The Guns of August in the East China Sea

Dark echoes of world war lurk in Asia's dangerous, contested waters.

The parallels of history have obsessed the foreign policy elite for years, and are building towards a fever pitch: Is the Asia of 2014 the new Europe of 1914? China is a rising and assertive new power much like Kaiser Wilhelm II's Germany. An explosion of nationalism has taken hold among dynamic ethnic nations, from Beijing to Tokyo, Hanoi to Manila. And as Asia's middle-classes enjoy a new and ascendant place in the world, sustained capitalist prosperity has led to military acquisitions. An arms race in Asia is on the loose -- as the Australian analyst Desmond Ball reports, progressing to a dangerous phase of actions and reactions, as opposed to a normal, non-threatening build-up. If World War I was "the first middle-class war in history," as the Canadian historian Modris Eksteins writes, with literate masses bursting with patriotic pride, no wonder so many see the dark echoes in the Pacific becoming an armed camp. 

Historical analogy is useful for rough orientation. But it is dangerous when taken too far; each situation is its own thing, thoroughly unique. Indeed, great statesmen are those who exploit unique opportunities, even as they are aware of vague parallels to the past. The Pacific Basin now offers a signal illustration of vague parallels and yet telling differences to Europe on the eve of World War I.

Miscalculations in the balance of power were a factor in the outbreak of World War I, and with the rise of Chinese military power -- Beijing recently announced a 12.2 percent increase in its military spending, bringing its total annual budget to roughly 25 percent that of the United States -- the Pacific is no longer an uncomplicated U.S. naval lake. A more complex balance of power between the United States, China, Japan, and others is replacing unipolarity. Such an arrangement, because it promises more interactions, makes miscalculations easier. While the Obama administration's 2011 Asia pivot was intended to indicate a shift in emphasis from the Middle East to Asia -- and guarantee that the United States would remain globally engaged despite difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan -- it was also an admission of geopolitical anxiety: that the stability of the Pacific could no longer be taken for granted. 

As naval warfare goes undersea -- because surface warships are increasingly vulnerable to missiles -- "submarines are the new bling, everybody wants them," says Bernard Loo Fook Weng, a Singaporean military strategist. Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan have all been adding to their undersea arsenals, and China is expected to have a fleet of around 75 subs in the coming decade or so, eventually surpassing the United States. Just as modernism -- with its industrial militaries -- allowed for the grim, interminable nightmare of World War I, there is the fear that the Pacific will show us the demonic lightning flashes of postmodernism, with nuclear-powered submarines, fifth-generation fighter jets, ballistic missiles, and cyberwarfare.

Though the islands in dispute in the East and South China seas are in many cases barren and below water during high tide, as Aristotle wrote, conflicts arise "not over small things but from small things." The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand that sparked World War I was one such small thing. Claims in the Pacific, however petty, if they are tied to vital interests, can lead to war. Indeed, the primordial quest for status still tragically determines the international system -- just as it did prior to World War I. And these islets have become, because of their very barren abstraction, logos of nationhood in a global media age. 

Remember that the Pacific is the geographic organizing principle of world economic order to no less an extent than Europe was in 1914. The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans, where the most crowded global sea routes coalesce -- the Mitteleuropa of the 21st century. The oil transported here from the Middle East en route to Asian megacities is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 15 times the amount that transits the Panama Canal.  

But before one buys the 1914 analogy, there are other matters to consider. While 1914 Europe was a landscape, with large armies facing one another inside a claustrophobic terrain with few natural barriers, East Asia is a seascape, with vast maritime distances separating national capitals. The sea impedes aggression to a degree that land does not. Naval forces can cross water and storm beachheads, though with great difficulty, but moving inland and occupying hostile populations is nearly impossible. The Taiwan Strait is roughly four times the width of the English Channel, a geography that continues to help preserve Taiwan's de facto independence from China.

