Don’t wait for the Spartans

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Don’t wait for the Spartans

Studying history is a way of reading the future, because history does indeed repeat itself. The recent rise of tensions in Northeast Asia over uninhabited islands is reminiscent of a scene from history.

The time was 416 BC, and Athens and Sparta were engaged in the Peloponnesian War. An Athenian warship arrived on the shore of the small island of Melos, which attempted to remain neutral during the war. A delegation from Athens met with the representatives of Melos to talk.

In their dialogue, the Athenians offered the Melians an ultimatum by demanding they surrender unconditionally, which would bring benefits to both sides. The Melians, then, asked how such a surrender would benefit them. The Athenians replied that the Melians would benefit because they would be spared horrific damages, while the Athenians would win the island without having to destroy the Melians.

The Melians continued to argue that they were a neutral city, and asked the Athenians to accept their neutrality. The Athenians replied that the Melians had no right to choose neutrality. Only the strong had the right to make that decision.

Believing in the oracles and the willingness of Sparta to defend them, the Melians refused to surrender. And the Athenians’ argument was realized. The Spartans had no intention to cross the sea to fight the Athenians to defend Melos. Ultimately, Athens attacked Melos and killed all Melian males while selling all the women and children as slaves.

The tragedy of Melos is often quoted to illustrate the brutality of international politics. The lessons of a case from some 2,500 years ago are familiar because they have been repeated endlessly throughout history. What’s important is the essential cause of the war.

Thucydides, who recorded the war’s history, explained that the war was unavoidable because the existing superpower was afraid of the rise of a new superpower. Sparta was the traditional superpower and initiated the war because it feared Athens’ rise. In other words, a change in hegemony in international politics triggered a war. War has usually been the inflection point in most times of world history.

China reminds us of the history from two and a half millennia ago. The center of the world has continually moved westwards. Moving from Greece and Rome, it passed Western Europe, Great Britain, the United States and onward. Today is considered the era of the Asia-Pacific. China is rising rapidly as a new superpower and it reminds us of Athens 2,500 years ago.

Athens rose as the new superpower because it accumulated wealth through maritime trade in the Aegean Sea. China’s rapid economic growth over the past three decades is also astonishing. China, of course, challenged the international order with the United States at the center. And the territorial disputes in Northeast Asia can be understood in the context of China’s rise.

After the United States and its allies won World War II, they failed to draw clear lines regarding Japan’s territory and that triggered some controversies over the Dokdo islets and the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, Islands. When the United States returned Okinawa to Japan in 1972, it didn’t make a clear mention of the Senkakus. That’s why China always suspects a hidden U.S. intention when it has a conflict with Japan.

The international community is paying more attention to the Senkaku issue than Dokdo, because it is seen as a battle between China and the United States to win hegemony. The dispute over the Senkakus, which China calls the Diaoyu Islands, is expanding. A Chinese general argued that mines should be placed. At around the same time in yet another territorial dispute, China deployed three vessels to the disputed Scarborough Shoal, troubling the Philippines, which also claims it.

The U.S. State Department commented that the Senkaku Islands are included in the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty, and Beijing’s People’s Daily said the islands were never included and there was no room for negotiation.

Xinhua also warned last weekend that the United States must not meddle in territorial disputes for its own gain. It warned that a foreign intervention would bring about a tragedy, adding that the United States is in a state of decline and must give up its unrealistic ambition to rule the world.

A war may not come, but hegemony is shifting and frictions are inevitable. A tragedy of the sort that befell Melos may not recur, but it is easy to imagine that a small country squeezed between two superpowers will have a hard time maintaining its own interests. Wide insights and cool-headed understanding are needed. There is no oracle - and the Spartans won’t come to the rescue.

* The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang
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