Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Comparing China and the Kaiser's Germany (part 1): Similarities

Comparing China and the Kaiser's Germany (part 1): Similarities

This two-part series examines the frequent comparison between contemporary China and pre-1914 Wilhelmine Germany. A host of commentators have made this comparison in the past few years: Walter Russell Mead, Martin Wolf, Edward Luttwak, and Joseph Nye, and a little further afield, Gideon Rachman and Victor David Hansen. It is often suggested in these analogies that East Asia today is like Europe before WWI; one famous formulation has it that 'Asia's future will be Europe's past'.

So in this and my next post, I want to examine the China-Germany analogy in some detail. In brief, I think the comparisons are enticing, particularly because it is hard to find a good analogy of a 'peaceful rise', as China, until recently at least, seemed to be pursuing. That is, we use Germany 1914 as an analogy in part because we can't find others that seem to China fit well, and we routinely use analogical reasoning in social science to improve our understanding.

But I also think the contrasts are stark enough that the predictive value of the analogy is weak. Ideally, this would be pursued more seriously as a full-blown research paper, so to any graduate students reading, this is a nice international relations project with an Asian empirical focus.

Here are the four major variables that seem to drive the analogy.

1. Both are encircled

Germany in 1914 bordered eight countries. To be sure, several of them (such as Denmark or Luxembourg) were weak, but further afield were France, Russia, Italy, and Britain. When I studied in Germany in the 1990s, my history professor at the time referred to this as the 'Eisener Kreis' (iron circle). Germany was sealed in, with hostile, or at best suspicious, states all around it. Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were weak collapsing allies at best, whose great power status depended much on German insistence that they were in fact still great powers.

China today too is encased by hostile and semi-hostile states. For all its power, China today, like Germany then, has few friends on its periphery; indeed it has few friends at all. It borders fourteen other states directly, with maritime proximity to four others.

Like Germany, many of these states are weak, such as Mongolia or Kyrgyzstan. But then there's Russia, India, Japan, plus South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. That is an extraordinarily tough roster should those states coalesce into a counter-Chinese balancing coalition. Indeed, if there is one thing I hear repeatedly from my Chinese grad students, it is not that China will dominate Asia in a 'neo-tribute system' (per Japanese and American fears) but that China is encircled and harried by foreigners.

2. Both are growing fast

Thucydides' famous explanation for the Peloponnesian War was Athens' rapid growth and the fear this inspired in the Aegean. Both Germany and China are similar. [fold]

Wilhelmine Germany was growing more rapidly and intensively than its neighbours in the decades after German unification (1871). That industrialisation was also in the heavy industry, chemical, and scientific sectors that fed directly into German hard power. By 1900 it is reasonable to guess that Germany would have won a one on one conflict with any power on the continent. And ultimately American forces were required to defeat it in the war.

China too is growing rapidly, and not just in erratic spurts like boom and bust emerging markets, but in a sustained manner over decades now. Its modernisation is the most remarkable story in the history of development. Even its reduced current 7-8% growth is five times Japan's GDP expansion rate and three times America's. We often hear that countries like the Brazil, India, South Africa, Turkey, Indonesia, and so on, are the 'powers of tomorrow.' But unlike the vague potential of these other states, China is a major power now. It is pulling away from the rest. Asia is already bipolar and tilting toward unipolarity, and the international system as a whole will be bipolar soon as China catches up to the US. Indeed, it is now arguably a category error to include China with the other BRICS.

3. Nationalism and grievance

German nationalism clearly played a role in both sparking World War I and convincing many neighbours that World War I was not a 'European civil war' but a German bid for regional hegemony (this debate is captured in the 'Fischer controversy'). The extreme character of Wilhelmine nationalism is famously captured in films and novels such as the Blue Angel and All Quiet on the Western Front. The Kaiser had notoriously declared that Germany needed 'its place in the sun', and Mitteluropa hegemony was bandied about as a German World War I war aim.

China too has grown increasingly nationalist and driven by perceived grievance. The end of the Cold War and the repression of Tiananmen Square ended communism as a legitimating ideology for the regime. In its place has arisen Han nationalism bolstered by 'patriotic education,' plus a victimisation ideology built around the 'century of humiliation' of China by Japan and the West. Chinese power, under the leadership of the Party, is to reverse that.

4. Growth of military power

This is probably the most obvious parallel for many. Germany went from disunity in 1870 to nearly conquering the continent in less than fifty years. Two massive conflicts in which Germany was effectively gang-tackled by enormous anti-German coalitions were needed to finally break German military power, and China is so much larger than Germany ever was.

China too is a rapidly growing military power. It has more soldiers under arms than any other state (around 2.3 million). It is the second largest defence spender after the US. Its navy plans to deploy aircraft carriers as well as operate beyond the 'first island chain' and into the Indian Ocean. It is widely thought that China's tough line in the South China Sea and with Japan over its air defence identification zone are the result of military muscle flexing. So central is this emerging challenge to US dominance in the western Pacific that the US Congress requires an annual report from the US Defense Department on China's military (2013 version here).

The predictive question from these similarities is thus: will China launch a break-out conflict to fracture its encirclement, as Germany did? I don't think so, because there are enough strong contrasts, elucidated in my next post, which badly damage the analogy's predictive power.

In brief, I see three contrasts that aren't often mentioned in the currently fashionable Germany = China essays: 

  1. Culture: China may be so different from Germany in mores and habits that it undermines the analogy. Specifically, it is often argued that China has a cultural predilection for defence, thereby invalidating the German 1914 offensive analogy.
  2. Learning: it is often said that China has learned from Wilhelmine Germany, and the USSR, not to rise as a belligerent and provoke an encircling coalition as they both did.
  3. Nuclear weapons : there has been no war between great powers since 1945, many believe, because of the powerful deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. So German 1914-style aggression is extraordinarily unlikely, not just by China, but by any power.

These points will be developed in the second post of this series.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Related Content"

You may also be interested in