Le « Coup d’Agadir » du 21ème siècle – The 21st-Century Agadir Crisis

BY ABRAHAM BLONDEAU – thetrumpet.com – 09/11/2015

L’histoire diplomatique classique jette la lumière sur l’avenir des relations sino-américaines

USS Lassen

USS Lassen

Last week the United States Navy sailed the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, within 12 miles of the Chinese-claimed Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands. The destroyer was shadowed by Chinese warships during the operation. This incident has caused sharp rebukes from Beijing, which claims the American vessel violated “sovereign Chinese waters.” The United States replied by stating that the U.S. freedom of navigation operations intends to “protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law.”

The South China Sea has been the center of controversy since China aggressively asserted its claim over the area. Subi Reef is just one of several artificial islands China has created to increase its operational capacity and make its claims more valid. This claim overlaps with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. Under international law the area in contention is recognized as international waters. With $5 trillion in trade passing through annually, this seaway is one of the busiest trade lanes in the world and a vital strategic choke point in the world economy.

The freedom of navigation (FON) operations are intended to challenge maritime claims that the United States considers excessive under international law. These have been conducted by the U.S. military since 1979. The last times these operations were conducted in the South China Sea was in 2012. China refuses to accept the authority of international law over its sovereign claims.

On October 30, the Chinese Navy released a statement escalating the tensions, as paraphrased by Reuters: “If the United States continues with these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could well be a seriously pressing situation between front-line forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that sparks war.”

The statement reveals the future strategic problems for the United States in the Pacific Theater. The United States seeks to uphold international law and the freedom of trade and transport through an important choke point, while China seeks to solidify its own national security and influence in the region. There is no opposition to Chinese aggression in the region from its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors besides the security guarantees of the United States. While both sides are seeking a diplomatic solution to the issue, at this juncture neither side seems determined to use hard power to force one party to fold. Either the international community will have to recognize Chinese claims, or the Chinese will have to retreat from the area.

The Chinese are a rising power seeking to increase their prestige and strategic influence in the region. The United States seeks to uphold the accepted status quo and fulfill its role as the enforcer of international law. These colliding interests are not only the theme of the current Chinese-American relationship, they are also the theme of history. The world has seen this scenario play out again and again. While this particular incident will most likely not cause a war between the U.S. and China, it is a precursor to further clashes that could have foreboding consequences.

This situation has a dangerous parallel with a specific historical incident that was one of the first omens of world war. The Agadir Crisis of 1911 presents a mirror image of what is occurring in the South China Sea. This historical incident saw a rising, aggressive power challenge the status quo upheld by a long standing world superpower. The event was solved diplomatically, but three years later these two nations clashed in the most violent and destructive conflict ever seen to that time.

The Agadir Crisis in Europe illustrates why this event in the South China Sea signals a dangerous future for American-Chinese relations. A brief case study of this incident will give more clarity in an increasingly volatile world order.

The Crisis

In the spring of 1911, Europe basked in the warm glow of peace. Britain was approaching the apex of its empire, Russia seemed stable in the east, and France was busy solidifying North Africa. However, another nation was not satisfied with its place in the world order.

It was actually Napoleon Bonaparte who made the earliest moves toward uniting the German-speaking peoples into one nation. In the early 1800s, his Confederation of the Rhine united 16 smaller German states into one government, and that government allied itself with Napoleon’s France. After that, the Prussian-led government sought to solidify and complete the unification of the German-speaking peoples. Their vision was to have one German nation, reclaiming all the traditional lands of their forefathers, and uniting all German speakers.

By the turn of the century, Germany was a major European power, beginning to challenge the status quo that had existed since Napoleon’s defeat. Germany was late to the race for overseas colonies, and had little room to expand further in Europe peacefully. In 1911, it became clear that the ambitions of Germany could not be contained by the present balance of power.

At that time, the French occupied Fez, a city on the Moroccan coast. This was expected since the French had vast possessions in northwest Africa. However, this claim hindered German economic interests in Agadir, a port city in Morocco. Britain and France primarily had been deciding the borders and claims of colonies for the past 50 years, but Germany decided to state its opinion in forceful terms.

On July 1, the German emperor ordered the gunboat Panther to steam to Agadir to protect German interests. This caught the French off guard and alarmed Europe. Germany had begun a war against France only 40 years earlier, and this gunboat gesture had no clear intentions. Why would Germany send a warship when this was clearly a diplomatic issue? What made more tense was the silence from the German government. For days it did not clearly state its intentions nor if the Panther had orders to intervene if necessary.

Le croiseur allemand "Berlin" qui remplaça rapidement le "Panther" dans la baie d'Agadir Journal "L'ILLUSTRATION" du 16 septembre 1911

Le croiseur allemand « Berlin » qui remplaça rapidement le « Panther » dans la baie d’Agadir
Journal « L’ILLUSTRATION » du 16 septembre 1911 – doc. M. Terrier

Both the British and French pursued diplomatic channels with the Germans to diffuse the situation. Winston Churchill wrote about this incident in his history of World WarI, The World Crisis. Pondering if clashes between the two powers were imminent or not, Churchill wrote:

The task of diplomacy was to prevent such disasters; and as long as there was no conscious or subconscious purpose of war in the mind of any power or race, diplomacy would probably succeed. But in the grave and delicate conjunctions, one violent move by any party would rupture and derange the restraints upon all and plunge the cosmos into chaos.

