What If the Chinese Are Just Biding Their Time?

What If the Chinese Are Just Biding Their Time? By Noah Millman.

The major European powers are often described as having sleepwalked their way into a cataclysm that very nearly ended European civilization [WWI], but Allison’s account of the years leading to war makes clear this is inadequate. The key to understanding how Britain got drawn into war with Germany, a country for whom it had substantial affinity as well as royal blood ties, is the reality that “Germany’s intentions were irrelevant; its capabilities were what mattered.”

When British diplomat Eyre Crowe wrote his famous 1907 memorandum warning of Germany’s expansionist intentions, the Kaiser may not have intended to threaten the British Empire at all. But once it had the naval power to do so, it could hardly fail to demand an alteration in global arrangements to better reflect its power to threaten the British Empire. Therefore, Britain had no choice but to engage in a naval arms race with Germany. And that arms race in turn convinced Germany’s leadership that Britain was determined to prevent it from achieving a status commensurate with its potential based on its economic and military prowess. And thus the way was paved to a war that neither party could rationally have wanted.

The analogies with the contemporary Sino-American rivalry are ominous in many ways and have been oft remarked upon. But there are also very substantial differences between the cases … The most important difference: the scale of China’s economic achievement dwarfs that of Germany’s rise relative to Britain. On the eve of World War I, German GDP had just recently surpassed that of Britain’s. China’s GDP has just passed America’s in terms of purchasing power parity. But, with four times America’s population and three times its GDP growth rate, China is projected to grow much larger than America in just a few years. Another crucial difference: China is half a world away from the United States, while Germany was just across the channel from Britain. Britain’s leaders had far more reason to consider Germany an existential threat than America does a rising China.

Those key facts suggest another potent analogy. Britain faced more than one serious rival in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It played a “Great Game” in Central Asia to prevent a rising Russia from threatening its interests in India. But it was also cognizant of a new power rising across the Atlantic. After the American Civil War, the United States exploded economically, surpassing Britain in 1870 and growing to twice Britain’s size by the eve of World War I. However much Britain might have wished to contain America’s rise, it was apparent that this would be a practical impossibility. Since America was half a world away from Britain — and even farther from the key territories of the Empire — Britain could concede American primacy in its own hemisphere far more readily than it could accept Russian or German expansion. In the end, the power transition from Britain to America was accomplished not only without war but with America becoming Britain’s closest ally and coming to the Empire’s aid in its two catastrophic wars with Germany. …

America … has always conceived of itself in grandly universal and missionary terms, providing little scope for any other power to have an independent sphere. From ancient times, meanwhile, China conceived itself as being the center of civilization itself, even the center of the universe. These are not self-conceptions that can easily accommodate peer-to-peer relationships with other powers. China’s memory of more than a century of foreign domination, moreover, is if anything a deeper well of grievance than Germany’s anxiety of belatedness for having failed to achieve a unified identity comparable to Britain’s or France’s in time to establish its own global empire. …

While Japan’s goals in 1941 were similar to China’s today — to drive America out of the western Pacific and establish a predominant and independent position in Asia — China seems more inclined to pursue them by patiently accumulating power, exerting a steady centripetal force on the countries on its periphery, and raising the cost incrementally higher and higher for neighboring countries to maintain alliances with the United States rather than operating within a Chinese-led regional structure. …

China is pursuing a very different path reflecting a different civilization. It remains a one-party dictatorship and its leader, Xi Jinping, has emphasized repeatedly the centrality of the party and his own supremacy as its head. It is possible that this political structure suits Chinese culture; Allison quotes Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew’s observation that if China became a democracy the country would collapse. But even if it does suit Chinese culture (which is debatable, considering that the Chinese on Taiwan have built a highly successful democracy), it may be ill-suited for the challenges of the next phase of economic development.

hat-tip Stephen Neil