Choice , comparing China, which “is neuralgic about Japan, patronizing toward India, and dismissive of Russia,” to imperial Germany, “which was envious of Great Britain, hostile toward France, and contemptuous of Russia.”
For those who see World War I as a hegemonic clash between the “status quo states,” led by Britain, and the challengers, or revisionist states, led by Germany, it is not such a stretch to draw parallels with the relationship between the United States and China today. Those who maintain that Britain’s policy of isolating Germany through the Triple Entente forced Germany into “preventive war” may see potential for a similar situation in East Asia. (In South Korea and China, meanwhile, some claim that the greatest threat to peace in East Asia stems from the expansionist ambitions of the Japanese government, manifest in its September 2012 purchase of three of the Senkaku Islands and in the Abe cabinet’s July 2014 bid to permit Japan’s limited participation in collective self-defense.)
Is war in East Asia a real possibility? If so, wherein lies the danger, and how can we minimize it?
Shifting Power Balance
Why has East Asia become so fraught with tension? The underlying reason is a shift in the international balance of power over the past quarter century.
Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, American influence and power have waned, Japan’s clout has dissipated, and China has risen more rapidly than anyone anticipated. The result has been a major shift in the regional power balance. Such shifts—what Robert Gilpin has termed the “uneven growth of power” among states—are the basic sources of instability and conflict in international relations.
The increasing tension in diplomatic relations and international politics in East Asia is the result of just such a shift in East Asia. How long can the United States maintain the current international order? Is China hoping to build a new international order to replace the US-centered system? Or does Beijing envision a kind of US-China condominium? (Needless to say, the United States is unlikely to agree to either option.) The uncertain relationship between an increasingly powerful China and the current international order has emerged as the biggest issues in international politics.
This flux and uncertainty has given rise to ominous talk of an impending “power transition” between the United States and China. A.F.K. Organski developed his power transition theory as an aid to predicting the outbreak of wars, positing that rising powers generally initiate hegemonic wars against established powers in the process of overtaking them. But Organski’s theory does not hold up well, especially in the light of historical events. Power transition was not the direct cause of World War I, for example. Moreover, by the estimate of most experts in international affairs, a power transition between the United States and China is unlikely to occur anytime soon, even if China does manage to overtake the United States in gross domestic product (which looks increasingly unlikely). Indeed, some, such as Michael Beckley, have argued that the gap between US and Chinese power is likely to increase in the coming years.
War as a Miscalculation
For these reasons, I believe it would be a mistake to predict war in East Asia on the basis of power transition theory. But that is not to dismiss the possibility of war in the region.
The fact is that almost all the major armed conflicts of the twentieth century are attributable in large part to failures of diplomacy or crisis management—strategic errors, misapprehensions, miscalculations, and misjudgments of the situation or of one’s rival’s intentions. World War I is a prime example.
When a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife on June 28, 1914, each of the European powers embraced a crisis-management scenario reflecting its own interests and wishful assumptions. Austria-Hungary immediately decided to use the incident as a pretext to launch an attack on Serbia. Aware that it would need the diplomatic and military backing of its ally Germany to get away with such a venture, the Austrian Foreign Ministry sent a special envoy to Berlin on July 5, barely a week after Franz Ferdinand’s murder, and received “carte blanche” assurance that Germany would support any punitive action Austria took against Serbia.
In pledging Germany’s support for Austria, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg assured themselves that Britain would choose not to involve itself in the conflict. Yet when Austria handed Serbia its draconian ultimatum on July 23, Britain, perceiving Austria’s warlike intentions, quickly took steps to prepare for intervention, and Russia also embarked on the first steps to mobilization. At this point Kaiser Wilhelm hurriedly issued a “Halt in Belgrade” proposal to Vienna, but the proposal came too late, as hostilities between Austria and Serbia were already underway. On August 1, Germany declared war against Russia, plunging into a two-front war under the misguided Schlieffen Plan.
If we accept this analysis, World War I occurred because the European powers, especially Germany and Russia, allowed the situation to veer out of control. In other words, World War I was the result of misapprehensions, miscalculations, and misjudgments regarding the overall situation as well as the intent and capability of rival powers.
The same sort of failures of diplomacy and crisis management can be seen prior to the outbreak of war between Japan and the United States in December 1941 and the beginning of the Korean War in June 1950, and on all too many occasions subsequently.
Failures of diplomacy and crisis management are most apt to occur during shifts in the power balance, which tend to foster hubris and anxiety among national leaders. Both dominant nations and their rising challengers are apt to fall victim to hubris and anxiety. This is why the situation East Asia merits our concern.
Understanding Japan-China Tensions
Although the basic source of rising tension in East Asia is the shift in the regional balance of power, that tension has manifested itself above all in Japan-China relations. What specifically has triggered the recent deterioration in bilateral ties?
After years of abiding by Deng Xiaoping’s stricture to keep a low profile in international politics, Beijing has changed course in recent years, no doubt sensing a change in the balance of power. It has clashed with Japan over the delimitations of the two countries’ exclusive economic zones in an attempt to develop undersea gas and oil fields. In November 2004, a Chinese submarine passed through the Ishigaki Strait, entering Japanese territorial waters. In 2005, the Chinese government watched complacently as massive anti-Japanese protests broke out all around China in response to a proposal that Japan be given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Chinese surveillance ships and fishing vessels began entering Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, and after the government of Yoshihiko Noda made the decision to purchase the islands that remained in private hands, virulent anti-Japanese protests broke out nationwide. China began touting its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy, with Chinese fighters flying dangerous close to US and Japanese aircrafts, and Chinese naval vessels locking fire-control radar on Japanese targets. China’s military strategy and behavior have become a source of ongoing tension with Japan and the United States, particularly since Beijing unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone covering the Senkaku Islands in November 2013.
