2014 marks the centennial of the most catastrophic breakdowns of deterrence in modern history, sparking a conflagration that would consume 16 million lives and three ancient empires. At Davos this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe drew a highly publicized comparison between present day tensions between Japan and China to the Anglo-German rivalry that culminated in the July Crisis of 1914. Though such alarmist analogies to World War I are premature, the prospects for successful deterrence in Asia stand out as a critical question for the 21st century. Developments in Asia appear set to reawaken more traditional topics in international security (deterrence, alliances, interdependence, etc) in distinctly non-traditional ways.
East Asia today presents a puzzling combination of high degrees of economic interdependence and escalating tensions. The economic rise of China and its naval modernization has triggered regional anxieties. Though China is Japan’s largest trading partner and Japan largest foreign investor in China, they seem to be edging closer to war over specks of rock in the East China Sea. The risk of escalation in the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands is very real and both China and Japan have been ramping up their military capabilities despite their close economic relations. Additionally, China’s growing capabilities in cyber, space, and nuclear, in addition to conventional domains, create new challenges for deterrence.
Despite initial appearances, closer examination reveals that the mainstream view of World War I as a repudiation of economic interdependence is overly simplistic. Gartzke and Lupu note that the war didn’t break out among the most economically interdependent countries in Western Europe but in the Balkans (between Serbia and Austria-Hungary) and that prior to 1914 the wars in Europe occurred not among the highly interdependent subsystem countries (Germany, France, Britain) but between weakly interdependent subsystem countries (Russia, Turkey, Austria-Hungary). According to this logic, direct deterrence failure between China and Japan (or China and the United States) is improbable. But extended deterrence may prove to be more problematic when economically isolated states like North Korea (the modern day Serbia) provoke a wider regional crisis, especially if Asia’s security architecture evolves beyond the Post-Cold War status quo.
It is also important to remember that France, not Germany, was the revisionist power in World War I (following her defeat in the Franco-Prussian War). Japan’s regional position, shaped by its defeat during World War II and its relative economic decline vis-à-vis China echoes the history of 19th century France more than it does Britain. If China today resembles the Wilhelm’s Germany, then Japan is Poincaré’s France. Indeed, Abe’s campaign to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution and play a more active role in regional security could prove to be a major source of instability.
The United States today plays a role similar to Grey’s Britain as the hegemon and ultimate arbiter of regional disputes. But the advancement of technology and the proliferation of operational domains make the British position in 1914 looks enviable from the perspective of deterrence. The aim of this Minerva project is to make sense of this complexity. While previous scholarship in classical deterrence concerned ends only, cross-domain deterrence must also address means. Understanding of deterrence between actors with unlike capabilities promises to offer insight for how to prevent another tragedy (likely to be even greater than that of World War I) from occurring in Asia.