China and America: Sleepwalking to War?

April 21, 2015 Topic: Security Region: AsiaUnited States Tags: HistoryChinaGreat Powers

China and America: Sleepwalking to War?

History suggests that great-power transitions often lead to war.


THE CAUSE of the Great War, as it used to be known, has never settled into received wisdom. Unlike World War II, where Nazi Germany was clearly the culprit, World War I remains a more mysterious affair, with various candidates continuing to be offered up by historians as the guilty party, ranging from Wilhelmine Germany to the Habsburg monarchy or even Russia, as a recent book by Sean McMeekin would have it. But though controversy continues to swirl around the origins of the war—and probably always will—this doesn’t mean that there are no lessons to be drawn from the conflict. It doesn’t require perfect knowledge to grasp the outlines of what went wrong. The losses were so immense and the consequences so perilous that it would be reckless not to try to divine some warning signals from what occurred to the statesmen who ended up plunging the globe into a malignant cataclysm.

Accordingly, much contemporary commentary points to direct parallels between today’s events in East Asia and those that led to the outbreak of World War I in Europe one hundred years ago. Just as the ascent of Wilhelmine Germany unsettled pre-1914 Europe, so, we are told, a rising China is roiling East Asia. The Economist thus noted “the parallel between China’s rise and that of imperial Germany over a century ago.” And “even if history never repeats itself,” it wrote on another occasion, “the past likes to have a try.”


If the past is “having a try” in East Asia, it is because there are several important—and unsettling—parallels between the Anglo-German relationship during the run-up to 1914 and the unfolding Sino-American relationship. First, both relationships involve power transitions, two aspects of which have not received the attention they deserve. Although Britain and Germany were competing for power and security, they were also—just as importantly—competing for status and prestige, which made the competition between them pretty much intractable. Germany’s rise also posed a challenge to the existing international order, the Pax Britannica. Second, in Britain, liberal ideology contributed to what might be called a “perception spiral,” which fostered in policy makers and citizens an image of Germany as an implacably hostile and dangerous rival. Viewed through the lens of the perception spiral, the potential threat posed by a rising Germany to the geopolitical position of a declining Britain was magnified and, possibly, distorted. Perception-spiral dynamics go a long way toward explaining why Britain was not able to accommodate a rising Germany before 1914—and why the United States is unlikely to accede to China’s claim to equal status.


CHINA’S LEADERS like to talk of a “peaceful rise,” and have spent considerable time pondering the “lessons of the past” so as to avoid the alleged foreign-policy blunders of Wilhelmine Germany, not to mention Imperial Japan. The past century, however, provides scant reason to believe that China’s rise will be peaceful. Quite the contrary. Since the beginning of the modern international state system, there have been many examples of an ascending power challenging the position of the dominant power. These challenges usually have culminated in war.

The dynamics of the relationships between dominant powers in decline and the challengers who seek to displace them are defined by competition and instability. This is because they pose one of the foundational questions of great-power relations: When the distribution of power is in flux, how can the aims of the status quo power be reconciled with those of a revisionist power that seeks to change the international order to reflect the ongoing shift in the balance of power? Accommodation is difficult because the declining dominant power wishes to preserve its leading place in the international system, while the rising challenger wants its growing power satisfactorily acknowledged. The historical example that offers the most insight into the likely course of Sino-American relations is the Anglo-German rivalry before World War I.

As the historian Zara Steiner has observed, the absence of tangible conflicts of interests between Germany and Britain creates a puzzle for historians seeking to explain why Berlin and London found themselves at war in 1914. Margaret MacMillan makes a similar point. Noting the ties linking Germany and Britain—among business and social elites, as well as their respective royal dynasties—and the mutual cultural admiration between the two countries, she asks, “Why did Germany and Britain become such antagonists?”

Why indeed? In The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860–1914, Paul Kennedy provides a good starting place to answer this question. He reminds us that the causes of great-power wars are a complex mix of geopolitical and domestic political factors. Most historians point to Germany’s bid for world-power status (Weltpolitik)—especially Berlin’s decision to embark on a major program of naval expansion—as the primary driver of the pre-1914 Anglo-German rivalry. And, certainly, for Britain the German naval buildup did pose a threat to core British interests. As an island nation completely dependent on overseas trade for its prosperity, Britain could not be indifferent to the rapid growth of German naval power just across the North Sea. On the other hand, it is also true that by 1912 the Anglo-German naval race was essentially over because Germany simply could not afford to keep up its end of the battleship-building competition.

