in comparing the current Sino-Japan relationship to the British-German relationship right before the World War I.
Disconcerting remarks that seem to have freaked out many who attended the events (two separate events at Davos - confab of the rich and the powerful in the world), but there is hardly a peep about them in Japan. I don't think either remarks were reported by the Japanese media.
First, about the incredible Chinese professional, from Business Insider's Henry Blodget, who was at a dinner at Davos where he heard the following (1/22/2014; emphasis is mine):
I went to one of those fancy private dinners last night in Davos, Switzerland.
Like most of the events here at the 2014 World Economic Forum, the dinner was conducted under what are known as "Chatham House Rules," which means that I can't tell you who was there.
I can tell you what was said, though. And one thing that was said rattled a lot of people at the table.
During the dinner, the hosts passed a microphone around the table and asked guests to speak briefly about something that they thought would interest the group.
One of the guests, an influential Chinese professional, talked about the simmering conflict between China and Japan over a group of tiny islands in the Pacific.
China and Japan, you may recall, each claim ownership of these islands, which are little more than a handful of uninhabited rocks between Japan and Taiwan. Recently, the Japan-China tension around the islands has increased, and has led many analysts, including Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group, to worry aloud about the potential for a military conflict.
The Chinese professional at dinner last night did not seem so much worried about a military conflict as convinced that one was inevitable. And not because of any strategic value of the islands themselves (they're basically worthless), but because China and Japan increasingly hate each other.
The Chinese professional mentioned the islands in the context of the recent visit by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine where Japanese killed in Japan's many military conflicts over the centuries are memorialized — including the Japanese leaders responsible for the attacks and atrocities Japan perpetrated in World War 2. A modern-day Japanese leader visiting the Yasukuni Shrine is highly controversial, because it is viewed by Japan's former (and current) enemies as an act of honoring war criminals.
That's certainly the way the Chinese professional at the dinner viewed it.
He used the words "honoring war criminals," to describe Abe's visit to the shrine. And, with contained but obvious anger, he declared this decision "crazy."
He then explained that the general sense in China is that China and Japan have never really settled their World War 2 conflict. Japan and America settled their conflict, he explained, and as a result, the fighting stopped. But China and Japan have never really put the war behind them.
The Chinese professional acknowledged that if China asserted control over the disputed islands by attacking Japan, America would have to stand with Japan. And he acknowledged that China did not want to provoke America.
But then he said that many in China believe that China can accomplish its goals — smacking down Japan, demonstrating its military superiority in the region, and establishing full control over the symbolic islands — with a surgical invasion.
In other words, by sending troops onto the islands and planting the flag.
The Chinese professional suggested that this limited strike could be effected without provoking a broader conflict. The strike would have great symbolic value, demonstrating to China, Japan, and the rest of the world who was boss. But it would not be so egregious a move that it would force America and Japan to respond militarily and thus lead to a major war.
Well, when the Chinese professional finished speaking, there was stunned silence around the table.
The assembled CEOs, investors, executives, and journalists stared quietly at the Chinese professional. Then one of them, a businessman, reached for the microphone.
"Do you realize that this is absolutely crazy?" the businessman asked.
"Do you realize that this is how wars start?"
"Do you realize that those islands are worthless pieces of rock... and you're seriously suggesting that they're worth provoking a global military conflict over?"
The Chinese professional said that, yes, he realized that. But then, with conviction that further startled everyone, he said that the islands' value was symbolic and that their symbolism was extremely important.
Challenged again, the Chinese professional distanced himself from his earlier remarks, saying that he might be "sensationalizing" the issue and that he, personally, was not in favor of a war with Japan. But he still seemed certain that one was deserved.
I'm far from an expert on the Japan-China conflict, and I'll leave the analyses of this situation to those who are. All I can tell you is that a respected, smart, and influential Chinese professional suggested at dinner last night that a surgical invasion by China of the disputed islands is justified and would finally settle the Japan-China conflict without triggering a broader war. And that suggestion freaked out everyone in the room.
Japan's prime minister is equally incredible when he suggested to Financial Times' Gideon Rachman that he, too, sees a Sino-Japan conflict as "conceivable" and is quite nonchalant about it.
From Gideon Rachman's blog at FT (1/22/2014; part, emphasis is mine):
Here at Davos, I’ve just had the opportunity to moderate a discussion between the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and a group of international journalists. I asked Mr Abe whether a war between China and Japan was “conceivable”.
Interestingly, he did not take the chance to say that any such conflict was out of the question. In fact, Mr Abe explicitly compared the tensions between China and Japan now to the rivalry between Britain and Germany in the years before the first world war, remarking that it was a “similar situation”.
The comparison, he explained, lies in the fact that Britain and Germany – like China and Japan – had a strong trading relationship. But in 1914, this had not prevented strategic tensions leading to the outbreak of conflict.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at UK's Telegraph said this in November last year:
...Today's escalating spat has echoes of the Agadir crisis in 1911, the stand-off between Wilhelmine Germany and the Franco-British Entente in the final years before the First World War.
In case you have forgotten, Kaiser Wilhelm sent the warship Panther to Morocco in 1911 to prevent French annexation. The Kaiser picked his moment well. The French were violating earlier accords.
Yet his real purpose was to probe and weaken Britain's entente with France (not a formal alliance) by picking on an issue where London had little natural sympathy for French actions.
The Agadir Crisis backfired against the Kaiser. The Entente did not break. But that is hardly a reassuring episode. The chain of events that followed were catastrophic.
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.
America is now having to walk the same sort of tightrope that Britain had to walk – and walked badly – from Agadir to Sarajevo. One misjudgement by either side in the East China Sea could change our world entirely. If you are not concerned, perhaps you should be.
As I said above, very, very few in Japan are concerned. They either do not take Mr. Abe seriously, or they put much faith in the sanity of the Chinese leadership.