1914 and 2014: Is Asia on the Verge of Repeating Europe’s Slide towards War?

By Martin Zapfe

Martin Zapfe, what themes and subjects will be covered in this ‘series’ of publications and events? 

We will cover a variety of issues on security in Asia – some that are at the center of public attention – like the re-militarization of Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – and some that often evade public scrutiny, like China’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean.

Michael Haas and Prem Mahadevan will look at those two themes in-depth in two “CSS Analyses”. In addition, the Center for Security Studies’ (CSS) “Global Security Team” will look at war risks in Asia and determine whether often-applied analogies to “1914”are applicable to present-day Asia. If that really is the case, what does it tell us about possible policy responses? An additional CSS Policy Perspectives to be published later this month will explore this question in greater depth. Finally, we will host a CSS Evening Talk in early July, when the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) Christian LeMière will discuss how Switzerland could be affected from security risks emanating from Asia.

Why is it so important to focus solely upon Asia? Might there have been a case for broadening your discussion to consider Central and Eastern Europe?

The United States’ “pivot” to the Pacific has an underlying rationale. After all, the future of world politics, commerce, and ultimately security politics lies for the best part in the Asia-Pacific region. That does not mean that the Eurasian continent is less important – security risks here, like the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, do have a direct impact on Swiss foreign and security policy. However, an escalation to a full-blown war between major powers still remains highly unlikely – thankfully. In Asia, things could be different, hence our focus in mid-2014.

Staying in Central and Eastern Europe, what impact have events in Ukraine had upon your research agenda?

The crisis surrounding Ukraine has an impact on any security policy issue. First of all, inter-state conflict has not been consigned to history; it is still a distant, yet threatening, reality. While still unlikely in Europe – at least in central Europe – the increased tension in certain part of the East China Sea reminds us that conflicts of interests and ideologies held by states is still an important feature of the global security architecture.

What problems did you encounter when undertaking research? Was there a lack of credible Chinese sources on the development of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), for example?

Writing on naval issues in particular, is colored by the fact that almost everyone has an axe to grind. The PLAN, for instance, is actively promoting ‘naval nationalism’ in order to justify its own expansion and modernization. This requires that it manufactures a threat narrative to China’s Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) which may or may not actually exist in reality. Certainly, Chinese sources seem divided on this issue. So the problem is not that there is a common viewpoint which is put out by the Chinese security apparatus, but that there are multiple viewpoints. Keeping track of them is undoubtedly challenging. But that is true of any policy establishment. The US is not much different, with extremes of opinion ranging from alarmist cries that China is going to be stronger at sea than the US Navy, to more complacent notions that American military power in Asia will remain unmatched for years to come.

Without giving too much away, what’s your overall prognosis for Asia’s security landscape for the rest of this year and beyond?

It is quite likely that tensions in East Asia will persist. China seems to be both a victim of international stigmatization, particularly over its policies in the South and East China Seas, and yet willfully assertive at the same time, without too much concern for the consequences. The establishment of an oil rig in waters that are contested by China and Vietnam is a sign that Beijing does not really care what other countries think about the legality of its actions. This is not surprising, given China’s economic and military clout. But it does call into question whether Chinese claims for a peaceful resolution of maritime disputes can be fully trusted. Beijing seems intent on leveraging its strength to create a new status quo

in the region through coercive diplomacy. At some point, there might be pushback from ASEAN or Japan. Indeed, we have already seen signs of that from Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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