The Davos economic conference is over, and the presidents, prime ministers and other potentates who attended have gone home with their briefcases full of recipes on how to make the world — and themselves — richer and more secure.

Some of these recipes will surely do some good. Except for one big hitch. The kitchens in which the fate of nations is baked may be in danger of blowing up.

The man holding the fuse aloft is Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan no less.

His warning was that the current tension between his country and China is similar to the rivalry between Britain and Germany that led to the First World War 100 years ago. And it sparked a very angry, un-Davos-like response from the Chinese, one of whom compared Abe to North Korea's wacky dictator.

While Abe talked in generalities about the trouble brewing in the region, everyone knew that he was talking about the escalating tug of war over the eight contested islands in the East China Sea.

These rocks, some smaller than a football field, are called Diaoyu by the Chinese; they are 330 km from China's coast and 410 km from Japan, where they are known as Senkaku.

Their inhabitants: moles, goats and albatrosses. More importantly, though, the islands are surrounded by the magical Aladdin's lamp of our era — oil and gas deposits.

Superpower rules

The area has been controlled by Japan since the days of gunboats and colonial expansion in the 1890s.

And in laying claim to these islands now, China is trying to match its status as a new economic superpower by asserting itself as a military force (as Abe sees it, like Germany did a century ago).


After Davos, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe moved on to India where he talked up the close ties between the two nations as they close ranks against mutual rival China. (Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters)

Two months ago, Beijing announced the creation of an air defence identification zone over the portion of the East China Sea that includes Diaoyu.

The new rules, with their implicit threat of military action against foreign aircraft that don't identify themselves to Chinese authorities, caused an international uproar.

But the immediate danger is in the military jockeying that's taking place over these islands.

The warplanes China has dispatched to patrol the area have been challenged by U.S., Japanese and South Korean fighter planes.

With armed planes buzzing each other in a small airspace, there is the very real possibility that a simple miscalculation could lead to war, not unlike the small events that triggered WWI.

Another danger factor is the animosity that still exists between the Chinese and Japanese; in many ways they have never put the Second World War behind them as most other former enemies have.

Echoes of 1914

It isn't that either Japan or China wants war necessarily — though both are arming noticeably.

What's more likely going on in the East China Sea is that two of the world's largest economies — China is No. 2 and Japan No. 3 — have ramped up their bullhorn rivalry as a means of deflecting attention from their own domestic problems.

However, if not checked by the power of No. 1 — the U.S., which is showing its disinclination to intervene abroad militarily — the animosity between China and Japan could unleash a wider conflict.

When 1914 came, there was no hint of the scale of the disaster to come.

Then, as now, the world had gone through a period without the kind of far-ranging wars that devastated continents.


A Rising Sun flag with a picture of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Hideki Tojo, Imperial Japan's WWII general, is burnt during protest outside the Japanese consulate in Hong Kong in December. Large-scale protests took place in South Korea and China after Abe's visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. (Tyrone Siu / Reuters)

Europe, which endured centuries of bloody conflicts, had been largely peaceful from the 1850s on.

But by the early 1900s, a growing world economy rested on colonial empires. Not just European ones either.

Japan also acquired colonies towards the end of 19th century, mainly by conquering Korea and setting its sights on Russian-controlled Manchuria.

What made being an imperial power so attractive was that it provided cheap colonial labour and raw materials — the equivalent of today's coveted undersea resources — and turned these colonies into protected markets for the "mother" country's manufactured goods.

Lines in the sea

In 1914, the world's two biggest industrial powers were Germany and Britain, who were also among each other's biggest trading partners.

But the Germans were frustrated because the Brits had the world's largest empire — and navy. And they became determined to grab a bigger share of the global pie.

Their opportunity came when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne next door, was assassinated in June 1914 by a Serbian nationalist.

The Austrians, encouraged by Germany’s promises to back them up with its huge army, blamed the assassination on Serbia and declared war on the Serbian kingdom.

That started the dominoes falling. As expected, Russia came out on Serbia's side. Germany, in turn, declared war on Russia and, for good measure, on France as an ally of Russia, while Britain joined in as an ally of France.

Once the U.K. became involved, Canada was in automatically as a member of the British Empire.

Even distant Japan declared war on Germany because of an alliance with Britain. And Turkey, which had been at odds with Russia, also joined the fray.

Within four months of Ferdinand's death just about all of Europe and much beyond was bogged down in a war that would last four years and cost more than 16 million lives.

Some would argue it has continued its baneful influence to this day, from communism to Nazism and the Second World War with its many disastrous aftershocks.

The grievous miscalculations of 1914 should serve all those involved in the current spat over those few rocks in the China Sea as a lesson about the danger of setting lines in the sea and defying the rest of the world with shows of might.

Once the shooting starts it can be too late. As it was in 1914.