That China is a great power seeking its place in the sun, no one can doubt. That its quest will end in war, however, that China will ascend to the empyrean of world order war will be the result, is a much more dubious proposition.
This is not to suggest that China’s rise will necessarily be peaceful. The argument that the economies of the United States and China are so intertwined as to make war unthinkable is reminiscent of similar fairy tales that people – including prominent intellectuals like Norman Angell – were telling themselves about Europe’s great powers in the summer of 1914. Nor are any of the other reassurances emanating from the sirens of splendid globalism terribly convincing. But neither is it to suggest that China’s rise will inexorably result in a global conflagration.
Thucydides argued over two millennia ago that wars are not merely the result of big structural forces like tectonic shifts in the balance of power. Instead, they are the product of the interaction of these big structural forces and with events: political decisions, diplomatic signaling, military moves, alliance dynamics, and so on. In China’s case, the tectonic shifts have already occurred. The PRC has arrived at a point where, structurally, it poses a real challenge to US hegemony. Systemic, hegemonic, or world war is, therefore, a real possibility. But it is not a foregone conclusion. The specific outcome will be determined by the concrete actions taken by political leaders in the US, China, and elsewhere – actions that will either amplify the structural tendency toward war or flatten the curve in ways that allow war to be avoided.
What History Can Teach Us
Let me illustrate the nature of this current moment by drawing a historical parallel between China’s rise today and Germany’s rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has been done before, I know. Indeed, it has become something of a favorite with those who see a Thucydides Trap around every historical corner. But I’m going to approach it a little differently. Specifically, I’m going to sketch a plausible counterfactual scenario in which Germany’s rise resulted in a systemic crisis in 1914 but did not result in a world war. That will allow me to isolate the factor or factors that led to peace in my counterfactual scenario where war had been the outcome of the actual historical crisis of 1914.
In what ways does a rising China in the early 21st century resemble a rising Germany in the 20th? To start, the two cases are similar in that they both involved a rising power seeking its ‘place in the sun’ – a term coined by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1901 to refer to the central position on the world stage he sought for Germany. Both also involved the rising power initially adopting a strategy designed to create a secure space within which it could build its power in relative security. In both cases, however, an inflection point was reached at which the rising power decided it was ready to assume its place in the sun, but felt it was being blocked, frustrated, or ‘contained’ by the existing hegemon. In both the German and Chinese cases, this produced a strategic shift from ‘biding time’ to self-assertion. Faced with this reality, in both cases, regional and other powers either counterbalanced or bandwagoned. Further, in both cases, this dynamic culminated in an unstable balance of power, in which a rising power believed it was being stymied and contained by status quo powers, and status quo powers feared that they would be picked off one by one by that rising power. And, finally, in both the German and Chinese cases, instability was compounded by concerns that demography was working against them in the long run. The result was a geopolitical tinderbox, just waiting to be ignited and to in turn ignite a world war.
Or was it?
As we know, at this point, the actual arc of Germany’s rise began to bend rapidly in the direction of war. But it did so not because of any ironclad law of history or Thucydides Trap. Rather, Germany’s bid for regional dominance and a global place in the sun resulted in war because of strategic incompetence on the part of Britain. For centuries, Britain had played the role of offshore balancer, intervening decisively on the continent whenever a rising regional or aspiring global power had threatened to unite Europe in ways detrimental to British interests. Even when not actively intervening, Britain had to credibly signal its commitment to get involved if necessary. And this is precisely what was missing in 1914.
