China's World War I Master Plan to Take on the U.S. Navy

Beijing experts confront a century-old military dilemma.

Grave tensions in Russo-Turkish relations serve as a timely reminder that great power tensions can spiral downward all too rapidly. Diplomats in Washington, Ankara, Moscow and throughout Europe should be concentrating on how to keep the “new Cold War” from going hot. The troubling escalation spiral in the Black Sea region has echoes in East Asia, of course, where Beijing and Washington have been attempting with only limited success to manage intensifying great-power competition for the last two decades.

More than a few scholars have pointed out the importance of analogies in structuring elite perceptions and misperceptions concerning evolving rivalries. With the centenary of the First World War, a new research agenda has blossomed with bountiful comparisons between 1914 and the present era. In this column, I have made the case that it will be essential to try to understand Chinese perspectives on these analogies. Keeping the upcoming hundredth anniversary of the Jutland battle—the largest single naval engagement of World War I—close in mind, this edition of Dragon Eye will explore a Chinese analysis of the pre–World War I Anglo-German rivalry, and in particular the role of Berlin’s “big navy” [大海军] buildup in sparking the catastrophic bloodletting.

The author, Gu Quan from Peking University, of the article published in a mid-2015 edition of Asia-Pacific Security and Maritime Research [亚太安全与海洋研究] entitled “Prejudice, Distrust and Sea Power: Discussing the Reversal and Influence of Pre-WWI Anglo-German Relations” suggests numerous times at the outset that the historical lessons may well be applicable to contemporary U.S.-China relations. But he is somewhat reticent about making explicit and detailed comparisons. Rather, as is quite frequently the case in Chinese academic writing, certain threads are perhaps intentionally left untied, so that it is up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Still, one plausible reading of this article is that it represents an impressively candid and rather dark appraisal of Beijing’s present foreign policy direction. However, a complete understanding of the paper’s argument illustrates the author’s appreciation that it is the complex intermingling of mounting “strategic prejudice” [战略偏见] on both sides of the Pacific that makes U.S.-China relations ever more precarious.

To be sure, the singular focus in the paper on Germany’s prewar naval buildup as the most severe irritant in the relationship most likely bespeaks a critique of the urgent striving increasingly evident in China’s shipyards over the last decade. In a seeming echo of recent Chinese strategic assessments, the author notes that the German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz had bemoaned his country’s historical “neglect of sea power” [忽略海权]. Berlin’s big navy project reflected a turn away from the more cautious policies of Bismarck toward a new “daring” [敢] approach that might employ the threat of force or “blackmail” [敲诈] for the purpose of “yielding diplomatic victories,” that would also pay dividends in German domestic politics. Thus, Tirpitz’s grand fleet is interpreted in this Chinese rendering as the key enabler for Berlin’s new Weltpolitik [世界政策].

Gu demonstrates ample familiarity with the dynamics of the Anglo-German rivalry. The Chinese scholar relates how the naval arms race accelerated dangerously after Germany embarked on building its own Dreadnought-class battleship [无畏舰] in 1908–9. At that point, London was forced to rely more on the “quantity” [量] than the “quality” [质] of its vessels to outpace Berlin’s fleet development. A closely related strategic rebalance led the Royal Navy to enhance naval partnerships, not just with France, but with the United States and Japan as well, in order to ensure its quantitative superiority in home waters. England also pursued naval organizational reform and combat planning. All these measures caused Germany’s naval development to be “hard-pressed,” [吃紧] and “confronting the daily increasing threat posed by the British Navy, the German Navy diligently surmounted every kind of difficulty…” Still, Gu maintains that Germany’s crash naval building program was built on a variety of bogus premises, including especially “blind optimism” [盲目乐观]. Then, there was the mistaken belief in Berlin that France, Russia and Britain would never really succeed in cooperating. According to Gu, the Kaiser and other German leaders deluded themselves with grand naval visions, believing that “landing a big fish requires a long line” [放长线钓大鱼] and, further, that “time was on their side.”