In 1910, peace and prosperity reigned throughout most of the world. While conflict threatened some regions — the Balkans, for example — a liberal order prevailed for the most part. Presiding over this liberal world order was Great Britain, apparently at the pinnacle of its power. Not satisfied with its position on the European continent, Germany was building a battle fleet that had the potential to challenge British naval supremacy. But according to the logic of the time, the great powers would use diplomacy, not war, to solve their problems, as was the case with the Agadir crisis of 1911. Norman Angell's book, The Great Illusion, published to great acclaim that year, argued that war was unthinkable since economically interdependent states had so much to lose in the event of war.
In his memoir The World Crisis published decades later, Winston Churchill described the sense of optimism that prevailed even during the Agadir crisis.
[War] is too foolish, too fantastic, to be thought of in the 20th Century....Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, liberal principles, the Labour Party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong.
The optimists were wrong, and the Great War came in 1914. By 1919, Europe lay in ruins. Even the victors were exhausted. This was especially the case with Britain, the power of which had largely underwritten the 19th-century liberal world order. Its later collapse ushered in an epoch of totalitarian ideologies, depression, and total war that ended only with the fall of communism and the Soviet Union in 1989.
Can history repeat itself?
Today, the United States, like Britain in 1910, stands at the pinnacle of power. Also like Britain, it created and presides over a liberal world order characterized by a level of interdependence approaching that of 1910. Today's Norman Angells are assuring us that since interdependence and cooperation have replaced competition in international affairs, large-scale war between great powers is unthinkable.
But as military strategist Colin Gray has observed, in international relations, "bad times return." A likely source of future bad times is the rise of China and the emerging anti-U.S. strategic axis between China and Russia.
Since no two occurrences are ever exactly the same, historical analogy is often a dangerous way to cast light on contemporary issues. But the similarities between the cases of Wilhelmine Germany, and Great Britain at the turn of the century and China and the United States today are so compelling that they cannot be ignored.
In the earlier case, Germany, an economically vibrant nation and possessing the dominant army on the continent, chose to construct a first-class navy and pursue world power. This decision disrupted the balance of power in Europe and contributed in large measure to the drift toward world war.
An unholy alliance?
Today, a China emerging from Mao's "Great Leap Forward" has experienced great economic growth in recent years (although the Asian economic crisis has slowed this rate over the last few months) and has devoted a substantial portion of its increasing gross domestic product (GDP) to defense, including naval modernization. While the scope of Chinese naval modernization is nothing like Tirpitz's attempt to challenge the Royal Navy before the Great War, it is impossible to ignore the possibility that China's course will bring it into conflict with the United States some time in the near future.
In pursuit of its goal of becoming a world power, China has entered into a "strategic relationship" with Russia. On one level, this partnership is simple and straightforward: Russia sells advanced weaponry and oil to China, receiving hard currency in return. China, which currently must import 800,000 barrels of oil per day, is thus able to reduce its dependence on sea-borne oil imports and modernize its military while it transforms its military establishment. Russia is able to mitigate its dismal economic situation without relying on Western economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
But the overarching purpose of the China-Russia strategic relationship is to rein in the power of the United States. Both countries believe themselves to be threatened by the United States and seek to overcome their strategic isolation through cooperation. China gains in the relationship by developing the means to counter U.S. presence in the Western Pacific, especially raising the threshold for any U.S. intervention on behalf of Taiwan. By assisting China in the Pacific maritime realm, Russia is able to divert U.S. attention from Europe and the Caucasus, where it feels most threatened.
Over the last few months, numerous press reports have confirmed the emergence of a China-Russia strategic axis. Vladimir Putin — then the secretary of the Russian Security Council and co-director of the federal security service — stated during a meeting with Zhang Wannian of the PRC's Central Military Council on June 23, 1999, that "in light of the rapidly changing situation in the world, relations between Russia and China have assumed a strategic nature."
In December 1999, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Beijing to discuss ways to check American power and how to pave the way for a "multipolar" world. In that same month, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov called for an anti-Western axis including not only Russia and China but also India, "forged solely to counter U.S. global hegemony." Putin's presidential election is likely to strengthen the "anti-hegemonic" strategic relationship between China and Russia.
