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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 4:37pm
My Take
PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 3:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 3:21am

Shinzo Abe's first world war analogy is not so great

It was almost poetic, Wang Yi's rebuttal of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's comparison of Japan and China today to 1914 Britain and Germany. It's a "total disorder of space and time", the foreign minister said.

Rarely do you have such colourful and insulting exchanges at Davos, the World Economic Forum where the great and the good from the corporate and political worlds swap wisdoms and pontificate, usually politely, on the state and future of the world.

But Wang is not wrong. Such historical comparisons are meaningless; they only serve as provocation, and perhaps that was what Abe intended. People are suckers for anniversaries, and 100 years - a century after the start of the great war - is a nice little round figure. This is why there have been for many months now pundits and academics who compare the tensions in Asia with the situation in Europe in 1914. But there is now a backlash; other academics and pundits, including yours truly, think such comparisons are morbid, unhealthy and misleading.

Truth be told, I rather respect Abe the economic reformer. His three "arrows" of reform programmes to revive Japan's economy show he has the right diagnoses and right cures. If he fails, it's not for lack of intellectual understanding but political will to carry out the necessary reforms.

In this, he is like President Xi Jinping , who also understands what needs to be done to reform the Chinese economy but may not have the will to do it. In this respect, the two men ought to understand each other perfectly, as when Abe acknowledges China as a key trading partner.

But Abe does seem to be historically challenged. Even historians don't agree on the causes of the first world war: rigid alliances among the belligerent nations; inflexible military mobilisation schedules; Germany's naval build-up; the collapse of Bismarck's continental diplomatic system; complete lack of understanding among Europeans of modern warfare on an industrial scale ... The list goes on. Niall Ferguson has argued Britain was to blame for turning a continental conflict into a world war and for misreading German intentions. Perhaps Abe should read the distinguished Harvard historian.


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This article is now closed to comments

Abe is not a credible statesman that constantly talks from both side of his mouth and very often got his own shoe stuck in his mouth.
His 3 arrows are still in flight and whether there will be positive outcome is still debatable. All we see right now is record deficit due to increased energy imports but export volumes did not increase much.
Abe also is trying to make NHK his mouthpiece by installing Katsuto Momii as it's president, who has his own controversies from his recent comment on the issue of comfort woman.
I watched Wang Yi's rebuttal and thought it was excellent, level headed and to the point.
I only wish the United States will put more pressure on Abe to start negotiating with the Chinese on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands instead of shutting off the Chinese completely on this topic. Or if Abe disappears from the political scene soon.
We could argue forever about 'blame' for past events (a moral, not a historical scholarly exercise though) and 'what-ifs,' but the central theme in European history in the decade(s) preceding 1914, is very much one of a newly unified, newly industrialised Germany rising as a regional power to be reckoned with. This rise upset the balance of power in Europe, especially at sea, where the UK and Russia had been the dominant forces for at least the preceding 30-40 years.

I agree that Mr Abe's remarks are hardly helpful and definitely not diplomatic for a man in his position, yet he does have a (minor) point from a historical perspective. Relatively newly industrialised (and one might even say newly re-unified/re-centralised) China has been rising as a regional military power in Asia since the 1980s, creating tensions with the hitherto dominant US/Japan-led balance of (naval) power. And like in the 1900s in Europe, the tensions are mainly culminating at sea - see Spratlys, see Senkaku, etc.

To its credit, China itself continues to adhere to the doctrine of a 'peaceful rise,' at least rhetorically. Yet, even if we believe that its intentions are entirely peaceful, it does need to realise that it is not rising to fill a void. There is absolutely no power vacuum in East Asia, on the contrary and certainly not at sea. So the resulting tensions need to be handled better. By both sides, which makes Mr Abe antagonistic remarks not great to say the least.
Mr. Lo and Mr. Wang are fooling themselves and doing the world a disservice by avoiding the "elephant in the room" - countries are preparing for war.
I'm still waiting for Xi Jinping to apologize for the crimes against Chinese people that saw tens of millions of Chinese people die. Shameless for Wang Yi to talk about a Japanese apology when the CCP remains unrepentant.
all Japanese are historically challenged.


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