China Is Not Imperial Germany

By Joseph Nye

Throughout history, the rise of a new power has been attended by uncertainty and anxieties. Often, though not always, violent conflict has followed. As Thucydides explained, the real roots of the Peloponnesian war in which the ancient Greek system tore itself apart, were the rise in the power of Athens and the fear it created in Sparta. The rise in the economic and military power of China, the world's most populous country, will be one of the two or three most important questions for world stability in this century, and some think that conflict with the US is inevitable. But it is a mistake to allow historical analogies determine our thinking, Instead, we should be asking how China and the US can create a new great power relationship.

Many analysts also compare the rise of China to that of Germany at the beginning of the last century. The rise in the power of Germany and the fear it created in Britain was one of the causes of World War I in which the European system tore itself apart. This year China's economy will grow by nearly 7 to 8 per cent and its defense spending will grow even more. Chinese leaders have spoken of China's "peaceful development, " but analysts like John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago have flatly proclaimed that China cannot rise peacefully, and predicted that "the United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war."

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Who is right? We will not know for some time, but the debaters should recall both halves of Thucydides' trenchant analysis. War was caused not merely by the rise of one power, but by the fear it engendered in another. The belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes. Each side, believing it will end up at war with the other, makes reasonable military preparations, which then are read by the other side as confirmation of its worst fears. In a perverse transnational alliance, hawks in each country cite the others' statements as clear evidence. One way to make East Asia and the world safer is to avoid such exaggerated fears and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Moreover, while China has impressive power resources, one should be skeptical about projections based solely on current growth rates, political rhetoric, military contingency plans, and flawed historical analogies. It is important to remember that by 1900, Germany had surpassed Britain in industrial power, and the Kaiser was pursuing an adventurous, globally oriented foreign policy that was bound to bring about a clash with other great powers. In contrast, China still lags far behind the United States, and has focused its policies primarily on its region and on its economic development.

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Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard and author of The Future of Power. This commentary originally appeared on China-US Focus and has been republished with permission.

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