I've a lovely little painting in my study of Germany's first emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm 1.
It was painted soon after the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and the creation of a united Germany with Wilhelm as its monarch – thanks to the great German statesman, Prince Bismarck.
United Germany’s fast-rising economic and military power was seen by the British Empire, which then ruled a quarter of the globe, as a dire threat.
Bismarck managed to cleverly divide or distract Germany’s foes. But the new young Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed the domineering Bismarck and soon plunged his nation into confrontation with Imperial Britain over naval power, colonies, and trade. Britain determined to crush rival Germany. The fuse of World War I was lit.
We see the first steps of a similar great power clash taking shape today in South Asia.
A usually cautious China has been aggressively asserting maritime claims in the resource-rich South China Sea, a region bordered by Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and China.
Japan, India, South Korea and the United States also assert strategic interests in the hotly disputed sea, which is believed to contain 100 billion barrels of oil and 700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. China has repeatedly clashed with Vietnam and the Philippines over islets and rocks in the South China Sea. Tensions are high.
In 2010, the US strongly backed the maritime resource claims by the smaller Asian states, warning off China and reasserting the US Navy’s right to patrol anywhere.
Last week, Washington raised the stakes in this power game, announcing it will permanently base 2,500 Marines at the remote northern Australian port of Darwin.
A Marine regiment can’t do much in such a vast region, but Washington’s symbolic troop deployment is another strong signal to China to keep its hands off the South China Sea. China and nearby Indonesia reacted with alarm.
The US is increasingly worried by China’s military modernization and growing naval capabilities. Washington has forged a new, unofficial military alliance with India, and aided Delhi’s nuclear weapons development, a pact clearly aimed at China.
US forces are now training Mongolia. China may deploy a new Fourth Fleet in the South China Sea. Washington expresses concern over China’s new aircraft carrier, anti-ship missiles and submarines. The US may sell arms to Vietnam. The US is modernizing Taiwan’s and Japan’s armed forces.
These moves sharpen China’s growing fears of being encircled by a network of America’s regional allies.
They also disturbingly recall the naval race between Britain and Germany during the dreadnaught era that played a key role in triggering World War I.
As a historian, I’m most concerned. Youth in China and India are seething with mindless nationalism caused by too much testosterone and propaganda. A decade ago, I wrote a book that dealt with a future war between China and India over the Himalayas and Burma.
The United States, the inheritor of Britain’s Empire, is struggling to finance its vast sphere of influence. The Republican Party is in the grip of extreme elements and primitive nationalism.
The Pacific Ocean has been an American Lake since 1944. Washington’s ’s biggest foreign policy challenge is keep peace with China while gradually lessening its domination of the Asian Pacific coast, allowing China to assert its inevitable sphere of influence in the region
The bankrupt US cannot hope to compete long term with cash-rich China to be top dog in south Asia. But history shows that managing the arrival of a new super-power is dangerous, tricky business.
Clever diplomacy, not more Marines, is the answer. The over-extended American Raj has got to face strategic reality or it risks going the way of the Soviet Empire.
But Washington’s global domination crowd won’t face facts. The US, which accounts for 50% of world military spending, is now sending troops to East Africa, Congo, West Africa, and now, Australia.
US foreign policy has become militarized; the State Department has been shunted aside. The Pentagon sees Al-Qaida is everywhere.
The US needs the brilliant diplomacy of a Bismarck, not more unaffordable bases or military hardware.
A clash in the Pacific between China and the US is not inevitable. But events last week brought one closer.