My Latest for Lowy: “On the Contemporary China-Wilhelmine Germany Analogy, part 1: Similarities”


There is so much analogizing of contemporary China to Wilhelmine Germany (here’s yet another one), that I thought a longer treatment would be in order. I wrote this originally for the Lowy Institute, whose blog I write for. I like this post, as I feel like it takes a widely thrown-around, yet poorly elaborated meme and fleshes it out. Part 2 will go up in a week or so. And yes, I know that the German flag in the pic is the modern one of the FRG, not the old black-white-red. But I couldn’t find the two of them together…

Here’s that essay:

“Contemporary China is frequently analogized to pre-1914 Wilhelmine Germany. A host of commentators have made this comparison in the past few years: Walter Russell Mead, Martin Wolf, Edward Luttwak, and Joseph Nye, and a little further afield, Gideon Rachman, and Victor David Hansen. Similarly, it is often suggested in these analogies that East Asia today is like Europe before WWI; one famous formulation has it that ‘Asia’s future will be Europe’s past.’

So in this and my next post, I want to examine the China-Germany analogy in some detail. In brief, I think the comparisons are enticing, particularly because it is hard to find a good analogy of a ‘peaceful rise,’ as China, until recently at least, seemed to be pursuing. That is, we use Germany 1914 as an analogy in part, because we can’t find others that seem to China fit well, and we routinely use analogical reasoning in social science to improve our understanding. But I also think the contrasts are stark enough that the predictive value of the analogy is weak. Ideally, this would be pursued more seriously as a full-blown research paper, so to any graduate students reading, this is a nice IR project with an Asian empirical focus.




Here are the four major variables that seem to drive the analogy:

1. Both are encircled.

Germany in 1914 bordered eight countries. To be sure, several of them – such as Denmark or Luxembourg – were weak, but further afield were France, Russia, Italy, and Britain. When I studied in Germany in the 1990s, my history professor at the time referred to this as the ‘iron circle’ (Eisener Kreis). Germany was sealed in, with hostile, or at best suspicious, states all around it. Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were weak, collapsing allies at best, whose great power status depended much on German insistence that were in fact still great powers.

China today too is encased by hostile and semi-hostile states. For all its power, China today, like Germany then, has few friends on its periphery; indeed it has few friends at all. It borders fourteen other states directly, with maritime proximity to four others. Like Germany, many of these states are weak, such as Mongolia or Kyrgyzstan. But then there’s Russia, India, Japan, plus South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. That is an extraordinarily tough roster should those states coalesce into a counter-Chinese balancing coalition. Indeed, if there is one thing I hear repeatedly from my Chinese grad students, it is not that China will dominate Asia in a ‘neo-tribute system,’ per Japanese and American fears, but that China is encircled and harried by foreigners.

2. Both are growing fast.

Thucydides’ famous explanation for the Peloponnesian War was Athens’ rapid growth and the fear that inspired in the Aegean (1.23). Both Germany and China are similar.

Wilhelmine Germany was growing more rapidly and intensively than its neighbors in the decades after German unification (1871). That industrialization was also in the heavy industry, chemical, and scientific sectors that feed directly into German hard power. By 1900 is reasonable to guess that Germany would have won a one-on-one conflict with any power on the continent. And ultimately even America was required to defeat it in the war.

China too is growing rapidly, and not just in erratic spurts like boom-and-bust emerging markets, but in a sustained manner over decades now. Its modernization is the most remarkable story in the history of development. Even its reduced current 7-8% growth is five times Japan’s GDP expansion rate and three times America’s. We often hear that countries like the BRICS, Turkey, Indonesia and so on, are the ‘powers of tomorrow.’ But unlike the vague potential of these other states, China is a major power now. It is pulling away from the rest. Asia is already bipolar and tilting toward unipolarity, and the international system as a whole will be bipolar soon too, as China catches up to the US. Indeed, it is now arguably a category error to include China with the other BRICS.