Even the fastest warships travel slowly, giving diplomats time to do their work. Incidents in the air are more likely, although Asian countries have erected strict protocols and prefer to posture verbally so as to avoid actual combat. (That said, the new Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone is a particularly provocative protocol.) Since any such incidents would likely occur over open water there will be few casualties, reducing the prospect that a single incident will lead to war. And because of the speed, accuracy, and destructiveness of postmodern weaponry, any war that does break out will probably be short -- albeit with serious economic consequences. Something equivalent to four years of trench warfare is almost impossible to imagine. And remember that it was World War I's very grinding length that made it a history-transforming and culture-transforming event: it caused 17 million military and civilian casualties; the disputes in the Pacific Basin are certainly not going to lead to that.

World War I also featured different and unwieldy alliance systems. Asia is simpler: almost everyone fears China and depends -- militarily at least -- on the United States. This is not the Cold War where few Americans could be found in the East Bloc, a region with which we did almost no trade. Millions of Americans and Chinese have visited each other's countries, tens of thousands of American businessmen have passed through Chinese cities, and Chinese party elites send their children to U.S. universities. U.S. officials know they must steer between the two extremes of allowing China's Finlandization of its Asian neighbors and allowing nationalistic governments in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan to lure the United States into a conflict with China.

Nationalistic as these democracies may be, the best way to curb their excesses and make them less nervous is to give them the assurance of a U.S. security umbrella, born of credible air and sea power. A strong U.S.-China relationship can keep the peace in Asia. (South Korea also fears Japan, but the United States is successfully managing that tension.) Unlike empires mired in decrepitude that characterized 1914 Europe, East Asia features robust democracies in South Korea and Japan, and strengthening democracies in Malaysia and the Philippines. An informal alliance of democracies -- that should also include a reformist, de facto ally like Vietnam -- is the best and most stable counter to Chinese militarism. Some of these democracies are fraught, and fascist-cum-communist North Korea could implode, but this is not a world coming apart. Limited eruptions do not equal a global cataclysm.

Yet the most profound difference between August 1914 and now is historical self-awareness. As Modris Eksteins meticulously documents in his 1989 book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, European capitals greeted the war with outbursts of euphoria and a feeling of liberation. Because 19th century Europe had been relatively peaceful since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, people had lost the sense of the tragic that enables them to avoid tragedy in the first place. Aging, one-child societies like those of China, Japan, and South Korea, with memories of war, revolution, and famine, are less likely to greet violent struggle with joy and equanimity. And the United States, the paramount military player in Asia, by its very conscious fear of a World War I scenario, will take every measure to avoid it.

A profusion of warships in the Pacific certainly suggests a more anxious, complicated world. But U.S. generals and diplomats need not give in to fate, especially given the differences with a century ago. The United States entered World War I too late. Projecting a strong military footprint in Asia while ceaselessly engaging the Chinese is the way that conflict can be avoided this time around.



Avoiding Srebrenica Redux

Twenty years ago, the United States and Europe failed the people of Bosnia. Here's how they can do better this time in Ukraine.

The situation in Crimea is looking dicier by the day. Plans for a divisive March 16 referendum are plowing ahead, despite U.S. and EU pleas. The Russian military is amassing thousands of troops on Ukraine's eastern border. And, in a hint of what may be yet to come, hundreds of pro-Russia protesters clashed with pro-Kiev crowds in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv, leaving several people dead. The crisis in the Ukraine shows every sign of escalating.

Nevertheless, those indulging in the hyperbole about the Ukraine-Crimea crisis being Europe's "most serious crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall" in 1989, as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it, have short historical memories. The gravest episode in the aftermath of communism's demise remains the succession wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, where 150,000 Europeans lost their lives, where an army committed genocide, and when millions of refugees streamed into continental Europe and beyond. Twenty years down the road, Kosovo and Bosnia remain costly, unstable international protectorates with no end in sight. Things in Ukraine may look bad; they are not yet this bad.

And yet, anyone who followed the unfolding of the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo is surely horrified today by the dynamics between Russia's Vladimir Putin, the Ukrainian leadership, the people of Crimea, and citizens in the rest of Ukraine. The similarities to the Balkans of the 1990s are, in many ways, striking: Just as Serbia and Croatia cynically exploited the presence of their compatriots outside the borders of their republics, so too is Putin manipulating the welfare of the Russophone Crimeans as justification for cross-border military operations, the seizure of territory, and a phoney referendum. As in the Balkans, the media has been turned into the mouthpiece of extreme nationalists. Once again, there's inadequate security architecture to defuse tensions; and then there's the radicalization of nationalism which, when fanned so fiercely, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and, in the Balkans, led to Europe's worst bloodshed since World War II.