Measured by pure strategic logic, Germany’s battleship-building policy was a major blunder because it provoked Britain’s hostility. But strategic logic was not the primary driver of German naval policy. Great powers want not only security; they also want recognition of their role in the international system. They crave status and prestige. Along with the acquisition of colonies, the construction of Germany’s “luxury fleet” (as First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill described it) was part of Berlin’s strategy to gain equal status with London in the international system, and to match it in prestige. Germany built battleships because they “were understood at the time to be emblematic of great power status,” as Bard College political scientist Michelle Murray put it.

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg asserted that to be a “really Great Power,” Germany “must have a fleet, and a strong one . . . not merely for the purpose of defending her commerce but for the general purpose of her greatness.” It was Germany’s hope to be recognized as Britain’s equal that ramped up the intensity of the Anglo-German rivalry. Status and prestige are “positional goods,” the competition for which tends to be zero-sum. Status inconsistency—the disjuncture between what Robert Gilpin calls the international system’s hierarchy of prestige and the underlying distribution of power—is a potent generator of conflict as rising powers strive to reshape the international system to reflect (and gain recognition of) their increasing power.

There was also an important domestic dimension. British policy makers and elites viewed Germany through a classic liberal lens. Economic rivalry and ideological antipathy disposed Britain to regard Germany as a threat. Looking first at the economic aspect, although Britain and Germany were important trading partners, they were also economic competitors, and over time Britain came to regard Germany’s economic growth as a dangerous geopolitical menace. Guided by the doctrine of economic nationalism, Germany prospered mightily during the 1880s and 1890s, and narrowed the gap between itself and Britain in key metrics of national power. This caused widespread apprehension among British elites. Many in the British commercial and political establishments blamed Britain’s relative decline on unfair German trade and industrial policies: tariffs, state-sanctioned cartels and state subsidies of export industries. Although the commercial competition between the two nations did not cause the rising enmity between Britain and Germany in the years preceding 1914, it did contribute importantly, if subtly, to injecting hostility and distrust into the prewar Anglo-German relationship. In addition to economic rivalry, in the decades before 1914, ideology became for the British an increasingly salient factor driving the Anglo-German antagonism. During the “long” nineteenth century (from 1789 to 1914), Britain was both the cradle and acme of liberalism as a political philosophy and economic doctrine. British elites viewed Wilhelmine Germany’s political culture—which emphasized deference to authority, a large role for the state in politics and economics, and the individual’s subordination to the overarching interests of the national community—as fundamentally antithetical to their own liberal values.


THE INTENSIFYING Sino-American rivalry looks an awful lot like the pre-1914 Anglo-German antagonism. Like that earlier struggle, the Sino-American standoff is the product of changes in the distribution of power as well as economic and ideological factors. At the systemic level, just as their British counterparts worried about the dramatic shift in relative power between Germany and Britain, so American policy elites are now apprehensive about the shifting distribution of relative power between the United States and China. And, as was true for British policy makers contemplating Germany’s rise before 1914, American policy makers are unsettled not only by the fact of China’s economic growth but also by its velocity. In the last four years, China has surpassed the United States as the world’s leading manufacturing state, the leading trading state and the leading exporter. According to the World Bank, measured by purchasing-power parity, China already has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest economy.

As with the Anglo-German antagonism, economic rivalry and ideological antipathy are causing the perception of the “China threat” to congeal within the U.S. foreign-policy elite. In the United States, many political leaders believe that China’s economic success is explained by the fact that it has adopted a range of neomercantilist—“unfair” and illiberal—policies. As reported by the New York Times, a big reason for President Barack Obama’s shifting views about China’s economic policy was his anger “at what he sees as Beijing’s refusal to play by the rules in trade” and his frustration over “the United States’ lack of leverage to do anything about it.” Explaining why his administration filed a complaint against China with the World Trade Organization, Obama said, “These are subsidies that directly harm working men and women on the assembly lines in Ohio and Michigan and across the Midwest. We are going to stop it. It’s not right; it’s against the rules, and we won’t let it stand.” The belief that China does not play by the rules in trade is widespread across the U.S. political spectrum. American policy makers also fear that China’s trade and economic policies are intended to weaken the United States geopolitically as well as economically—a concern similar to that held about Germany by many in the British elite before 1914. The Obama administration’s 2014 indictment of five alleged Chinese military hackers for industrial espionage underscores these concerns.