In the years leading up to the war, London was unable to convince Berlin that it would intervene militarily to block any German bid for European dominance. Domestic politics in Britain, coupled with a fear that signaling support for the anti-German coalition would embolden France and Russia in ways that were also inimical to British interests, reduced London to sending mixed and vacillating signals regarding how it would respond to the gathering German threat. Neither friend nor foe was sure what Britain would do, and this ambiguity allowed German military and civilian leaders to convince themselves that the time was ripe for a final push for preeminence. As a result, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in July 1914, Germany seized the opportunity to make its move. Sizing up the correlation of forces, and deciding that Britain would either stay out or make an irrelevant military gesture, German forces invaded Belgium and France. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But let us rewind the historical tape and make a simple change in the actually existing history of the First World War. Let us assume that beginning around 1912, Britain had more deftly played its role as global hegemon/offshore balancer. Specifically, let us assume that it had done two things that, in reality, it did not. First, let us assume that London clearly and unequivocally signaled its support for the French and Russian balancers without emboldening them. This would have involved modest deployments of British troops to France, accompanied by an unambiguous pronouncement that any violation of the borders of France or Belgian neutrality would be met with an immediate declaration of war. Let us further assume that this clear signal of support for France and Russia was balanced with some sort of recognition that Germany had achieved its place in the sun, and perhaps even a commitment to German security within its existing borders. It is not unrealistic to assume that such a recalibration of the correlation of forces would have altered German calculations such that the status quo would have been preferable to any attempt to alter it via the use of force. In these circumstances, the Archduke’s assassination – like the triggers of previous crises in the preceding decade – would have remained a minor irritant on the margins of the European system; it would not have been the proximate cause of a German attack on France, and the world would not have slithered over the edge into a cataclysmic world war.
What does this counterfactual suggest about the rise of China today? First, it suggests that, as in 1914, the structural conditions-of-possibility for a hegemonic war are clearly in place. The parallels between a rising Germany then and a rising China now are too obvious to need much elaboration. China now, like Germany then, aspires to regional dominance and global leadership. Britain then, like the US today, had a strong interest in preventing a challenger from overturning an order favorable to its interests. Immovable object meets irresistible force, or, if you prefer the Chinese metaphor, the all-piercing spear meets the impenetrable shield.
But, second, it suggests that in the early 21st century, as in the early 20th, the rise of a challenger does not necessarily mean hegemonic war. As anyone who has studied the First World War knows, that conflict was the product of many factors. Chief among them, though, was the failure of British diplomacy, specifically Britain’s failure to implement its centuries-old grand strategy of offshore balancing. Had Britain acted differently, had it signaled more clearly its interests and its resolve to defend those interests, the outcome of the crisis of July 1914 would have been different. A risen Germany would have assumed its place at the heart of the European order, but would not have dominated that order in the way that it sought to by invading Belgium, France, and Russia in 1914.
Third, and finally, it suggests a course of action for the United States today. If we assume that the US today, like Britain a century ago, seeks to retain its role as hegemonic power, and if we further assume that Washington seeks to prevent China from dominating the Indo-Pacific region in the way that Britain desired to prevent Germany from dominating Europe in 1914, this counterfactual suggests an American strategy of offshore balancing. Specifically, it suggests that in those regions where the US has vital interests and the Chinese are challenging the status quo – East Asia, the Gulf Region, the Arctic and the Indian Ocean – the US must work diplomatically and even militarily to check Chinese efforts, reassure regional allies, and otherwise signal clearly in word and deed that it will defend the current world order and stabilize the balance of power within that order. And this applies not only to territorial regions. Space, the cyber domain, and global institutions must also be considered ‘regions’ where the US will not tolerate Chinese dominance.
This is not a call for more ‘forever wars,’ or an extensive new network of overseas bases, or massive new deployments of forces abroad. The WWI case teaches us that these steps are not necessary. Instead, it is to call for the application of judicious counter-pressure where China seeks to upend a regional order, and to couple this with a clear and unambiguous signal of American resolve to defend and secure the existing order against revisionist challengers. Britain was not able to do this a century ago, with catastrophic consequences. The question today is does the US have what it takes to avoid the same strategic blunder with the same catastrophic results.
Andrew Latham is a professor of International Relations at Macalester College specializing in the politics of international conflict and security. He teaches courses on international security, Chinese foreign policy, war and peace in the Middle East, Regional Security in the Indo-Pacific Region, and the World Wars.