Certainly, there are also key differences between the Balkans of the 1990s and today's crisis in Eastern Europe. The Ukraine, for example, is nowhere as ethnically mixed as Bosnia was before the war. Both Ukrainians and Russia also have two decades of democracy, imperfect as it may be, under their belts, unlike the citizens of socialist Yugoslavia. Another difference: Russia is a superpower, unlike Milosevic's Serbia. While the West vastly overestimated the might of the Serbian war machine, Russia's arsenal, including nuclear weapons, is in another league entirely. 

Even though the West has been caught flat-footed again, there are lessons from Yugoslavia's bloody collapse that can prevent Ukraine from going the way of Bosnia -- an absolute worst-case scenario.

Lesson 1: Don't mistake political power plays for ethnic nationalism.

At the root of the wars in former Yugoslavia was not long-standing ethnic hatreds, as was repeated ad nauseum, but rather the agendas of political elites in Serbia and Croatia. Both Belgrade and Zagreb had their sights set on greater states: a Serbia carved out of the corpse of Tito's Yugoslavia and a Croatian state from the Adriatic Sea to the Drina River. The justification that they were protecting kinsmen was a ruse that Western negotiators bought into -- ultimately to the peril of exactly those kinsmen, most of whom lost their homes and livelihoods in the end.

By understanding the disintegration of Yugoslavia as first and foremost an ethnic conflict, the West played directly into the hands of nationalist leaders. All of the peace plans for Bosnia, including the Dayton Accords, accepted the logic of ethnic division to one degree or another.  Serbs and Muslims were like "cats and dogs" was the claim of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, which the international powers implicitly acknowledged by recognizing Republika Srpska, the Serbs' ethnically cleansed, wartime creation.

In fact, the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina existed harmoniously side-by-side for long periods of history. During the socialist decades, there were high rates of mixed marriages in cities like Banja Luka, Zenica, and Sarajevo. The real interests of Bosnians -- decent jobs, democratic societies, European lifestyles -- weren't that different from one another, as indeed those of Crimeans and all other Ukrainians aren't. Both of the latter are living in the same society -- one plagued by corruption, failed transition policies, and de-industrialization. Whether the motives behind Putin's power play are territory, warding off NATO and the EU, or externalizing domestic political and economic problems, we don't know for certain. But the rights of Russophone Ukrainians are no more his primary concern than were the plights of Kosovar, Croatian, or Bosnian Serbs for Milosevic.

Lesson 2: Watch out for the triggers of ethnic violence.

When leaders like Milosevic and Putin in authoritarian states beat the nationalist drums, it can create the fears and mistrust that make ethnic violence more likely. We have to recognize and react to the mechanisms of ethnic cleansing from the onset. In a relatively short period of time, the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina -- all of the same ethnicity -- were set against one another by nationalist leaderships that had the media at their service.

It's not the case that most minorities in Bosnia were routed from their homes at the point of an AK-47. Rather, the local media, politicos, priests, roving paramilitaries, and neighborhood thugs created a climate of fear and intimidation that made any sensible Bosnian family flee. In Ukraine, roughly the same elements -- take recent events in Donetsk and Kharkiv for example -- seem to be driving the radicalization of the crisis today.

Lesson 3: Beware the World War II parallels.

It is, of course, impossible to understand either the conflict in the Crimea, or those in former Yugoslavia, without reference to history -- and the echoes of the 20th-century's horrors are nowhere more relevant than in the Balkan bloodlands. But it was not the case, as many Yugoslavs were made to believe, that all of a sudden in 1990 Serbian royalists, Bosnian SS, and Croatian Ustashe picked up where their forefathers left off 50 years previously.

The same is true of the Ukrainian far right, which Russia has done its best to demonize, warning of anti-Semitic pogroms, as if the Ukrainian rightists were the incarnation of Stepan Bandera's wartime units, which massacred Jews and Russians. The far-right elements in Ukraine should be taken seriously, understood as the dangerous, destabilizing threat they are, but the comparisons are overblown provocations. This kind of misuse of history can only happen in places where there's been no Geschichtsbewältigung, or coming to terms with the past -- indeed, as was the case in Yugoslavia and is today in Ukraine and Russia. 

