China’s Place in the Sun? Historical Analogies and the Chinese Maritime Turn

Updated: Feb 22

‘’History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’’ – Mark Twain



Maritime Business on the Huangpu River, Shanghai, circa 1850

©Vallejo Gallery/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons


It is a familiar story, an emerging power experiences an economic boom and sets out to build up its military to secure its position as one of the great powers. However, this rapid rise challenges the position of the incumbent power, creating a tendency towards hostility and war. This phenomenon, also referred to as the so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’ coined by political scientist Graham Allison, describes past rivalries between some of the great powers in history, such as Athens and Sparta in Ancient times and Imperial Germany and Great Britain in the early-twentieth-century (Allison, 2017).


Today, the world might be heading to a new Thucydides Trap as a newly emerging power, China, challenges the position of the incumbent power, the United States. Indeed, the rapid economic growth that followed the opening of China in the late 1970s has been coupled with significant military developments that now threaten the economic and military primacy of the United States. China’s navy has particularly attracted a lot of attention, as it evolved from a minor coastal defense force to the world’s largest navy in just three decades, overtaking the US Navy in 2020 (Lye, 2020). Hence, observers have started debating whether a Sino-American naval arms race is underway. For their part, American analysts have been quick to compare China’s rising sea power to Imperial Germany’s naval buildup in the early-twentieth-century, raising the level of awareness among policymakers and pointing to the US Navy, whose budget has been in decline since the end of the Cold War (Eckstein, 2020). Nevertheless, the extent to which China aims to grow as a sea power needs to be framed within the country’s unique maritime history. Can we learn something from such historical analogies? Or are they merely rhetorical devices in politically motivated discourses?


Historical Analogies and Magical Yarn Balls

Historical analogies can be very useful heuristic devices for revealing key logics behind historical events and phenomena. In other words, they serve as practical attempts to gain a better understanding of the present by illuminating the present with past precedents. However, because of this, historical analogies are often used for political purposes in a market-driven media environment. For example, certain American officials use the aforementioned analogy with Imperial Germany as a rhetorical and persuasive device to inform policymakers and attract funding towards the US navy by creating a sense of anxiety and urgency (Holmes, 2014). Moreover, international relations and security studies scholars often use such historical analogies to support and legitimize an overarching argument, falling victim to a severe confirmation bias that only superficially touches on the past (Maurer, 2019).


In reality, historical events are inherently complex, layered, and nuanced phenomena in which many different elements converge and unfold in a unique way. As such, historical events cannot be traced back to one essential factor that leads up to the event. Instead, they are like ‘magical yarn balls’ consisting of many different elements or threads of yarn that eventually converge in a complex and unique ball of yarn. Such a yarn ball does not consist of only one thread of yarn, but many different ones, just like a historical event does not result from one causality.


When a Rising Power sets Sail

When applying this question to China’s rising sea power, many comparisons are possible. Ancient Athens, the Ottoman Empire, and the Soviet Union were all great powers that experienced a significant naval buildup at some point during their existence. However, Imperial Germany’s naval expansion seems to be most applicable to present-day China. First of all, both Imperial Germany and modern China are traditionally continental powers that ‘turned to the sea’ (Erickson, Goldstein and Lord, 2012). Interestingly, several Chinese scholars and analysts themselves have frequently cited German history when talking about possible trajectories for their country’s great power status (Zhang, 2006). In 2006, China Central Television produced a documentary series called The Rise of Great Powers, which included a very extensive and almost instructive analysis of Germany’s rapid development. It concluded that national power stems from economic development fueled by foreign trade, which can in turn be furthered by a strong navy (Erickson and Goldstein, 2012).


Seen from China’s perspective, reasons for these historic comparisons are easy to identify. First of all, like Germany, China sees itself as having achieved great power status at a late stage, as the main rules and institutions of the international system have already been in place for decades by consolidated great powers such as the United States. In Germany, this latecomer status was often described to have been achieved after the nation traversed a ’special path’ or Sonderweg to development, which they believed set themselves apart from other European powers. This characterization of Germany similarly fits China’s position as a ‘’late-coming great nation,’’ as coined by China’s former President Hu Jintao (Herwig, 2012).


