In a recent Financial Times essay, “The Shadow of 1914 Falls Over the Pacific,” Gideon Rachman compares the current situation in East Asia to that in Europe a century ago. Like Germany in the early 20th century, China is a country on the rise, concerned that status quo powers will seek to block its ascent. In prewar Europe, a German military buildup and growing nationalism around the region helped create a dynamic in which the assassination of an obscure Austrian noble could trigger a devastating multinational war. The parallels with East Asia today are clear, Rachman says, and “the most obvious potential spark is the unresolved territorial dispute between Japan and China over the islands known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and the Senkaku to the Japanese.”
There is no denying the gravity of the danger posed by this row. Violent anti-Japanese riots erupted across China last fall after Japan’s government purchased the islands from a private owner, and Tokyo has recently claimed that a Chinese frigate locked its missile-guidance radar on a Japanese destroyer in the East China Sea. With ships and planes from both nations mingling in the vicinity of the islands, peace depends not only on the prudence of politicians in Beijing and Tokyo, but also the temperament and skill of a handful of sailors and pilots. The U.S.-Japan security treaty has played a pivotal role in ensuring Asia’s postwar stability, and will help deter Chinese aggression going forward, but as Rachman observes, the pact also recalls the alliance network that contributed to the expansion of World War I.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that major powers have often clashed without escalation. The example of 1914, in which a seemingly insignificant event forced all of Europe’s great military machines to shudder to life, is the exception rather than the rule. Since the bloody aftermath of their 1947 partition, India and Pakistan have skirmished repeatedly–and even engaged in several limited wars–without descending into full-scale conflict. In the 1960s, China fought with first India and then the Soviet Union over land, yet on neither occasion did combat spread beyond the frontier. Indeed, large interstate wars since World War I have not generally begun with a trigger akin to an assassination or a scuffle between forces on a remote perimeter, but rather with a major attack or colonial collapse.
Of course, none of this is to say that we should be sanguine about the possibility of a battle over the Senkakus. Before the Sino-Soviet conflict cooled, the Kremlin apparently contemplated a preemptive nuclear strike against China, and ongoing hostility between New Delhi and Islamabad could yet culminate in a nuclear nightmare. In addition, while Washington’s firm commitment to Japan’s defense contributes to regional stability, it also means that each of the world’s three largest economies–accounting for nearly 40 percent of global output–could find themselves at war. And this grim calculus does not even begin to consider the effects that a third Sino-Japanese war could have on the region’s other hotspots, including the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait.
Still, if limited hostilities do break out, whether by accident or design, history makes clear that none of the stakeholders in East Asia should abandon efforts to forestall a broader conflict. As the example of 1914 illustrates, it is possible for minor incidents to precipitate incalculable disaster. But even if shots are fired in the East China Sea, all-out war between China and Japan will remain an unlikely worst-case scenario–and one within the power and interest of Beijing, Tokyo and Washington to avoid.
Taylor Washburn is a lawyer studying Northeast Asia at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @washburnt.