How China Sees World War I

Why it might not be wise to dismiss the idea of a “new type of great power relations” just yet. 

Over the course of 2015, readers can look forward to ever more commemorations of such crucial events from the Great War as the infamous sinking of the liner Lusitania, not to mention the unfolding of the bold and bloody, but ultimately bungled Gallipoli campaign.  From the perspective of Asia-Pacific security, the last year of sober reflection on the cataclysmic First World War has been quite useful for jarring this community of strategists to think about misperception, escalation spirals, nationalism, and offensive-oriented military strategies.

A new book from the Belfer Center at Harvard University explicitly links the memory of the Great War with emergent security challenges related to China’s rise. This author undoubtedly looks forward to parsing this new scholarship, but that is not my purpose here.  Much has been made of the analogy between Germany’s rise with the consequent outbreak of WWI and China’s rise with the clouds of uncertainty currently looming over the South and East China Seas. But what of China’s perspective on this much-discussed analogy?

As pointed out in a recent edition of Dragon Eye, the much more salient historical event in Chinese eyes is not WWI, but rather the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, a set of events that seems to have been discussed in all major Chinese military and diplomatic fora.  Still, a few Chinese strategists and scholars have taken up the issue of the First World War and this edition of Dragon Eye will survey and summarize these pieces in the hopes of understanding the Chinese view of these momentous events in the European context that reverberated so powerfully around the world.

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Most of the recent Chinese reflections about WWI have, not surprisingly, taken as their focal point the remarks made by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Davos Summit about one year ago.  Abe observed:  “This year marks the centenary of World War I. Britain and Germany were highly (inter)dependent economically. They were the largest trade partners (to each other), but the war did break out.”  By contrast, Chinese commentators emphasize that neither China, nor Japan can approach this history as disinterested observers. To their reckoning, China was one of the primary victims of the Versailles Treaty, while Japan was one of the leading parties in subverting its major principles to the detriment of China.  Indeed, Westerners not familiar with the “May 4th Movement” may not realize that the perceived failure of the Versailles Treaty – most particularly the direct transfer of German concessions in Shandong Province to Japan – became a major foundation for Chinese nationalism in the 20th century.  This movement and the feelings that inspired it, moreover, were related to the founding of the Chinese Communist Party just two years later in 1921.

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As one Chinese analysis of the First World War, published by Xinhua researcher Qian Wenrong,  in the April 2014 edition of the magazine 军事文摘 [Military Digest] under the title “What is the Most Important Lesson of the First World War?” relates:  “ … at the Paris peace talks, the United States approved Japan’s seizures in Shandong.  After the war, Japan accelerated its invasion and expansion into China, occupying our country’s three northeastern provinces. The powers … including the United States, Great Britain, and France … did not even apply any sanctions against Japan, refused … to call Japan an invading state, and even demanded that China recognize Japan’s ‘special rights and interests’ in China’s Northeast, thus in actuality supporting Japan’s invasion.”

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