It has been in vogue lately to compare China’s rise and its relations with other world powers to the relationships between Germany and Great Britain in the years preceding The Great War. Margaret MacMillan’s essay at The Brookings Institution a few weeks back was a representative example of the genre. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe made the comparison, and his remarks ended up being one of the biggest stories out of Davos last month. And Benigno Aquino, President of the Philippines, made an equally provocative observation, comparing China’s maritime territorial aggression to Hitler’s fascist escapades in Western Europe. But we shouldn’t be tempted by misleading, oversimplified historical analogies. The most recent example of this trend comes from Tim Roberts over at The Diplomat, who argues that Sino-U.S. relations are actually most similar to Anglo-American relations during the Civil War:
The aspect of the Anglo-American relationship in the first part of the nineteenth century most salient to the Sino-American relationship today is that Britain remained America’s largest trading partner despite the U.S. maintenance of labor practices – slavery – which Britain opposed. Parliament outlawed British slavery in 1833, but Britain continued to import American slave-grown cotton. […]A similar pattern may be emerging in the modern era. In October 1992 presidential candidate Bill Clinton criticized President George Bush for not pressuring the Chinese government on human rights issues, but as president Clinton supported China’s Most Favored Nation trading status, a decision he called principled and pragmatic. Likewise the administration of George W. Bush did not much pressure China on human rights, nor has President Barack Obama. […]Recent popular uprisings in Cairo and Kiev strike observers in Beijing like the democratic upheavals of Europe in 1848 appeared to conservative Americans then jittery about the risks of liberal reform. But Chinese leadership would make a mistake not to anticipate American accommodation and compromise, and to risk conflict through militarization, as the German Empire did in spiraling towards World War I.
It is not that there isn’t any intellectual interest in these types of historical analogies. But people tend to be focusing too much on the specifics of the comparisons while missing out on a broader, more pertinent point. The lesson to take from this trend is not that China’s rise might play out in the same way as Germany’s or that one historical happening bears greater resemblance to the present moment than another. The more important takeaway is that, contrary to predictions that it would fade away amid globalization and democratization, old school great power politics is still very much in force.