3. Nationalism and Grievance

German nationalism clearly played a role in both sparking WWI and convincing many neighbors that WWI was not a ‘European civil war,’ but a German bid for regional hegemony. (This debate is captured in the ‘Fischer controversy.’) The extreme character of Wilhelmine nationalism is famously captured in films and novels as the Blue Angel and All Quiet on the Western Front. The Kaiser had notoriously declared that Germany needed ‘its place in the sun,’ and Mitteuropa hegemony was bandied about as a German WWI war aim.

China too has grown increasingly nationalist and driven by perceived grievance. The end of the Cold War and the repression of Tiananmen Square ended communism as a legitimating ideology of the regime. In its place has arisen Han nationalism bolstered by ‘patriotic education,’ plus a victimization ideology built around the ‘century of humiliation’ of China by Japan and the West. Chinese power, under the leadership of the party, is to reverse that.

4. Growth of Military Power

This is probably the most obvious parallel to many. Germany went from division in 1870 to nearly conquering the continent in less than fifty years. Two massive conflicts in which Germany was effectively gang-tackled by enormous anti-German coalitions were needed to finally break German military power – and China is so much larger than Germany ever was.

China too is a rapidly growing military power. It has more soldiers under arms than any other state (around 2.3 million). It is the second largest defense spender after the US. Its navy plans to deploy aircraft carriers as well as operate beyond the ‘first island chain’ and into the Indian Ocean. It is widely thought that China’s tough line in the South China Sea and with Japan over its air defense identification zone are the result of military muscle flexing. So central is this emerging challenge to US dominance in the western Pacific, that the US Congress requires an annual report from the US Defense Department on China’s military (2013 version here).

The predictive question from these similarities is thus, will China launch a break-out conflict to fracture encirclement as Germany did? I don’t think so, because there are enough strong contrasts, elucidated in my next post, which badly damage the analogy’s predictive power.

In brief, I see three contrasts that aren’t often mentioned in the currently fashionable Germany = China essays:

A) Culture – China may be so different from Germany in mores and habits that that undermines the analogy. Specifically, it is often argued that China has a cultural predilection for defense, thereby invalidating the German 1914 offensive analogy.

B) Learning – It is often said that China has learned from Wilhelmine Germany, and the USSR, not to rise as a belligerent and provoke an encircling coalition as they both did.

C) Nuclear Weapons – There has been no inter-great power war since 1945, many believe, because of the powerful deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. So Germany 1914-style aggression is extraordinarily unlikely, not just by China, but by any power.

Part 2 is here.

17 thoughts on “My Latest for Lowy: “On the Contemporary China-Wilhelmine Germany Analogy, part 1: Similarities”

  1. Thanks for this post: useful to this European who is now less familiar with European history than East Asian!

    On a personal blog-commentor level, I do not believe that China will seek to aggressively expand further than consolidating what it regards as its traditional territory (which ironically – or not – was largely carved out by the Manchu Qing), i.e. Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. Where things might become potentially more hazy, is Mongolia and northern Korea, but only under something like WWIII circumstances (i.e. if everything was reshaping itself) and once it has at least regained Taiwan.

    Otherwise, there aren’t many directions in which China could expand ala continental European powers, because it is already so expansive. And, although it has a very large population, it still has enough space within its territory.

    Chinese nationalism (as far as I know) is only strongly directed against Japan (as the West is too far way), and perhaps a little India and Vietnam. It could serve for a brief war against Japan, but not really in the name of territorial aggrandizement.

    Also perhaps, aside from nuclear weapons, in the current era mega-states can get by much better with economic imperialism – the globalization argument – and this seems to be China’s preference.

    Both separately and slightly related: I wonder if Russia’s actions in Crimea may set a precedent for how China could react towards a North Korea meltdown (IF it ever happens). In analysis there are probably more differences than similarities – they lack the ethnic and historical claims for a start – but the actual operation and boldness to act.


