Germany’s past, China’s future?


In 2000 the American academic Aaron Friedberg wrote an influential essay called “Will Europe’s Past Be Asia’s Future?” in which he argued that great-power rivalry in Asia in the twenty-first century could resemble that in Europe in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Since then, there has been an ongoing debate among academics and analysts about the relevance to Asian security of the European history that culminated in World War I. In particular, some see a parallel between China now and Germany then: the rise of China today could be a threat to the US-led liberal international order just as the rise of Germany was a threat to the British-led liberal international order at the end of nineteenth century. “Modern China is the Germany of a century ago – a rising, expanding, have-not power seeking its place in the sun”, writes Charles Krauthammer.  

A more specific and sophisticated version of this argument has been made by James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College. In a fascinating paper published in 2010, they compare in detail the rise of Chinese seapower today to the rise of German seapower a century ago. There are striking geopolitical similarities between Germany and China: both “have the seas but not the ocean”, as Gong Li, deputy director of the Institute of International Strategy at the Central Party School in Beijing, puts it  – that is, geography means they are unable to access the ocean without facing the pre-eminent naval power of the day. China is now expanding its military capabilities in order to challenge the United States just as Germany expanded its military and in particular its navy in order to challenge the United Kingdom at the end of the nineteenth century.

Holmes and Yoshihara conclude that China has three important advantages over Wilhelmine Germany: it has more strategic options than Germany did; it can force the US to commit militarily in Asia in a way that Britain was never forced to in the North Sea; and the US is unlikely to perceive the Chinese naval buildup in the Pacific as an existential threat in the way Britain saw German expansion in the North Sea. Holmes and Yoshihara also argue that China has also taken a smarter, more low-profile approach as it rises than Wilhelmine Germany: “studied understatement” instead of “reckless posturing”. Whereas Germany built dreadnoughts, China has focused instead on developing asymmetrical capabilities. In short, Beijing is better placed to fulfil its naval aspirations than Berlin was a century ago.

Given these perceived parallels with their own history, you might expect Germans to be particularly aware of the possible dangers of the rise of the China and of its growing military power. In fact, however, it is striking how little these dangers are discussed in Germany. For example, during the panel discussion we held in Berlin last week on the “special relationship” between Germany and China, no one mentioned Chinese military capabilities and everyone seemed to assume that Chinese intentions are entirely benign. Even as President Obama takes a tougher approach to China (and Friedberg argues in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that it needs to be even tougher), the consensus in Germany was still that there is no alternative to co-operation with China; confrontation should be avoided at all costs. Even more worryingly, some suggested Germany should stay out of any dispute between the US (and its allies in Asia) and China.

I can’t help but wonder whether part of the reason for this is that Germany projects its own thinking onto others. Germany has made such a break with its own history – it has rejected the use of military force and even the idea of power projection – that it assumes others have too. This assumption creates the odd situation of a “special relationship” between a militarily-abstinent country that spends 1.3 percent of its GDP on defence (i.e. well below the NATO minimum of 2 percent) and a rising great power that has increased military spending by 120 percent in the last five years. Germans think it is not only they but also international relations that have changed and therefore tend to think that the nineteenth century has little relevance for the twenty-first. But as Mark Twain famously said, although history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme.

Read more on:

Latest from ECFR