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    Greater China
     Jul 31, 2009
SPEAKING FREELY
Wilhelmine China?
By Sebastian Bruck

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

In recent years, a number of analysts have drawn attention to supposed similarities between the rise of modern China and the rise of Wilhelmine Germany a century ago. Citing two prominent examples, American legal scholar Richard Posner has argued that he is “struck by the resemblance between China and Wilhelmine Germany [1871-1918], two aggressively, at times hysterically, nationalistic countries, paranoid about encirclement by potential enemies […] and possessed of economic institutions more advanced than their political institutions."

Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, meanwhile, has written that "like Germany in the late 19th century, China is also growing rapidly

 

but uncertainly into a global system in which it feels it deserves more attention and honor. The Chinese military is a powerful political player, as was the Prussian officer corps. Like Wilhelmine Germany, the Chinese regime is trying to hold onto political power even as it unleashes forces in society that make its control increasingly shaky."

The unstated fear behind these assertions is the potential for future war between China and the US. However, apart from general allusions to a shared penchant for nationalism and militarism, a fear of encirclement and a quest for honor and recognition, these accounts tend to fall short of providing a systematic comparison of Wilhelmine Germany at the beginning of the 20th and the People's Republic of China at the start of the 21st century.

As a result, intuitive agreement with the diagnosis ("a politically authoritarian, economically dynamic nation will always challenge a declining hegemon!") is almost instantly combined with equally intuitive disagreement ("surely, the international system has moved on from the times of unfettered Bismarckian realpolitik?").

Given the definite room for friction associated with China's growing importance in the international system, that feeling of ambivalence is rather unfortunate - ideally, one would like to know more specifically whether a raging bull or a youthful yet peaceful lamb is currently entering the China shop. What, then, is the truth of the matter? Is war inevitable?

Essentially, any meaningful analysis that goes beyond casual comparisons will have to factor in all three "levels of analysis" central to international relations theory, that is, the international system, the domestic situation and the role of individuals. Regarding the international system, Wilhelmine Germany faced an environment that offered enticing opportunities for national power expansion alongside potential threats to the country's security.

Sensing the decline of the ruling hegemon - Britain - and bolstered by a well-functioning army (whose main contributor, Prussia, had been undefeated in three previous campaigns), pre-World War I Germany clamored for its "place in the sun" and acquired colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Apart from vigorously promoting a navy fit to sail the world's high seas and defend the empire's overseas territories, the leadership also sought to back up Germany's aspirations with an intricate alliance system, notably with Austria-Hungary.

At the same time, despite trade, investment and family links, Wilhelm II and his advisors feared encirclement by France, Russia and Britain, whose armies surrounded the German forces in the west, north and east. In the eyes of the German leadership, France was hell-bent on regaining territories lost in 1870 and Britain strongly opposed Germany's naval build-up. This difficult-to-read mix of opportunities and threats at the level of the international system contributed to the general wish for a "cleansing thunderstorm" which ultimately helped bring about catastrophe in 1914.

In a number of respects, China today appears to face a very similar situation: bound up in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as struggling with the devastating effects of the credit crisis, America, the ruling hegemon, increasingly looks the part of a lame duck. Sensing weakness and despite its own calls for a "peaceful rise", China is building up its military presence, expanding its navy to include "blue water" forces that can defend the country's burgeoning overseas economic interests (particularly in Africa) and boosting its space capabilities (China successfully tested an anti-satellite missile in early 2007 and recently completed another manned space flight).

Alliances with Russia and a number of Central Asian republics (for example via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) underpin this Chinese quest for the country's very own "place in the sun". And even in terms of international system threats, there are similarities between Wilhelmine Germany and China. Thus, despite extensive trade and financial links, Beijing also fears encirclement by powers such as the US (via its South Korean and Japanese allies), India and Vietnam. Potential conflicts often center on territorial disputes too (Taiwan, the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands etc).

Still, two major differences separate the international system of the early 20th century from the international system of the early 21st century: firstly, the role of international law, institutions and organizations, as well as norms and values, has been vastly expanded, not least because of the world's disastrous experience with untamed great-power politics. So far, it seems that China wants to play by this international rulebook as well. Yes, the realists reply, but it only wants to do so until it is powerful enough to change the rules.

This is where the second major difference to the international system of a century ago enters the picture - the power of the atom. Mutually assured destruction prevented two superpowers from going to war before; it likely will do so again in the future. Put differently, no major power today is easily willing to risk total extinction for the pursuit of its interests.

Unless, one may have to add, domestic circumstances force the leadership's hand. How then does China's domestic situation compare to Wilhelmine Germany's?

