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Two Paths to War: The Origins of the First World War versus the Dynamics of Contemporary Sino-American Confrontations

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During the past year, there have been numerous and somber reflections, rather like those during a traditional period of mourning, about the great and tragic events that occurred just 100 years ago – the beginning of the First World War. And in the course of these melancholy reflections about the past, there naturally have arisen anxious concerns about the future.

Is it possible that we may once again be entering into an era of great conflicts, or even of a great war, between the great powers of the time? Are there important and ominous similarities between the international situation before the First World War and the international situation of today?

In 2015, there are at least two theaters or regions where the great powers now seem to be leading toward greater conflict. Here in Europe, the most immediate theater of concern is of course that involving Russia and Ukraine, and more broadly Russia’s “near abroad,” where acute confrontation between Russia and the West has been occurring since February 2014. But the theater that has been the scene of dangerous confrontations for an even longer period, especially since 2010, has been that involving China and its three literal seas – the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea (or as the Chinese often call it, the North China Sea). The topic of this particular conference panel – “Northeast Asia: The Balkans of the 21st Century?” – recognizes these confrontations and their possible analogies to the events that led to the First World War a century ago.

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