On July 1st 1997, the British government handed over its former colony of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, symbolizing what historian Niall Ferguson identified as the dominant trend of the 20th century: the protracted and painful geopolitical decline of the West (except the U.S.A.) and the bumpy but continuous re-ascendency of the East, fuelled by a period of upheaval he identifies as the˜Fifty Years War of the World” that started with the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and ended with the Korean War (1950-1953), of which the Second World War was the bloodiest climax.*
Why did this happen? A clue is that this “War of the World” started and ended in Asia. The European empires’ “Scramble for Asia” in the 19th century created a highly interdependent “feedback loop” between Europe and Asia that was made combustible by the birth of the “Two Eastern Questions”,* specifically the Near-Eastern Question of the declining Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and the Far-Eastern Question of declining Qing Dynasty China. In turn Asia’s rapid decline in the face of European imperial expansion played a indirect but crucial role in the origins of the First World War and thus in the long run the demise of both the European empires and their domination of the globe in the 20th century.
The Three Factors of Combustibility
There were three factors that made the Two Eastern Questions and thus the Scramble for Asia so destabilizing and explosive.
First, European imperialism and globalization fuelled social fragmentation, for military defeat undermined Qing and Ottoman credibility while European capitalist penetration caused economic upheaval.
Long before the European imperial powers self-destructed in the 20th century, these two Asian empires were already slipping into painful decline. The Ottoman Empire was already facing protracted decline with its defeat at the Gates of Vienna in 1683 by forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and Polish-Lithuanian King John Sobieski III, followed by expulsion out of southern Ukraine, the Crimea and the northwestern Caucuses by Catherine the Great’s Russia in the late 18th century. However, it was from the 19th century onwards that it was threatened the most. Napoleon invaded Ottoman-controlled Egypt during the French Revolutionary War and in turn the European “Great Powers” backed a rebellion in Greece little after the Napoleonic Wars. Yet it was defeat by Russia in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) that triggered the Ottoman Empire’s ultimate phase of disintegration in the Balkans. Meanwhile, the imperial assault on Qing Dynasty China began with the First Opium War, when in March 1839 the Qing official Lin Zexu seized and destroyed the British East India Company’s chests of opium and arrested its merchants. This ended ultimately with Qing defeat just three years later. China was to be wracked with still more wars throughout the rest of the century, against powers such as Britain, France and Japan, which undermined Qing credibility*. Most humiliating was the Eight-Nation Alliance’s* crushing of the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century.
European capitalist globalization’s destabilizing effects on the Ottoman and Qing economies accompanied this via penetration of their markets. The Qing were increasingly forced by the Western powers to hand over economically valuable “Treaty Ports”, which destabilized China’s economy by flooding the local markets with foreign goods, devastating local rural economies while also amplifying the Qing’s growing trade deficit and fiscal crisis. Meanwhile, the declining Ottoman Empire entered economic crisis and became heavily indebted to European economic loans. By the early 20th century Istanbul was forced to pay taxes to the “European Council of Public Debt”. European investment and liberal trade caused the decline of Ottoman state revenues with the end of tariffs and the reduction of raw materials for domestic consumption.
This in turn dangerously fuelled the strains on social cohesion, which came in the form of ethnic-religious conflict and in turn helped trigger uprisings. In China, economic hardship saw a rise in both ethnic hostility against the Manchu minority elite by the Han majority. The Han accused the Manchu of aiding European imperialism and capitalism, which fuelled the popularity of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864)* that ended up killing 20 million people. Economic hardship also fuelled religious hostility and violence towards Chinese Christian converts during the Boxer Rebellion. Meanwhile, the Ottomans faced the combination of both uprisings among subjected Christian ethnicities and in turn bloody ethnic conflict between Christians and Muslims, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria in the 1870s. In the Ottoman Empire there was also increasing hostility towards the relatively more prosperous and sometimes rebellious Christian Armenian minority.
Secondly, the spread of European ideologies through networks of communication and information in Asia planted the seeds for an intelligentsia and revolutionary mass-political movements that overthrew the old centralized autocratic multi-ethnic empires and tried to forge ethnically homogenous democratic nation-states.
Chinese nationalism’s seeds were sewn in the cosmopolitan “Treaty Ports” and other Western controlled hubs of globalization, where the growth of the Chinese middle-class gave birth to an intelligentsia influenced by Western ideologies,* aided in turn by Western-inspired newspapers exposing Qing imperial corruption. In the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turks, formed in 1902 and influenced by the Western concept of the nation-state, aimed at reviving the empire’s brief experimentation with parliamentarianism in the 1870s.
In both decaying empires, these revolutionaries would topple their autocratic dynasties. The Young Turk Revolution of July 1908, in response to a possible Ottoman handing over of Macedonia to European police forces, forced Sultan Abdul Hamid II to renounce autocracy and create a constitutional monarchy. Later, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown by the Wuchang Uprising in 1911 and saw the birth of the Republic of China. This rapidly unraveled into warlordism as General Yuan Shikai tried to sideline nationalist republican Sun Yat-sen for the presidency and make himself a dictator. Whereas in the Ottoman and Qing empires reform from within the system failed, by contrast it occurred successfully in Japan with the Mejii Restoration of the late 19th century, which accelerated industrialization, created a strong Prussian-style autocratic monarchy with a parliament that had limited powers, and modernized the army. Indeed, some Chinese nationalists studied in Japan and were exposed to Western concepts there as well.
