At the beginning of the twentieth century, Germany was exerting its influence as a new and growing political and military power. The result was the First World War.

We could be seeing the same thing happening with China now. Beijing is setting itself up to be repeatedly provoked in the South China Sea

Tensions are rising around China’s manmade, militarized island at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago. Though it didn’t even exist a few years ago, and for decades ships from other nations could routinely sail by it without disturbance, now Beijing feels provoked if anyone goes near it—and sends out warnings or makes aggressive gestures in response.

This week China scrambled its fighter jets when the USS William P. Lawrence, a guided missile destroyer from the US Navy, conducted a “freedom of navigation” operationfreedom of navigation” operationnear the island. It deliberately sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef. China maintains that nearly the entire area is its own territory.

You can see why they’re doing it too. Strategically and economically, it’s an important part of the world. Consider the fact that some $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through the strategic waterway every year. As Robert D. Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor and former member of the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board reminds us, the South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans — the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce. Here is the heart of Eurasia’s navigable rimland, punctuated by the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar straits. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide. The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal.

That makes it a problem not just for the US, but any number of countries participating in the global economy. The US Navy’s operation was a reminder to China that the sea is open waters, despite any impromptu islands that might have been constructed of late.

One Chinese diplomat has warned that international criticism of China over the disputed South China Sea will rebound like a coiled spring

American commander in charge of military operations in the Asia-Pacific region, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. has told Congress China is clearly militarizing the area. “You’d have to believe in a flat earth to think otherwise,” he said.

Watch this space. And let’s not forget the build up to the First World War