Is China Repeating Germany's World War I Mistakes?

A People's Liberation Army Navy soldier stands in front of a backdrop featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping at a naval base in Hong Kong, China July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
August 25, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaXi JinpingStrategyNational SecurityWar

Is China Repeating Germany's World War I Mistakes?

Channeling his inner Kaiser Wilhelm, Xi calls on China’s navy to “aim for the top ranks in the world. . . . Building a strong and modern navy is an important mark of a top ranking global military.”

Despite the Kaiser’s heroic rhetoric, the German battle fleet remained a captive in its homeports. However much the failure to crush the German fleet frustrated British politicians and public, the stalemate in the North Sea worked to Britain’s overall strategic advantage. The British navy followed a strategy of offshore control that strangled Germany’s seaborne trade with the outside world. British warships—operating outside the second island chain, stretching from the English Channel, Britain, the Orkney, Shetland and Faroe Islands, to the coast of Norway—intercepted German trade into the Atlantic. The German economy and war effort suffered from losing access to distant overseas markets and sources of supply. Much to the Kaiser’s chagrin and the embarrassment of his admirals, Germany’s battleships could not break the British blockade.

Yet the Kaiser’s admirals still had a weapon in the submarine that could disrupt Britain’s worldwide network of trade and shipping. Submarines became Germany’s real high seas fleet, ranging out into the waters around the British Isles to strike at shipping that carried the manufactures, food, energy and raw materials that Britain and its allies needed to carry on the war. The British seaborne lifelines stood in peril from the submarine offensive. In 1917, German submarines inflicted such immense damage on world shipping that Britain’s naval leaders thought they faced imminent defeat. Winston Churchill characterized the fighting at sea as “a life-and-death struggle” between the British and German navies. The stakes were certainly high in this clash at sea, in the contest to defeat the German submarine offensive. Whoever won the struggle for naval mastery would win the war.

TODAY, AS did the leaders of Imperial Germany a century ago, China’s rulers view a naval buildup as a precondition for furthering their geopolitical ambitions on the world stage. Economic development and increased armaments go hand-in-hand to rising challengers who harbor dreams of remaking the international system in their own image. New policy guidance from Beijing states, “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned.” China’s naval buildup is an extraordinary manifestation of Beijing’s commitment to challenge American leadership on the maritime commons and in world politics. Channeling his inner Kaiser Wilhelm, Xi calls on China’s navy to “aim for the top ranks in the world. . . . Building a strong and modern navy is an important mark of a top ranking global military.”

These words are no empty boast. One recent assessment forecasts a Chinese fleet consisting of 500 combatants by 2030, including an undersea force of seventy-five diesel submarines and twelve nuclear attack submarines. China is adding to its undersea nuclear force even as it increases the strength of its land-based missile capabilities. It is reported, too, that China has ambitions to possess six aircraft carriers. Building and maintaining such a large navy will require an immense commitment of resources. This effort is a telltale sign of China’s determination and long-term ambition to play a larger global role.

China’s warfighting capabilities are also improving in technological sophistication and professionalism. Paul Bracken fears that new technologies could transform the balance of Sino-American military power: “China is choosing its strategic posture based on a careful study of U.S. vulnerabilities. It fits the framework of a first striker trying to minimize the residual capability of U.S. forces.” China’s seeks to establish a lethal killing zone within the first island chain in the Western Pacific, as a springboard to contest the global maritime commons and project naval power. The magnitude of the Chinese buildup to fight at sea presents a challenge the likes of which the United States has not seen since the closing days of the Cold War.

Moreover, in working to undermine America’s standing as a global power, Beijing is not confining its efforts to developing capabilities to fight in the maritime domain. China is also developing an overland network for trade and strategic posturing in its One Belt, One Road Initiative. Developing transportation and basing infrastructure across the rimlands and heartland of Eurasia provides China with a way to partner with other countries, to acquire staging areas and form coalitions to overstretch American power. This strategy means that the United States will face challenges from China on multiple geographical fronts and operational domains.