The nationalists, although Western inspired, were all driven by a common goal: to modernize their states and challenge the Western powers. The Young Turks wanted to halt the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and North Africa. The Chinese nationalists aimed at reversing the tide of European and Japanese assault on China while Japan’s leaders in turn aspired to forge an empire to compete with the Western powers and become the dominant power in Asia.
Thirdly, the race to carve up the Ottoman and Qing empires amplified the globalization of European imperial rivalries, feeding those tensions back into Europe. The terms used by 19th century statesmen to describe these geopolitically explosive hot button issues were the “Eastern Question”, which covered the Ottoman Empire’s rapid decline in the Balkans, and the “China Question”, namely the rapid withering of the Qing Empire. Yet in reality these were “Two Eastern Questions”, a Near-Eastern Question (Ottoman) and a Far-Eastern Question (Chinese).
A key player in fuelling the rivalries over the Near-Eastern and Far-Eastern questions was Russia. There were simmering tensions between Russia and Austria-Hungary and its ally, the German Reich, over the Balkans as the Ottoman Empire unraveled. Russia aimed at annexing the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (Istanbul) for it controlled the Bosporus Straits, which were vital to Russia’s agricultural and industrial economy as they controlled access to the Eastern Mediterranean’s trade routes. Throughout the late 19th century the Russians nearly came to blows with the British in what came to be known as the “Great Game”: Russian control of Istanbul would threaten British controlled Egypt and her expansion into Central Asia and Persia threatened British controlled India. Simultaneously, Germany’s growing economic penetration into the Ottoman Empire, starting in 1898 with Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit to Istanbul and the construction of the Berlin-Bagdad Railway, increased tensions with both Britain and Russia. Concurrently in the Far East both the European and Japanese empires vied with one another to carve up the crumbling Qing Chinese empire. The same year the Kaiser visited Istanbul, Germany’s seizure of Kiaochow triggered acceleration in the race to carve up China. Yet again, Tsarist Russia was just as important. St. Petersburg pursued an increasingly aggressive foreign policy of imperial expansion in Manchuria, brewing tensions with Japan. 
The rivalries to carve up the Ottoman and Qing empires could prove incredibly dangerous in a highly globalized world for they turned the volatile multi-ethnic zones of the Balkan Peninsula and Manchuria-Korea into (to use Niall Ferguson’s analogy) â€œgeopolitical earthquake zones, where the declining and rising empires acted as “geopolitical tectonic plates”, grinding uneasily with one another and periodically producing geopolitical earthquakes (territorial disputes and wars). The process of Ottoman unraveling had turned the Balkans into the most dangerous fault line, in which it became the â€œfateful historical border between West and East, the Occident and the Orient. In a highly interdependent globalized world these “earthquakes” could have potential international butterfly effects, triggering imperial shifts in geopolitical tectonic zones on the other side of the world.
World War Squared
The globalization of imperial rivalries had additional dangers, as these could potentially allow crises produced by the Two Eastern Questions to spark a world war. Of course, this outcome was not inevitable. Throughout the 19th century, the European dominated international order managed to adapt and resolve these disputes through diplomacy, thus preventing all-out war between all the empires. The German Reich’s first imperial chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, had cleverly arranged at the Congress of Berlin of 1878 for the creation of Austro-Hungarian and Russian spheres of influence over the Western and Eastern Balkans respectively, stabilizing the Near-Eastern Question, including de facto Austrian control of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
However, a series of contingent geopolitical crises produced by the Two Eastern Questions in the early 20th century helped make a more favourable environment for world war to happen.
It started first with the Far-Eastern Question when Russia was both defeated in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905 over Chinese Manchuria, and rocked by an attempted revolution following humiliating defeat. Held in check by Japan in the Far East and by Britain in Central Asia as well as fearing further democratization or revolution, the autocratic Tsarist regime reinvigorated Russiaâ€™s aggressive foreign policy in the Balkans to acquire Constantinople, strengthening its alliance with Serbia and increasing tensions with Austria-Hungary and Germany. Fearful of isolation on the world stage Russia also joined Britain and France to form the Triple Entente two years later. Russia had now re-entered the Near-Eastern Question.
