BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 14: Chinese President Xi Jinping stands next to a Chinese flag during a session with Singapore President Halimah Yacob (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People on May 14, 2019 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Jason Lee - Pool/Getty Images)

When the balloon goes up…

Can history teach us anything about growing Sino-American tension?


This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

As Russian military failure in the west drives it ever deeper into the arms of the East, how should we understand the situation that confronts the United States, the current hegemonic world power? 

Is it comparable to the Cold War that developed after 1945, or should we look back to Anglo-German rivalry before 1914? Does the challenge the Kaiser’s Germany offered imperial Britain give us any sort of guide to how Xi Jinping’s China threatens America’s place in the sun?

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, it was commonplace to talk about how a “New Cold War”, with China and Russia had definitively replaced the post-Cold War optimism of the 90s. Western giddiness that the collapse of communist command economies meant the world was converging on a globalist free market model had ended long before Biden’s USA re-embraced traditional American naked economic protectionism.

Since the Covid virus spread worldwide from Wuhan in 2020, Western unease at China has exploded into open disdain for Beijing. The atavistic fear of the “Yellow Peril” has revived. Geopolitical concerns about the expansion of the Chinese military — and especially its naval power — in the South China Sea are matched by suspicion at its economic and infrastructure projects in distant lands, including those in which Chinese influence scarcely if ever touched in the past.

China’s Belt-and-Road project may well be viewed as a latter-day Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway — Wilhelmine Germany’s bid to free herself from English-speaking economic mastery. In reality, Basra was to have been the terminus of that line so that barrels of its abundant oil could be loaded onto wagons for Central Europe rather than shipped out to the British Empire by the Anglo-Persian oil company, already established across the Shatt in Iran and soon to nestle in Kuwait from 1914. Germany’s lack of oil spelled defeat in both 1918 and 1945.

Trans-Eurasian railroads and pipelines are part of Beijing’s way out of being trapped and blockaded by the United States. But dilatory Russian approaches to building new infrastructure and its grasping corrupt officialdom were the equivalent of the frustrations Berlin felt with Habsburg bureaucracy. 

It is Putin’s aggression and apparent reliance on China as a back door to evade Western sanctions that has revived these fears, as Russia slips ever more into being a Chinese client state. Xi Jinping’s assurances to Putin that their countries’ relationship has “no limits” is as stark a warning to the West as it ought to be to Putin.

The Western way of economic war

Real as the challenges from China and Russia may well be, Western understanding of them is trapped in a limited intellectual and historical framework. Reversion to the Cold War model of the decades after 1947 may not offer such useful insights. Overlaying false continuities from the 1950s and 1960s with the “Lessons of Munich” from 1938 only reveals the poverty of historical knowledge and imagination in our leaders and commentariat.

Discussions about the need to end reliance on Russian energy and raw materials after the invasion of Ukraine in Feburary last year, as well as onshoring supply chains outsourced to China in the decades before Covid, reveal how intertwined our “free market” economies have become with theirs. Basic nous and better statecraft should not have required Russian tanks to teach us this lesson. 

Putin’s Russia is a very different socio-economic system from the Soviet one he grew up in, but today’s “Communist” China is a fundamentally different and more comprehensive rival for the West than the Soviet Union ever was. Bluntly, China works: the USSR did not. 

The result has been the West’s economic embrace of the East which is so different from the decades before 1989. When President Nixon broke the ice with China in 1972, the People’s Republic constituted 0.5 per cent of world trade. Today it is over 20 per cent and rising after the Covid pause. 

Westerners are trapped in the old Cold War analogy. But, just as Winston Churchill did not invent the “Iron Curtain” metaphor in 1946 (though he may not have known Goebbels had invoked it in the dying days of the Third Reich), so “Cold War” was a familiar concept decades before the Berlin airlift or, later, the Cuban missile crisis. 

Already in 1911, the German Social Democrat, Eduard Bernstein, had tried to debunk the growing rivalry between Great Britain and Imperial Germany — each others’ major trading partners — which had not prevented the naval arms race. Bernstein wrote in his The English Peril and the German People in 1911: “Is it not insane that two nations which year after year peacefully exchange goods amounting to about two billions should be tortured by the fear that the other is only waiting for an opportune moment to attack it?” 

