Remember World War I? Don't let history repeat itself

THE flickering black-and-white films of men going "over the top" in the first world war seem impossibly distant. Yet the idea that the great powers of today could never again stumble into a war, as they did in 1914, is far too complacent. The rising tensions between China, Japan and the US have echoes of the terrible conflict that broke out almost a century ago.

The most obvious potential spark is the unresolved territorial dispute between China and Japan over the islands known as Diaoyu to the Chinese and Senkaku to the Japanese. In recent months, the two countries' aeroplanes and ships have shadowboxed near the islands. Alarmed, the US dispatched a mission to Beijing and Tokyo in late October, made up of senior members of the US foreign policy establishment. They included Mr Stephen Hadley, who ran the National Security Council for former president George W. Bush, and Mr James Steinberg, who served as Mrs Hillary Clinton's No. 2 at the State Department.

The delegation made it clear that a Chinese attack on the islands would trigger the security guarantees America has made to Japan. The obvious danger is that, as in 1914, a small incident could invoke alliance commitments that lead to a wider war.

The American group was well aware of the risks. As Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who was part of the four-person mission, puts it: "We discussed the 1914 analogy among ourselves. I don't think any of the parties wants war, but we warned both sides about miscommunications and accidents. Deterrence usually works among rational actors, but the major players in 1914 were also rational actors."

Professor Graham Allison, Prof Nye's Harvard colleague, who has written a classic study of the Cuba missile crisis, also believes there is a danger of war by miscalculation. He says: "The mechanism in 1914 is instructive. Who could imagine that Serbian terrorists could kill an archduke no one had heard of and trigger a great war, at the end of which all contestants were devastated? My view is that the Chinese leadership has no intention of challenging the US militarily yet. But what about the hothead nationalists in China or Japan?"

Such "hotheads" could be very low down the chain of command. In September 2010, a crisis over the islands was provoked when a Chinese trawler captain confronted Japanese patrol ships. It later turned out that the captain was drunk.

Back then, the Japanese government took a fairly conciliatory approach. However, the US is concerned that the new Cabinet is full of hardline nationalists, who are more inclined to confront China. Mr Shinzo Abe, the new Japanese Prime Minister, is the grandson of a wartime Cabinet minister and rejects the "apology diplomacy", through which Japan tried to atone for the war.

America's security guarantee is meant to reassure Japan but there is also a danger that it may tempt Japanese politicians to take unnecessary risks. Some historians argue that in 1914, the German government concluded that it needed to fight a war as soon as possible - before it was encircled by more powerful adversaries. Similarly, some Japan-watchers worry that nationalists in the government may be tempted to confront China now - before the gap in power between the two nations grows too large, and while the US is still the dominant military force in the Pacific.

The Americans' concern about the nationalist turn in Japanese politics is amplified because they see the same trend in China. China now, like Germany 100 years ago, is a rising power that fears the established great power is intent on blocking its ascent. Deng Xiaoping, the father of modern China, pursued a foreign policy based on the adage: "Hide your strength, bide your time." But his generation has been replaced by a new leadership group which is more confident and assertive. The Chinese military is also increasingly influential in shaping foreign policy.

The analogy with Germany before World War I is striking: The adept leadership of Otto von Bismarck gave way to much clumsier political and military leadership in the years before war broke out. The German ruling elite felt similarly threatened by democratic pressures from below - and encouraged nationalism as an alternative outlet for popular sentiment. China's leaders have also used nationalism to bolster the legitimacy of the Communist Party.

It is, at least, encouraging that the Chinese leadership has made an intense study of the rise of great powers over the ages - and is determined to avoid the mistakes of both Germany and Japan. The fact that we are living in a nuclear age also makes the 1914 crisis much less likely to be replayed.

If things got really dangerous, there is also some wiggle room in the US-Japan security treaty. Article V of the treaty is commonly believed to commit the US to defend its ally by military means. In fact, it simply commits the two nations to "act to meet the common danger" in the event of an attack on Japan. That ambiguity could be dangerous, if it tempts China to call America's bluff. But it could also be useful at a time of crisis.

In July 1914, leaders on all sides felt helpless as they were swept towards a war that most of them did not want. A study of that history may help the Chinese, Americans and Japanese to avoid a similar fate in 2014.