In 1908, in response to the Young Turk Revolution, Austria-Hungary officially annexed formerly Ottoman Bosnia-Herzegovina, angering Pan-Yugoslavist Serbia and its ally Russia, as Vienna failed to keep its promise to recognize St. Petersburg’s claim on Constantinople. That same year also saw an oil rush along the Persian-Ottoman border, amplifying tensions between the European empires, particularly Germany and Britain, to penetrate the declining Ottoman Empire and carve it into spheres of influence, like vultures fighting over a carcass. Finally, in response to the Italian attack on Ottoman-controlled Tripoli in 1911, during the next year Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece attacked the Ottoman Empire, driving it out of most of the Balkans. In 1913, the Balkan states now including Romania, fought amongst themselves over the territorial spoils, partaking in horrific ethnic cleansing. This further strained relations between Austria-Hungary and Russia.* Meanwhile, as Sean McMeekin points out, Germany’s decision to send some forty naval officers led by Liman von Sanders in November 1913 to the Ottoman Empire (ostensibly to modernize and command the Bosphorus’ defenses) and the Ottoman Empire’s decision to place placing an order for five dreadnaught warships (three of which came from Britain) in response to tensions with Greece over the treatment of the Anatolian Greek minority* caused serious problems for Russia. With the new Ottoman warships, making the Russian navy obsolete, an invasion of Constantinople was nearly impossible. From Russiaâ’s point of view, the clock was ticking.
Yet despite these ominous international developments, many in financial and diplomatic circles believed that global economic interdependency and previous successes at diplomatically resolving geopolitical crises somehow ensured that world war was a very low probability. However, all of that changed on June 28th, 1914, when the Bosnian-Serb “Black Hand” terrorist, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire (and the very man who restrained the anti-Serbian warmongers in Vienna) in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.* This single event acted as a butterfly effect for it triggered the diplomatic fiasco known as the July Crisis, resulting in Vienna declaring war on Serbia. By August the crisis had spiraled out of control as the First World War erupted. What started out as regicide had turned into 20th century Europe’s global version of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Yet in reality the conflict was as much about Asian geopolitics as it was Balkan quarrels. While worried about Germany crushing France and dominating Europe, the British, particularly Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, feared Russian threats to renew the “Great Game” in Central Asia if they did not honour their alliance. And Russia could not afford to see Vienna crush Serbia, its major Balkan proxy that prevented other states from taking Constantinople. Ultimately, the Great War was also, as McMeekin argues, a “Third War of Ottoman Succession” and thus the most explosive byproduct of the Near-Eastern Question.*
The First World War of 1914 to 1918 was absolutely crucial in the history of Europe’s Scramble for Asia for it globalized the effects of the Two Eastern Questions. What had once been the problems more overtly afflicting the Ottoman and Qing empires now fully manifested themselves in Europe. In turn the war’s long-term fallout in Europe fed back into Asia’s continuing instability. What followed in the next three decades after the First World War was extreme economic volatility combined with political and geopolitical upheaval.
With the outbreak of world war in August 1914, the “First Age of Globalization” imploded. International trade, migration and finance collapsed. In its place was a ravaged world. Not only did industrial warfare spread across Europe like wildfire, from the Balkan Peninsula and Russia in Eastern Europe to the trench infested Western Front in Belgium and Northern France to the Alps in Northern Italy, but it also spread to Africa and, of course, Asia. In the Middle East the Ottomans fought the Russians in the Caucuses and the British first in Gallipoli and then in the Arab speaking fertile crescent. Simultaneously, in the Far East Japan attacked German controlled Tsingtao in Chinaâ€™s Shandong Peninsula and seized its Micronesian island colonies in the Pacific.
Four and a half years of world war accelerated the implosion of autocratic dynastic empires in the Middle East, Far-East Asia and Europe, and caused the explosion of ethnic conflict.
Under wartime pressure, ethnic violence accelerated as the Ottoman Empire began to unravel and later tipped into collapse. In 1915 the Young Turks hostility towards the Armenian minority, seen as a pro-Russian fifth column, culminated in the genocide of around 1.8 million Armenians. At the same time the British backed Arabs Revolt broke out in the Hejaz. By the end of the war, the exhausted Ottomans signed the Armistice of Mudros with the victorious British. The following Treaty of Sevres (hashed out at various peace conferences from Paris to San Remo and signed in 1920) divided up much of the Middle East into “mandates”: Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan (British controlled) as well as Syria and Lebanon (French controlled). The Entente-backed Greek invasion of Turkey (1919-1922) indirectly caused both the overthrow of the Sultan and the ascendency of the “Hero of Gallipoli”, Mustafa Kemal (aka Attaturk), whose nationalist regime then ethnically cleansed the Anatolian Greek minority. Meanwhile, the decision by the victorious Allies at the post-war Paris Peace Conference to give Japan China’s Shandong province triggered the “May Fourth” protests across China by nationalists and university students, undermining the credibility of the already fragile Chinese republic.
