At the start of the twentieth century, Britain, the superpower of the time, was faced with a strategic dilemma: what to do about a newly unified and nationalist Germany, which was rising fast economically and building up its military. One school of thought held that Germany could be accommodated within the existing international system; the other argument was that it needed to be confronted and contained. The hawks won out. During the Boer War, London threatened to blockade the German coast if Berlin intervened in favor of the Dutch settlers in South Africa. There followed a big arms race, as Germany, which had already been strengthening its marine capabilities, rushed to catch up with the Royal Navy, and Britain responded by constructing the dreadnoughts, a deadly family of steam-powered battleships. In 1907, Britain joined France and Russia in an alliance—the Triple Entente—against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
We all know how the story ended: a devastating, continent-wide conflict that lasted more than four years, killed over nine million combatants, and facilitated the rise of Communism and Fascism. And one of the worst things about the First World War was that it could quite possibly have been avoided. Although the rise of Wilhelmine Germany represented a dangerous challenge to the balance of power in Europe, neither side wanted a full-scale confrontation. In 1914, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, the European powers blundered into war because of decisions they had made, and commitments they had taken on, during the years of heightening rivalry.
The analogy between twentieth-century Germany and twenty-first-century China isn’t perfect, of course, and neither is the comparison of the British Empire to Pax Americana. But the likenesses are close enough to be discomforting, especially as President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet for a two-day summit in Southern California that begins on Friday. (Evan Osnos has more on the summit.) Like Wilhemine Germany, China combines a vibrant economy with an authoritarian political system. Its culture has nationalistic elements, and, partly through the vigorous pursuit of economic relationships, it is expanding its influence around the world.
To its credit, the Obama Administration recognized from the start that China’s ascent represents the central strategic challenge of our era, and that it—rather than an ill-defined “War on Terror”—ought to be the focus of U.S. foreign policy. During the President’s first term, his team launched a so-called “pivot” to Asia. Unfortunately, though, the way this policy has been presented, and provisionally enacted, has put the Administration on the wrong side of history. Rather than seek to accommodate China, and afford it the respect its remarkable transformation demands, the White House and the Pentagon have sometimes given the impression that they are trying to contain or stifle the Asian giant. And down that route lies great peril.
China, like Wilhelmine Germany, isn’t just a rising power; it is an insecure one. The country, with a history of being invaded and exploited by foreign powers—Britain and Japan, most notably—remains suspicious of outsiders, and its leaders, who owe their positions to a monolithic one-party system that has perished elsewhere, have particular reason to be wary. And insecurity can easily give rise to hostility—especially when the perception spreads that other countries are acting provocatively.
When the Chinese government sees the Pentagon sending more than half of the U.S. Navy’s fleet to the Pacific; dispatching hundreds—eventually thousands—of Marines to Darwin, in northern Australia; building up U.S. forces in South Korea; and returning, for the first time in twenty years, to Subic Bay, in the Philippines, it sees the potential for military encirclement. When it watches the U.S. government put together a free-trade agreement for the Pacific Rim that encompasses many of China’s neighbors, including Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and now perhaps Japan, its historical rival and enemy, it sees an effort to exclude China. And when the Chinese see American officials, prosecutors, and newspapers accusing them of stealing trade secrets and technology from American corporations, they see a concerted effort to retard China’s industrial development.
To be sure, some of China’s concerns are overblown. An increased U.S. military presence in South Korea has more to do with developments in North Korea than sending a message to Beijing. The Pacific Rim trade agreement, which would greatly expand the existing Trans-Pacific Partnership, is still in the fledgling stage. And Chinese companies do often copy, purloin, or reverse engineer Western designs. For big American corporations that have a presence in China, which is most of them, it’s a widely acknowledged cost of doing business there. But doesn’t mean we can simply ignore or dismiss Chinese anxieties, some of which have a sound historical basis. The last thing the world needs is a resurgent and nationalist China that feels cornered or slighted.
We aren’t there yet, thank goodness, but the pivot to Asia (particularly its military aspect) hasn’t helped matters. As Robert S. Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College and an expert on China, puts it in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs: “The new U.S. policy unnecessarily compounds Beijing’s insecurities and will only feed China’s aggressiveness, undermine regional stability, and decrease the possibility of cooperation between Beijing and Washington.” Even some foreign-policy experts who support the Obama Administration’s policy concede this is a danger. “Although China has long harbored concerns and conspiracy theories about U.S. efforts to weaken and encircle China, these perceptions are becoming increasingly dominant in Beijing,” Ely Ratner, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who formerly served on the China desk at the State Department, writes in the Washington Quarterly. To prevent hostility toward the U.S. from rising, and to maintain support for its policies, “Washington will have to better explain the content and origin of the strategy” it is pursuing, Ratner writes.
At the summit, Obama will have an excellent opportunity to do just that. Xi Jinping, who is still fairly new to his job, will surely be all ears. According to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who met Xi in Beijing recently, the Chinese President is a down-to-earth fellow who speaks without notes and appears more open to discussion than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. But Xi’s primary concerns will be the same as Hu’s were: Is the United States looking to extend China a warm welcome to the superpower club, or is it seeking to keep the membership roster to one?
The true answer is that the Administration is trying to have it both ways, and so are the rest of us. To the extent that China’s renaissance provides us with cheap goods, powers the global economy, and lifts hundreds of millions of people out of grinding poverty, we welcome it. At the same time, we find its scope and pace disturbing, partly because it has been associated with authoritarianism and environmental degradation, and partly because we rather like the idea of the United States being the undisputed top dog.
In the long run, though, accommodation is the only practical option. China is too big and it’s growing too fast to be contained. By 2016, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Coöperation and Development, it will be the world’s biggest economy, and that is only the beginning. Despite a slight slowdown in recent months, China continues to invest heavily in the future. During the next couple of years alone, it is planning to build more than a hundred thousand miles of highways, fifty new airports, and more than five thousand miles of high-speed rail track.
What, then, should Obama do? Despite all the uproar about corporate espionage and hacking, the first thing on his to-do list should be reassuring the Chinese government, and the Chinese people, that the United States seeks coöperation rather than confrontation. As Ross wrote: “The right China policy would assuage, not exploit, Beijing’s anxieties, while protecting U.S. interests in the region.” That doesn’t mean ignoring examples of egregious behavior by Chinese, but it means dealing with them in the right setting. For example, complaints about intellectual property theft can be pursued through the World Trade Organization, which China joined more than a decade ago.
History demonstrates that economic strength eventually brings with it military and diplomatic clout. According to a new study from the McKinsey Global Institute, which the Financial Times cited Wednesday, the Chinese economic transformation is happening at a hundred times the scale and ten times the pace of the industrial revolution that gave rise to Britain’s preëminence. One way or another, China is going to be a superpower. With the centenary of the start of the First World War almost upon us, we shouldn’t need reminding how imperative it is to make sure that the transformation from the current unipolar system is an amicable and peaceful one.
Photograph by Feng Li/Getty.