In the Footsteps of the Kaiser: China Boosts US Power in Asia
Published on: September 26, 2010
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  • Really an excellent piece. It’s refreshing to read calm, dispassionate reasoning, as opposed to propaganda. And it’s even harder to find something where I agree with every word.


  • I haven’t come across this sort of analysis on how China’s latest actions are strengthening America’s Asian alliances. From the “enemy of my enemy” to high stakes political game theory.

    Very insightful post!

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  • DPT

    I have been grappling with the question of Chinese regional hegemony in my own blogging and I agree that generally, the Chinese are likely to cause more problems for themselves than for us at this early juncture.

    I am not so sure that is a good thing, however. The continued strength of the United States as a powerful offshore balancer, combined with a consistently growing China, may create a fundamentally unstable system. After all, China may feel compelled to seek naval power and weltpolitk for the same economic reasons Germany did – and it would be equally rational in doing so. I disagree that Germany was necessarily futile in its earlier war aims – after all, Germany had a prime opportunity to strike in 1905 (which it passed up), and even its defeat in 1914-1918 was due to British and then US interventions that were by no means inevitable.

    You argue that China should seek to replicate some degree of European cooperative politics in Asia – perhaps that would be desirable, but the historical provenance of the EU and the neutralization of Germany has much more troubling implications. It took the loss of WWI, then the utter annihilation of WWII, division, the threat of the USSR to unite Europeans and set the stage for an American pacifier, and then the collapse of that empire into a power vacuum that the US pacifier and European economic-cultural project could expand into, to create the present European peace.

    Of course Germany now is doing splendidly. But it is difficult to say if it would be doing worse if it had won in 1914 and started building its own Mitteleuropa then – certainly the feeling of encirclement and the need to compete with the global maritime empires and the Eurasian giant of Russia made Germans feel as if Mitteleuropa was necessary, if not desirable in and of itself. I find it very unlikely that Asia can transition from active geopolitical competition to continental integration without the major disruptions to the balance of power we saw in Europe.

    Nevertheless, the obvious advantages the US has in economic dynamism, socio-political stability, geostrategic insularity, and military power should hopefully be reason enough for the Chinese not to pursue a Wilhelmine strategy. But when China begins to become powerful enough that some countries are more afraid of allying against China than they are eager to ally with the US, I am skeptical that Europe’s success will repeat without its tragedies.

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  • Alessandro

    Given Japan’s economic power, one must ask if Japan may opt to revise her constitution to allow herself to rearm and develop all the branches of her armed forces. Since the end of World War II, Japan has relied on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” but now that the strategic realities in the Pacific have changed with a rising and more aggressive China, the time may be here for Japan to rearm and continue her alliance with the U.S. A fully armed Japan and the U.S. would present China with a formidable challenge to her hegemonic goals in the region.

  • I would like to hear your views on the Chinese-Russian border. China has territorial claims across the border, and that seems a much “safer” outlet for Chinese demographic expansion. It could even be a “peaceful” process if Russia chooses not to risk war. And with 1.3 billion people China may not require any allies. Anyway, your thoughts?

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  • TBlakely

    Frankly, it will be a miracle if we don’t end up with a nasty war with China. The biggest problem China has amongst a host of problems is ‘face.’

    China views itself as the greatest civilisation the world has ever seen with a superior culture. However, China has been humiliated for more than a couple of centuries by host of foreign powers. Now that China’s power is on the upswing a little payback is needed to restore national pride. It’s merely a question of who and when.

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  • It is my fondest wish that you be available for John Thune, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels and any other potential Rep Pres candidate in 2012. The current occupant of the WH does not appear to know or appreciate history and the Republican ranks do not appear to be filled with strategic thinkers who have a model of how nations have historically related to each other. Your blog is a tonic.

  • peter38a

    Everyone seems to forget who is riding the existential tiger here. China reminds me of 18th century France. Simplistically, but there are more areas of commonality, the king allowed the rising middle class to make as much money as they liked but no political power; the latter bought the arraignment. The economy tanked and faced with the king’s army the middle class sought redress through the peasants…

    What if someone in Japan—third largest economy—turned some political wheels so that trade with China was throttled? What if Congress coexistently passed some laws seeking to radically redress the trade imbalance with China? There would be economic Hell to pay and most likely some military huffing a puffing but most of the hell would be in China.

    I just read that there was a new scandal in China about fake rabies’ vaccinations. Many countries have problems but China’s are existential.

    China needs to step lightly but when in the swoon of hubris that never seem like as much fun.

  • Hey Via Media and Mead Lovers,

    Daniel Larison reminded me to check back in, hope things are going swimmingly. Take care. NS

    “Walter Russell Mead misleadingly compar[es] recent Chinese actions to Wilhelm II’s Weltpolitik. There was a significant change in German policy after 1890 that led to a more overtly aggressive Germany foreign policy, and that did result in the realignment of European powers Mead describes, but there has been no dramatic shift in Chinese policy that merits the comparison.”

  • Mark

    Interesting article and I very much agree with some of the points. I however would like to point out another (perhaps closer) comparison with another rising power, that of Imperial Japan were her armed forces increasing called the shots and propelled Japan into a ruinious war with the U.S and her allies.

    It seems to me the government in Beijing is increasingly weak and the PLA becoming more powerful. History repeating itself and with pretty much the same results I expect.

