Is Chinese President Xi Jinping making the same mistake as did Imperial Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II almost exactly a century ago?
Be worried, but don’t yet despair. Xi is highly intelligent, while Wilhelm was a second-rater.
While the Chinese government has practised the art of diplomacy for centuries, that’s a skill few German leaders have mastered.
Certain similarities over the decades are unnervingly similar, though.
Then, the new rising power on the global scene was Germany just as today it is China.
The old declining power was Britain, while today it is the U.S., which, since history never repeats itself exactly, still commands immense power, above all military.
Another parallel is that China is displaying the same kind of ability to anger and alarm almost all its neighbours as the old Germany once did.
In one way or other, China is now engaged in disputes with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Relations between it and Russia are frosty, and are so equally between China and India over border claims.
The last alarming repetition over time is that the cause of all the friction China is now generating is alike to the tensions Germany precipitated long ago.
Wilhelm’s great blunder was to set out to build a fleet that could match the Royal Navy. Britain’s response was to sign a military alliance with its traditional rival, France.
Afterwards came the First World War.
Xi’s tactic is much craftier. He’s a strong supporter of the military and its budget is growing rapidly.
A major program is underway to develop a fleet of aircraft carriers.
Xi’s real target, though, is the sea itself rather than the ships upon it. He’s out to make the South China Sea into a Mare Nostrum rather than, as is now the case, an expanse of water of which major parts are claimed by a half-dozen other nations in the region.
The value of this watery expanse — possible oil and gas fields; fishing grounds — is highly questionable. There are a number of islands in it, but they are all small and barren.
The South China Sea’s real value is, instead, that of prestige. Gaining possession of it, effectively so even if not legally so, would confirm that China is the virtual overlord of Southeast Asia.
The immediate losers would be Japan and the Philippines and the rest. The true loser would be the declining superpower, the U.S., that for so long has dominated the entire region.
This crisis has been precipitated by Beijing’s declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a major portion of the sea that overlaps watery areas and islands long claimed by others, most especially by Japan.
Now comes the craftiness.
Many countries have ADIZs that require foreign planes flying through them to file flight plans with the local authorities or face, potentially, in Beijing’s phrase, “defensive emergency measures.”
Since the announcement, many international airliners have filed the required flight plans.
Those of Japan and South Korea flew right through, though.
And the U.S., repeating a long-established practice, sent two unarmed B52 bombers flying silently through the zone.
So far, both sides have acted with great caution.
During a weekend visit to Beijing, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden criticized China’s action but did not insist that the zone be cancelled. Chinese officials have gone out of their way to minimize the new system as merely a bureaucratic measure.
It is, of course, far more than that. It’s about national pride and honour and prestige.
To China, all these are immensely important.
They are no less so, though, to the U.S. and Japan and to the other countries involved.
Long ago, the consequence of Kaiser Wilhelm’s blunder was a murderous, pointless war.
Let’s hope everyone now involved is a lot smarter, most particularly so the man who started the manoeuvring — Xi.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears every
other Thursday. firstname.lastname@example.org.