The picture of power politics in East Asia has become murkier than ever. Two conflicting views about the region’s future have emerged and foreshadow completely different courses of development.
One group of analysts holds a pessimistic view that compares current Sino-US relations to the rivalry between Britain and Germany prior to World War I. They say that the possibility of catastrophic consequence is real given disturbing similarities between the two situations. This group proclaims that if tensions between China and its neighbors are not correctly managed by the US, disaster may be unavoidable.
This provocative analogy has drawn much attention because it was cited by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his speech at the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month. He said that Japan and China should not repeat the mistakes that Britain and Germany made in the years leading up to World War I. The two European powers were unable to avoid war despite high levels of economic interdependence, a relationship he said was like the economic ties between Japan and China.
The other analogy was used by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III earlier this month, when he likened China’s claim to disputed islands in the South China Sea to Germany’s expansionist ideals before World War II and called for world leaders not to make the mistake of appeasing China as the West did with Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
Apparently, these historical analogies are deliberately targeted at China by two anxious states that have territorial disputes with Beijing. Whether their motivation is to address their concerns over China’s recent military assertiveness by seeking more international support or merely to reveal their deep-rooted apprehension over feasible military conflict with Beijing, what they have in common is to perceive China’s latest muscle-flexing as a substantial and coercive threat to their national security that poses a high likelihood of triggering a war.
Another school of thought, espoused by Harvard University professor and former US Department of Defense assistant secretary Joseph Nye, dismisses any analogy to the world wars. Nye said that it was misleading to compare the situations because the nuclear deterrent is an effective antidote to leaders making decisions that might risk military escalation. Furthermore, there is no explicit and severe ideological confrontation between China and the US. Conversely, there exist plenty of strong incentives for the two powers to cooperate, including on energy issues and climate change. He said that the US leads China in overall military strength, economic capabilities and soft power.
The US’ unfaltering and invincible advantages make China more reluctant to take adventurous action, Nye said.
In contrast to the warnings of conflict, the first formal visit of Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) to China and his meeting with China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) this month drew worldwide media attention. The visit signified the peak of reconciliation across the Taiwan Strait since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came to power in 2008.
Despite the trip being more symbolic than indicating substantive progress, it is laudable that Wang was able to advocate the value of Taiwan’s democracy in his speech at Nanjing University. This seemingly historical breakthrough was largely built on the political calculations of the two governments.