Blundering into war

It was surely enough to send a shiver down American, European and Asian spines in the lead-up to the festive season, the signs of a putative new war in East Asia.

But was anyone really listening, even as South Korea announced this past weekend it had extended its air defense zone into a similar zone declared by China two weeks ago?

Is this not how World War I started early last century, with small steps, culminating in the assassination of Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Ferdinand on a street corner in Sarajevo, Bosnia?

I covered the sad aftermath of war in the Balkans and this took me to bombed-out Sarajevo, where I was drawn more than once to the street corner where the Bosnian Serb student assassin Gavrilo Princip shot the emperor in 1914 leading directly to the Somme, Ypres and the bloody fields of Flanders.

Yet people seem to have difficulty to taking all these war-like maneuvers in East Asia seriously, including Asians. It is not a joke exactly, but it didn't seem to be worrying the local population who may think 'our leaders are in control?' Chamberlain thought he was in control after his Munich meeting with Hitler, too, after all: 'peace in our time,' he called it. World War II came soon after.

Also, is this not how Japanese military might extended itself into China in the 1930s? The Marco Polo bridge, just outside Peking, with its stone lions, was just one of the small stepping stones to Japanese victory.

Also, accidents happen, and a nervous soldier, monitoring an air defence zone, may discharge a missile that brings down a passenger plane from Japan or South Korea; best to think the 'unthinkable.'

Then there are the new and informal alliances. According to the current Economist, 'China's President Xi Jinping told President Vladimir Putin earlier this year that 'you and I have very similar characters.'

Putin, as an adversary, seemed enough in himself, especially over Syria where he recently side-stepped round Obama in the diplomatic stakes.

Pity poor, greying Obama, after the battering he's endured from his adversaries in Congress this year over health care - and these are fellow Americans! Maybe he should turn gratefully to his renewed 'pivot' towards Asia before it's dug up.

Now Xi will be there too, cheered on by the ghost of Mao whose 120th birthday would have fallen on 26 December, Boxing Day.

The risk, US Vice President Joe Biden, who looks like the guy sitting next to you on the neighborhood bar stool and thus has your ear, repeatedly highlighted on his recent mission of cooling things down, was of 'unintended conflict' following an 'accidental clash.'

After all, something similar happened before, about a decade ago, and it took me then to Hainan island - famous, until then, only for its steamed chicken - to see the release of Americans involved in an earlier dog-fight, that sent a Chinese fighter ace spiralling down to his death in the South China Sea.

Already, as we know, the B.52 bombers were given an airing from Guam - shades of earlier times in Vietnam. Might the Vietnamese see a possible chance to grab the Paracels back from China, which had helped themselves to them?

It may be soon time to get our heavy old khaki flak jackets out, and battered old Marine helmets - instead of state of the art blue lightweight outfits favored by our successors, as I saw in the Red Shirts 'war' in Bangkok three years ago. Though, then, about the most dangerous weapons were the bows and blunt arrows wielded by a small transsexual group allied to the Red Shirts, until the army moved in. (History is repeating itself there too this week, though it's the Yellow Shirts upfront this time).

Any new conflict now may also involve the East China Sea and its deserted islands and outcrops claimed by Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea.

The Chinese are nuclear-armed and have a new aircraft carrier. But they look to me what Mao used to call 'paper tigers,' though then that was 'American imperialism' the chairman was thinking about. But the 'bright red sun in our hearts,' as Mao was known, seems to have risen from the grave yet again.

If it were to come to a bust-up between China and Japan, my money - to be slightly facetious - would be on Tokyo. After all, the engineering in their luxury automobiles is way superior to that of Chinese ones.

The last time I saw the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in action was in the aftermath of the Tiananmen tragedy in June, 1989, when I had to throw myself on the ground after a rabble of Chinese soldiers panicked and starting shooting wildly in all directions.

The Japanese Self Defense Force, these days, might show more grace under fire when the chips are down than did the Chinese.

Recently Xi Jinping made a discreet visit to Shaoshan. The Chinese party chief recalled while there that Mao had saved his father's life from execution by leftist - must have been ultra-leftist surely - guerrillas.

"Without Mao my father would have been no more, without Mao, there would be no Xi Jinping. Today I will never forget this loving kindness," Xi was quoted as saying.

Interesting insights and a clear message: Mao may be back, rehabilitated once again! But what does it mean in terms of peace or war in Asia? Well, Mao always said that political power grew from the barrel of a gun.

Talk of new wars, that no one really seems to take seriously in East Asia, comes before the wounds of the last ones have healed. British photographer Tim Page told me recently, after re-visiting Vietnam, that Agent Orange was still killing and crippling a fourth generation of babies since the Vietnam war; he had photographed some of them.

I remember my old friend Greg Davis, an American photographer, who as a GI in Vietnam (Lai Khe) was exposed to Agent Orange, died mysteriously in Japan, probably from its results, just a decade ago. He's still missed.

Karl Marx once said, of course, that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

This time, it seems, farce will have its day. But, pivot or no pivot, it may come with unintending but very real violence in East Asia unless we get our wits about us.

(James Pringle covered conflict in Indochina, Middle East, Horn of Africa, and the Balkans for Reuters, Newsweek and the London Times.)