Of course, imperial dissolution and the accompanying ethnic conflict were now also felt in Europe. After experiencing the fatal combination of social upheaval, economic volatility in the form of spiraling inflation, political unrest, rampant food shortages and ultimately military defeat, between 1917 and 1918 the autocratic dynastic empires of Romanov Russia, Habsburg Austria-Hungary and Hohenzollern Germany were suddenly shaken when their monarchies were overthrown by revolutions and violently tipped into collapse. Out of their rubble emerged new unstable nation-states, including Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, that had sizable and vulnerable ethnic minorities, especially Germans and Jews, and whose controversial borders were officially settled at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919-1920. As Ferguson argues, while under the old multi-national empires different ethnic groups could live within reasonable harmony (even with cases of intermarriages), with imperial collapse and the birth of new, far-less tolerant nation-states often led to the rapid breakdown multi-ethnic communities into sectarian violence. What followed were a series of regional and civil wars (the bloodiest of which, the Russian Civil War, lasted until the early 1920s) as well as long lasting simmering ethnic conflict. In essence, the Near-Eastern Question’s explosive fallout resulted in the emergence of a “Central and Eastern European Question”, which would trigger another, far-bloodier world war.
The First World War’s fallout also witnessed a crisis of rapid democratization in large sections of Europe and Asia, most dangerously in the form of the unstable transition from authoritarian autocratic monarchy to young unstable true mass-democracies. This democratic wave proved short lived. Rapid mass-democratization destabilized the new nation-states as the nationalist parties of the ethnic majority in parliaments could use democratic legislation to enact laws persecuting ethnic minorities, thus exacerbating social fragmentation. Rapid democratization also amplified this by exacerbating class-conflict and emerging political infighting between the far-right wing nationalist Fascists and the far-left wing socialist Communists. Because of this the fledging democracies proved fragile during economic volatility and political upheaval, tipping into collapse by the 1930s. Out of this emerged authoritarian dictatorships, most brutal of which were the totalitarian one-party states.
In 1917, the communist Soviet Union emerged after Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks overthrew revolutionary Russia’s democratic “Provisional Government” during the October Revolution and secured their regime through victory in the Russian Civil War. The spread of communism and the middle-class’ fear of it saw a series of young democracies replaced by reactionary right wing, anti-communist dictatorships. These included military despotisms, such as Admiral Horthy’s in Hungary (which emerged in 1920 after crushing Bela Kun’s communists in Budapest in 1919), and in Poland under Marshall Joseph Pilsudki (the hero of the Polish-Soviet War who crushed the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw in 1921).
They also included new Fascist dictatorships, appearing first in Italy in 1922 with Benito Mussolini’s appointment as Prime Minister by King Victor Immanuel III. His movement was created in the wake of the volatile sudden expansion of the heavily restricted voting franchise to universal suffrage along with fear of communist agitation. Most dangerous of all was the totalitarian anti-Semitic, anti-Slavic, Pan-German “Third Reich” in Germany ruled by Adolf Hitler’s fascist Nazi Party (1933), which emerged out of the fragile Weimar Republic (Germany’s first true democracy) during the Great Depression. However, right-wing dictatorships also spread to the Middle East and Far East Asia as well. Mustafa Kemal quickly turned the Turkish Republic into a one party state in all but name, while China, whose republic had already fragmented, was now plagued with another civil war between Chiang Kai-Shek’s right-wing nationalist Guomindong and Mao Zedong’s communists in 1927. Lastly, Japan’s first true mass-democracy proved short lived in the face of the Great Depression and gave way to a militaristic dictatorship.
The new totalitarian dictatorships in turn aimed at redrawing the global geopolitical map. In order to solve their domestic socio-economic crises, redeem their perceived and real humiliation at the Paris Peace Conference, and to make their states economically autarkic, Hitler’s Nazi German Reich, Mussolini’s Fascist Italy and Hirohito’s Imperial Japan pushed the international post-war order to breaking point through aggressive foreign policies. Nazi Germany and Japan pursued brutal campaigns of territorial acquisition in order to acquire “living-space” (lebensraum in German) and thus forge colonial empires based upon racial purification and hierarchical segregation through murderous ethnic cleansing and enslavement of other “racially inferior” ethnic groups.
This of course culminated with the return of global conflict, which as in 1914, was indirectly rooted in the feedback loop between Europe and Asia. Rooted in the smoldering Far-Eastern and Central and Eastern European questions, events resulting from the interactions of empires at one end of Eurasia could trigger massive ripple effects in the other. Japan’s imperial ambitions were aimed at conquering Asia, with the hope of creating a “Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. This manifested in the form of two territorial aims. In 1931 Japan conquered Manchuria, bringing it into conflict with Mongolia and the U.S.S.R. As Timothy Snyder points out, this had the effect of fuelling Soviet fears of an encircling alliance between Germany, Poland and Japan, thus helping fuel Stalin’s deportation of the Soviet Union’s Polish minority during collectivization. Six years later, Japan launched an invasion against disintegrating China.
