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Send a gun boat

"Japan needs to be taught a lesson"

Thus opened a conversation with a significant figure in China. A successful businessman with global interests and an international outlook, yet such sentiments are now a commonplace in modern China.

With some justification, the Chinese point to their history as a non colonial power to suggest that their country is not aggressive, yet that is increasingly not the way that China's neighbours see it. The country, whether the People's Republic or simply the Republic of China (Taiwan), has disputes with more or less all of its neighbours. Whether it is territorial claims in the South China Sea, which challenge Vietnam, the Philippines, and even Brunei and Malaysia, or the land borders with India, or of course the growing tension with Japan over islands in the East China Sea, the Chinese are newly assertive and even- say their critics- aggressive.

A growing problem is that increasingly the Chinese do not regard the US alliance with Japan as unconditional- they do not believe that the Americans are prepared to risk a nuclear exchange to prevent a mere "punitive expedition". This, I think, severely compromises the position of the US, but also peace in Asia. If the Chinese decide to "teach Japan a lesson" then the rest of the region will make its own decisions as to the value of the US defence guarantees that they too receive. Some states might seek an accommodation with Beijing, but if the pattern of nineteenth century in Europe were followed, even a "small victorious war" against Japan could be like the Franco-Prussian conflict, but equally it would unite China's maritime neighbours against the heartland in an eerie replay of Germany's mistakes after Bismarck.

What then, is the significance for Asian conflict in the wider world? 

For Europe the critical issue will be Russia. Is Russia a kind of Austria-Hungary, that will find that its decayed authoritarianism fits in more easily with the more muscular version of Beijing? Alternately will Russia find its European culture and historic fear of China overcomes the sympathy Putin clearly feels for the Communist regime in Beijing? At this stage we can only speculate. Yet If there was a global breakdown on the scale of 1914, the position of Russia would be critical as to whether Europe could avoid being caught up in the conflagration. The assertiveness of China in the East China Sea has uncomfortable parallels with the assertiveness of Russia against NATO. Yet if Europe is to avoid becoming a charnal house for the third time in a century, it is now critical that NATO opens a dialogue with the Kremlin. It is, perhaps, encouraging that Russia is also seeking to resolve some previously intractable disputes, such as the border issues with the Baltic.

For the reality is that the situation is Asia really is that serious. The brashness of the Chinese in their dealings with the wider world masks a real fear of internal upheaval, and the PRC stokes nationalist feeling to hide the growing challenges to the legitimacy of Communist rule. The provocations of Japan are foolish in the extreme, but the fact remains that the United States- and by extension NATO- are locked into an alliance with Japan which they can not walk away from- or they risk undermining the stability of the whole of Asia for the coming century. As India glowers at the Chinese across their disputed border, the parallels with 1870, or even 1914 grow more uncomfortable: China as an analogue to Germany, Russia to Austria Hungary, India to Czarist Russia, Japan as an analogue to France, and the United States to the British Empire.

In 1914 the Kaiser was incredulous that Britain was prepared to go to war over "a scrap of paper"- the entry of Great Britain into the First World War was as unexpected as it was unwelcome to Berlin: London had failed to communicate to Berlin their deadly earnest, as it seems Washington is failing now to communicate to Beijing their firm intention to defend the status quo in Asia.

In the end the lesson that Europe learned was that modern warfare is an experience so horrific that anyone who used war as an instrument of policy was, by definition, a criminal. In the end must humanity in twenty-first century Asia follow the same destructive path that it followed in twentieth century Europe?

That would surely be a terrible lesson to relearn.    


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