Such developments have doubtless contributed to the 40% drop in Japanese direct investment in China between 2013 and 2014. But China’s military posture is not the only cause for worry. The domestic situation is also troubling. A major concern is when and how China will transition from a one-party dictatorship to a more democratic form of government.
When Japan opened its doors to the West more than 150 years ago, a handful of realists within the shogunate recognized that to forge a place for itself in the international community, Japan needed not only to strengthen its military but also to reform its domestic institutions. But it took many years for the nation to achieve true democracy. In South Korea, it was not until 1992 that the country embarked on the path to genuine democracy with the election of Kim Young-sam—a candidate without a military background—as president, and Taiwan’s first free presidential election was in 1996. The future of East Asian affairs hinges on whether China can make a peaceful transition to democratic government.
Meanwhile, China is facing a number of serious domestic issues, including the problem of demographic aging. Much of Asia is facing the same challenge, but China’s one-child policy has exacerbated and accelerated the trend, which could have serious economic, political, and diplomatic repercussions as the nation lacks a fully developed social infrastructure and a mature, urban middle class. Meanwhile, tensions are brewing among China’s ethnic minorities. Faced with such challenges, China is in danger of collapsing from within.
Averting an Inadvertent War
For many years following the normalization of diplomatic ties in 1972, the Japanese viewed China as a friendly nation and regarded the Chinese in a positive light. But around 2006, China’s external behavior began to have a pronounced impact on Japanese public opinion. In a recent Japan-China public opinion poll, conducted in Japan by Genron NPO, only 2.6% of respondents characterized the Chinese people as trustworthy, believing that China prefers to exploit Japan’s cooperation. Japan and South Korea are also deeply distrustful of one another. Feeding this distrust is the perception gap regarding Japan’s actions in Asia during the period spanning the 1894–95 Sino-Japanese War and World War II, as well as ongoing territorial disputes.
Of course, even longtime adversaries can overcome their mutual suspicion and build a stable and cooperative relationship by promoting transparency and fostering awareness of common interests. European countries that fought on opposite sides in World War II subsequently built an alliance under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Argentina and Brazil were bitter rivals until the 1980s, when they put their relationship on a cooperative footing with an agreement to use nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes. But it will take great effort and wise leadership to bring East Asia to a similar point.
What can we do to avert an unintended war in East Asia? The most important challenge for Japan, China, South Korea and the United States is to avoid the dangers inherent in the “security dilemma”—the vicious circle of escalating tension that results when one nation’s attempts to enhance its own security are treated as a threat by its potential adversary, leading to worsening security. Above all, this means taking steps to ensure constant and reliable communication so as to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations.
Stabilizing the security environment in East Asia must proceed one step at a time, beginning with what is currently feasible. This step-by-step process will gradually foster trust. History never really repeats itself, inasmuch as circumstances are never exactly the same. But leaders can repeat the mistakes of the past, and this is a very real danger in today’s East Asia.
Historian Paul Schroeder of the University of Illinois has compared World War I to a massive train wreck involving five trains caused by the failure of engineers to take the steps that they knew from experience to be necessary to avoid an accident. Just as train systems need detailed rules and safety mechanisms to prevent such collisions, East Asia needs to build multiple frameworks to provide mutual reassurance and prevent any diplomatic or military tensions from escalating into war. By establishing diplomatic and military mechanisms to address a wide range of contingencies, we can substantially reduce the risk of an inadvertent war.
For many people, tragedy is an unfortunate series of events that leads to the loss of the power, wealth, and prestige one has laboriously acquired. In this sense, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq were tragedies not only for those nations but for the United States as well. Almost no one in East Asia today wants a war, but because of the instability created by the uneven growth of power, and because of the hubris and anxiety to which such shifts often gives rise, East Asia faces a genuine risk of succumbing to the tragedy of war.
Public Perception of Japan-China Relations
Beckley, Michael, “China’s Century? Why America’s Edge Will Endure,” International Security , Vol.36, No.3, 2011–12.
Brzenziski, Zbigniew, The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 2005).
Friedberg, Aaron L., “Will Europe’s Past Be Asia’s Future?” Survival , Vol. 42, No. 3, Autumn 2000.
Rosencrance, Richard N., and Steven E. Miller, eds., The Next Great War?: The Roots of World War I and the Risk of U.S.-China Conflict (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).
Schroeder, Paul W., “Necessary Conditions and World War I as an Unavoidable War,” in Gary Goertz and Jack S. Levy, eds., Explaining War and Peace (London: Routledge, 2007).
Jitsuo Tsuchiyama, Anzen hosho no kokusai seijigaku: Aseri to ogori (The International Politics of Security: Anxiety and Hubris), Second Edition, Chapter 12 (Tokyo: Yuhikaku Publishing, 2014)
Professor of international politics, Aoyama Gakuin University. After graduating from Aoyama Gakuin University, earned his master’s degree at George Washington University and his PhD at the University of Maryland, specializing in international security. Has served as director of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, dean of the Aoyama Gakuin University School of International Politics, Economics, and Communication, and vice-president of Aoyama Gakuin University. Is currently director of the Japan-US Partnership Program of the Research Institute for Peace and Security. Served as commentator at the 88th Tokyo Foundation Forum with John Mearsheimer on “ An Offensive Realist’s View of the Rise of China and the Crimean Crisis .” Publications include Japan in International Politics: The Foreign Policies of an Adaptive State ( 2007 ) and Institutionalizing Northeast Asia: Regional Steps towards Global Governance ( 2008 ) , both of which he co-edited.