China and Imperial Germany

Recent Features


China and Imperial Germany

Why Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany would envy the strategic situation that China finds itself in.

China Daily has been making much of Harvard University Prof. Joseph Nye’s comments about China’s rise and American decline. In a recent article titled ‘Don’t Magnify China’s Power,’ Ariel Tung reports that Nye has warned against defeatism on this side of the Pacific. Hyping Chinese clout while exaggerating the damage wrought by the US financial crisis and economic downturn ‘leads to hubris in China and fear in the US,’ reducing the chances for peaceful coexistence among the leading Asian powers. Nye’s conclusions make good sense. A faulty understanding of the strategic setting begets unwise strategy. But he reaches these conclusions through a suspect historical analogy, proffering the oft-cited comparison between China’s rise and the rise of Imperial Germany a century ago.

Nye declares, in effect, that Germany then was far more menacing than China is today. In January he wrote in Foreign Policy that ‘China is a long way from posing the kind of challenge to America that the Kaiser’s Germany posed to Britain in 1900.’ It's a point he made again in an article in the Los Angeles Times today. If this is the case, Washington should relax rather than gird itself against a Chinese threat that could prove illusory.

Yes and no. China resembles Imperial Germany more than Nye allows, while the differences suggest that Beijing will mount a sterner, more stubborn challenge to US maritime supremacy than Berlin ever did vis-à-vis Great Britain. History affords scant comfort either way.

First, the similarities. Nye maintains that ‘Germany had already surpassed Britain in industrial power by 1900, and the Kaiser was pursuing an adventurous, globally oriented foreign and military policy that was bound to bring about a clash. But China today has focused its policies primarily on its region and its own economic development.’ And indeed, Germany did eclipse Great Britain by many economic measures, while China remains well behind the United States by such indices as gross domestic product. Even so, Berlin had only started transmuting economic might into a great navy—the chief cause of Anglo-German enmity—by the turn of the century. Its High Seas Fleet remained a powerhouse in the making, much as the People’s Liberation Army Navy remains a work in progress.

Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s state secretary for the navy, pushed his first Navy Law through parliament only in 1898, authorizing a fleet of nineteen battleships. A second Navy Law followed in 1900, doubling the size of the battle fleet. But it takes time to transcribe legal mandates into military forces. Designing and building warships consumes years in an industrial age. Berlin wasn’t exempt from this logic. In a sense, then, US leaders find themselves in the same position occupied by fin de siècle British leaders: a prospective rival has laid down the keels for an impressive battle fleet that has not yet matured, while the intentions behind the frenzy of shipbuilding remain a matter of conjecture. Let’s not retrospectively inflate German prowess or belittle that of China.

Nye’s comment that Britain found German adventurism worrisome because it spanned the globe is mostly beside the point. Britain had little quarrel with Berlin’s far-flung imperial aspirations. Indeed, it had encouraged them in the years following German unification. It was the naval subset of German foreign policy that really set British nerves on edge. The design of the High Seas Fleet sent a message. Shipwrights must make painful tradeoffs among attributes like speed, range, armour, and armament. Sheathing a ship in more armour plating or installing bigger guns adds weight. The heavier the ship, the more fuel it burns, and the shorter its cruising radius. German naval architects favoured firepower and thick armour over range—meaning that battleships based in north Germany couldn’t venture far beyond the North Sea. As the High Seas Fleet took shape, then, it became blindingly obvious to British officials that Berlin meant to contest Royal Navy supremacy in home waters. Then as now, the dominant sea power fretted about a rising challenger intent on building up sea power in its own environs.

Now for the differences. China is a savvier competitor than the Kaiser’s Germany ever was. Like Berlin, Beijing has applied limited resources to procure ships and weaponry that extend its reach throughout nearby seas. Unlike Berlin, it has refrained from frittering away resources on faraway, expensive imperial adventures. Waste not, want not. Chinese leaders are better stewards of national treasure than the mercurial Wilhelm II.

Furthermore, China is situated far from the reigning sea power, whereas Germany had the misfortune to inhabit the same neighbourhood with its chief antagonist. The People’s Liberation Army is turning sheer geographic distance to its advantage, imposing stresses on the US Navy that never beset the Royal Navy. British commanders never had to worry about reaching the combat theatre from bases in the British Isles. Any fleet action between the Royal Navy and short-legged German dreadnoughts would take place in the North Sea or elsewhere along the British periphery. By contrast, US forces might well have to fight their way into the Western Pacific from bases in Hawaii or even the US West Coast. The Chinese military has designed ‘anti-access’ strategy and forces to exploit geography. In short, China holds a pronounced home-field advantage near its own coasts despite trailing the United States in economic and military power. German leaders would have envied China its strategic circumstances.

That Chinese leaders have confined their efforts to maritime Asia, husbanding resources for contingencies close to home, proves only that they are more prudent than Kaiser Wilhelm and his lieutenants and more attuned to their strategic surroundings. Prof. Nye is correct: conflict isn’t predestined in maritime Asia. Nevertheless, Beijing promises to be a tough competitor by the German standard.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010. The views voiced here are his alone.