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China’s Rise and the Road to War

John Lee

Four years before World War I, British author and politician Norman Angell published “The Great Illusion,” arguing that military conquests had become obsolete between modern economies. Many policy makers use the same logic today to predict that China and the United States can avoid war. Like their forebears, they may be wrong.

That’s the implicit argument of University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, who delivered the annual Michael Hintze Lecture at Sydney University this week. Politics, rather than economics, will decisively shape the future of Asia just as it did Europe in the previous century, he believes. China’s ascent is likely to spark an intense security competition with the U.S., leading to the strong possibility of war between the world’s two biggest economies.

This argument runs counter to today’s conventional wisdom, which sees a benign future for U.S.-China relations. This view, still popular in Washington, is based on the idea that the U.S. can manage China by offering Beijing incentives to rise as a “responsible stakeholder” within the current U.S.-led global order. Like the educated and well-heeled elites in Europe whom Angell chronicled and who a century ago exhibited extreme reluctance to imagine the outbreak of major war, today’s policy makers can’t fathom war in the Pacific.

Yet history suggests that Mr. Mearsheimer’s warnings should be heeded. Prior to World War I, Angell’s logic—that the disruption to the international credit and trading system would mean that everyone loses in the event of war—was irrefutable. Prior to 1914, annual trade volumes of Britain, Germany and France was 52%, 38% and 54% of GDP respectively, with much of the trade being between these great powers. By 1913, Britain had become the leading market for German exports, with both countries largely benefitting from the economic relationship. In the decade leading to the Great War, trade and capital flows between these great powers increased by an estimated 65% and 84%, respectively. Yet, economic interdependence was not enough to prevent the tragic escalation of events that followed the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Today, China’s self-proclaimed and widely accepted “peaceful development” similarly appears to be based on solid economic ground. China has re-emerged as a great trading nation but remains a poor country in terms of GDP per capita. China’s export sector is responsible for the creation of hundreds of millions of jobs, and the country still remains deeply dependent on outside technology and know-how. To continue the country’s rapid economic development, the Chinese Communist Party needs a peaceful and stable environment in Asia. On the U.S. side, no one in Washington wants to see a conflict with China erupt, especially at a time when America is fighting two wars and worries about Iran’s intentions.

Yet Angell’s optimism was ultimately wrong because it was based on an incomplete account of driving forces behind relations between the great powers. While the economic relationship created powerful incentives for peace, Angell did not take seriously the intense strategic competition—particularly the growing naval rivalry—between status quo powers like Britain and a rapidly rising and revisionist power like Germany. Nor did Angell’s account allow for the human factor of strategic missteps and miscalculations—particularly by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II—that eventually plunged Europe into war.

What are the lessons for Asia? While economic interdependence and American attempts to “manage” China’s rise has so far succeeded in preventing war, the recent diplomatic conflagration over the Chinese reiteration that its claims in the South China Sea are part of Beijing’s “core interests” validates what scholars such as Aaron Friedberg have been saying for a decade: East Asia today has the potential to recreate the European situation at the turn of the previous century. When it comes to strategic goals, China is re-entering into a regional order not of its making after decades of self-imposed isolation. By virtue of Beijing’s fundamental dissatisfaction with several of its land and maritime borders, it is a revisionist power. As it rises, the desperation to secure its “core interests” will deepen.

Chinese grand strategy since the days of former leader Deng Xiaoping has been to avoid conflict with a much more formidable competitor (i.e., America) while China builds its “comprehensive national power.” In favor of “winning Asia without fighting,” as Chinese General Ma Xiaotian once put it, are many of the older generation of leaders who see caution as prudence, even if they relentlessly seek “windows of opportunity” to extend Beijing’s power at the expense of America’s. They still remember the suffering and humiliation of the Mao Zedong years, when an isolated China tried to achieve too much too quickly.

Yet, as history reaffirms, a peace built on continued political skill, dexterity and restraint rather than a harmony of strategic interest is inherently precarious. Without personal experience of China’s recent traumatic history, future generations of leaders will be more confident and assertive. Even now, emerging Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army leaders argue that China is moving too slowly on securing its foreign-policy goals. The danger is that, just as Germany did in Europe a century ago, China’s overestimation of its own capabilities, and underestimation of American strengths and resolve—combined with strategic dissatisfaction and impatience—is the fast way toward disastrous miscalculation and error.

Several years before the outbreak of the Great War, Kaiser Wilhelm II publicly declared that he considered the prospect of war with Britain “a most unimaginable thing.” Despite deep economic interdependence, Europe could not avert a disaster. Leaders in Washington and throughout Asia should not commit the same failure of imagination.

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