Forget On War by Clausewitz. Forget Art of War by Sun-Tzu. Forget The Prince by Machiavelli. Forget Athashastra by Kautilya (aka Chanakya, the inspiration behind this writer’s nom de plume). Instead, the book that every serious political and military strategist around the world needs to buy from the nearest bookstore or download on their Kindle or whatever is Jingo a 1997 work of fiction by the British comedy/science fiction writer Terry Pratchett as part of his “Discworld” series.
Firstly, you need to love any author who describes himself on blurbs as “sometimes he is accused of literature”. Perhaps it was the early onset of Alzheimer’s or perhaps it was his naturally perspicacious intelligence; but there are times when I am laughing through any one of his “Discworld” fantasies and suddenly get to thinking “Hey, hang on – this is awfully a lot like reality”.
Many years ago, when I first read Jingo, there was some incident in the Indian ocean where a small island had appeared from the depths and caused some debate as to which country was the real owner of the wretched place – (as I remember, it disappeared in the next seismic event). That debate had nothing to do with natural boundaries of countries and everything to do with the 200-mile exclusive economic zone covering the islands. That’s one reason a lot of people have this fascination with what are often little more than rocky outcrops.
The main plot device of Jingo is an island that suddenly appears exactly in the middle of the water body between the two main fictional countries of Discworld – Klatch and Ankh-Morpork. Whilst the Klatchians, described as “secretive and primitive” are a bit keen to start a war to claim the island, the rulers of the wealthier trading oriented city-state of Ankh-Morpork are less keen on outright hostilities as they believe it is easier to sell stuff to living people than to dead soldiers.
With that description it become obvious that we have a similar, farcical situation in Asia with the events in the islands called Diaoyudao/Diaoyutai/Senkaku by the main claimants – China, Taiwan and Japan. This author will refer to them by their English name, Pinnacle Islands, simply because this name is so gloriously inappropriate for what the damn thing is – a jagged bunch of rocks sticking out in the middle of nowhere.
Reading the commentaries – be it the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times, not to mention the more jingoistic publications from China, Japan and Taiwan – one is struck by the sheer sense of farce underpinning the whole situation. The hyper-serious journalists of course don’t see any levity in the proceedings; well, they need to make the stories as sensational and dramatic as possible to sell more dead trees (ie traditional newspapers).
Even the inestimable Pratchett couldn’t have concocted what passes for reality in Asia today, but if he did try he might have written Jingo with four main characters and a couple of others purely for (further) comic relief:
a. An aging economic superpower that is somehow trying to cling on to its regional relevance even though, quite literally, it has no standing armed forces;
b. A brash upstart who, going through a painful adolescent adjustment period, has decided to risk all by challenging the aforementioned aging economic superpower;
c. Lastly, a spoilt brat which was previously owned by the aging economic superpower and is currently independent but sees its future as part of the new brash upstart, probably intending to bring these wretched islands as its dowry to the wedding;
d. The world’s only superpower has borrowed so much money from all three players above than it can never repay even one of them; it is currently distracted by the absence of a functioning government and unable to complete simple tasks like putting together a website;
e. Asia’s third- and fourth-largest economies, utterly confused by the proceedings without an inkling of whether they should even say anything let alone do something.
This has the making of a grand comedy, an opera even. Future generations may even appreciate events in the Taiwan Strait during 2013-14 in that light, and someone may yet put together a proper laugh track for all of Asia to be entertained.
Unfortunately, none of this is really funny at the current juncture. For that, we have history to blame, specifically events leading up to World War I – yes, that one from a hundred years ago.
Whenever I read the history of events leading up to that conflict (and certainly this could just be my lack of perception or intelligence, I am left more confused than the previous time someone tried to explain what got the war started. Yes, everyone seems to be agreed on the proximate causes namely the assassination of the archduke; but there are so many other factors playing a part that no one historian really (in my opinion) has managed to stitch together a coherent narrative.
It could well be that the historians who attempt the exercise are overwhelmingly European and therefore bring national stereotypes, schooling and cultural prejudices to their narratives; or it could simply be that none of them are mathematicians with appreciation of chaos theory.
See the parallels between the Asia of today and Europe during the teen years of the last century:
a. An aging economic power whose relevance is being questioned at every step (Russia);
b. A brash upstart who is keen to make its mark on the world (Germany/Prussia);
c. A spoilt brat trying to ignite proceedings for their own selfish reasons (Serbia);
d. A colonial superpower that is a tad overstretched (Britain);
e. A couple of bystanders utterly confused by the proceedings (USA, France).
Then, as now, the high art of diplomacy was left to a set of amateurs pretending to be each country’s auteur. A number of other elements of chaos theory were present then as now: changing train (railroad) timetables being one of the more interesting causes of World War I. On that note, please do read How Wars Begin by Alan Taylor.
A brief summary here: all wars in Europe depended on moving troops to the border along with the required infantry and armored divisions. This needed trains, and to a large extent most countries had enemies on at least two flanks – for example, Austria faced Serbia and Russia on the western and eastern flanks; while Germany faced both Russia and France.
When finally Russia started mobilizing without actually intending to go to war but purely to show support for Serbia, Germany had no option but to mobilize. Faced with the prospect of having trains running in opposite directions and the war effort stretching thin, Germany took the momentous (and catastrophic) decision to invade France first and knock it out of the war. That decision, thanks to the constraints of train timetables, ended up being the real spark that started the war). At least, that’s one theory.
Today’s version of railroad timetables is China’s decision to impose an Air Defense Zone that includes disputed islands. The country has required all airlines to report their routes in advance. While the main airlines of Japan – JAL and ANA – immediately complied, smaller airlines like Peach Aviation decided to cock a snook at the Chinese; this has led to the PLA mobilizing warplanes over the zone. The US sent in two unarmed B52s to overfly the zone and now has sent drones to monitor all planes in the area.
The chances of an accident are extremely – and even unacceptably – high. If the PLA were to shoot down a Japanese civilian airliner, nothing less than war could be the result.
Hence my refrain – all the main characters above should spend a few hours read Jingo, calm the heck down and defuse the situation.