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The tragedy of 1914 and the precarious peace of 2014

Benjamin Herscovitch | 08 August 2014

benjamin-herscovitch The centenary of the start of World War I raises a confronting question for Australia: Is Europe's past Asia's future?
The similarities between Europe's deadly great power politics of 1914 and Asia's geostrategic rivalries of 2014 are indeed eerie.
In the decades preceding World War I, the global Pax Britannica was strained by the geopolitical revisionism of Wilhelmine Germany; today, the US-led liberal international order is buckling under pressure from Chinese revanchism.
Meanwhile, the bitter antagonism between China and Japan over the legacy of Japanese aggression is reminiscent of the nationalistic fervour that gripped some quarters of European society in the early years of the twentieth century.
Of course, even the most compelling historical comparison is not a reliable guide to the future.
Moreover, with vastly different cultures and political institutions and a century of history separating Europe then and Asia now, the disanalogies are as striking as the analogies.
World War I nevertheless offers two lessons that are acutely relevant to Asia today.
1. Expecting the unexpected is a prerequisite for foreseeing future flashpoints.
In 1914, the assassination of an archduke by a teenager from a rag-tag group of revolutionaries precipitated a war of unprecedented ferocity. Similarly, something as seemingly improbable as secessionist protests by ethnically Tibetan Indian nationals returning to Tibet could take India and China to the brink of all-out war.
Chinese authorities would likely launch a brutal crackdown against such agitation and the notoriously adversarial Indian media is liable to explode in indignation at news of the mistreatment of Indian citizens. In such a climate, a major diplomatic crisis that sees shots fired across the contentious Line of Actual Control dividing India from China could easily erupt.
2. Avoiding war demands empathy with would-be enemies.
During the prelude to World War I, failure to understand the strategic calculations of rivals led to disastrous misjudgements, most notably when the Central Powers downplayed the durability of the Franco-Russian Alliance and Germany underestimated Great Britain's commitment to Belgian neutrality.
Likewise, ignoring the extent to which disputes over vast tracts of the East and South China seas are tied to fundamental questions of national purpose and identity may unwittingly push claimant states into a hot war.
Such a conflagration could easily be sparked if, for example, Beijing remains blind to the depth of Vietnamese determination to rebuff Chinese expansionism or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations refuses to recognise the Chinese Communist Party's utterly unbending dedication to seizing contested territory.
Mercifully, history's rhymes are usually discordant. But this should not leave us deaf to the costly lessons of Europe's war to end all wars.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.