James Holmes

Bismarck, The Kaiser, and China

Why China’s recent actions conjure up some interesting historical comparisons.

Early in 2011 I wrote a Diplomat feature asking whether China had patterned its diplomacy on that of Otto von Bismarck, Germany's Iron Chancellor. The verdict is in, and the answer is no. Bismarck was a coldhearted man, devoted single mindedly to preserving and advancing German imperial power. But he knew the diplomatic value of self-restraint. Situated amid fellow great powers, newly united Germany had to convince prospective rivals it had no claims on their territory, lest they combine against and overpower the Reich. The chancellor also deftly encouraged competition among Germany's rivals. The upshot: a "hub-and-spoke" system in which Berlin was on better terms with each potential competitor than they were among themselves.

Bismarck, then, was the consummate alliance breaker — or, more accurately, alliance preventer. These days Chinese diplomacy could hardly be less Bismarckian. After waging a rather impressive charm offensive for some years — after pursuing a subdued diplomacy in which the Iron Chancellor would've taken pride — Beijing has wantonly squandered the reserves of goodwill it accumulated in Asian capitals.

If further proof were needed, China's Defense Ministry generously supplied another bit late last week when spokesman Yang Yujun confirmed that PLA Navy warships have conducted patrols near the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Yang disgorged what appears to be Beijing's boilerplate on the dispute, namely that the islets "have been an inseparable part of Chinese territory since ancient times." Thus naval and law-enforcement ships had a perfect right to police the waters around the Japanese-administered archipelago. Shades of "indisputable sovereignty" over the South China Sea — another non-negotiable position Beijing has carved out for itself in recent years, seemingly ruling out compromise.

Far from reassuring fellow Asian nations or stoking frictions among them, Beijing has given them reason to make common cause — both among themselves and with their balancer of first resort, the United States. But if not Bismarck, there is a German ruler whose erratic, reckless diplomacy foreshadowed China's. His name was Kaiser Wilhelm II. He frightened Germany's neighbors, isolated his nation, and united a hostile alliance against it. He also marched Europe over the precipice in 1914. That's what we call self-defeating behavior.

One hopes the Kaiser isn't the new face of Chinese foreign policy.