The flickering black and white films of men going “over the top” in the first world war seem impossibly distant. Yet the idea that the great powers of today could never again stumble into a war, as they did in 1914, is far too complacent. The rising tensions between China, Japan and the US have echoes of the terrible conflict that broke out almost a century ago.
The most obvious potential spark is the unresolved territorial dispute between China and Japan over the islands known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and the Senkaku to the Japanese. In recent months, the two countries’ aircraft and ships have shadowboxed near the islands. Alarmed, the US dispatched a top-level mission to Beijing and Tokyo in late October, made up of four senior members of the US foreign policy establishment: including Stephen Hadley, who ran the National Security Council for George W. Bush, and James Steinberg, who served as Hillary Clinton’s number two at the State Department.
This bipartisan US delegation made clear that a Chinese attack on the islands would trigger the security guarantees that America has made to Japan. The obvious danger is that, as in 1914, a small incident could invoke alliance commitments that lead to a wider war.
The American group was well aware of the risks. As Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor who was part of the four-person mission, puts it: “We discussed the 1914 analogy among ourselves. I don’t think any of the parties wants war, but we warned both sides about miscommunications and accidents. Deterrence usually works among rational actors, but the major players in 1914 were also rational actors.”
Graham Allison, Mr Nye’s Harvard colleague, who has written a classic study of the Cuba missile crisis, also believes that there is a danger of war by miscalculation. He says: “The mechanism in 1914 is instructive. Who could imagine that Serbian terrorists could kill an archduke no one had heard of and trigger a great war, at the end of which all contestants were devastated? My view is that the Chinese leadership has no intention of challenging the US militarily, yet. But what about the hothead nationalists in China or Japan?”