The lessons of history go unheeded

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at last week’s Davos conference warned of the similarity between the current situation of the Chinese rise of military power to that of Germany in 1914 and that Japan’s position today is similar to that of France then. The Chinese continue to make assertive remarks about their intentions, which have been clearly demonstrated by their recent implementation of the Air Identification Zone. The Davos participants who heard such comments acted with shock and surprise. However the real surprise is that they should be surprised!

As we approach the 100th anniversary of WW1 we owe it to those who died in the conflict to understand more fully how it erupted and in so doing attempt to prevent a similar event in the future by being alert to the signs.  Sadly, however, it seems that we in the West have forgotten our past which will doom us to repeating it. I would certainly recognise the similarity in the German driven arms race in the run up to 1914 and the current Asian arms race driven by China, and indeed it is the topic of my next book The Road to Wars. The key similarities are as follows:-

  1. Global Trade Dependence. Notably, Germany then like China today had significant global trading links. However this did not stop Germany from going to war..
  2. Expansionary Powers. China and Germany are and were both expanding powers with respect to demographics and economic power.
  3. Old Powers. France was and Japan is the old power within their super empires. Both had very unimpressive demographics and relative economic stagnation.
  4. Arms Races. China like Germany up to 1914, has currently committed itself to a massive rearmament program, and an expanding navy, demonstrating global aspirations. The German policy prior to WW1 forced France, Britain and Russia to follow suit. China’s arms race is having a similar affect on it neighbors now.
  5. History of Conflict. Germany and France had a long history of conflict dating back to the Napoleonic period. So do China and Japan over many hundreds of years, though the Nanking Massacre in 1937 exemplifies Japanese brutality to the Chinese.
  6. Contested Territory. France contested the Alsace-Lorraine territories lost in the 1870 war to Germany, whilst today Japan and China contest the island chains in the South China Sea.
  7. Decline of the Global Super Power. In the run up to 1914 Britain as the global super power was perceived by Germany to be slowly moving into decline, creating a power vacuum into which Germany could make its challenge. Today the decline of American power is obvious to all that care to see reality, and it is China that seeks to challenge into the vacuum.
  8. Alliances. The rise of Germany created new alliances to attempt to contain the situation. Today America has an alliance with Japan and I would expect to see India and many of the smaller alliances link themselves to such a containment mechanism.
  9. Flash Points. There were a number of tense international moments in the 8 years before 1914 when Germany sought to challenge Britain and France and so measure their intentions. However only when Germany’s armed forces were ready to go to war did its act upon the flash point generated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The current friction between China and Japan should be viewed the same way, as a Chinese test of Japanese and American intention, and until it is ready to go to war and perceives it has sufficient advantage to be able to win a conflict triggered by a flash point, China will not start a fire storm.

The message is clear, that China is currently walking a road to war in the year ahead, and that unless we in the West heed the warnings of history we are doomed to repeat our predecessors’ mistakes and then claim that the situation was unavoidable.

Hardly an excuse to make to our children.

 

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No doubt you are correct. I think the US has a Chamberlain look alike for commander in chief. So have we seen Munich yet? With the advantage of hind sight, nothing could have been more obvious then Chamberlain's mistake. However here we are today, repeating the mistakes of the past. One difference however. In the early 1900s the US was ascending to its power peak, taking over the mantle of Western Christian Empire from England. Now I wonder from day to day just how much longer this facade can last! How could the US's decline from the end of WWII have taken place so rapidly. History suggests it should have taken a lot longer. If change is happening so rapidly now, how long will China last?

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Dear Falcon,

Thank you for your thoughts.

I would agree with your comment on the current US leadership. As to where we are on the path to a war with China, I would guess at 6 to 8 years away. However what we do now will shape our chances of survival. As America is the last of the Western Christian Empires it is not surprising that its duration will be shorter than its predecessors'! However China will be only the second of the empires within the Asian Super Empire, so we should expect it to last potentially a long time!!

David