There are historical parallels with China saying it will declare an air zone over the South China Sea after the international tribunal in The Hague rejected China’s argument that it enjoys historic rights over most of the South China Sea and saying that China had violated international law by causing “irreparable harm”.
More particularly those parallels with Germany at the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, creating events that led to World War One.
Like China, Germany under Otto von Bismarck came relatively late to industrialization. Germany, like China, mostly opposed Adam Smith’s laissez-faire individualism. The two countries enshrined a major role for the state in running and regulating the modern economy; the state was also supposed to alleviate the class antagonisms and hardships that the great shift from agrarian to industrial societies made inevitable.
Bismarck ruthlessly achieved unification and what he considered Prussia’s rightful place among the great powers and creating a new European equilibrium. But Germany had so mobilised its resources and nationalist sentiments that it terrified its neighbours. Soon, Bismarck was speaking of “the nightmare of hostile coalitions”. For all his efforts, it was a nightmare that would come true.
China’s dilemma is that, like Bismarck’s Germany, it surpasses in power all its neighbours combined (save for Russia with respect to its nuclear arsenal). And like Germany, it is now expanding its territory.
Tang Yongsheng, the deputy director of the Strategy Institute at China’s National Defense University, urges Beijing to adopt the Bismarckian paradigm to consummate its peaceful rise. ‘Recalling the end of the 19th century,’ maintains Tang, ‘Bismarck in Germany drew up a complex geosecurity system; by building a dazzling alliance network with countries on the periphery, he eased the strategic pressure of European powers on Germany, avoided the predicament of having enemies on both sides, and successfully isolated France.’ He says China should replicate Bismarck’s feat on a worldwide scale, anchoring itself in multilateral alignments spanning the globe in order to establish an ‘unassailable position’ for itself.
The South China Sea expansion is similar to Germany’s expansion under Bismarck. Bismarck had defeated each of his enemies – Denmark, Austria, and France – in isolation.
True, the People’s Liberation Army is untested. They didn’t do that well in Korea and the only experience they have had over the last few years is shooting the Chinese and Tibetans.
But it’s a worry when one thinks about how a German-led order reshaped Europe and what befell Germany and Europe after he left office, culminating in the First World War with the tensions only being resolved when the two non-European powers, America and Russia, won the Second World War.
The parallels are unsettling.