In May 1914, Bernstein explicitly warned the Reichstag about the catastrophic risks of “this silent war, this cold war” with Britain. He personally hoped that an end to the naval arms race and economic convergence would enable an Anglo-German alliance against “bad” imperialist states like Russia. 

A few years earlier, Norman Angell had published his Great Illusion, which is often scoffed at for saying — what he didn’t actually say — that war between such intimate trading, financial and technological partners as the British and German empires was impossible. What he said was they should not fight each other because it would cause an insane level of mutual mutilation: “What is the real guarantee of the good behaviour of one state to another? It is the elaborate [economic] interdependence.” 

In terms of the human cost, Angell was right. But London, at least, found effective ways to neutralise the immediate economic costs which was far harder to do for Berlin.

China is a resource-poor but highly productive society

Like Imperial Germany, China is a resource-poor but highly productive society. The Soviet Union was a treasure house of resources but woefully unproductive with them. If we are looking for historical analogies to today’s great power politics — and the Chinese have been too — then how events before 1914 unfolded may be more instructive than the era from Truman to Reagan. 

The Chinese way of  learning lessons

Deng Xiaoping famously warned his potential successors that, following his successful economic reforms and opening to the West, China had to rise without being noticed. China’s leaders have been very conscious of the precedent of Wilhelmine Germany’s antagonising of Britain, and other great powers, by its aggressive postures before 1914. Unlike Deng, the Kaiser liked to make waves.

As China carried on opening up in the 1990s despite Tiananmen Square, Washington wanted it to play a bigger role abroad. But the Americans’ assumption was that though the Chinese would be “smarter” than the sleazy Russian post-Communists who were happy to sell out their state and society for peanuts, Beijing’s boys would nevertheless sell out for a price. When they didn’t — and in fact executed CIA agents — Washington realised that unlike Yeltsin’s coterie, Deng’s men intended to take advantage of free market access to the free world. 

Western analysts of China over the last two centuries have oscillated between the poles of being prophets of gloom and prophets of boom. Each grotesque exaggeration has had its day, more than once, but the caricatures of a China doomed to decay and disintegration or of a boundlessly powerful global octopus with tentacles of power and influence reaching everywhere are ever recurrent. 

Expectations that China must become more and more like the West have jostled in observers’ minds with an unsettling suspicion that somehow it will remain apart from the high road of historical convergence. This gnawing anxiety was best encapsulated by the wisdom of the then US Vice President, Dan Quayle, in May 1989, who before the crackdown in Tiananmen Square, sagely observed, “the movement towards democracy in China is irreversible, but that could change”.

That change is now too obvious to deny, but its significance for international relations is still clouded in uncertainty. Evidence of growing Sino-American tensions emerge almost daily,  from the bizarre episode of the “Balloon that Soared” over America to the expansion of both Chinese and US bases in the South China Sea. 

All this recalls the Anglo-German rivalry before 1914. This has become the classic example of the “Thucydides Trap” invoked by Xi himself. Two thousand four hundred years ago, the rapid rise of Athens’s power in Greece and the seas around it alarmed Sparta whose dominance was eroding. Imperial Germany threatened to displace Edwardian Britain. 

In 1911, it was Bernstein’s great contemporary, Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, who took a different view of the logical consequences of Germany’s mix of an economic boom and growing military power: 

The union of a Navy of such great power with the largest Army in Europe will be a most sinister and disquieting fact, especially when we consider these gigantic engines of destruction will not be wielded by a … democratic Government … but by a military and bureaucratic oligarchy supported by a powerful Junker landlord class.

Substitute Communist Party for “Junker” and you have today’s contrast between democratic capitalist societies and China, whose economy shows that the profit motive can serve authoritarian as well as liberal purposes. 

Back in 1914, German ideologists disdained the British as “tradesmen” — Haendler — not “heroes” — Helden — like the Prussians. Today, of course, Britain’s boarded-up high streets would not earn the contemptuous epithet “nation of shopkeepers” scornfully applied to it by Napoleon and taken up by the Kaiser’s propagandists. In fact, China today has a much better claim to be a nation of shopkeepers and traders. But, like Imperial Germany, it is also a growing military and technological power.

