European earthquakes cause Asian tsunamis
It has become received wisdom in Washington that China poses the greatest foreign threat to America’s vital interests. It is little wonder that some contend the United States must not allow a crisis in Europe to distract it from the task at hand in the Pacific. That is short-sighted. The history of the last century teaches that European earthquakes can cause Asian tsunamis, with unpredictable but often momentous effects.
With World War I raging, Woodrow Wilson embraced the notion of self-determination — he had Europeans in mind, but colonized peoples the world over took note. As peace treaty negotiations in Versailles got underway, there were elevated expectations for an equitable outcome in Asia. That outcome was not forthcoming. Japan’s acquisition of German territorial holdings in China sparked the May 4th movement, contributing greatly to a period of political theorizing, social upheaval, and a new nationalism — the context in which the Chinese Communist Party was born just two years later. Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh’s failure to gain an audience with Wilson in Paris and his unheeded petition for more rights for Vietnamese within the French colonial empire contributed to his radicalization and his disillusionment with the United States.
Two decades later, the advent of renewed war in Europe upended the security order in Asia. Thanks to the German assault on Western Europe, London held back sending reinforcements to Asia, and the British Army and the Royal Navy forces that were in the theater could not hold Imperial Japanese forces at bay. Just three weeks after Tokyo launched its war in the Pacific, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin published a stunning op-ed, declaring: “Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.” The sun was finally setting on the British Empire.
Winston Churchill would later describe the fall of Singapore in February 1942 as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British military history.” But not all observers looked upon that world-changing event with regret. Lee Kuan Yew, who lived through both the colonial period and the Japanese occupation, described his generation as emerging from the experience “determined that no one … had the right to push and kick us around.” World War II’s conclusion set off a period of decolonization in Asia, the effects of which are still playing out today.
Less than a year after victory in Europe, Churchill declared that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” A cold war was in the offing as the United States settled into a decades-long faceoff with the Soviet Union. There would be periods of substantial tension in Europe and heightened risk of nuclear war, but it was in Asia where millions died in related conflagrations.
And even as the Cold War ended without America and the Soviet Union coming to blows in Europe, there were spasms of violence elsewhere. When Chinese students occupied Tiananmen Square after the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989, they took inspiration, in part, from the movement towards greater openness in Warsaw Pact countries and from Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika — indeed, students requested a meeting with the Soviet leader during his May 1989 visit to China. Those protesters likewise found inspiration in the May 4th Movement. Students celebrated its 70th anniversary just weeks before their demonstrations ended in massacre.
Proponents of an Asia-first approach for the United States argue that China is the primary challenge and that Asia is the decisive theater. If Europe is secondary and Ukraine is peripheral, it behooves the United States to conserve its resources for a more important fight even at the expense of Kyiv’s subjugation and a remade security environment in Europe. But if history is any guide, what happens in Europe will not stay in Europe. No wonder Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and others have thrown their support behind Ukraine — they know that their own fates may be inextricably linked to the survival of a peaceful, stable, and prosperous European order.
War in Europe is not akin to a butterfly flapping its wings and eventually causing a breeze in the Pacific. War in Europe is a wrecking ball — how the pieces will fall in Asia is difficult to forecast, but its destructive power will be plain for all to see. Better for the United States to halt the wrecking ball’s momentum now than to pick up the pieces after the fact.
Michael Mazza is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the Global Taiwan Institute, and the German Marshall Fund of the United States.