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War and Peace in Asia: There Are Always Choices

China is becoming a global power. Can it break the bellicose pattern set by all previous rising global powers?

Credit: Songquan Deng -


  • In the Asia Pacific, the outbreak of war seemed impossible less than ten years ago and improbable five years ago.
  • The Prime Minister of Japan is not on speaking terms with his Chinese and Korean counterparts.
  • From the 15th century to the 20th, every great power rose through war, colonization, exploitation and massacre.
  • In recent years, the phrase “China’s peaceful rise” has not been heard much from Beijing’s corridors of power.
  • If there is a war in Asia, Abe’s choice on December 26, 2013 to visit Yasukuni will stand out as a landmark date.
  • While Germany has made peace with its neighbors and former enemies, Japan is on very bad terms with its neighbors.
  • Tokyo’s relations with Seoul and Beijing have entered a spiral of escalation.

“There are always choices” are the four words that form the very last sentence of Margaret MacMillan’s magisterial opus “The War That Ended Peace.” World War I was not inevitable, she argues, but choices made by world leaders at the time increasingly made it so. In the end, a psychosis of inevitability made war inevitable.

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In the Asia Pacific region, the outbreak of war seemed impossible less than ten years ago. Though the geopolitical situation deteriorated and the temperature rose, it still seemed improbable five years ago.

Last year, however, the idea of its inevitability has gained greater credence. Indeed on the basis of current trends and choices made, some form of military conflict would seem inevitable.

Questionable choices on both sides

In Japan’s case, witness Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s (in)famous visit to the Yasukuni shrine. In China’s case, consider that the government declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Also think about the fact that the Prime Minister of Japan is not on speaking terms with his Chinese and Korean counterparts.

Trends, however, can be reversed depending on choices made. In his speech at Davos, Abe chose to compare China today with Germany pre-1914. Apart from being highly provocative, the analogy is misleading. In reality, it is more complex, though just as alarming.

History’s uncomfortable direction

In late 2006, China’s CCTV did a remarkable series on The Rise of the Great Powers (Da Guo Jue Qi).

The haunting main thesis? From the 15th century to the 20th, every single great power – Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia/Soviet Union and the United States – rose through war, colonization, exploitation and the occasional massacre. An example is the massacre of American Indians in the United States’ pursuit of “manifest destiny.”

Troublingly, all the big speeches aside, when the going has got really tough, the historical evidence points in an uncomfortable direction: When there are choices to be made between war and peace, the default position often seems to be the former.

The evidence is overwhelming. Take Britain in the early part of the last century, when “pax” Britannica was at its height. In 1900/01, the country participated in the brutal suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China.

In 1899/1902, it fought the (second) Boer war in South Africa during which it incarcerated women and children in concentration camps. In 1904, it invaded Tibet.

In 1919, just seven decades before the Tiananmen massacre, there was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, India. Non-violent Indian protestors were indiscriminately shot at by British colonial troops.

Will China choose differently?

China, historically a great power, was reduced to misery, chaos and a pawn on the geopolitical chessboard of the great powers in the course of the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

In the course of the last two decades, China is rising again to becoming a global power. Can it break the aggressive trend set by all previous rising great powers?

In September 2005, the scholar and influential reformer Zheng Bijian published in Foreign Affairs an article entitled “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ to Great Power Status.”

He put forward various arguments why China would be different. It would rise through peace, not war. His principal argument was that because China is still poor (on a per capita basis), it needs peace to provide prosperity to its people.

Alas, in the last few years, the phrase “China’s peaceful rise” has not been heard very much from Beijing’s corridors of power.

There is no reason a priori why China’s rise should inevitably result in war. Nor, however, is there any reason a priori why it should not. The outcome will ultimately depend on choices made, not just in Beijing, but also in Tokyo, Seoul, Washington, Moscow and Delhi.

Tokyo’s choices are a great concern

The choices that Tokyo has been making recently cause the most concern. Tokyo has chosen to be insensitive (in respect to atrocities committed) and provocative vis-à-vis both Beijing and Seoul.

If there is a war in Asia, Abe’s choice on December 26, 2013 to pay his respects at Yasukuni Shrine will stand out as a major landmark date. On the face of it, Japan has apologized in the past for atrocities against Chinese and Koreans, notably the profound apology expressed by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995.

The problem with that apology lies partly in the fact that it was not endorsed by the Japanese Parliament, the Diet. What matters much more is that, over the last decade, various Japanese political leaders have reneged on that apology. As a result, acid is repeatedly put on the neighbors’ wounds, preventing them from healing.

Interlocking alliances or the right choices?

While Germany has made definite peace with all its neighbors and former enemies, Japan is on very bad terms with its neighbors. The Asia Pacific climate is hardly propitious to peace.

Tokyo’s relations with Seoul and Beijing have entered a spiral of escalation that seems to be generating its apparently unstoppable momentum.

While U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy has expressed “disappointment” at Abe’s Yasukuni visit, there have been suggestions that Washington should play a more prominent role as Asia Pacific regional honest broker. That, however, is unlikely to work.

The United States is an ally of Japan. Moreover, whether justifiably or not, it is seen by Beijing as committed to thwarting China’s rise. This is not to say that there is no role for an independent arbiter, someone to douse the flames and seek some form of peaceful modus vivendi (even if reconciliation seems out of reach for the moment).

The arbiter would ideally come from a neutral country: for example, Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt, who has collected significant experience in conflict management in the Balkans. In any case, it is urgent that some right choices be made before inevitability becomes inevitable.

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About Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Jean-Pierre Lehmann (1946-2017) was emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, and a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. [Switzerland]

Responses to “War and Peace in Asia: There Are Always Choices”

Archived Comments.

  1. On February 14, 2014 at 1:45 pm Ming T Yu responded with... #

    Very good article indeed!

    But I think that the the current tension in Sino-Japanese relations has to be understood within the context of US-China relationship, i.e. the type of relationship the United States of America wants to have with a rising China. Therefore I believe that the key to peace or war in the Northeast Asia lies in the hands of the US.

    The escalation of this particular crisis came along with Obama’s “Asia Pivot”, which did not even try to be subtle about its purpose in regards to China. Under the America’s Asia re-balancing, the Japanese far right swung quickly into actions, with sanctions from the US. A lot has happened in a very short period of time, now that the whole world is justifiably concerned about whether the WW III would happen in Asia. Yes indeed, there are choices to be made by both China and Japan, but the choice of the USA is the ultimate key.

  2. On February 15, 2014 at 4:49 pm Jamil M Chaudri responded with... #

    There is problem with the analysis and proposed solution by
    Mr Jean-Pierre Lehman.

    After the western marauders, pirates & buccaneers,
    solders of fortunes, religious zealots, or just pure psychopaths , all working for
    self-aggrandizement by enslaving of peoples more highly socially-developed than
    themselves but who were militarily less powerful, have devoured lands and resources,
    these same people now want to IMPOSE RULES on how the re-emerging nations
    can re-claim their sovereignty.

    How does Mr Lemnan propose the Australian natives, the native peoples of Americas, and those of the Pacific Islands re-claim what once was theirs? What was taken away from them through bullet and canon, are they likely to get back by petitions and

    Thus, as far as I see the bellicosity emanates from those who maintain bases in 86 countries, and keep as cheer-leaders ex-rapists (like Britain, France and Japan), for immoral support. How can China be bellicose when what it seeks is simply its rightful position that was taken away from it by force?

    Mr Lehman, your reason is follows the following logic: Somebody throws me out of MY HOUSE (by force of course), and when I try to take repossession accuses me of using force. Sorry, Sir for not agreeing with your tactics.