Meanwhile, despite appeasement by Britain and France, Hitler’s Germany continued to break the Treaty of Versailles, pursuing the ambition of creating a “Greater German Reich” in Central and Eastern Europe: annexing German-speaking Austria as well carving up and annexing part of Czechoslovakia even after the British and French forced Czechoslovakia to give Hitler the German-speaking Sudetenland. Convinced that the British and French were weak, Hitler turned his sights on Poland, signing a non-aggression pact with Stalin’s Soviet Union in August 1939 to carve up the country. This had two major consequences. First, as Stalin hoped, it temporarily broke the German-Japanese anti-Soviet alliance, forcing Japan to stop aiming at northern East Asia and focus entirely southwards towards China and the Pacific. Secondly, it allowed for the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in September of that same year, ultimately triggering the Second World War. During the next two years, Nazi Germany quickly conquered Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Yugoslavia and Greece. The conflict truly became global when Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941 and later when Japan attacked the United States of America’s naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii on December 7th, 1941. In many ways Hitler’s war in Eastern Europe was an echo of the older Near-Eastern Question while in turn the Far-Eastern Question, through Japan, was crucial in accelerating America’s ascendency as a global superpower.
In their wars of conquest, the German and Japanese empires mirrored each other. They both committed campaigns of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Japanâ’s forces committed horrific atrocities against the Chinese population, including the infamous “Rape of Nanking” in 1938*, in which 260,000 inhabitants were murdered while between 8,000 and 20,000 women were raped. The Japanese murdered around 6 million Chinese during the war. Meanwhile, in both Poland and the Soviet Union, the Nazis carried out mind-boggling brutality against the Jewish, Sinti-Roma and Slavic communities, turning that territory into what Snyder calls the “Bloodlands”. Hitler believed that the Jews had “stabbed the German army in the back” at the end of the First World War by “fomenting” revolution and had “polluted Aryan Germanic blood” through intermarriage and sex, i.e. producing children of mixed descent. The Nazis murdered 12 million people in the Holocaust, 6 million of whom were Jews, the majority from Central and Eastern Europe.* They also murdered 27 million Soviet citizens, including 13 million civilians and 3.5 million Soviet POWs. Both Germany and Japan saw their campaigns as a “clash of civilizations”, between “East and West”. In their conquest of Eastern Europe, the Nazis saw Jews, Sinti-Roma, Slavs and communists as “Asiatic barbarians” who had to be annihilated in order to save “Aryan” European civilization. The Japanese in turn believed that they were ridding Asia of “Western decadence.”
In the end, by 1945 the totalitarian empires of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy were comprehensively defeated. In revenge for Nazi atrocities against Slavs, the Soviet, Polish and Czech forces carried out the brutal expulsion of around 13 million ethnic Germans who had been long established minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, which in turn resulted in around 2 million deaths. According to the Red Cross, in total Germany lost around 7,375,800 people. The Second World War as a whole would see the deaths of around 75 million people, a vast chunk of which was heavily concentrated in Central and Eastern Europe and Far-East Asia. Thus, that second global conflict was the most explosive legacy of the Two Eastern Questions.
The Cold War and the 21st Century
At first it seemed that the Second World War brought to an end the legacy of the Scramble for the Asia and its Two Eastern Questions. In reality, this was an illusion. In what came to be known as the Cold War, the new nuclear armed rival pseudo-empires, the United States and the Soviet Union, vied with each other to dominate the globe through the creation of satellite states and proxy wars as the Western European colonial empires exhausted by the two world wars- crumbled, which involved parts of Asia.
Although polarized between pro-U.S. capitalist Western Europe and the pro-Soviet communist satellite states of Eastern Europe (centered on West and East Germany) Europe had finally become relatively peaceful. By contrast Asia was still seething with violence. With the end of British rule in 1947, India descended into ethno-religious violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs as it was partitioned into the new states of India and Pakistan, which would later become nuclear rivals. Yet just as important was what was happening at the opposite ends of Asia for the Two Eastern Questions re-emerged in new form, namely the still simmering yet evolving Far-Eastern Question and a new “Middle Eastern Question”. While the international order, as a complex adaptive system, adapted to the periodic crises produced by the new Two Eastern Questions, given the context of the interconnected Cold War alliance system and the emergence of nuclear weapons, these crises could have near-fatal global consequences.
In the wake of the Japanese Empire’s collapse, Far-East Asia continued to erupt with violence. China’s civil war between Chaing Kai-Shek’s nationalists and Mao Zedong’s communists resumed, resulting in Mao’s victory and the formation of the communist “People’s Republic of China” as well as nationalist Taiwan under the defeated Chaing Kai-Shek’s leadership in 1949. Meanwhile, Korea, like Germany, was carved into Western backed capitalist South Korea and Soviet backed communist North Korea. From 1950 to 1953 war raged between South Korea, backed by the United States and the West, and North Korea, with support logistically from Moscow and militarily from Beijing. The end result was an uneasy â€œpeaceâ€. The unpopular Vietnam War followed this in the 1960s between the communist North and the exhausted United States, in support of the South Vietnamese regime.
Equally important to ongoing Far-Eastern Question was what one would call a “Middle Eastern Question”. One year after the Second World War ended, the Soviet Union nearly came to blows with the United States and the British Empire over Iran. The Soviet Union both delayed its military withdrawal in North Iran (established in the Second World War for logistical purposes) and backed ethnic Azerbaijani separatists in order to gain access to oil. It was only averted when the Soviets agreed to withdraw.