The strategic relationship with Russia permits China to extend its strategic reach south into Southeast Asia and east into the Pacific Ocean as a means of countering U.S. maritime power. Some analysts believe that China plans to have a "blue-water" naval capability by 2020, enabling it to project power out to a line running from the Kurils to the Marianas to Papua New Guinea. In the meantime, the PRC is enhancing its ability to defend the Chinese littoral and enforce its claim of sovereignty over Taiwan.
A Chinese Buildup
To raise the threshold and risk of U.S. intervention in the Far East, China is investing heavily in naval platforms with stand-off weapons. It is building a domestic shipbuilding and aircraft-production base. In the meantime, the People's Republic of China has just taken delivery of the first of two modern 6,000-ton Sovremenny-class destroyers from Russia, capabale of launching the SS-N-22 "Sunburn" supersonic anti-ship missile. Recent reports in the Russian press indicate that China has purchased the aircraft carrier Kiev. And according to the forthcoming Jane's Fighting Ships, 2000-2001, China now has amphibious lift capable of transporting 11,000 troops and 250 main battle tanks.
Perhaps most troubling, China has evinced a particular interest in "asymmetric warfare," the "other side" of the so-called "revolution in military affairs" (RMA). For example, Beijing is investigating how weaker powers can defeat stronger ones by "crippling attacks" on the latter's information systems, and accordingly, is pursuing anti-satellite, anti-radar, anti-stealth and anti-computer techniques designed to deny the United States the ability to operate close to the Asian littoral.
While the Chinese modernization program may be understood as the logical consequence of China's determination to exert its claim over Taiwan without the interference of the United States, the dynamic at work here is moving the United States and China toward confrontation. In its quest for energy security, China has pursued a strategy of expansion toward the South, portending conflict between China and the United States because it places China astride the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) that link the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Not only has Beijing attempted to enforce its claims to the Spratly Islands and other areas of the South China Sea, believed to contain substantial oil and gas reserves, it has also increased its military presence on the western side of the Southeast Asian peninsula. This activity potentially improves China's overall strategic position in Southeast Asia by linking the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.
China has also established a major strategic presence in Singapore, which guards the southern entrance to the Malacca Strait, and Port Klang at the northern end. Its instrument in this presence has been the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), a business with close ties to the Chinese military.
How should America react?
Why does any of this matter? If China's intentions are peaceful and cooperative, it doesn't. But if Beijing wishes to pursue an aggressive policy vis-a-vis the United States, Europe and Japan, the implications of China's efforts to date, combined with military modernization, are worth noting.
There is evidence that China's ultimate goals transcend the establishment of a security zone comprising the Western Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. According to recent reports, COSCO has also established a presence in other strategic waterways: Port Said at the entrance to the Suez Canal and in the Panama Canal. This suggests that China wishes to do what First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher claimed that Britain did at the beginning of the 20th century — control the " keys that lock up the world," i.e. the world's strategic choke points.
Of course, we cannot predict the future and have no way of knowing whether China will attempt to pursue world power at the expense of the United States and the liberal world order that America has created. This creates a dilemma for American planners trying to ascertain what China might look like in the future. On the one hand, if we treat China as an emerging enemy, we can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other, if we try to "engage" by means of trade and investment a China that, like Germany at the turn of the century, does not really wish to be "accommodated," we may hasten the day of reckoning by contributing to China's technological progress.
Prudence dictates that the United States should act to deter Chinese adventurism. To do so, we must counter the China-Russia strategic relationship. We must also take diplomatic and military steps to ensure a credible presence in East Asia. The United States must reassure our allies by making it clear to China that America will enforce freedom of navigation in the region. Beijing must understand that the United States can never acquiesce in any Chinese attempt to treat the Strait of Taiwan as territorial waters, or to make the South China Sea into a Chinese lake.
This in turn requires strong military measures. The United States must maintain its military-technological lead over all potential adversaries. At a minimum, this means investment in advanced naval surface and subsurface capabilities and theater ballistic missile defenses. These steps should in no way be interpreted as a challenge to Chinese or Russian sovereignty or even to their aspirations as regional powers. But we must make it clear that their aspirations will not be allowed to threaten the stability and security upon which the prosperity of the world depends.
For as the eminent historian Donald Kagan has argued, history seems to indicate that what seems to work best to ensure peace "is the possession by those states who wish to preserve peace of the preponderant power and of the will to accept the burdens of and the responsibilities required to achieve that power."