In late June, SWP (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation jointly organized their annual conference on Asian security, the Berlin Conference on Asian Security. The theme this time was if the conditions that led to the First World War a hundred years ago are being replicated in Asia today. The discussions were under the Chatham House rule, but Amitav Acharya, who was also present, wrote an essay in Economic Times on the same issue. I wrote an essay in Economic Times too which appeared a couple of days after Amitav's piece. We obviously disagree. My essay is reproduced below.
There has, of course been a debate a long debate, ever since the early 1990s, whether Asian multipolarity was going to lead to conflict. Aaron Friedberg fired the first shot arguing that Asia does not even have some of the advantages that Europe had to ameliorate potential conflicts and that it was therefore 'ripe for rivalry'. Other including David Kang and Amitav Acharya disagreed, suggesting different reasons why Asia was unlikely to replicate European patterns. While much of the evidence appeared to support the anti-Realist case so far, I would think that the developments over the past few years definitely support the Realist case for pessimism about the prospects for stability in the region.
Is Asia Heading Towards World War-like Conditions?
On June 28, 1914, the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, starting a chain of events that directly led to the First World War a month later. The war had dramatic consequences, killing almost ten million, destroying several great powers, remaking the global map, heralding the general decline of Europe and leading eventually to the rise of the US and the Soviet Union.
The assassination was only the spark that led to the conflagration but the conditions for the tragedy were already in place. In the years before, Europe had been beset with tension, crises and arms races between the great powers who had arrayed themselves into opposing military alliances that dragged them all into the war.
Only historians would pay much attention to this poignant anniversary were it not for the fact that great power politics in Asia today seems to resemble very much Europe a hundred years back, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pointed out recently.
The key factors then in Europe are much in evidence in Asia today: a changing and uncertain balance of power, hyper-nationalism among emerging powers, an intensifying arms race, general optimism both about the unlikelihood of war as about the prospects for victory and plenty of minor disputes that could provide the necessary spark.
Much as in Europe then, the old great power order appears to be fading today in Asia. America's relative decline was already in evidence as other powers such as China and India rose, but its absolute decline also now appears much in evidence. From Ukraine to Syria to the East China Sea, Washington appears unable to respond to any challenges to its power or the international order.
Another similarity with Europe then is that Asia today in teeming with newly rich and powerful states who are eager for their 'place in the sun', as the German statesman Bernhard von Bulow put it in 1897. Hyper-nationalism continues to be a danger. The Chinese government has actively stoked nationalist passions against Japan but this is a tiger that they might not be able to dismount as they wish.
Moreover, it leads to backlash, as counter-nationalism spreads in Japan, Vietnam and other smaller states along China's periphery. What is often forgotten about nationalism is that it is as likely to be the consequence of conflict as its cause, something that Beijing is blissfully ignoring.
There are counter-tendencies, of course. Globalization has integrated economies tightly but this was true even before the first World War. Norman Angell, Nobel laureate and author, published a popular tome in 1910 called The Great Illusion which argued that European economic integration will prevent war between the great powers. Similarly, the US, Japan and other East Asian countries assumed that economic integration of China would ameliorate Beijing's aggressiveness but this thesis is increasingly being challenged by Chinese behaviour.
This behaviour is increasing fear and with it military expenditures in the region. Though worldwide military expenditures are going down, it is growing in Asia. In 2012, Asia surpassed Europe for the first time in military expenditure and Asian countries like China, India and South Korea are among the world's largest arms importers.
There is one key difference, however. Nuclear weapons are a new factor which induces at least some caution in how leaders behave. But on the other hand, this works only if both sides have them and many East Asian states, including Japan, do not. They are protected by Washington's extended nuclear deterrent which makes Japan and others dependent on an increasingly fickle America.
None of this suggests that Asia is heading for a great war. There was nothing inevitable about the first World War but the conditions increased its probability. Asia today faces a similar period of uncertainty and tension but whether it will result in war will depend as much on prudent behaviour as on providence.