    • That’s very good, and I think you should write that up more fully – China as a regionally limited revisionist. My sense is that that is also true. I think hawks would reply that as China’s power grows though, so will it’s appetites. The US is dominant in the Western Hemisphere, but is not content to stay there – getting involved in the Middle East and Asia a lot too.


  2. I liked your post, it’s a classic political science analysis based on the Western traditions of balance of power that makes the analogy in detail.

    I also recently saw another American political scientist making the argument that in East Asia the foreign policy tradition was for China to dominate (I think it was David Kang). And that in East Asia the likelier outcome is for China to dominate and the surrounding countries to quietly acquiesce. A return to the old China-centered world order.

    I personally think that David Kang’s reading of eastern Asian history is right except for 2 countries. Mongolia and Japan are two countries that historically refused to play ball with imperial China’s hierarchical world order. Thus these two countries have a strong possibility of sticking with Western concepts of equality of sovereign states. (In which case your analogy really works well.)

    I guess the future will tell, whether we continue with the Western international system or countries in eastern Asia start to revert to the older China-centered international system.


  3. I just read your part 2 and I completely agree with your 3rd point in particular: nuclear weapons. I also want to agree with you on your comment above: that Asians may be too nationalistic to accept Chinese hegemony quietly. I certainly hope that’s the case in SE Asia. (Since S Korea seems to be courting ties with China, S Korea might be betting on both China and US, and switch to whoever is stronger when the time comes.)

    On another topic I’m not too sure if I agree completely with the peaceful China thesis that you and Kang seem to agree on.

    For this my reference is Ming China’s sudden transformation from an inward looking war-averting founder, Emperor Hongwu (1368-1398), to an outward looking conquest oriented 3rd Emperor, Emperor Yongle (1402-1424). The idea that Han China was always peace-loving is just, er, wrong.

    The problem with the Chinese imperial system or the current Communist political dictatorship is that their decision making process is opaque and we can’t tell when they will change policy.

    Deng Xiaoping declared “peaceful rise” to be Chinese policy and they have maintained that since 1979. But the earlier policy of Mao Zedong was foreign interventionism (definitely N Korea, India, Vietnam, possibly Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang) and we can’t tell if (or when in the case of South China Sea) they might revert to that.


    • Alastair Iain Johnston says the same in his book Cultural Realism – basically that China is not different than anyone else. When they had the offensive advantage, they warred. But I still think the question of how much imperial China’s legacy affects today post-communist, neo-nationalist China is open. They are so different.


  4. This was a very useful and interesting post. I feel that the most important divergence is in the cultural differences between the 2 societies, in particular I do not get the impression that China has the near worship of all things military that pervaded Wilhelmine Germany, especially amonst the upper strata.
    I certainly can see regional tensions being ratchetted up over resources in the South China Sea


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  6. Recent Russian actions may change the situation here.
    Due to blowback over the Crimean situation, Russia will align with China more strongly, which will create certain synergies for China and allow it to focus its energies away from its most militarily powerfull neighbour.
    Secondly, one should not overlook that Russia, working in tridem with Vietnam and India, did its own competing “mini containment” of China. This was especially usefull for Vietnam, since it allowed Vietnam to somewhat align with the USA without appearing pro American.
    While decision making in Hanoi is pretty opaque, it is not unreasonable to assume that the willingness of Hanoi to be part of a anti Chinese coalition is predicated on the existence of a modicum of tension between Moscow and Beijing. It is also possible that closer Russian/Chinese cooperation may result in a generous treaty for Hanoi (with Russia adding some resource sweeteners for Beijing).
    This would remove a potential thorn in the side for Beijing, lift a huge weight of Hanoi, and allow Moscow to be peacemaker while retaining influence in Vietnam, without having to abandon a treaty ally.
    Resource concessions from Russia to China will propably happen anyway, meaning that this kind of deal has considerable “win win” characteristics for all involved parties.


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