South China Sea Rivalries Recall Pre-World War I Era

Shared Directly By:Eric Margolis 

As Santayana’s over-used by none-the-less still valid maxim goes, those who forget history are condemned to relive its follies.

I’ve a lovely little oil painting in my study of Germany’s first modern emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm I. He is smiling and happy.

The portrait was painted soon after the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War that led to the creation of a united Germany with Prussia’s King Wilhelm crowned as its monarch at Versailles – thanks to the great German statesman, Prince Otto von 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.

However, Bismarck managed to cleverly divide or distract Germany’s foes or rivals and maintain Europe’s balance of power. But the new, headstrong young kaiser, Wilhelm II, foolishly dismissed the domineering Bismarck and soon plunged his nation into confrontation with Imperial Britain over naval power, colonies, and trade.

Britain’s imperialists 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.

China is usually very cautious in its foreign affairs. But of late, Beijing 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 this 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 the Spratly and Paracel islands and even mere rocks in the 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. Beijing took this as a direct challenge to its regional suzerainty.

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, remote 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. Memories in Indonesia of 1960’s intervention by CIA mercenaries and British troops remain vivid.

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. China and India are locked in a nuclear and conventional arms race.

US military forces now train in 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, though these alarms coming from the world’s leading naval power seem bit much.

The US is talking about selling advanced arms to Vietnam, an historic foe of China. The US is also 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.

The recent ASEAN summit in Indonesia calling for a US-led “Trans-Pacific Partnership” was seen by Beijing as an effort to create an Asian NATO directed against China.

Rising tensions over the South China Sea disturbingly recall the naval race between Britain and Germany during the dreadnaught era that played a key role in triggering World War I.

We should also recall the pre-1914 great power race to build railroads, such as the famed Berlin to Baghdad line, that were that era’s version of today’s energy pipeline competition.

As a historian, I’m most concerned by what I see. Youth in China and India are seething with mindless nationalism caused by too much testosterone and childish government propaganda. A decade ago, I wrote a book, War at the Top of the World, that dealt with a possible future war between China and India over the Himalayas and Burma.

The United States, the inheritor of Britain’s Empire, is struggling to continue financing its vast sphere of influence. Meanwhile, 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 to keep peace with China by gradually allowing China to assert its inevitable sphere of influence in the region while gradually lessening American domination of the Asian Pacific coast,

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 almost totally militarized; the State Department has been shunted aside. The Pentagon sees Al-Qaida everywhere.

The US needs the brilliant diplomacy of a Bismarck, not more unaffordable bases or military hardware. Reassuring the nervous Aussies that Uncle Sam stands behind them is nice, but hugely annoying China may not be worth the price. Maybe Beijing will send a contingent of its marines to Cuba.

A clash in the Pacific between China and the US is not inevitable. But events last week brought one a step closer.

Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World


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  • a m malik  On November 27, 2011 at 4:32 am

    Some sane advice. US is still transfixed on pre-WWII defence east of manroe line!

  • S U Turkman  On November 27, 2011 at 7:39 am

    MARGOLIS wrote:
    “The US is talking about selling advanced arms to Vietnam, an historic foe of China”.
    Please invite me to hear, when US talks with you telling you such stuff …! Vietnam is not ..”an” historic foe of China’. She is ‘a’ historic Foe of history that has never been written so far. Why don’t you learn English first …?
    How come nobody told you, when ‘h’ is not silent, you don’t have to use ‘an’ instead of ‘a’? If Vietnam is ‘historic Foe of China, why was China helping her to fight against USA, great Historian?
    I know, you were paid by ISI to write a book about its China-India Dream War but how many copies of it were sold?
    Why in this 18 minute ICBM blow-out age USA would need encircling China to blow factories of her own Industrialists up there?
    USA is bankrupt?
    Then, how come Letters of Credit issued by US Banks are still being accepted all over the world?
    How can cash-rich China get that cash that USA owes by going to war with USA?
    Do you known any Economics and this world’s Monitory System?
    Why you have to lie so much. A few hundred or so US Trainers have been sent to East Africa, Congo and West Africa.. Compare that with 13,000 Indian Army Trainers going just to Afghanistan …!
    USA owns Saipan a lot closer to China than Australia. 50,000 US Troops have been sitting on North-South Korean border since 1950’s. And USA would deploy just a few thousand Troops to so far flung Australia to encircle China?
    Had you seen World Map before writing this B.S?
    Pentagon sees Al Qaeda everywhere?
    Right and you see US Raj everywhere. Raj for what?
    To make money?
    Then, how come this stupid USA is the biggest Debtor of the world?
    China will go so insane that she would send a Contingent of Marines in Cuba?
    But could you tell us, why would Cuba that is trying hard to normalize relations with USA would let them land there?
    You sound crazy, sir because there is no country in the world that USA imports from but China. USA has been the biggest importer of Chinese exports for decades making China earn so much Foreign Exchange and now China would go to war with USA because you wrote a book about it?
    Sure China would crazy, she would suddenly stop buying US Treasury Bonds and go to war with USA losing her $ 440 billion a year.export to USA, causing massive unemployment for her workers, right?
    Which Planet do you live on?

    • Summaya  On November 27, 2011 at 2:21 pm


      • a m malik  On November 27, 2011 at 2:29 pm

        Yes – Diarrhea in the mouth with a constipated intelligence! He finds ISI in his hind sight every time he scratches himself.

  • M.Siddiqi  On November 27, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    A very good article. Thanks for sharing it. I don’t see a Bismarck around though..

  • Arif Khan  On November 28, 2011 at 1:51 am

    YAA This is 110% on the Mark…. In a Naval Clash with US Navy , China will lose big Time as they need another 50 yrs to catxh up to US technology …. So It would be suicidal to take on the US navy in the Oceans… China is more interested in economical growth and its Navy is still in a budding stage.. Moreover the US should concentrate on the Shale oil (Mixed with sand) available in Canada to meet its energy needs for the next 100yr.. Let China get its oil and Gas from the Pacific region!!!! Arif Khan

    • S U Turkman  On November 28, 2011 at 3:15 am

      Mr. Khan,
      Inda-China War is a dream of crazy Pak Generals. On the other hand, China is so sane that she has not taken back her own island of Taiwan 150 miles from her shore to avoid making USA upset over it.
      USA has no reason to ask India to go to war with China because USA is run by Capitalists, who’s factories are in China and their Computer Software and other services are done in India.
      There are even Chinese Companies registered in US Stock Market and then, Indians are not that crazy about going to war with China either. They are member of BRIC. The Brazil, Russia, India and China Economic and Trade Alliance. India, Brazil and Russia accept Chinese Currency like Dollar in their Mutual Trade without using Dollars. Countries of East Indies are now doing the same including Indonesia and Malaysia but China, the so called fastest friend of Pakistan, knowing corruption level in Pakistan does not trust Pakistan so she has not offered the same deal to Pakistan.
      Pakistan ZinDaabaaD …!

  • Khalid  On November 28, 2011 at 7:54 am

    Mr. Turkman,
    You can not differentiate between your elbow and behind with regard to geopolitics.

    • S U Turkman  On November 28, 2011 at 7:55 pm

      Thanks for letting me know.
      When they are left speechless by my reason and logic, they start Personal Attacks or switch the subject. Nothing new.

  • Naddem Ishaq  On November 29, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Turkman Saab,
    Sir, logic only emits itself through the presence of logic brain cells. Your rants defy logic. This is not personal but factual. What you call logic is nothing but a combinations of zero bits beginning and ending into zero bits. And I agree with Khalid Saab. When you trash others through what you think is logical makes your illogic abundantly clear. Please don’t hide behind the personal attack psycho-syndrome, as the facts clearly and logically highlight your illogical rants.

    • S U Turkman  On November 29, 2011 at 7:41 pm

      Thanks for letting me know your Personal Views about me. Please don’t read me if that’s, what you believe.

  • a m malik  On November 29, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    It is turkey’s profession. He has been asked to bad mouth Pakistan, army and the ISI, with sprinkling of punjab bashing – to create divisiveness in the readers minds. But Thanks Allah. Jokers like him get exposed sooner than they realise

  • a m malik  On November 29, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    I have read it?!

  • a m malik  On November 30, 2011 at 9:11 am

    For those wise guys who are parroting US version – unofficial one about attack on our check post – If it were the Pak Faujis who went and attacked the Americans and returned to their own post to make them believe that it were the Talibans- if NATO fellows were attacked at all -one must be an idiot to have believed in this foolish theory. Google and read the principals of war. It includes the security of your base to start off with. Every one is aware of the night capability of the NATO forces – how in the hell there was a belief that they would not be detected.
    It was not a WWII scene. And then knowing the fire power the faujis would have prepared under ground shelters – also could have gone else where to hiding instead coming back and go to sleep in their own tents an be a siitting duck.
    In my opinion there could have been one of these two reasons : To put pressure on Pakistan prior Bonn conference/meeting or as a reaction to Haqqanis removal – who must have been responsible to spill beans and conveyed some secrets of Pakistan – like he did in Srilanka – post /pre 02 May operation and Army came to know of it and thence the anxiety of the government to pass the message across to the Army Hi command – memo gate!


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