Domestically, Wilhelmine Germany was a strange animal. With a strongly growing population (41 million citizens in 1871, 68 million in 1913), rapid urbanization and an economy that in 1914 was second only to America's (the period for example saw the founding of Krupp (steel), Siemens (electronics) and Hapag (shipping) which continue to the present day), Germany had decidedly entered the modern age. Natural science flourished too, with Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Robert Koch making ground-breaking scientific discoveries, whereas Thomas Mann and Friedrich Nietzsche underlined Germany's self-perception as the "land of poets and thinkers".

Politically, however, the country remained underdeveloped. While there was a constitution, parliament, elections and other trappings of representative democracy, voters' interests were often sidelined by the emperor and his advisors, most notably in the case of the workers' movement. Importantly, the army did not answer to civilian authorities but directly to the emperor. In order to compensate the masses for their lack of political influence, the state promoted a social welfare agenda and fanned the flames of nationalism, labeling France the nation's "hereditary enemy".

It is on this second level of analysis that modern China appears a close match to Wilhelmine Germany. China's population continues to grow (albeit that trend will reverse soon), its cities are swelling with migrants from the countryside and its economy is booming, with companies such as Bank of China, Haier and Lenovo making a global mark. After the devastations of the Cultural Revolution, science and the arts are back in vogue (Chinese research and development spending as a percentage of gross domestic product more than doubled between 1995 and 2005, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development figures, while the British newspaper The Guardian recently named China "the hottest art market in the world").

At the same time, political representation is still muted and the Communist Party, rather than elected politicians, exerts control over the People's Liberation Army ("the party controls the gun"). Mirroring Germany, political discontent is countered by a mix of coercion (think Tibet and Xinjiang), economic payoffs and nationalism, principally directed against Japan and the US but at times also involving other countries (for example France before the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games).

While the current international system is less prone to induce armed conflicts between, say, China and the US, due to both liberal (international law) and realist (nuclear weapons) factors, domestic circumstances could still force war onto a national leadership facing its own demise. Such a war, if started by China (for example over Taiwan), wouldn't be a rational attempt to win a "spot in the sun"; rather, it would be a last-ditch effort to save a desperate leadership's legitimacy. Ultimately, the likelihood of such an outcome depends on the leadership skills of individual decision-makers.

The psychological condition most often associated with the German leadership on the eve of World War I is one of nervousness. On a societal level, the transformation from an agrarian time of certainties to the modern industrial era of uncertainty had brought with it the proverbial moniker of the "nervous age". This peculiar condition was further compounded in the emperor and the military leadership as they faced shifting alliances, fleeting opportunities and veiled (as well as open) military threats.

In the end, the declaration of war in August 1914 seemed to almost have a liberating effect for Wilhelmine Germany's key decision-makers - finally, friend and foe abroad could be clearly delineated and domestic infighting would give way to national unity. "From this day on I recognize no parties but only Germans," the kaiser declared before Germany's elected representatives following the start of hostilities.

Rather than trying to prevent war, Germany's political and military masters chose war as a way to escape from the heavy demands of public-interest leadership. With a bit of luck, China's current generation of rulers will not repeat these leadership failures. Calm and reasonable decision-making, instead of nervous and trigger-happy international policy moves, is the order of the day. One hopeful sign is that China's leadership is obsessively introspective and extrospective at the same time, analyzing both the impact of its own policies and the experience of other countries in international affairs.

In this respect, considering the success of, for example, Chinese economic reforms since 1978, they may act as a restraint on any daring move in the field of foreign policy, given the distinct success of gradualism in the economic sphere. At the same time, studying the fate of aggressive challengers of the international order such as Wilhelmine Germany may reduce the appeal of actually following in the kaiser's footsteps (the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party has explicitly discussed past experiences of rising powers).

Another reason for cautious optimism regarding the foreign policy agenda of future Chinese rulers is that the party now appears to have found a way to peacefully hand over power to new generations. This institutionalized approach to political succession has so far prevented the rise of "political mavericks" with radical policy agendas. Rather, careful consensus-builders have been favored. Thorough examination of self and others as well as the selection of comparatively cautious leaders could bode well for the international conduct of China's rulers.

Having said that, when faced with a direct challenge to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, boring bureaucrats may yet turn into aggressive saber-rattlers.

China and Wilhelmine Germany are odd inter-temporal twins. They share a similar domestic predicament but rather different international environments. In the case of Germany, increasing might combined with a lack of effective international deterrence and a nervous leadership meant war. In the case of China, domestic developments point toward potential conflict while the international environment calls for peace. In the years ahead, it will be up to the skilful individual leadership of Chinese and American policy-makers to tip the scales in the right direction.

Sebastian Bruck recently completed his PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and works for a major international strategic consulting company.

(Copyright 2009, Sebastian Bruck)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.


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