The Middle East was further wracked by the emergence of the state of Israel in 1948, and the reaction of Arab nationalists, who attached the fledgling state in a series of Israeli-Arab wars. This could threaten global peace. When the Israeli-British-French alliance attacked Pan-Arab Gamal Nasser’s Egypt in October 1956, in response to the seizure of the Suez Canal, it nearly triggered world war with the Soviet Union. The United States forced the alliance to back down and threatened to stop paying Britain’s wartime debt if it kept up the pretense of colonialism. The declining and severely indebted British Empire quickly tipped into full-blown dissolution within just three decades.
The Middle East would also see the birth of Radical Islamism, a potent Islamic fundamentalist ideology, inspired by Sayyid Qutb, which gained momentum as secular Arab nationalism met defeat after defeat against Israel. And although the Ottoman Empire had long since collapsed, great power rivalry over Turkey once again strained international relations. In response to Soviet ambitions to control the Bosphorus, the United States placed Jupiter nuclear missiles in Turkey in 1961 to hold Moscow in check. This in part motivated Khrushchev to place Soviet nuclear ballistic missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba in October 1962, triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis that nearly tipped the global order into nuclear world war.
Paradoxically, the new Two Eastern Questions were also crucial in helping bring the Cold War to an end.
In order extract the United States out of Vietnam with out seeming to have been defeated, U.S. President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, travelled to the People’s Republic of China in 1972 to begin peaceful relations: taking advantage of simmering border disputes between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.
Yet it was 1979 when the beginning of the end for the Cold War truly began, because of three events produced by the new Two Eastern Questions.
First, the Shah’s autocratic monarchy was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution (empowering the Islamist totalitarian regime of the Ayatolla Khomeini and fuelling the emergence of many Islamist groups throughout the Middle East). Determined to force out the political influence of the United States and the West in the region, the appearance of the Khomeini’s regime also motivated Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s U.S. backed invasion of Iran to prevent Shiite Islamism sweeping away the power of the Iraq’s Sunni Baath Party dictatorship. With Iraq supported by the United States, the ensuing Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 resulted in brutal atrocities through chemical warfare.
Secondly, civil war in Afghanistan soon dragged in Moscow militarily, precipitating both the Soviet Union’s imperial overstretch that soon combined with a simmering fiscal crisis and humiliating defeat at the hands of the U.S. backed Islamist Mujahedeen forces (which included among its ranks the future Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin-Laden).
The third and final event which helped lead to the Cold War’s end was Deng Xiaoping becoming leader of the People’s Republic of China. His regime initiated pro-capitalist economic reforms and opened former treaty ports to foreign investors, but under Chinese control, starting the economic ascendency of China.
Increasingly outpaced in armaments by the United States and defeated in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union declined further. The new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried to initiate both economic and political reforms. Yet this unintentionally triggered resurgent ethnic nationalisms and revealed the incompetency of communism. In 1989 the Soviet Union’s empire in Eastern Europe tipped into collapse, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991.
However, although the Cold War may have ended, the Two Eastern Questions were far from over. The same year the Soviet Union collapsed, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, triggering the First Iraq War (or “Gulf War”) against U.S. led coalition forces, and revealing how the Middle Eastern Question lived on.
Meanwhile in the 1990s there was one last echo of the older Near-Eastern Question when Yugoslavia, previously ethnically integrated through intermarriages and assimilation under Marshal Tito, tipped into civil war, ethnic cleansing and genocide between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks and Kosovars after a series of political and economic crises.
On September 11th, 2001, the West was woken up to the still simmering Middle Eastern Question, when Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist group, Al-Qaeda, hijacked four planes and attacked the United States. Two destroyed the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers in New York City, one crashed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and the fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Around 3000 civilians died.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks were crucial in starting a new chapter for the Two Eastern Questions. First, in response to the threat of Islamist terrorism, the United States’ Bush administration initiated the new foreign policy of invading and occupying first Afghanistan and then later in 2003 Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; further destabilizing the Middle East.
The Second Iraq War became increasingly unpopular as the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime triggered both the explosion of sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites as well as the bogging down of the U.S. army amid an Islamist insurgency. Secondly, the 9/11 attacks were the catalyst for disastrous economic policies, for in response to the sudden financial shock the U.S. Federal Reserve greatly lowered interest rates. Combined with the reckless lending of mortgages to risky low-income households that were bundled into either mortgage-backed securities or collateralized debt obligations that were sold all over the world, as well as the Federal Reserve’s overleveraging of investment banks and China buying U.S. bonds to pay off American debt, this unintentionally fuelled an unstable housing market bubble that went bust in 2007; tipping the global economy into the chaos of global recession with the collapse of Lehman Brothers (2008-2012).
Out of this has emerged two major geopolitical developments. First, because the United States became even more indebted to China, the relations between the two unofficial imperial superpowers have become strained. This threatens peace in Asia for there are still tensions between North and South Korea while concurrently there are simmering disputes between China and Japan over control of the South China Sea, particularly the Senkaku and Diaoyu islands. And, of course, China seems poised to become a potential geopolitical superpower that could challenge the waning American empire.