Even though both powers eventually decided to shift their attention to the maritime domain, they originally saw themselves as continental land-powers that regarded the navy as a mere addition to the army. The name ‘’The People’s Liberation Army Navy,’’ to refer to China’s naval forces perfectly illustrates this continental focus. Nonetheless, the motivations for such a maritime turn between Germany and China quickly diverge. On the one hand, the importance of identity and great power politics were central in Germany’s naval buildup as it demanded its ‘place in the sun’ among the established powers (Murray, 2010). In doing so, it turned from a Bismarckian foreign policy characterized by an emphasis on maintaining the balance of power towards the more aggressive Weltpolitik, which included building a fleet of battleships to challenge British naval supremacy. The same motivation, however, does not seem to have prompted China’s naval buildup against the incumbent United States. Instead, Chinese officials have emphasized the importance of the Bismarckian policy of strategic self-control, arguing for a greater focus on its immediate neighborhood instead of overextending its global ambitions as Germany did (Zhang, 2006). Therefore, rather than identarian motivations, China’s seaborne turn seems to be driven by (geo)strategic concerns, namely the possibility of conflict with Taiwan and China’s growing need to protect its seaborne lines of communications in light of its expanding commercial links (Dooley, 2012). Thus, while China’s naval rise gradually followed the expansion of its merchant fleet, Imperial Germany ‘pushed’ to create naval fleets, rather than being ‘pulled’ by commercial interests.


American Admirals and Naval Comparisons

When talking about rising sea power, it is impossible to ignore the theories of American admiral and naval scholar Alfred Thayer Mahan, which inspired both Germany and China’s naval buildups (Holmes and Yoshihara, 2009). As the most influential naval historian, Mahan wrote extensively about the importance and usefulness of historical analogies: “In tracing resemblances, there is a tendency not only to overlook points of difference but to exaggerate points of likeness – to be fanciful’’(Mahan, 2010). He identified geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, population size, national character, and political structure as the six crucial factors that shaped the sea power of nations which, in turn, can be used for comparisons (Sumida, 1999). By highlighting several of these factors, the analogy quickly exposes the differences between Imperial Germany and China.


According to Mahan, geography is an important factor for constructing and projecting sea power. As traditional continental powers, both China and Germany found themselves beckoned in two divergent directions by continental concerns and maritime interests. German leaders often complained about their ‘encirclement’ by the Royal Navy with regards to their geographic position (Connolly, 2017), which similarly resonates with Chinese concerns about the often hostile island chains along China’s coast (Holmes and Yoshihara, 2010). In practical terms, this means that both powers depended on the goodwill of other nations to maintain their sea lines of communications through the North Sea and the South and East China Seas, respectively. However, as Mahan noted as well, certain bodies of water are particularly more important for economic and military reasons than others (Sumida, 1999). Unlike the North Sea, which held relatively little value to the British, China’s regional seas are an integral part of the globalized world order. Nonetheless, whereas the North Sea’s proximity to British home waters guaranteed an aggressive reaction from London, American leaders would have a harder time convincing their constituents that Chinese assertiveness in its regional waters presents a threat to the American homeland (Holmes and Yoshihara, 2010).


This last point touches on what Mahan called ‘strategic will,’ which was a combination of ‘national character’ and ‘character of government’ (Sumida, 1999). Chinese officials and scholars often highlight a sense of urgency regarding the need to consolidate their country’s sea power, an urge that is far more ingrained than it was in Imperial Germany. In doing so, China often emphasizes its glorious seagoing past, highlighting the voyages of Zheng He in the fifteenth century and the Sinocentric maritime order it maintained in Asia before the Qing Dynasty’s maritime neglect, which followed a “century of humiliation” at the hands of the European colonial powers. Imperial Germany, on the other hand, was a newly-unified nation with no significant maritime heritage or identity to speak of, and thus, had a harder time gathering public and political support for a maritime focus (Holmes and Yoshihara, 2010). Following Mahan’s logic, this difference in strategic will would make present-day China a structurally more determined maritime power than Germany ever was.


Conclusion

The historical comparison between Imperial Germany and modern China presents a valuable thought experiment as it reveals key logics behind an emerging power’s shift to sea and allows us to identify the uniqueness of China’s situation. However, there are still many factors left untouched, such as each power’s capabilities, that could allow us to deepen our understanding of the structural similarities and differences between these aspiring powers. Therefore, relying solely on one of these factors would run the risk of leading to false conclusions that lead China on a collision course with the United States. As such, it is important to approach China’s historical analogy with Imperial Germany, like any historical analogy, through a complex multitude of factors. In the end, Imperial Germany ultimately failed to secure its place in the sun and only time will tell if China’s criticism of Wilhelmine ‘militarism’ will inform its leaders to regard that as a path better left untaken.



Pieter W.G. Zhao is a graduate student in Global History and International Relations at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He holds a BA (Cum Laude) in History specialized in international relations and maritime history. His well-received thesis focused on China’s 21st-century maritime strategy from a 19th-century naval historical perspective and is currently under peer-review at the European Journal of East Asian Studies. You can find him on LinkedIn.



The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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