This seems to summarize the current situation in the South China Sea. Diplomacy is being used to diffuse the situation. Although many authorities claim war between the U.S. and China is unlikely at this time, it only takes one violent move. Churchill adds some further insight to the German intentions in 1911:

It seems probable now that the Germans did not mean war on this occasion. But they meant to test the ground; and in so doing, they were prepared to go to the very edge of the precipice. It is so easy to lose one’s balance there: a touch, a gust of wind, a momentary dizziness, and all is precipitated into the abyss.

Germany intended to gauge how Britain and France would react if it challenged the status quo. This has been the reason for China’s aggressive behavior in the Pacific. France engaged in vehement protest, trying to gain international support. Britain’s position became clear to Germany by a speech made by then Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George:

If a situation were to be forced upon us in which peace could only be preserved by the surrender of the great and beneficent position Britain has won by centuries of heroism and achievement, by allowing Britain to be treated where her interests were vitally affected as if she were of no account in the cabinet of nations, then I say emphatically that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a great country like ours to endure.

This statement made it clear to Germany that if it did wish to start a war, it would be opposing Britain. The U.S. finds itself in a similar position today as it faces a rising China. Will it allow over a century of economic and strategic dominance to pass and surrender to Chinese demands? Or will it uphold international law and the rights of smaller nations? This situation is similar to what Britain faced at the start of the 20th century as a rising Germany challenged its century of dominance.

The Agadir Crisis was solved diplomatically, but only after the British Navy was nearly sent to battle stations and after many sleepless nights in Europe. It was clear that Germany did not intend to challenge the British Navy at that time, and that the port of Agadir was not its true prize. However, it soon became clear that Germany was a major threat to British power, and the great Edwardian arms race began with capital ships, the weapons of mass destruction in 1911. A world war began only three years later.

The Future

When we consider the crisis of Agadir and apply the lessons from history to the present situation in the South China Sea, we find a number of important trends to watch for.

First, the row over the Spratly Islands will find a diplomatic solution in the short term. Neither side is willing to engage in a full-out war over the dispute, despite any rhetoric from a Chinese naval officer. The U.S. Navy is still superior to the Chinese in terms of overall numbers, but the Chinese hold local superiority and are within closer proximity to supplies. For example, the U.S. Navy has 10 carriers to each one of China’s (and it still does not have an aircraft wing). However, the 2014 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission predicted that the Chinese Navy will surpass the U.S. Navy in the Pacific by 2020.

In addition to a robust shipbuilding program, the Chinese are developing a ballistic missile called the DF-21D, the “Carrier Killer.” This is a long-range ballistic missile that is highly maneuverable, moves at high speeds, and is meant to disable capital ships. The Chinese began developing these after the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-96. The U.S. Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) had no match, but this is their best attempt to even the battlefield. The accuracy of these are doubtful, but this is only one threat to the U.S. Navy. China also possesses submarines and sea mines, which are a threat to any navy.

The German challenge of naval supremacy, which really began in 1911 with the Agadir Crisis, galvanized Britain to build more capital ships to stay ahead of Germany. It seems the Chinese threat is also causing the U.S. to plan on increasing its presence in the Pacific.

However, there is one clear difference between the British leadership in 1911 and those in power now: The British still had the will to use the tremendous armaments at their disposal. It is doubtful that any challenging power today would be met with such a stiff response as Lloyd George delivered in 1911.

Second, look for China to continue challenging the status quo. Even though Germany acquiesced to the French and British in 1911, it was merely testing the resistance against its actions. Germany’s goals were incompatible with the world it existed in. Its ambitions were beyond the accepted borders and outside the peaceful imaginations of diplomats. Germany wanted an imperial future, and when it felt that it had the advantage, it eventually was willing to start a war to achieve those ends.

While America still holds the advantage now, it seems that China will one day have the upper hand economically and militarily. At that point, there could be justification in pursuing an aggressive policy against the U.S. Navy. While this does not seem imminent, the trend of China pushing at American dominance will be unrelenting in the days ahead.

The main principle to learn from Agadir is that these events are almost always a precursor to much larger conflicts. This conflict may not even be between the U.S. and China but from any rising power that senses American weakness and indecision. Perhaps it seems far-fetched that we would have a world war in the 21st century. Many shared that sentiment in 1911 and dismissed the chance of war. Churchill’s words seem especially prescient for us today:

No, it is nothing. No one would do such things. Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, Liberal principles, the Labour Party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong. Such a mistake could only be made once—once for all.

History seems to be repeating itself in the Pacific Ocean. However, this is the first time China has had a lead role in the theater of events. The miraculous rise of China coincides with a sudden resurgence of a Russia led by Vladimir Putin. Both seem to be challenging U.S. power, but what will be the result? Will they descend into bitter war? Read our free booklet Russia and China in Prophecy to know what the Bible has foretold about the fate of these two nations.

Une réflexion sur “Le « Coup d’Agadir » du 21ème siècle – The 21st-Century Agadir Crisis

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