American apprehensions about China’s success—and the concomitant rapid shift in the balance of relative economic power—go even deeper. U.S. leaders say that the very notion of American decline is taboo. Nevertheless, China’s rise has fueled doubts—seldom acknowledged openly—about the United States’ future economic prospects and, even more fundamentally, about whether America’s model of economic and political development remains superior to China’s. American leaders perceive China in the same way pre-1914 British policy makers perceived Germany: as a nation whose political system raises doubts about both the scope of its foreign-policy ambitions and its trustworthiness as a diplomatic partner. The very fact that China is a Communist one-party state rather than a Western democracy “inherently creates misgivings among many Americans, including high level officials,” according to Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi. In contrast to America’s self-perception of itself as a nation built on liberal political and economic ideas, China is viewed as a nation that is collectivist, mercantilist, statist, a human-rights violator, and lacking in representative government and rule of law.


AS WAS true for Britain and Germany before World War I, powerful forces are pushing the United States and China toward confrontation. However, although the international system’s structure constrains decision makers and narrows the range of policy options from which they can choose, it does not foreclose the possibility of choice. Structure and agency always coexist uneasily side by side, which is why a Sino-American showdown in the years ahead is not inevitable.

Whether a clash between the United States and China is avoidable hinges on what is at stake for both nations. For China, the answer is straightforward. China seeks to become the regional hegemon in East (and Southeast) Asia. This is what rising great powers do: they seek to establish geopolitical dominance in their own backyards. China seeks to dominate East Asia for security reasons, as well as to have its status and prestige as America’s geopolitical equal affirmed. China’s rise, however, poses the risk of conflict with the United States because China is rubbing up against entrenched American power in East Asia. Indeed, since 1945, the United States has been the incumbent hegemon in East Asia. There are two analogies that help to explain why trouble is brewing between Washington and Beijing. One is what can be called the “Dodge City” syndrome. Aficionados of American Westerns have all seen the movie where the two gunslingers confront each other in the town saloon and one says to the other: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” The second, slightly more intellectual analogy might be called the Newtonian Theory of Geopolitics: two hegemons can’t dominate the same region at the same time.

The United States will play the principal role in determining whether a Sino-American clash can be avoided. Today, America’s predominance in East Asia contributes little, if anything, to U.S. security (defined by the traditional geopolitical metrics of military power and geography). After all, the United States is the most secure great power in history. Its homeland is shielded from any kind of serious great-power threat by geography and its overwhelming military capabilities. If anything, it is America’s extraregional hegemony in East Asia and the potential “entrapment” dynamics of U.S. alliances in the region that are the main causes of U.S. insecurity. This is a point underscored by the increasingly fraught Sino-Japanese conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which the United States has been injected into because of its alliance with Tokyo.

So why does Washington remain committed to preserving its dominance in East Asia? The fundamental reason is ideological. The United States wants to dominate that region to ensure that its markets remain open to American economic penetration, and that it also remains open to penetration by America’s liberal ideology. What American policy makers fear is the threat of closure, because that would undermine the extant international order—the Pax Americana—based on America’s liberal beliefs about the virtues of economic openness and democracy. China is seen as a threat because its very existence challenges the idea of an “Open Door World” on which America’s security is (wrongly) believed to depend.

China’s nondemocratic political system is also viewed as a menace because, as Aaron Friedberg puts it, “if Asia comes to be dominated by an authoritarian China, the prospects for liberal reform in any of its non-democratic neighbors will be greatly diminished. Even the region’s established democracies could find themselves inhibited from pursuing policies, foreign and perhaps domestic as well, that might incur Beijing’s wrath.” It is no exaggeration to suggest that the biggest threat to the United States in East Asia is not China but rather the policy consequences of America’s liberal worldview. America’s ideological preferences are powerful drivers of U.S. grand strategy toward China. That grand strategy, however, not only puts the United States at odds with China, but also reinforces Beijing’s insecurities and its deep-rooted fears of Washington’s intentions and ambitions.

