South China Sea Rivalries Recall Pre-World War I Era
by Eric Margolis: Nuclear
Pots Call Iranian Kettle Black
over-used by none-the-less still valid maxim goes, those who forget
history are condemned to relive its follies.
I’ve a lovely
little oil painting in my study of Germany’s first modern emperor,
Kaiser Wilhelm I. He is smiling and happy.
was painted soon after the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War that led
to the creation of a united Germany with Prussia’s King Wilhelm
crowned as its monarch at Versailles – thanks to the great German
statesman, Prince Otto von Bismarck.
fast-rising economic and military power was seen by the British
Empire, which then ruled a quarter of the globe, as a dire threat.
managed to cleverly divide or distract Germany’s foes or rivals
and maintain Europe’s balance of power. But the new, headstrong
young kaiser, Wilhelm II, foolishly dismissed the domineering Bismarck
and soon plunged his nation into confrontation with Imperial Britain
over naval power, colonies, and trade.
determined to crush rival Germany. The fuse of World War I was lit.
We see the
first steps of a similar great power clash taking shape today in
China is usually
very cautious in its foreign affairs. But of late, Beijing has been
aggressively asserting maritime claims in the resource-rich South
China Sea, a region bordered by Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei, the
Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and China.
South Korea and the United States also assert strategic interests
in this hotly disputed sea, which is believed to contain 100 billion
barrels of oil and 700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
China has repeatedly
clashed with Vietnam and the Philippines over the Spratly and Paracel
islands and even mere rocks in the China Sea. Tensions are high.
In 2010, the
US strongly backed the maritime resource claims by the smaller Asian
states, warning off China and reasserting the US Navy’s right to
patrol anywhere. Beijing took this as a direct challenge to its
Washington raised the stakes in this power game, announcing it will
permanently base 2,500 Marines at the remote northern Australian
port of Darwin.
Marine regiment can’t do much in such a vast, remote region, but
Washington’s symbolic troop deployment is another strong signal
to China to keep its hands off the South China Sea. China and nearby
Indonesia reacted with alarm. Memories in Indonesia of 1960’s intervention
by CIA mercenaries and British troops remain vivid.
The US is increasingly
worried by China’s military modernization and growing naval capabilities.
Washington has forged a new, unofficial military alliance with India,
and aided Delhi’s nuclear weapons development, a pact clearly aimed
at China. China and India are locked in a nuclear and conventional
military forces now train in Mongolia. China may deploy a new Fourth
Fleet in the South China Sea. Washington expresses concern over
China’s new aircraft carrier, anti-ship missiles and submarines,
though these alarms coming from the world’s leading naval power
seem bit much.
The US is talking
about selling advanced arms to Vietnam, an historic foe of China.
The US is also modernizing Taiwan’s and Japan’s armed forces.
sharpen China’s growing fears of being encircled by a network of
America’s regional allies.
ASEAN summit in Indonesia calling for a US-led "Trans-Pacific
Partnership" was seen by Beijing as an effort to create an
Asian NATO directed against China.
over the South China Sea disturbingly recall the naval race between
Britain and Germany during the dreadnaught era that played a key
role in triggering World War I.
We should also
recall the pre-1914 great power race to build railroads, such as
the famed Berlin to Baghdad line, that were that era’s version of
today’s energy pipeline competition.
As a historian,
I’m most concerned by what I see. Youth in China and India are seething
with mindless nationalism caused by too much testosterone and childish
government propaganda. A decade ago, I wrote a book, War
at the Top of the World, that dealt with a possible future
war between China and India over the Himalayas and Burma.
States, the inheritor of Britain’s Empire, is struggling to continue
financing its vast sphere of influence. Meanwhile, the Republican
Party is in the grip of extreme elements and primitive nationalism.
Ocean has been an American lake since 1944. Washington’s ’s biggest
foreign policy challenge is to keep peace with China by gradually
allowing China to assert its inevitable sphere of influence in the
region while gradually lessening American domination of the Asian
US cannot hope to compete long term with cash-rich China to be top
dog in south Asia. But history shows that managing the arrival of
a new super-power is dangerous, tricky business.
not more Marines, is the answer. The over-extended American Raj
has got to face strategic reality or it risks going the way of the
global domination crowd won’t face facts. The US, which accounts
for 50% of world military spending, is now sending troops to East
Africa, Congo, West Africa, and now, Australia.
foreign policy has become almost totally militarized; the State
Department has been shunted aside. The Pentagon sees Al-Qaida everywhere.
The US needs
the brilliant diplomacy of a Bismarck, not more unaffordable bases
or military hardware. Reassuring the nervous Aussies that Uncle
Sam stands behind them is nice, but hugely annoying China may not
be worth the price. Maybe Beijing will send a contingent of its
marines to Cuba.
A clash in
the Pacific between China and the US is not inevitable. But events
last week brought one a step closer.
him mail] is the author of War
at the Top of the World and the new book, American
Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the
West and the Muslim World. See his
© 2011 Eric Margolis
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