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Comparing China and the Kaiser's Germany (part 2): Differences

Comparing China and the Kaiser's Germany (part 2): Differences
Published 13 Mar 2014   Follow @Robert_E_Kelly

This two-part series examines the frequent comparison between contemporary China and Wilhelmine Germany.

In my previous post, I noted that China today is often analogised to Wilhelmine Germany in the run-up to World War I. This is probably captured most famously in the question: 'will Europe's past be Asia's future?' The basic idea is that intense nationalism, seething historical and territorial grievances, and rapid modernisation might plunge Asia into a World War I-style general war, with China as the neo-Wilhelmine villain provoking it all.

In Part 1, I argued that there are four shared structural characteristics that drive the 'China today-Germany 1914' analogy: encirclement by suspicious powers, rapid economic expansion, grievance-driven nationalist ideology, and rapidly expanding military power upsetting the regional balance of power.

But many other (perhaps less hawkish) observers, such as Timo Kivimäki, David Kang or Amitav Acahrya, have regularly noted that East Asia has enjoyed a robust peace since 1979, and that realist-hawkish predictions of Chinese aggression have been around since Tiananmen Square yet never come true.

Predictions that never pass but are regularly re-warmed by saying that we should just wait a little longer are theoretically weak and deserve re-evaluation. [fold]

1979 was the last time a serious inter-state war (between China and Vietnam) occurred in East Asia. And Kang has argued for a while that declining military expenditures in East Asia belie the standard Western op-ed narrative of rising Chinese power and fear of it throughout Asia. Asian behaviour seems not to support that contention of the 'China threat' school.

To expand on those scholars' approach, I think a major reason for this disjuncture is that we miss the differences between Wilhelmine Germany and modern China, while over-focusing on the similarities. We do this in part because we are desperate to find an analogy for modern China in order to get a handle on it (and, honestly, we'd rather that analogy be a European one, because most of us have egregiously eurocentric training). I see three major differences that, in line with Kang- Kivimäki-Acharya approach, undercut the predictive power of the Germany analogy:

1. Culture

China today may be so different from Wilhelmine Germany in mores and habits that that undermines the analogy. It is hardly a stretch to suggest that fin de siecle Germans and twenty-first century Chinese probably think differently about a great many things, including foreign policy.

China specialists have routinely argued that China is far less hawkish than deductive generalists on world affairs assume. That is, the China-watching community, deeply steeped in the specifics of the contemporary Chinese polity, has clashed with universalising approaches from international relations theory which simply see China as one more rising hegemonic challenger bound to clash violently with the old order.

China specialist David Shambaugh, responding to John Mearsheimer's position that China will be aggressive, captures this problem well (p. 94):

Both the logic and application of offensive realism in this case are, in my view, unsustainable. It is a classic example of an international relations theorist, who is not well grounded in regional area studies, deductively applying a theory to a situation rather than inductively generating theory from evidence. As a China specialist, I do not recognize the China that Mearsheimer describes … Not only do the analogies of previous rising powers fail to fit contemporary China, but they also have no precedents in China's past.

Generally it appears that IR scholars see China as a greater potential threat than comparative political scientists and area specialists. And there is a bad reflex in popular strategic work on China to attribute all sorts of aggressive designs to it with almost no internal evidence. We need far more well trained, linguistically qualified sinologists before we simply deductively assume from theory that China will act a certain way. As Shambaugh noted, it is hard to find an analogy for contemporary China, so we should not necessarily read it as Germany 1914 out of methodological desperation.

A related argument often made by Chinese scholars is that China's grand strategy tradition, based in the works of strategists like Sun Tzu, is defensive. The major treatment of this idea in English rejects this thesis, but it is still suggestive of the possibility that Chinese strategic culture is different enough from Wilhelmine Germany's to invalidate the parallel.

2. Learning and leadership

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. Indeed it seems commonsense to suggest that Chinese strategists today would read the history of yesterdays' hegemons for lessons. And one obvious takeaway is that aggressive fast-rising states frequently provoke a counter-hegemonic coalition.

Mearsheimer may still be right that China, like Germany, will stumble into a major conflict through misperception and the inevitable friction of a rising power with its neighbours. But such 'iron laws' of history fit poorly with our human ability to learn. As Ned Lebow has argued for years, 'laws' of human behaviour are no longer laws if we internalise them and then act against them or around them. In other words, the Germans may have been foolish and aggressive enough to provoke a continental backlash, but Chinese leaders can explicitly learn from that example and adjust. Nor is China's oligarchy, with its distributed power and strong status quo basis, as likely to engage in recklessness as a monarchy like Germany 1914.

This possibility of improved agency by the Chinese leadership is a second frequently overlooked factor in the Germany=China analogies, which usually focus on similarities that are structural (like the four parallels I have listed in the first part of this post). It seems banal to say it, but the Chinese standing committee today is not the German monarchy a century ago and is unlikely to make the same decisions.

3. Nuclear weapons

There has been no great power war since 1945, many believe, because of the powerful deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. So Germany 1914-style aggression is extraordinarily unlikely, not just by China, but by any power.

The previous two arguments suggest that internal Chinese differences with Wilhelmine Germany undercut its use as a predictive analogue. This third variable is an external technological one. So even if China shares enough internal politico-cultural traits with Germany 1914 to suggest a belligerent course, as so much of the op-ed literature suggests, a final unaccounted variable is the powerful constraint of nuclear retaliation.

Nothing China could win in striking Japan, Taiwan, or South China Sea littoral states (even if it conquered them), could ever outweigh the costs of nuclear strikes on the Chinese mainland. In 1914, German visions of Mitteleuropa hegemony to counter the British empire passed a cost-benefit muster. War paid then (or so the monarchy thought beforehand). Today it does not, given the staggering power of nuclear weapons.

The upshot of these two posts is that the 1914 German analogue for China today is thick enough to delineate its strategic dilemmas — encirclement, competition with the leading state (Great Britain then, the US today), antagonism with recalcitrant neighbours, and so on — but not complete enough to provide good predictions.

Kang is right: predicting a war that hasn't shown up after two and a half decades of such prognostication demands new thinking.

Photo by Flickr user Emma Gawan

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