Many in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment advocate policies that inevitably will inflame Sino-American tensions by reinforcing Beijing’s preexisting fears of American intentions. A good example is Friedberg’s 2011 book, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, which calls for the United States to: maintain its military superiority over China in East Asia; defend Taiwan’s independence; create a powerful anti-Chinese alliance in East and Southeast Asia; and work for regime change in China. Another example is the very similar policy advocated by Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell in a 2012 Foreign Affairs article, in which there is a conspicuous gap between the authors’ analysis of Sino-American relations and their policy recommendations. They flatly dismiss Beijing’s claim to equal status and prestige with the United States. And they argue that the United States should stand its ground and rigidly uphold the geopolitical status quo in East Asia. Nathan and Scobell reflect a tendency among U.S. policy makers and analysts to act as if China is only entitled to assert interests that have been preapproved by the United States. That is not how great-power politics works. By ignoring China’s perception of its own interests, the United States is deliberately constructing a self-fulfilling prophecy of mistrust and rising hostility in Sino-American relations. If the United States really wants to avoid a head-on collision with China, it will have to make difficult—even painful—adjustments and adopt a policy that accommodates China’s rise. In this sense, the United States and China are rapidly nearing what could be called a “Carr Moment.”

In his classic study of international relations, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939, E. H. Carr analyzed the international political crisis of the 1930s caused by the breakdown of the post–World War I order symbolized by the Treaty of Versailles. The Versailles system disintegrated, Carr argued, because of the growing gap between the order it represented and the actual distribution of power in Europe. Carr used the events of the 1930s to make a larger geopolitical point: international orders reflect the balance of power that existed at their creation. Over time, however, the relative power of states changes and eventually the international order no longer reflects that actual distribution of power. When that happens, the rising (or resurgent) great power wants to change the rules embodied in the existing international order—rules written, of course, by the once-dominant but now-declining great power(s) that created the existing order. The status quo powers, naturally, want to preserve that order—an order that they created to advance their interests.

The Carr Moment is where the geopolitical rubber meets the road: the status quo power(s) must choose between accommodating or opposing the revisionist demands of the rising power(s). The geopolitical question of our time is whether the declining hegemon in East Asia—the United States—will try to preserve a status quo that increasingly no longer reflects the prevailing distribution of power, or whether it can reconcile itself to China’s demands. Britain faced the same choice in the years leading up to World War I.


IT IS tempting to conclude that Britain and Germany were fated to go to war in 1914. And although, as we have seen, there were pressures pushing in that direction, in British policy-making circles there was, in fact, a serious debate about whether to contain or conciliate a rising Germany. In his famous January 1907 “German danger” memorandum, Sir Eyre Crowe, one of the Foreign Office’s senior officials, laid out the case for a hard-line policy toward Berlin. For Crowe, the fundamental question at stake was “whether Germany is, in fact, aiming at a political hegemony with the object of promoting purely German schemes of expansion, and establishing a German primacy in the world of international politics at the cost and to the detriment of other nations.”

Once established as the leading power on the Continent, Crowe argued, Berlin’s gaze had turned to acquiring overseas commerce, colonies and a big navy. Germany, in other words, was aiming to become a world power. The problem, as Crowe saw it, was that the existing international order—the Pax Britannica—would have to be altered to accommodate Germany’s ambitions. Crowe was certain that an increasingly powerful Germany was determined to overturn the prevailing status quo. “Germany,” he said, “distinctly aims at playing on the world’s political stage a much larger and much more dominant part than she finds allotted to herself under the present distribution of material power.” He believed that Berlin’s policy of Weltpolitik meant that Germany intended “ultimately to break up and supplant the British Empire.” For Crowe, any expansion of German power was a menace to Britain and had to be countered.