THIS AMBITIOUS Chinese scheme of infrastructure development is reminiscent of Imperial Germany’s bid to expand its strategic reach by building railways across the Middle East, hoping to connect Berlin to Baghdad. German efforts to construct this transportation network and to improve the military effectiveness of the Ottoman Empire’s armed forces threatened Britain’s position in the Middle East. Germany could strike overland at the British Empire, as well as challenge Britain in the maritime domain. During the war, Berlin also sought to incite a clash of civilizations by encouraging Moslem peoples to fight Britain. The demands of waging war in the Middle East prevented Britain from fully pivoting its forces to the fight against Germany.

It is often said that Beijing does not want war. After all, China’s ancient book of military wisdom, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, maintains that to win without resorting to fighting represents the height of strategic skill. But the same could have been said for the Kaiser. He, too, would have preferred to win without fighting, to achieve the German dream while avoiding an existential struggle. The Kaiser hoped that Britain would appease German ambitions and elegantly decline, letting Germany win without having to battle its way through to achieve world power. When Armageddon broke loose, the Kaiser sincerely believed that war had been forced upon him by a conspiracy concocted by the other great powers to thwart Germany’s international aspirations. In German eyes, Britain’s machinations lurked behind the coalition that encircled the Reich and frustrated Berlin’s ambitions. To rally the German people behind the regime, Germany’s rulers then constructed the narrative that they had done everything possible to preserve the peace, only to have war forced upon them by predatory foes, the most cunning and dangerous of which was Britain.

Of course, this narrative ignores Germany’s self-defeating behavior that resulted in the country’s encirclement. In the international confrontation that triggered the war during the summer of 1914, Berlin refused to back down and instead escalated the crisis so that diplomatic options were closed off. Germany’s rulers set in motion an aggressive plan of military action to march on Paris in response to an assassination that took place in Sarajevo, on the other side of Europe. By striking hard and fast, Germany’s warlords contended that an offensive first strike represented the best chance for winning the war.

Later in the war, in 1917, Wilhelm’s generals and admirals would compound their strategic error by provoking American intervention in the fighting. Again, in trying to escape from a strategic trap of their own making, Germany’s leaders chose to take the offensive, to escalate the war at sea in the attempt to gain a quick victory. This escalation brought an overwhelming American response, with the United States taking up arms to fight Germany. A rising American superpower would bring the resources of the New World into action to restore the balance of power in the Old. By provoking the entry of Britain and the United States into the war, the Kaiser, with his generals and admirals, brought about Germany’s ruin, killing millions along the way, wrecking the German economic miracle and blighting the happiness of future generations. The dream of world power became instead a hideous nightmare that continues to haunt us a hundred years later.

IN AN international crisis, will Beijing show more prudence than did Berlin in 1914 and seek to avoid conflict? Or, will Chinese leaders see a crisis as an opportunity to achieve a major foreign policy success? Will China’s rulers choose to pursue a strategy of escalation in the hope that American leaders will blink first in a test of brinkmanship? As a crisis unfolds, will China’s military chiefs and operational planners push the regime to take swift action, to strike first because—in their assessment—such an offensive blow will increase their chances for winning, as did Germany’s warlords? Will China’s political leaders give the green light to aggressive military action in the hope of quick victory? Answers to these questions will help determine whether the peace holds during an international confrontation embroiling China with its neighbors and the United States.

An international crisis, however, might prove too late to impress upon political and military leaders in Beijing the determination of the United States to prevent China from imposing its hegemonic ambitions on Asia and asserting its standing as a global superpower. Instead, American foreign policy should act to strengthen the security ties that bind the United States with partner democracies in East Asia, Australia, Japan and South Korea. In addition, the United States must continue its patient development of a security partnership with India. By working with partners, Washington can seek to limit the strategic reach of China and avoid the overextension of the American armed forces.

Diplomatic alignments are not enough. After all, Germany sought to break its strategic encirclement through swift military action. The United States and its partners must also boost their defense efforts so that no Chinese military planner can convincingly brief his political masters a plan for how Beijing might win quickly by executing offensive first strikes. The military balance must be tilted so decisively that Chinese statesmen and military chiefs view with dismay their prospects for victory. If China’s rulers are pessimistic about their chances for winning a trial of strength with the United States and our allies, then the peace in Asia will rest on a more secure foundation. The United States has a special responsibility to ensure that the drama of China’s rising power does not turn into a tragedy, with all the players on the world stage suffering grievous losses.