The West’s a hard nut

Interconnected economies didn’t stop war in 1914. Italy’s Fiat, for instance, built many more vehicles at its Czech subsidiary in the Habsburg Empire in 1915 than it made in Turin when Italy went to war against the Dual Monarchy. Today, Volkswagen assembles more cars in China than at Wolfsburg or anywhere else in the rest of the world put together. 

Chancellor Scholz may now have been dragged into supplying tanks to Ukraine, but his solo flight to Beijing last November suggests that he has at least recognised that Germany has real  skin in an economic war with China where (unlike Britain for example) Germany has serious market share to lose.

But like Imperial Germany, China has its own supply side problems. Its massively productive industries depend on importing vast quantities of raw materials. Western desires to go Net Zero need Chinese solar panels and lithium batteries to get going, but Chinese needs are the oil, minerals and above all food it has to import to sustain its economy. 

The Chinese leadership is very conscious of the analogies between their rise in power, both military and economic, vis-à-vis the United States and Imperial Germany’s challenge to the British Empire. Xi Jinping has spoken publicly about it, and whole think tanks in China are deferentially devoted to working out how the People’s Republic can avoid the fate of Wilhelmine Germany — all while shepherding America to a peaceful imperial abdication on the model of Britain after 1945. 

In addition to studying the lessons for them of Germany’s almost suicidal challenge to the West, China has been analysing how the USA replaced Britain as Top Nation between 1918 and 1945. Awareness of how contemporary Britain became a shadow great power, a kind of postmodern Austria-Hungary to America’s Bismarckian Germany is part of Beijing’s focus. 

But Putin’s stumbling invasion of Ukraine today puts Russia firmly in the role of Austria-Hungary viz China as a Bismarckian superpower. Just as Vienna hoped in 1914 to suffocate South Slav nationalism inside the monarchy’s borders by crushing Serbia, so Putin, among other purposes, hoped that toppling the pro-Western government in Kiev would discipline all of Russia’s ex-Soviet neighbours around its southern rim. Russia’s decline into client-status, however, makes it vastly more useful and reliable to China as a resource base than the Austro-Hungarian liability ever was to the Kaiser’s Germany.

Yet it isn’t fading foreign empires alone that shape China’s outlook today. Few regimes are more self-conscious about how centuries of imperial glory gave way to decline and humiliation than China’s. Opium wars, unequal treaties, foreign invasions and actual economic decline — not the relatively genteel British downward slope — haunt the Chinese political memory. Analysing what went wrong for us and right for America is as much on Chinese minds as the warning from Wilhelmine Germany’s fate. China wants the prize America won, which was Britain’s place, not Germany’s fate.

For all the West’s natural advantages — oceans, resources and freedom being not the least of them — there is something offensively smug and complacent about Western assumptions of Chinese provincialism and lack of understanding of the outside world. 

This preposterous cast of mind was painfully illustrated when in January 2013, the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman instructed Bai YangSong, his counterpart as one of Chinese Central TV’s anchors, on what Chinese journalists could learn from their British counterparts. After completing his lengthy lesson on what Oriental journalists should borrow from British models, Paxman politely asked Bai what he thought a BBC journalist could possibly learn from China. He got the succinct answer, “Chinese.” Our problems here go far beyond our media, and they are not weaknesses the ever-observant Chinese share.

Nothing is inevitable

For all that there are many Chinese experts advising on all aspects of America, Beijing’s policy is made by men whose experience of the USA, the West, indeed the world in general, has been gained on official visits with all the negligible intellectual value those bring with them. How far China’s think tanks shape policy or — like so many Western ones — merely echo their political masters’ predilections remains to be seen. This is little comfort.

If China would like to avoid a collision, it is preparing for one

If China would like to avoid a collision, it is preparing for one. Some influential voices in Western policy-making circles seem happy to court conflict but haven’t put their influence behind serious preparations for the military, let alone economic consequences of that. 