Crowe recommended that Britain take a hard line toward Germany. At the same time, he denied that London harbored any animus toward Germany. London was perfectly willing to let Germany keep its present place in the hierarchy of status and prestige. But Britain would oppose Berlin if it sought more. In the most oft-cited passage from his memo, Crowe argued that London’s policy of conciliating Germany had only served to increase Berlin’s expansionist appetite, and as such it should be abandoned. By adopting a policy of unyielding firmness toward Germany, Crowe believed, Britain could dissuade Berlin from future challenges to the prevailing geopolitical status quo. Germany should be under no illusions about Britain’s resolve: Germany would be met “with a prompt and firm refusal to enter into any one-sided bargains or arrangements, and the most unbending determination to uphold British rights and interests in every part of the globe.” This policy, he concluded, would win Germany’s respect.

Crowe’s “German danger” memorandum reflected the prevailing outlook of the British foreign-policy establishment. However, this was not the only viewpoint held in elite circles. An alternative to Crowe’s analysis found expression in a reply memorandum written by the recently retired permanent under secretary of state in the Foreign Office, Lord Thomas Sanderson. For Sanderson, the key to understanding German diplomacy was the fact that a unified Germany was a latecomer on the world stage. “It was inevitable,” he observed, “that a nation flushed with success which had been obtained at the cost of great sacrifices, should be somewhat arrogant and over-eager, impatient to realise various long-suppressed aspirations, and to claim full recognition of its new position.” Sanderson understood the risks of refusing a rising Germany’s demands for acknowledgment of its claims for status and prestige. “A great and growing nation,” he said, “cannot be repressed.”

Unlike Crowe, who evinced only hostility toward Germany’s aspirations, Sanderson empathized with Germany’s predicament. He understood that as Germany’s power rose, Berlin inevitably would seek to restructure the international order. Britain’s choice was either to accommodate or resist German aspirations—and resistance meant a high chance of war. For Sanderson, the choice was clear: “It would be a misfortune that [Germany] should be led to believe that in whatever direction she seeks to expand she will find the British lion in her path.”

Taking issue with Crowe’s commitment to upholding the status quo, Sanderson argued that even if Crowe was correct to say that Berlin’s policy was to take advantage of every possible opportunity for self-aggrandizement and expansion, this was no worse than London’s policy of regarding every change as a threat to its interests. Sanderson understood how, given the shifting balance of power, an ascending Germany would regard Britain’s rigid attachment to maintaining a status quo—and its embedded hierarchy of status and prestige—that no longer was supported by the actual distribution of power in the international system. “It has sometimes seemed to me,” Sanderson wrote, “that to a foreigner reading our press the British Empire must appear in the light of some huge giant sprawling over the globe, with gouty fingers and toes stretching in every direction, which cannot be approached without eliciting a scream.”


THE INTERNATIONAL system is in the midst of a transition away from unipolarity. As U.S. dominance wanes, the Pax Americana will give way to a new but as yet undefined international order. Historically, transitional periods marked by hegemonic decline and the simultaneous emergence of new great powers have been unstable and prone to war. It is hardly alarmist to say that today China and the United States are on a collision course, due to China’s rise—and Beijing’s accompanying ambitions—and America’s current commitment to maintaining its privileged spot atop the international pecking order. This does not mean war is imminent. But the pre–World War I Anglo-German rivalry offers a cautionary lesson.

Today, when it comes to China, the spirit of Sir Eyre Crowe pervades the American foreign-policy community. The United States professes the benevolence of its intentions toward China, even as it refuses to make any significant concessions to what China views as its vital interests. Like Crowe, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment believes that Beijing should be satisfied with what it has—or, more correctly, what Washington is willing to let China have. American analysts correctly discern that Chinese leaders view the United States as determined to block China’s rise. Yet they advocate the kind of hard-line policies that can only confirm Beijing’s perceptions.

Today’s American foreign-policy establishment needs more Lord Sandersons and fewer Crowes.

Christopher Layne is a university distinguished professor and Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security at Texas A&M University. His next book, After the Fall: International Politics, U.S. Grand Strategy, and the End of the Pax Americana, will be published by Yale University Press. This article is adapted from a paper presented at the Norwegian Nobel Institute’s June 2014 symposium, “Does the Rise and Fall of Great Powers Lead to Conflict and War?”

Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense