Let’s hope the players have learned from past scenarios when rising powers challenged established ones.
THIS year, 2014, is the 100th anniversary of one of the most significant events in the last century, World War I (WWI).
That war marked the beginning of the end of centuries of European dominance of global affairs.
My purpose here is not to expatiate on the significance of the end of European dominance but to reflect on the comparison currently much in vogue in some western circles, that a similar catastrophic conflict could break out in the Asia-Pacific region.
They argue that WWI broke out because the established power then, Great Britain, could not accommodate a rising power like Germany.
As a consequence, the balance of power structure which had brought about almost a century of peace in Europe broke down and war ensued.
We may have a similar situation today in the Asia-Pacific region where there is a rising power, China, which might collide with an established United States, with devastating consequences for us in the region, if not the globe.
Their argument goes something like this. War is not conceivable among the major countries today because nations, for a variety of reasons, have learned to cooperate with each other in the security sphere.
But according to Richard Cooper, once an adviser to the Blair government and a well-known proponent of this view, this is true only of the countries of the Atlantic community which has developed multilateral institutions that have transcended, to a great extent, concerns over the surrender of national sovereignty.
Not so in the Asia-Pacific region where the element of strategic trust, basic to the formation of a cooperative security community, is absent and like 19th-century European nationalism with its insistence that sovereignty remains inviolate, is the dominant theme.
And as a newly united Germany in 1870 under Prussian dominance set out to challenge Britain, so may a China gaining in economic strength and more do likewise against an established America.
There have been many who believe this historical analogy to not be necessarily valid.
One of the more persuasive is Henry Kissinger. Times, according to Kissinger, have changed profoundly.
With the existence of nuclear weapons, war between the United States and China, even in the absence of security co-operation, would be too horrible an undertaking.
The planners of WWI had no nuclear weapons to act as a deterrent and probably saw the coming war as a continuation of the wars they had fought previously.
Both the United States and China are also not involved in a zero-sum game. Issues involving climate change, energy and the environment need global cooperation, no less co-operation between both.
Second, the historical circumstances are different. Germany, according to Kissinger, was incredibly provocative.
It made clear its intention to challenge British naval supremacy and to become the top dog.
China has made clear it has no intention to challenge US hegemony, least of all US military dominance.
China, because of problems arising from societal disquiet over corruption, inequality and so on, and also from territorial challenges, will be too busily absorbed in solving domestic problems to want to challenge the United States.
But in what is a powerful argument by those who believe in the coming war, it is not so much the intent, declared or otherwise, but the capacity that is the reason for war.
Lord Eyre Crowe, a British planner, wrote an influential memorandum in 1907 to the effect that as soon as Germany was seen to have developed the strength to challenge Britain, it should be stopped, whatever its peaceful protestations might be.
Similarly, the United States should treat a rising China this way. Which leads us to the third point, the need for wise leadership on both sides. Kissinger argues against a mechanical interpretation of history.
Had the statesmen who met in Versailles in 1919 been aware in 1914 of the horrible carnage and devastation unleashed by WWI, would they have started the war?
In other words, the wise leader can learn from history rather than repeat it.
Americans can learn not to follow those in Britain who argue for a pre-emptive war against a Germany developing the capacity to challenge Britain by not doing the same with China and finding a way to accommodate China in a way the British did not with Germany.
Similarly, China should be careful not to unleash its nationalist forces, however great the provocation, so as to give cause for the United States to respond.
In particular, China should be careful that its focus on domestic problems be done in a way that will not provoke the Americans.
Its methods of ensuring social harmony may result in what the United States sees to be violations of human rights. While human rights violations are unlikely to lead to war with the United States, Chinese emphasis on territorial integrity could, if only by accident.
One refers not so much to Tibet and Sinkiang but to areas that China claims but are not under its control such as Taiwan, Senkakus/Diaoyus and islands in the South China Sea.
The protagonists in these areas do not want war with China but conflict might accidentally occur and the United States could be drawn in.
The problem of rising powers challenging established ones, according to Graham Allison, a Harvard professor of international relations, is one of Thucydidean proportions.
It was the rise of Athens and the fear it inspired in Sparta that led to what we call the Peloponnesian war so well written by the Greek historian Thucydides.
Allison went on to point out that since 1500, there had been 16 cases of rising powers challenging established ones. Eleven ended in conflict
Let us hope the Sino-American case will not turn out to be the 12th!
> Lee Poh Ping is Senior Research Fellow at University of Malaya’s Institute of China Studies. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.