Lesson 4: Avoid overblown generalizations about peoples and nations.

In the early 1990s, the Western media reported about "Serbs," Muslims," and "Croats" as if everyone in the region fit neatly into one of these categories, and was of one mind with his or her compatriots. Yet, in Bosnia, even at the height of the war, there were many people who shunned the nationalist categories of wartime radicals. These Bosnians, who wanted a multiethnic country, were a majority in cities like Sarajevo and Tuzla. Another example: Central Bosnia's Catholics, who had long coexisted peacefully with their neighbors of diverse religions and ethnicities, had starkly different interests and identity than Western Herzegovina's hyper-patriotic ethnic Croats. As for Serbia, it was the internal Serbian opposition led by the Otpor youth movement that ultimately brought down Milosevic. The same kind of generalizations are being applied today, for instance, in the discussions of Ukraine's Russian-speakers. The Russophones of Crimea and those elsewhere in the country's south and east, for example, view the conflict and their options differently.

Lesson 5: Speak with one voice and mean it.

The Europeans among themselves, and together with the Americans, have to act resolutely according to a shared strategy. In 1991 and 1992, when the wars in Croatia and Bosnia broke out, the foreign policy mechanisms of the EU were far less developed than they are today. Germany, France, and Britain took stands at odds with one another, often based on inaccurate readings of the events on the ground, their own short-term interests, and historical sympathies that were no longer relevant. France and Britain, for example, seemed to side with the Serbs, while Germany sympathized with Croatia. Milosevic was thus able to play one country off against the other, in the process making a mockery of the West's efforts. Moreover, there was a yawning gap between the rhetoric and the willingness of the international powers, including the U.N., to back words with actions.

As for the United States, it took the path of least resistance for years before getting serious. Then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker notoriously claimed, "We got no dog in this fight," after his failed 1991 diplomatic mission to the region. While Washington's eventual engagement helped end the war, at times it also complicated international diplomacy by competing with the EU, for example, by failing to back the Europeans' early peace plans.

In the Ukraine-Crimea crisis, the EU can and must take the lead in a conflict on its borders. One of the lessons the Europeans took home from Bosnia was the need for permanent foreign-policy instruments, which they now have. The United States has to accept this, and remain fully engaged in step with the EU. This is not a role Washington is used to, though so far the Obama administration has kept ranks with Europe, which is also -- thus far -- unified. Yet the NSA spying scandal has seriously shaken transatlantic relations, and there is vast daylight between the United States and Europe when it comes to the importance of trade with Russia. Moreover, congressional Republicans in the United States could put pressure on Obama to act more hawkishly, perhaps even militarizing the conflict, to the peril of transatlantic cooperation.

Lesson 6: Act expediently.

Diplomacy, including sanctions, has to move fast to nip escalation in the bud, before nationalism spirals out of control.  By the time the international community became seriously engaged in the Balkans in the 1990s, the region was already in flames. It was always steps behind events on the ground, for example, tolerating ethnic cleansing in Bosnia for over three years before finally reacting with force in the wake of the Srebrenica massacre in summer 1995. It's playing catch-up now in Crimea, too, having ignored the warning signals coming from Russia for years.

* * *

While there are relevant analogies between the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Crimea crisis, there are also instances where it falls short. Putin has compared the sovereignty wishes of some of the Russophone Crimeans to Kosovo's bid for independence. But the two situations are different in essential ways: Kosovo was a 90-percent ethnic-Albanian region where the Albanians had suffered for decades at the hands of Serbian overlords. The region's autonomy had been stripped in 1990, its majority excluded from governance, and its population in 1998-1999 was at the mercy of a marauding Serbian army. There is no comparison to the situation of the Russophone Crimeans, who until just recently lived peaceably in their autonomous province.

At the moment, there's a window for a diplomatic solution, even though it's shrinking in size by the day -- Russia's massing of troops along Ukraine's eastern border, for instance, certainly bodes ill. I can well recall back in 1990, when I was told by I-can't-remember-how-many Yugoslavs that there could never be a war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It happened anyway.