When a crisis erupts in the Pacific region and it involves China and Japan the international media suddenly becomes interested in the antecedents of the start of the First World War. This happened for instance last November when a crisis between China and Japan developed in relation to the current Japanese government’s act of buying the Senkaku Islands (in China called the Diaoyu Islands) from a private owner. Back then the crisis of July 1914 was intensely debated, a crisis that appeared after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir of the Habsburg throne, on June 28, 1914, at the hands of a Serbian. The experts’ arguments for this historical parallel focused on the fact that the First World War allegedly started – according to a thesis spread by historians specializing in it – “by accident.”
In other words – these experts showed – both camps facing off at that time did not manage to properly manage the crisis that erupted with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the war started accidentally since none of the camps wanted war. Thus, these experts presume, the start of a war between the powers involved in a similar crisis in the East China Sea over the aforementioned islands is possible by accident not by plan.
The situation repeated starting last week when China established an air identification zone in the East China Sea, a zone that includes the aforementioned islands. China demands that airplanes going through this zone should notify her of their data and flight plan prior to doing so, in order to obtain her permission to do so. Beijing’s intention of affirming its sovereign rights over the air monitoring zone it has set up is obvious and no less obvious is the probability of heightened regional tension as a result. It isn’t the first time when regional states set up such air control zones, but this time the tension was suddenly raised in the region given the Chinese-Japanese dispute over the archipelago below which important energy deposits (oil and natural gas) are presumed to be found. The US immediately dispatched two B-52 strategic bombers, whose flight was unannounced as per Beijing’s request, thus showing on one hand that the US does not consider herself bound by the recent airspace regulation promoted by Beijing and, on the other hand, reminding of the existence of the US-Japan security treaty. Of course, the events that took place last week – both China’s setting up of an air identification zone as a sign of affirming its sovereignty over an extended part of the East China Sea and the two American strategic bombers’ flight last Tuesday (November 26) – are already under the experts’ scrutiny. The latter are talking about Beijing’s strategy of separating the area of its own Pacific coast into two compartments – one in the North, in the East China Sea, where it allegedly already plans to set up the next decade’s rules of the game by adopting a strong posture; and the other in the South, in the South China Sea, where this posture would be “softer,” featuring agreements with its neighbors. Similarly, other experts consider that Beijing was wrong to give up one of the strategic advantages it had, namely the existence of tension between Seoul and Tokyo, its new action bringing these two capitals to a common stance towards China. At the same time, it is estimated that the US will have to accelerate the practical measures concerning the “Asian pivot” she assumed almost two years ago, including by resorting to closer security cooperation with Japan. But, apart from these speculations the listing of which could grow, because they are numerous in the international press, what is left is this new but suggestive parallel with a different crisis that preceded the First World War. Namely the reference to the Agadir Crisis of 1911, when Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm sought to cause a split in the opposing alliance.
This historical parallel is made by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the columnist of ‘The Telegraph,’ in an article published on November 26, before the American strategic bombers conducted their flight through the air defense identification zone announced by China. It has to be pointed out that the article’s essential idea is the fact that an arms race in the Asian region of the Pacific, having as its starting point the current crisis, would act as a Keynesian fiscal stimulus that would wake the global economy from slumber and force through an acceleration of its growth: “an Asian arms race would almost certainly tackle some of the underlying causes of the long malaise in the Western economies. It would soak up much of the Asian ‘savings glut’ and the excess industrial capacity in China, and would help to narrow the perennial East-West trade gap.”
At the end of the article, the author makes this suggestive parallel with the Agadir Crisis of 1911. There is a huge body of works on this incident that preceded the First World War and hastened the coalescing of the camps that were to face off three years later. Back then Berlin sent a warship to the Moroccan port of Agadir in order to prevent France from annexing that country. Berlin’s real intention was to deter the formation of a close alliance between England and France by using a location and French intention that could not have garnered the sympathy of London in those circumstances (there were certain Anglo-French agreements with which France’s action in Morocco was not in line). The German planners failed to attain their goal, the Anglo-French Entente held, but the collateral consequences subsequently caught the attention of historians. But, the aforementioned author shows, the series of events that followed ended catastrophically. Evans-Pritchard writes: “France felt emboldened by British backing, with ripple effects through the Franco-Russian alliance. Russia then felt more able to push its luck when the Serbian crisis hit in 1914. Agadir fed an overwhelming sense of fury in Germany, a feeling that Britain had become an enemy.” The implicit question in this historical parallel between events that are 100 years apart is: won’t Japan feel justified to rely on US support to such extent that it would initiate an unwanted, even catastrophic chain of events? In a recent visit to Tokyo the author of the article perceived a message from the officials, a message that convinced him to make this historical parallel. From his meetings with Japanese officials he gathered “that Japan is ready for a fight if necessary, and is convinced that it can sink or shoot down any force sent by China into Japan’s waters and airspace – whether to close in on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, or to ratchet up pressure against Okinawa.”
The history of the Agadir Crisis of 1911 thus has its meaning for contemporary developments, especially when we are talking about crises such as the one that started last week. Agadir is a memento for the decision makers involved today in the East China Sea crisis, reminding them that they should carefully weigh any future move.