Wednesday, 6 February 2013

1914 Pacific time

As in 1914, Rachman argues, there is a general nervousness and trigger happiness developing the Pacific that may lead to the small skirmishes between Japan and China developing into a full blown war. In fact he makes a double comparison in which both Japan and China look a bit like Germany 1914. 

His Japan-Germany analogy goes like this: 'Some historians argue that in 1914, the German government had concluded that it needed to fight a war as soon as possible – before it was encircled by more powerful adversaries. Similarly, some Japan-watchers worry that nationalists in the government may be tempted to confront China now – before the gap in power between the two nations grows too large, and while the US is still the dominant military force in the Pacific.' 

His China-Germany comparison is this: 'The analogy with Germany before the first world war is striking – as the adept leadership of Otto von Bismarck gave way to much clumsier political and military leadership in the years before war broke out. The German ruling elite felt similarly threatened by democratic pressures from below – and encouraged nationalism as an alternative outlet for popular sentiment. China’s leaders have also used nationalism to bolster the legitimacy of the Communist party.'

One thing that is conspicously absent from Rachman's picture is the economy. You don't have to be a full fledged Leninist to think that the economic situation of Europe had something to do with the outbreak of WWI. The seminal contribution to the debate about the causes of WWI was that of the historian Fritz Fischer. Based on forensic study of the sources, he established that Germany had actively worked to escalate European tensions that led to the outbreak of the war. But even more importantly, he showed how central economic motives were for the decision of industrial and military circles in Germany to provoke a war. Among the principal war aims was the acquisition of the steel and mining areas in Alsace and Lorraine. 

The war aims reflected an economic situation in which economic growth in most European countries had begun to be constrained by a lack of markets. For the first time since the rapid economic growth of the 19th century, and partly as a result of it, overproduction had started to become a serious problem. Overseas imperialism provided some relief, although it often failed to deliver the economic benefits that many proponents of colonialism had hoped for. Stagnating economies, increasing economic rivalry and protectionism were an important part of the historical context before 1914. 

In some ways, including economics in the picture makes Rachman's comparison even stronger. But it also requires modifications. Japan's fear to be overtaken by China is partly about military strength. But Japan on its own has long been inferior to China because it has no nuclear weapons. And if we accept that Japan is protected by American nuclear weapons then the whole argument that we are on the brink of an escalation does not make much sense because none of the governments in Bejing, Tokyo and Washington seem to be crazy enough to enter a nuclear war. The risk of a war would then only lie in the possibility of human error that becomes of course much more likely in an already tense situation. However, where Japan is really about to be overtaken by China is in economic matters. So, if we look for the sources of Japan's general sense of insecurity and increasing competition with China we should probably look to economic development. 

Similarly, China is experiencing an enormous boom. But everyone, including Chinese authorities, are aware that this export driven boom will not last forever. As more important countries are in crisis, fewer can function as an outlet for Chinese exports. In addition, China's cost advantage is being undermined by the efforts of Chinese workers to improve wages and working conditions.The recent developments at Foxcon are in many ways typical. China, too, fears economic decline and this certainly contributes to the antagonistic stance towards Japan. 

So, as pre-1914 we have a climate of economic decline, real or anticipated, that raises tensions. But if we ask whether the result may be, as in 1914, the outbreak of a war, then crucial question is, how Japan and China will try solve their respective economic problems. Will they, like Europe's powers and above all Germany, seek salvation in military expansion? I think there are good arguments to say that they have other plans. More about this tomorrow. I know, this is quite a cliff hanger, but I have to crack on with other stuff. 

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