My Take

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

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 3:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 3:21am

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.