Secondly, the ripple effects of global recession, in the form of rising food prices and growing socio-economic inequality also amplified domestic tensions within the Middle East and North Africa. This reached a tipping point when the impoverished Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, resentful of corrupt government maltreatment, lit himself on fire, triggering the revolutionary “Arab Spring” (December 2010-January 2011) that toppled the autocratic regimes of the region and plunged some countries, such as Bashar al-Assad”s Syria, into civil war. This has of course heightened ethnic-religious violence, such as the genocidal campaigns against Shiite Muslims and Christians by the Sunni Islamist group ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Add the fact that Iran and North Korea are close to developing nuclear missiles and one can see that the 21rst century’s Two Eastern Questions are becoming dangerously unstable.
Ultimately, it is impossible to predict how this will end, for the historical process is in constant flux and does not lead in a linear fashion towards inevitable outcomes. However, as I have tried to demonstrate in this blog, history can sometimes illuminate the hidden complex historical patterns beneath the seeming anarchy. The history of the Scramble for Asia is of vital importance, for if one wants to understand how and why the course of 20th century history moved in the way that it did, then one must understand the role of Asia as much as that of Europe. Indeed, through Europe’s “Scramble for Asia” during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Europe and Asia developed a highly symbiotic, interdependent feedback loop. Europe prospered economically partly by dominating Asia. Yet this would backfire, for the race to carve up Asia ended up creating the Two Eastern Questions, specifically the decline of the Qing and Ottoman empires. This in turn fed European imperial rivalries over Asia back into Europe and thus indirectly led to the First World War in the summer of 1914 and, as a result, indirectly helped influenced the rest of the course of the 20th century. Indeed, the Two Eastern Questions evolved into new forms that helped shape the entire 20th century and, ultimately, continue to shape our own time.
By Sean Ennis
Sean is a guest contributor to The History Factor blog.
Currently, his three main areas of interest are the origins of the First World War, the origins of 20th Century totalitarianism and the nature of historical causation; drawing immense influence from the science of Mathematical Chaos Theory and Complex Adaptive Systems.
Taking a Specialist Degree in History at the University of Toronto, Sean focused primarily on Imperial Germany, Hitler’s Third Reich, the Holocaust, and the two World Wars.
* Niall Ferguson argues that in order understand why the “Fifty Years’ War of the World” (the World Wars were the bloodiest volumes) happened between the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and the Korean War of 1950-1953 and why the decline of the West and the re-ascendency of the East happened, the question of timing and location must be taken into account: Why was it that certain places, such as Central and Eastern Europe or Far-East Asia, particularly Manchuria and Korea, and certain times, such as the first of the half of the 20th century, were more violent than others? Ferguson’s answer is that there were three interdependent factors that made certain regions at certain times more violent: Economic Volatility, Ethnic Disintegration and Empires in Decline. To understand this more, I highly recommend reading Niall Ferguson’s “The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West”, which has to be one of my all-time favourite history books on the World Wars and the 20th century.
 Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), lxix-lxxi
* I soon realized when reading historian Sean McMeekin’s “The Russian Origins of the First World War”, that we had both independently come up with the term “Two Eastern Questions”. While we both include the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans was one Eastern Question, we differ on the other Eastern Question: McMeekin refers to the Russian ambition to shatter the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire and in particular to absorb as well as ethnically cleanse Austro-Hungarian controlled Galicia of Germans, Hungarians and Jews and settle it with Slavic
Russians, Ukrainians and Poles whereas I refer to the painful protracted decline of Qing Dynasty China.
* Qing Dynasty China fought against Britain in the Second Opium War (1856-1860), over Vietnam with France (1884-1885) and, ironically, against a fellow Asian power,
Japan (1894-1895), losing Taiwan in the process.
* The Eight-Nation Alliance included Britain, France, Germany, Japan, the United States, Russia, Italy and Austria-Hungary.
 Robert Bickers, The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (London: Allan Lane Publishing, 2011), 346; Davies, 870; Michael Dillon, China: A Modern History (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 110-111, 113; Spence, 160, 180-181
 Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923 (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 367; Ahmad Fuad Fanani, The Ottoman Empire: Its Rise, Decline and Collapse, 101, http://www.academia.edu/4983151/The_Ottoman_Empire_Its_Rise_Decline_and_Collapse; Bickers, 327; Ferguson, The War of the World, 10; Spence, 162
* The Taiping Rebellion was led by the zealous Christian convert, Hong Xiuquan.
 Davies, 870; Ferguson, The War of the World, 176; Finkel, 355; Charles Jelavich, Barbara Jelavich, The Establishment of the Balkan Nation States (U.S.A.: University of Washinton Press, 1977), 139; Spence, 171-180
* The future nationalist revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen, trained as a doctor in British Hong Kong.