Unlike Admiral Tirpitz who only belatedly realised that trying to imitate the Royal Navy’s battle fleet was not the way to cripple Britain and that he should have been building submarines and raiders to attack her commerce, China’s rapidly growing People’s Liberation Army Navy is trained by self-conscious students of Alfred Mahan, the American prophet of sea power as the vital component of national strength, not least his emphasis on the economic basis of naval power and the use of warships to destroy the other side’s capacity to fund war-making. 

For all that the Chinese are often accused of xenophobia and cultural superiority, learning from the [potential] enemy is something that they don’t shy away from. Even if they take pleasure in inflicting on today’s Westerners the sins of their predecessors. Think of how nowadays Washington echoes to bipartisan denunciations of the flow of drugs from China to the USA. Senators Cotton and Schumer waxed just as indignant about fentanyl imports from China as any Chinese mandarin did in 1839 about British opium entering the Celestial Kingdom.

Despite my déformation professionelle as an historian, it is important to see that not everything is foreshadowed by the past. The new New Cold War — maybe we should call it “World War Z” — has sinister differences from the old Cold War as well as pre-1914. 

Before 1989, all democracies were on the same side — even the “neutrals”. I remember, as a bagman smuggling aid to dissidents in the 1980s, how Swedish consulates — not embassies — were very helpful even when Olaf Palme was supposedly (he wasn’t!) a fellow-travelling peacenik. Of course, the West hypocritically treated the Shah’s Iran or Turkey during its periodic bouts of military rule as part of the “Free World” but, unlike today, all real democracies were fundamentally on the same side, such was the nature of the Soviet threat, at home, to them.

In the Far East, America is reinvigorating its old Cold War alliances with Japan, the Philippines and Australia to hem in China’s seaward approaches, as once the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet closed off German access to the high seas through the Channel or into the North Atlantic from Scapa Flow. 

Anglo-American domination of the maritime trade routes to strangle opposing land powers is long-established tradition. Control of global chokepoints like the entrances and exits to the Suez Canal has been a centuries-long fact for London, then Washington. Since so much of China’s oil comes via the Strait of Hormuz, current tensions there between the USA and UK and Iran have clear implications for China’s energy security. 

The Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia similarly carry the oil and natural gas of the Middle East on to China but also the container shiploads of China’s exports to Europe and Africa. As an American naval officer told the Financial Times’s Gideon Rachman, “If there’s a war, that’s where we’d get ’em.”

But nowadays not all democracies and market economies are singing from the same hymn sheet. When India’s foreign minister was asked reproachfully by a Western journalist why a democracy like his did not fall in line with the Western democracies when it came to sanctioning Putin’s Russia and holding the line against autocracies in general, he replied that it was precisely because India was a democracy that it made its own decisions. Lula’s Brazil (just like Bolsanaro’s) is closer to its undemocratic partners in BRICS than to the Western Bloc. A free and democratic South Africa even conducts naval exercises with the Chinese satrap, Russia. 

America’s long-term allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, even Israel, all openly flout Washington’s preference for distancing themselves from China and Russia. Whatever the threat is that China constitutes, it is archly traditional: it’s a challenge to American primacy, and not to the internal affairs of allied, let alone avowedly neutral, states. 

All historical analogies have their limits and risk trapping us on a “tramlines” view of how events will unfold, when what might happen has too many variables. The invocation of the “lessons of the past” by all players is part, nonetheless, of their understanding the parameters of today’s dilemmas, and may guide them into avoiding old mistakes by making new ones. 

If both Mao and Deng Xiaoping had forged their political careers as successful revolutionary military commanders, their successors have been civilians, albeit ones who still put on the paramilitary Mao-suit when they want to assert their role as commanders-in-chief of a budding superpower. Might Xi and his cadre feel the need to act assertively as Wilhelm II did precisely because they have in fact ruled peacefully for decades in the shadow of heroic predecessors? 

But isn’t the potential fatal flaw of Anglo-American thinking about great power rivalries the assumption that because we have always come out on top hitherto, we are fated to triumph over any adversary if push comes to shove? The last Cold War ended with a whimper but the World Wars between 1914 and 1945 destroyed the world order and put a new nation on top. History can repeat itself, and war will be the way.

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