It is fashionable these days to compare current tensions in East Asia to Europe on the eve of WWI in 1914. Then, as now, there was deep economic and financial interdependence that led many to think that war was obsolete. Then, as now, there was a regional military buildup as Germany sought to become a naval power to compete with Britain. Then, as now there were competing nationalisms which then ultimately erupted into a horrendous bloody conflict that few foresaw.
It is sometimes said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. There are two very big differences between current tensions in Asia over disputed islands and historical grievances. By far the most ominous difference is the existence of nuclear weapons. If European leaders in 1914 had nuclear weapons, and thus, could see where a conflict might lead, one wonders if WWI would have still occurred.
The second important difference is that in Europe, empires and nations were competing over large pieces of geography, the Ottoman Empire and African colonies. Current disputes in Asia involve tiny, intrinsically worthless and mostly uninhabited little islets significant mainly for the fish and natural resources under them.
This brings us to the downward spiral of action-reaction threatening relations between China and Japan, the second and third largest economies in the world whose GDP together totals more than $13 trillion.
On the surface, the dispute is over the Diaoyu Islands, known as Senkaku in Japan, a tiny group of rocks inhabited only by a few goats, and administered by Japan since WWII, but claimed by China. Underlying the territorial question are national pathologies on both sides: Japan appears unable to face up to its ugly history and some, like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, seem determined to try to rewrite their history.
China, which was subjected to the horrors of Japanese imperial invasion in the 1930s and military defeat in 1895, has ample cause for grievance.
Some in China see Abe’s behavior as part of a strategy of tension to pursue his internal agenda. Each side has its arguments blaming the other for the discord.
The US, which has its own bitter memories of Japan’s behavior during WWII, pressed Abe not to go to the Yasakuni Shrine and to devise policies to repair relations with China and South Korea. But as evidenced in Japan, all politics is local.
It is a troubling dynamic. But the question is: Where will this go over next decade? Are we heading toward conflict? How can Japan end this downward spiral of antagonism with China and South Korea?
Two related ideas come to mind. First, 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.
Japan would be wise to take advantage of a rare chance to move beyond the burdens of the past, and acknowledge to China and South Korea that it understands that three generations ago Japan did many terrible things and deeply regrets them.
For its part, China would be wise to return to the policy advice of Deng Xiaoping: defer sovereignty claims which are too difficult to solve now and jointly develop the resources around contested islands.
It would also be helpful for China to clarify what it considers its core interests and how they are consistent with Beijing’s obligations as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The philosopher George Santayana warned that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Both Japan and China need to think of the promise of an Asian century and the stakes of continued antagonism, and begin to shape a future that serves their mutual long-term interests.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NICs Strategic Futures Group, 2008-2012.)