James Holmes

Three Reasons Why China Isn’t Imperial Germany (It’s Tougher)

“The weak can offset the advantages enjoyed by the strong…”

Last week the wise and all-powerful Harvard professor Joe Nye decreed that "China Is Not Imperial Germany." I seldom take issue with Professor Nye, whose works on soft power and international public goods are go-to works for anyone researching related topics. But his China/Germany comparison is so one-dimensional that it misleads. It boils down to side-by-side comparisons between Germany and Great Britain circa 1900 and between China and the United States today. Fin de siècle Germany had overtaken Britain by many industrial and economic measures by the turn of the century. China, by contrast, still trails the United States by most metrics. Nye accepts the Chinese talking point that it will take China thirty years to catch up. Presto! The United States can take a breather while trying to fashion some sort of condominium with the Asian giant.

No one can quarrel with trying to manage relations with China amicably — Washington should, and must, make the attempt — but we should also be clear about the state of the Sino-American competition and its likely future trajectory. China is not Imperial Germany, but it need not overtake the United States outright to be a far tougher competitor than the Reich ever was. And it can do so long before three decades have elapsed. Herewith, three reasons why China is more formidable than the Kaiser's Germany:

More hospitable geostrategic setting. Germany inhabited far more forbidding surroundings than does China. It outmatched any individual European rival following its unification in 1871, but it was still flanked by great powers on all sides. Germany's margin of superiority over France or Russia, furthermore, was far slimmer than the imbalances separating China from its neighbors, particularly countries like Vietnam or the Philippines. Berlin lived in constant fear of an encircling alliance that could overpower the Reich; Beijing frets about containment, but the challenges it confronts pale next to those facing Kaiser Wilhelm and his lieutenants. Plus, Germany's major maritime rival lay across its access to the Atlantic Ocean, virtually foredooming its quest for sea power. For all Beijing's chafing at geographic obstacles that inhibit the PLA Navy's access to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, its fleet cannot be cordoned off nearly so easily as the High Seas Fleet was during World War I. It has far more options than did Berlin.

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A faraway peer competitor. Matching Great Britain was important for Imperial Germany, which, again, lay just across the North Sea from its great maritime rival. Nearby Britain could bring its power to bear with ease, deploying the Royal Navy athwart German communications with the Atlantic. It would take superior resources, indomitable political resolve, and naval bases in either France or Norway to outflank a British blockade. Admiral Wolfgang Wegener, who served in the High Seas Fleet, implied that Berlin could have overcome Britain but for the German high command's fundamental misunderstanding of the sea. China appears far savvier about nautical endeavors than Germany. More importantly, its chief competitor is not scores but thousands of miles away. Distance is a great equalizer for China, magnifying the costs and logistical challenges to the United States of competing with China in its own backyard. A simple tallying-up of national power obscures how the tyranny of geography attenuates U.S. military strength, and thus potentially blunts Washington's diplomatic clout.

Land-based auxiliaries of sea power. Technological advances since the days of Anglo-German  enmity have also amplified the advantage for regional powers defending their home ground. For the Kaiser's Germany, sea power was strictly equivalent to the fleet. To defeat the Royal Navy it had to run and win a symmetrical naval arms race. China, by contrast, is a beneficiary of plentiful, inexpensive, land-based implements of sea power. The Germans could have competed effectively with the British long before overtaking them economically, had Berlin been able to field land-based jet fighters, anti-ship cruise missiles, and anti-ship ballistic missiles. The weak can offset the advantages enjoyed by the strong, deploying artful strategy that imposes high costs on opponents at low cost to themselves. Let's take a more textured approach to historical comparisons.