 Marie-Calire Bergere, Sun Yat-sen (Columbia: Stanford University Press, 1994), 60; Dillon, 118-119; David Fromkin, Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 69; Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 77; Mary Backus Rankin, Early Chinese Revolutionaries: Radical Intellectuals in Shanghai and Chekiang, 1902-1911 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971), 13; Juan Wang, (Officialdom Unmasked: Shanghai Tabloid Press, 1897-1911), in Late Imperial China Volume 28 (2007), 81, 84-118
 Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 144-145; Ferguson, The Pity of War, 39-42, 143; Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Toronto: Allan Lane, 2013), 404-405; Johnathan S. McMurray, Distant Ties: Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the Construction of the Berlin-Bagdad Railway (United States: Praeger Publishers, 2001), 30
 Ferguson, The War of the World, 74
 Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914 (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), 78-79, 121
 Ferguson, The War of the World, 51-57, 74
* In many ways, Russia almost triggered a general European (and thus, potentially global) war on November 22nd, 1912 during the First Balkan War. Russia nearly mobilized against Austria-Hungary over its demand that Serbia halt its aggressive conquest in Albania and respect that state’s independence. Vienna in particular feared Serbia’s aim of acquiring a port on the Adriatic. For further reading, see Sean McMeekin’s “The Russian Origins of the First World War”, 24-25
* The Greek-speaking minority of Western Anatolia (Turkey) were in conflict with Balkan Muslim refugees, who had fled brutal ethnic cleansing in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913).
 Clark, 121-141, 251-258; MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace, 422-426, 439-456, 460-463, 527; Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 6-7, 23-40, 110
* Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination by Gavrilo Princip on June 28th, 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, was not some unimportant pretext. In reality, it was the most important factor in the outbreak of the First World War, for while he was alive, the Archduke was the one man who held in check the warmongers in Vienna, such as the Foreign Minister Count von Leopold Berchtold and the Chief of the General Staff of the Habsburg military Conrad von Hötzendorf, who had been calling for war against the increasingly aggressive anti-Habsburg, Pan-Yugoslav nationalist Serbia. Ferdinand vetoed them because he knew that an Austro-Serbian war would trigger a Great Power war between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, one that he feared the fragile multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire would not survive. His death allowed the warmongers to use his death as a pretext to declare war on Serbia.
* As McMeekin has argued there were “Four Wars of Ottoman Succession”: The First Balkan War (October 8th, 1912-May 30th, 1913), the Second Balkan War (June 29th-August 10th, 1913), the First World War (1914-1918), and the Greco-Turkish War (May 1919-October 1922). As he points out, the last conflict, between Greece and Turkey over the status of the Anatolian Greek minority (i.e. national self-determination), was actually the “Third Balkan War” that most international statesmen, journalists and financiers believed would happen in 1914. The last thing they were expecting was a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia over the control of predominantly South Slavic multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina, let alone one that was triggered by regicide in the form of an assassination. Indeed, the Balkan Peninsula was increasingly expected to be explosive but not so explosive as to trigger a global conflict. As Margaret MacMillan has argued, because every geopolitical crisis between the Great Powers had been diplomatically resolved actually had the effect of lulling people into a false sense of security, what she calls the “deafening drumbeat of crises”. And as Christopher Clark and Niall Ferguson have both pointed out, most people believed that the probability of a world war happening was decreasing not increasing. Yet 1914 was different. Not only did the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand finally get rid of the last obstacle for the warmongers in Vienna to push for a declaration of war against Serbia, at the same time Austria-Hungary’s war against Serbia threatened Russia’s most important ally in the Balkans and thus its ability to prevent Austria-Hungary (and by extension the far deadlier German Reich) and reckless Bulgaria from seizing Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Bosphorous Straits, which Russia wanted to seize as it had access to the Aegean and Mediterranean trade routes, vital to its economy. And this was partly why Bosnia and the Balkans in general became that fatal “geopolitical fault line”. If anything the First World War delayed the outbreak of the Greco-Turkish War.
 Ferguson, The War of the World, 174-184; Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (New York: Random House Publishing, 2003), 326-343
 Ferguson, The War of the World, 158-174, 184-186
 Ferguson, The War of the World, 226-227
 Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 30-32, 37-38, 68-70, 104-107, 116-117
* The Rape of Nanking happened between December 1937-February 1938
* The Holocaust as a campaign of mass-murder was a dynamical complex adaptive process that evolved in response to changing contingent events (which acted a “perturbation”), first through mobile SS shooting squads called “Einsatzgruppen” in Soviet controlled territory, murdering 1.3 million Jews from the Soviet Union and Soviet-controlled Eastern Poland. In the long run, it was done increasingly through both mobile gas vans and then ultimately the death camps in Poland, such as Auschwitz-Birkeneau, Treblinka, Sobibor and Chelmno, via gas chambers.
 Ferguson, The War of the World, 439-465, 475-480; Laurence Rees, War of the Century: When Hitler fought Stalin (New York: The New Press, 1999), 77; Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands, 119-154, 184, 187-223, 320-327
 William R. Keylor, A World of Nations: The International Order Since 1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 15-17
 Ferguson, Empire, 299-301
 John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin Press, 2005), 11, 28, 75-78