  • kk

    great, great great

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  • Karl

    Nicely said!

  • Timstigator

    I love reading such insightful analyses from Walter.

  • Angel Martin

    what a great article!

    I have long believed that in the 21st century, China would play the military role that Germany played in the 20th century. (And India would play the role of France, Taiwan/Japan as the UK, Russia and the USA would play themselves. )

    One hope is that a collapse of the chinese real estate bubble might change this trajectory; economic reversal may actually strengthen chinese xenophobia and high-handedness with its neighbours.

  • garyg

    Good pece. It was Tuchman, I think, in Guns of August, who said that WWI was caused as much by British fears of the growing deep water navy the Kaiser was putting together as anything. Hmm, the Chinese are quite busy developing a capable Navy…another point of parallel.

    TBlakely’s comment above is also very true,and again a point of parallel with the Kaiser’s Germany, which was Europe’s battlefield and plaything for quite some time.

  • geronimo

    A lucid set of speculations based on on a
    fine selection of historical fact. However, the swerve iMr. Mead’s piece takes to factor in the role of the US economy doesn’t ´get the development it needs and deserves. It just may be that the policies we pursue and that Mr. Mead makes sound so reasonable, are in fact badkly founded because they have proved far too expensive. Think about it.

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  • There are several historical analogies that illuminate the rise of China. One is the Ger-UK one so well presented here.

    A second one that I think is helpful is also Japan c. 1930. Though the international system was more than happy to let Japan grow as much as it wanted to, to acquire colonies, and even invade China, Japan nevertheless pursued policies that brought it into war with the western powers.

    A third analogy is that of Spain falling in the 17th century as Britain and France rose. Philip III presiding over a crumbling state exhausted by stupid crusades, deeply in debt, and controlled by advisors motivated largely by other agendas. To me the US isn’t looking like the UK in 1900 but moer like Spain about 1625 or so….

  • JohnEMack

    It is hard to see China as having any interest in the projection of military power. Where can it go? Russia? India? Across the Pacific? And why would it want to? Nobody has any interest in invading China, and while China has a few dangerous border issues, none of them pose anything like an existential threat. On the other hand, this situation pretty well sums up Wilhelmian Germany, too….

  • One of the small stories behind the veil of history is the illness of Frederick III, father of Wilhelm II and son of the older Kaiser Wilhelm. He hated war and had married the oldest daughter of Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, he developed cancer of the larynx which was in a quite curable state when detected. His wife insisted on an English physician who mishandled the case and then lied about the illness. At the time, German surgeons were superior but were rebuffed. Frederick died after 99 days as Emperor and was succeeded by his son whose anglophobia had been stimulated by the botched treatment of his father’s illness. What might have the history of Europe been if the father and not the son had been Kaiser ?

  • Dravidan

    All SAARC nations except India will form a federation with China, Inevitable.

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Fine, fine, all of it fine, except for the line “Rome wasn’t burned in a day.” Actually…….

  • nadine

    The floor and ceiling metaphor is a very useful way to think of the reaction of smaller powers to larger ones. If Bush and Rumsfeld’s aggressiveness triggered “ceiling” behavior in Europe, could we view the series of right-wing victories in European elections as a form of “floor” behavior in response to Obama’s passiviity and incompetence?

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    How stupid do you have to be, to continually be threatening war with your largest customer?
    The cool thing about a Democracy is that you can throw the bums out, change the Government Monopoly’s direction at the same time you chop away some of the encrusted corruption (America will prove this true once again on Nov. 2). Authoritarian Governments like the Communists of China will never be able to match our flexibility, and speed of innovation, and will continue to suffer from the inefficiencies of massive political corruption, that has built up over time, and has been pretty much institutionalized. It’s easy for China to grow quickly at the moment, they are playing catch-up from very far down, and they are still one of the poorest nations on Earth after 20+ years of very fast growth. The US on the other hand is on the bleeding edge of mankind’s advance, and we are doing the difficult job of breaking trail for everyone else.

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  • Glen

    Very much liked the floor and ceiling idea as a way to think through American power and its dynamics.

    But i think you’re making a bit much of very recent Chinese behavior. I agree with the general point that they’re doing themselves no favors by worrying their neighbors and nudging them back into American arms. But how they’re acted against Japan in a long running territorial dispute doesn’t seem particularly provocative or going down the path of Wilhelm II. Something to watch closely though.

  • iyenori

    So far JacksonLibertarian (Sept. 29) is the only one who has looked at China’s economic base, which seems to me much more important than its ephemeral diplomacy.. What about the substructure; how long can they get along with a vast pool of impoverished rural labor?

    Two comparisons come to mind: (1) obviously, the Kuomintang, which also did an impressive job of developing some areas; (2) the French Second Empire, of whose Parisian showpiece I was reminded a few years ago in Beijing and Shanghai (though there they prefer Art Deco). But what’s happening in the provinces?

    To MikeK (Sept. 29): See Emil Ludwig, “If the Emperor Frederick Had Not Had Cancer,” in “If It Had Happened Otherwise,” ed. J.C. Squire (1932; reprinted 1972). This work also includes “If Napoleon Had Won the Battle of Waterloo” by Sir George Trevelyan and “If Lee Had Not [sic] Won the Battle of Gettysburg” by Winston Churchill.

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