Thursday, 14 August 2014

Reflections on WWI and how Asia opened to the world


In light of the closer formal trade ties announced this week between the European Union and New Zealand, as well as the centenary of the opening of hostilities in the First World War, these two events can tell us much about the future of EU/NZ relations. The guns of August 1914 marked a cataclysmic end to European peace, but the Great War can be seen as the beginning of positive national projects around the world.

All the questions over whether the 21st century might fall into a similar war have really been done to death. Any war is possible, but experts ask whether one is probable. Some analyses are drawing a disturbing parallel between today and a hundred years ago, but the world has changed in important ways. 

Those changes are the most important part of the terrible events last century. What projects and reality the war upended it equally set alternatives in motion of which we are still dealing with today.

European Union Delegation to New Zealand charge de affairs Michalis Rokas says the First World War centenary is a chance for Europe to remember the fighting and think about the importance of the union.

“We’re thinking about the war not just as a moment of reflection, but as the moment when the European Union was first conceived. In a very real sense, the union would not exist today without the war. It is extremely significant for us,” he says.

Mr Rokas describes how the bitter enemies in both wars – Germany and France – managed to forge the foundation of the European Union by “showing the audacity to reconcile” and sow the way forward.

“I am Greek,” says Mr Rokas. “Since the end of the two World Wars, Greece has not seen an invasion or been threatened. This was unprecedented in millennia of our history; we’re talking about one of the oldest states in the world. The centenary reminds us of the benefits of reconciliation.”

A centenary is like any anniversary: it has only an artificial meaning for those most concerned. There is no underlying, fundamental reason why 1914 should offer any special implication for 2014 as, say, 1962, 1814 or 1999 could.

The build up to the First World War was like a runaway train, but the markets didn’t spot it rumbling down the tracks until it was too late. Today, the fighting in the Middle East, skirmishing in Ukraine and posturing in the South and East China Seas all seem to mimic the tensions of the early 20th century. But the results of that war reshaped the world to give New Zealand access to the fruits it enjoys today. Belligerent tensions aside, the interdependence of the world forces nations together as well as apart.

New Zealand and the EU this week concluded a political agreement called the Partnership Agreement on Relations and Cooperation (PARC) which could set the path for a free trade deal in the future. From New Zealand’s perspective political frameworks are not so necessary for dealing with other countries, but for a supranational organisation like the EU it is easier to operate with this is in place as it commits the countries to cooperate across a range of different areas.

And despite our deep ties to Europe New Zealand has been focused on its Asian neighbours predominantly for trade. Had the Great War not occurred New Zealand may still be beholden to Europe for everything to do with trade. The fighting opened Asia up to the world as much as it opened up Europe. University of Auckland professor Nicholas Tarling says the war had an enormous impact on the relationship between Asia and Europe.

Europe in 1900
“Asian nations thought self-determination was on its way after WWI. If Europeans could treat each other as nation states, then why couldn’t Asia?” He remarks.

Whether self-determination was coming for them was unknown at the time but the weakness of the British and German empires after the war benefited the Asian colonies.

“Europe was in no position to come to Asia’s support – especially China’s – and Japan took advantage of this by dominating its neighbours. This would have profound consequences later in the century,” Mr Tarling told the New Zealand Asia Institute.

“Asians thought the war would bring at least partial emancipation. In some cases, notably in British colonies, more freedom was promised and granted,” he says.

Most importantly for New Zealand’s future trade, the concept of the nation state spread towards Asia. The European Union was created out of the ashes of the war and so was the concept of Asian nations.

“Hopefully this year’s centenary commemorations around the world sends the message to other parties involved in conflict,” says Mr Rokas.

“If Germany, France and Britain could reconcile, then why can’t Israel and the Palestinians or Japan and China do the same?” He asks.

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