China Is Not Germany Before World War I

August 28, 2021 Topic: China Region: Eurasia Tags: ChinaXi JinpingGermanyHitlerNational Security

China Is Not Germany Before World War I

The rejection of an accommodative approach to China is based on specious assumptions about Beijing’s strategic intentions and the premature dismissal of the potential benefits of reciprocal diplomacy.


Sanderson’s bottom line was that it would be “at all events unwise to meet [Germany] with an attitude of pure obstruction” because “a great and growing country cannot be repressed.” Germany sought no quarrel with England, although “she may wish to be in a position to face a quarrel with more chance of success than she can be said to have now. But it would be a misfortune that she should be led to believe that in whatever direction she seeks to expand she will find the British lion in her path. There must be places in which German enterprise can find a field without injury to any important British interests.”

This captures much of Beijing’s perspective today, and the risks of Washington adopting “an attitude of pure obstruction” against Chinese interests and global influence.  China seeks no quarrel with the United States, but it does seek to maximize its wealth, power, influence, and the security of its interests. Rather than assume that these are (borrowing from Crowe) “essentially opposed to vital American interests,” a key task for Washington is that of determining where U.S. and Chinese interests are compatible, and even lend themselves to collaboration. Here Sanderson anticipated Kissinger’s support for the bilateral pursuit of “genuine strategic trust and cooperation,” despite the obvious challenges. Sanderson acknowledged that Germany was “a tight and tenacious bargainer, and a most disagreeable antagonist,” but he concluded that “however tiresome such discussions may be, it is, as a general rule, less inconvenient to take her at once into counsel, and to state frankly within what limits you can accept her views,” than to invite the risk of recurring crises and surprises. The same applies to the imperative for substantive and sustained diplomacy with China, even if Beijing is a disagreeable antagonist.


Applying Sanderson’s advice to U.S.-China relations today offers a chance for averting a new cold war that Crowe’s advice did not. 

Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018). 

Image: Reuters