By Invitation

Learn from history to scatter Asia's gathering clouds of war

Several signs point to the world being in a pre-war era, and the greatest peril emanates from Asia.

I spent the weekend of Sept 23-25 at the 2016 Chamonix Get-Together. This forum brings together once a year some 200 persons from diverse origins, diverse occupations and diverse generations.

While the big global challenges - such as climate change, populism and the future of Russia - are addressed, emphasis is also given to more personal social issues. For example, I participated in a working dinner on "Preparing our children for tomorrow's world", which included a combination of parents and grandparents (I am in the latter category), sharing insights, experiences and hopes.

In spite of the conviviality of the participants - really interesting and kind people - the magnificence of the Alpine setting and the glorious weather we were lucky to bask in, whether discussing geopolitics, economics, the environment, populism or the crisis of democracy, the atmosphere was gloomy.

The "guide book" was the outstanding report co-authored by Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon, Thinking The Unthinkable. So many things have happened recently that would have appeared unthinkable that we have to adjust our paradigms to explore more the unknown and, indeed, the unfathomable. This is by no means to say we went away on the sunny Sunday noon thinking the apocalypse was round the corner. However, we did stress that the greatest danger is smugness and complacency.

I quoted an Argentine friend who, at a conference a few years back that was entitled "Post-Cold-War something or other", had said that in fact we are not living in a "post-war" ethos, but more pre-war. The signs are there: populism, nationalism, territorial disputes, ethnic and religious conflicts, terrorism, economic depression, high youth unemployment, corruption, pretty lamentable political leadership everywhere… Need one go on?


ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

And, while "thinking the unthinkable" we immediately jump to Mr Donald Trump, who could have thought that we would see a President of the Philippines calling the President of the United States and the Pope the sons of whores?

Whereas prospects in most corners of the planet are cause for great concern - there was a consensus that the European Union will, in most likelihood, unravel - the greatest peril emanates from Asia.

Whereas prospects in most corners of the planet are cause for great concern - there was a consensus that the European Union will, in most likelihood, unravel - the greatest peril emanates from Asia. This is the case for many reasons, beginning with the fact that it is the world's most important region - most populated, biggest economy, most fraught with pervasive territorial disputes, concentration of nuclear power states, etc.

This is the case for many reasons, beginning with the fact that it is the world's most important region - most populated, biggest economy, most fraught with pervasive territorial disputes, concentration of nuclear power states, etc.

Just over a year ago, I published an article entitled Asia: A Continent In Turmoil. Since then, the turmoil has intensified.

The drama in the Levant, in West Asia, has considerably darkened as we watch impotently the tragic destruction and massacre of Aleppo. There is no hope of a resolution in the near future between Palestine and Israel.

Dangerous tensions are rising between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Disorder still rules in Afghanistan.

Now, perhaps the loudest alarm bells are ringing over Kashmir and the intensified tensions between India and Pakistan- two nuclear-armed states, neither of which has signed the NPT, or Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There are two other Asian states that have not done so: Israel and North Korea. The latter, led by an unfathomable Orwellian regime in Pyongyang, menaces the world with its nuclear arms.

Japan and China - respectively the world's third and second biggest economies - remain deeply antagonistic over territorial, ideological and historical disputes.

And, of course, there is the South China Sea, an explosive powder keg that is the site of three alarming and simultaneous developments. The first is the conflict between China and some of the South-east Asian maritime states, notably Vietnam. The second is the build-up of forces driving a possible breakdown of Asean, the regional grouping first formed in 1967 and which has grown to include 10 member states. The third is the way the South China Sea is shaping up to be arguably the hottest spot for confrontation between the US and China.

The nature of the current acute tension between India and Pakistan, and the threat of the former to revoke the Indus Water Treaty, brings forcefully to the fore the fact that one of the greatest underlying perils in Asia is over water, as co-author Nina Ninkovic and I wrote in an article three years ago: The Tibetan Plateau: The World's 21st Century Water Battleground. Brahma Chellaney is perhaps the greatest authority on the subject, the scope of which can be seen from his book, Water, Peace, And War: Confronting The Global Water Crisis.

All that has been written above is by no means to suggest that war in Asia is inevitable. I have often quoted the concluding four words of Margaret MacMillan's outstanding book on World War I, The War That Ended Peace, where in dismissing the view that August 1914 was inevitable, she writes "there are always choices". The problem was that many wrong choices were made then and are being made now.

What is most important in this context is to have the appropriate mindset. This is not a case, as is often made, between optimism and pessimism, but between realism and wishful thinking, smugness and complacency.

I refer back to my Argentine friend: We are living in a pre-war and not a post-war ethos. We are witnessing the decline of some empires (notably the US), the collapse of others (the Arab world), and the rise of China, which I have described as a fragile global power. This pattern corresponds in some ways to that of a century ago: rising, declining and collapsing empires.

Just as I argue that war in Asia is by no means inevitable, I also wish to stress most emphatically that I am not suggesting that history is repeating or will repeat itself. But we can learn from history. Many believed in the years and, indeed, months preceding World War I that war was impossible, in fact unthinkable. If we make the assumption instead that, indeed, it is possible, there will be a greater chance that we might make the choices that avoid war. To improve global prospects, we have to be prepared to think the unthinkable.

The writer is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore; and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline 'Learn from history to scatter Asia's gathering clouds of war'. Print Edition | Subscribe