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Bringing back memories of 1914

Publication Date : 07-01-2014


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Boxing Day visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine (the first by a premier in seven years) has hogged international headlines.

With Japan desperately seeking to reflate its moribund global fortunes, Abe clearly chose a nationalistic route, setting off a global firestorm with both China and Korea denouncing the visit.

Yasukuni, which commemorates Japan’s war dead, assumed a more divisive reputation after 14 WWII war criminals were also honoured there.

It’s worth mentioning that its location in the heart of Tokyo – in Chiyoda to be exact – reflects its importance in Japanese psyche.

Indeed, the Chiyoda ward encapsulates much of Japanese public life ranging from the Imperial Palace to the Diet.

However, the visit comes at a highly inopportune time, just weeks after China’s unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea.

China’s ADIZ not only overlaps with Japan’s but also covers a set of uninhabited islands under Japanese control.

China’s boldness has unnerved both Tokyo and Seoul (not to mention Washington and Asean).

For Japan in particular, the new ADIZ is the clearest challenge yet to their US-backed strategic role in the region.

Meanwhile, the United States has been treading carefully, bound as it is by a defensive pact with Japan.

Whilst both vice-president Joe Biden and secretary of state John Kerry have rejected China’s ADIZ, they avoided insisting on an immediate rollback.

Beijing is adamant that the ADIZ is defensive in nature and well within international conventions.

Memories, however, run deep in North Asia and rivalries stretch back centuries.

Japan’s occupation of mainland China before and during WWII led to numerous atrocities (such as the 1937 Sacking of Nanjing) that remain extremely painful to this day.

What becomes worrisome with the latest sabre-rattling is the increased risk for human error.

A seemingly insignificant event could spark real military conflict.

Given Abe’s decision to visit Yasukuni, we need to ask: how serious are the Japanese in wanting to ease tensions in North Asia?

Moreover, one cannot help but notice the parallels with WWI, whose centenary we mark this year.

As Europe prepares to commemorate “the war to end all wars”, it seems as if the North Asian powers are caught up in a sequence of events and tit-for-tat exchanges that could put the region in turmoil.

There’s no denying that China’s fast-growing economy has facilitated a dramatic increase in military spending. Back in the early 1900’s, Germany was in a similar position.

As every new German frigate was launched, British fears increased.

Both present-day China and the German Empire of 1914 share a common sensitivity about being encircled by competing powers.

However, the United States is a far more powerful force in today’s military and economic equation than it was in the early 1900’s.

Nonetheless, the US-Japan defensive pacts are not dissimilar to those which united Britain, France and Russia over a century ago.

How does this impact Southeast Asia?

Well, we are a key stage for the great power rivalry.

Are we moving closer to Beijing, Washington or Tokyo?

President Xi Jinping’s recent overtures to South-East Asia have been matched by last month’s Asean-Japan gathering in Tokyo.

And within Asean, there is a diversity of views on great powers.

For example, Vietnam, Myanmar and the Philippines see China very differently from the rest.

Their proximity has made them far more wary of the Middle Kingdom as they gaze longingly towards Washington.

A recent but extremely important book, The War That Ended Peace, by Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan sketches how the turn-of-the-century European leaders “shambled” into war.

Her well-written and altogether disturbing account points to military leaders who deliberately instigated aggressive policies, shrill manipulators of public opinion and complacent politicians who refused to acknowledge the urgency of what was taking place.

Perhaps leaders in Beijing and Tokyo should read MacMillan’s sobering assessment of how Europe was collectively snookered into a confrontation that cost more than 16 million lives?

For those who’d argue that business links across North Asia are enough to deter the war-mongers, I would point to the fact that the Great War followed a period of unprecedented prosperity and peace.

There were World Expo’s and Olympic Games in Paris and London – great celebrations of human achievement, comparable with the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010.

The current crop of global leaders owe it to us to rethink their priorities.

The Americans, for example, having initially committed and then failed to sustain their “pivot to Asia”, must return their focus to what’s happening in the continent’s north.

Unbridled nationalism, military opportunism and distracted political leaders could lead us all to tragedy.

What’s sad is that they seem to be exactly where they were in that warm midsummer of 1914.


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