Putin is a pest, but China is our real threat, says expert

Prof Margaret MacMillan. Picture: BBC
Prof Margaret MacMillan. Picture: BBC
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It was probably the biggest and bloodiest battle on English soil. Some 28,000 were killed, captured or wounded as Yorkists and Lancastrians clashed in the middle of a snowstorm on an open field between Towton and Saxton in North Yorkshire on Palm Sunday.

It happened five centuries and a half ago, yet its lessons resonate today, according to the Canadian historian and Oxford professor Margaret MacMillan, who chose York, a location close to the scene, to deliver one of the BBC’s landmark Reith Lectures on war and its aftermath.

“Wars can often make a difference in society,” she says, “and the Wars of the Roses did in the end create an increasingly powerful government.”

We retain, she says, mixed feelings towards war. “We find it abhorrent, of course, but also exciting.”

But surely, the patriotic fervour attached to fighting for one’s country until a century ago is no longer at play?

“Depends which country you’re talking about,” notes Prof MacMillan, whose great-grandfather, David Lloyd George, was Prime Minister during the second half of the First World War.

“Europe used to be the home of nationalism – it still is in some circles – but it has moved away from war since 1945 and its societies are far less militarized. You don’t see European heads of state in uniform any more. And the military is not admired in the way that it once was.

“But in China for the past decade, the government has run a patriotic education campaign in schools, and I suspect a lot of young Chinese have been brought up to feel that their country has been humiliated in the past and must never be again.”

It is here in East Asia, not the Middle East or Russia, that the world’s most volatile society resides, she believes.

“For a long time, the Chinese preference was to achieve its aims through subordinating others or by deception, all sorts of things to avoid fighting – but now it seems to be moving in a more militaristic direction.

“What worries me is that in Washington, within the military, you have people talking as if the US is going to have to go to war with China sooner or later.

“It has a real grip on the imagination, and in China, too, you get people in certain international relations circles, saying the same thing, which is very dangerous. Once you think something is inevitable you make it more likely to happen.”

China’s motivation for aggression, she says, would be to see its stature recognised on an international stage.

“It wants to be influential in its own neighbourhood. It wants to safeguard the raw materials and the markets it needs, and while it’s hoping to use its economic power to achieve that, it’s also spending a lot on its military.”

Russia, she believes, is more an irritant than a threat to world order.

“It still has nuclear weapons but it no longer has the capacity to be a great military power. Its economy and its infrastructure is a mess.

“But what it can cause is trouble. Putin acts as a spoiler and a troublemaker because that’s what he can do – he isn’t a major military threat in the way that China is becoming.”

The Middle East, despite its instability and “the situation having been made much worse by outside meddling”, is also not a likely source of intercontinental conflict, Prof MacMillan says.

“I can see low-level, horrible war dragging on there and exacting a terrible price from civilians, but if I were looking for state-to-state war, I would look to the confrontation in the Pacific.”

Fearing and Loving: Making Sense of the Warrior, Margaret MacMillan’s Reith Lecture, named after the BBC’s founder and recorded at the University of York, is on Radio 4 next Tuesday at 9am.