The Overplayed Historic Comparisons Of China-US Relations

How China and the United States interact will shape the next century. They have the potential to lead the world into a new golden age of peace, prosperity, and security for all – or they could trigger a cataclysmic global war. The reality, of course, will be somewhere in between. But this is not the first time that the world’s principle power has been challenged.

Carthage had to contend with an ambitious Rome, and France replaced Spain as Europe’s dominant force. However there is one historic precedent that stands out: at the start of the twentieth century, Britain began to view Germany as more than just another European Power. It was both a trading opportunity and a security threat.

Can we apply the lessons of history to today, or are the common denominators overplayed?

First, let’s look at the map. Although the United States is not an island like Britain, in strategic terms it might as well be. Canada is arguably Washington’s closest ally. And while Mexico is a headache for drugs and crime, it’s not likely to annex California any time soon.

China on the other hand is a truly continental power. Like Germany, it has close to a dozen borders, and having Russia and India on its frontiers means it faces the same two-front nightmare Germany faced with France and Russia.

The US battle fleet is the direct inheritor of the Royal Navy place as Master of the oceans. Even Britain’s Two-Power Standard seems positively modest when compared to the advantage Washington enjoys in Blue Water capabilities. Conservative estimates say it is larger than the next 15 biggest fleets combined. This is truly preponderance of power.

China, like Germany, is conscious that its continued economic development depends on access to raw materials. To keep these vulnerable8232067327_773b2f306e_c lines of communications clear, China is beefing up its own navy. Last year saw it send its first aircraft carrier for trials, though it will be many years before it can deploy a carrier battle group.

Another century straddling comparison is the way China is playing to its advantages to counter US naval dominance. Like Germany did with submarines and torpedo boats, China has adopted an ‘area-denial’ strategy, but instead employing large numbers of rockets and small craft that make the green waters and coast of China a very dangerous place – even for the US Leviathan.

The global commitments of the US may not be as overt and formal as the British Empire, but they are no less extensive. The Pentagon operates a mind boggling number of bases on every continent on the globe. Like the British, the US uses these bases to defend allies, promote stability, gather intelligence, and on occasion embark on punitive strikes.

China lacks even the modest formal overseas possessions that the Kaiser claimed. It can be argued that it has enough trouble holding Tibet and XingXiang provinces. This being said, its commercial expansion is proceeding apace, even in areas the US considered well within its sphere of influence, such as Brazil. This is clearest in Africa where Bejing’s ‘no-stings-attached’ aid and a thirst for minerals, has come as a welcome change for African strongmen who have grown weary of the conditional Western aid and trade arrangements.

International trade had helped establish Britain as the principle power the world stage – but its hand was light. Rather than fall into the merchanalist temptation of protectionism, Britain promoted free trade. It may have owned vast swaths of India, but all were free to trade there. Similarly, the US depends on the free movement of goods and services across the globe, and supports integration of national economies.

It’s all looking very good, isn’t it? But what about the differences between 1913 and 2013?

The opposing socio-political views of China and the US are well documented. Britain and Germany by contrast had, comparatively speaking, similar systems of government. Both were monarchies, both had at least some form of suffrage, with a directly elected parliament. Both had active trade union movements as well as a deeply ingrained class system. 8226382951_92db97c27c_hGranted, the press in Germany may have been a little more prone to censorship, but not to the extent of China.

Secondly, Germany had convinced itself that it had an ever diminishing window of opportunity for greatness. It saw Russia modernising to its East, and a vengeful France to its West. If it didn’t secure its position soon, it was doomed. China today has no such existential threat, real or perceived. Neither Russia nor India have designs on China (minor border disputes aside). In fact, they probably fear the reverse. China may fear the effect of a US blockade, but steps are being made to manage it.

Thirdly, China is more invested in the status quo than Germany was. Berlin felt it ‘deserved’ more and was willing to revise the world map – by force if needs be. China today benefits greatly from the global economy the US has created. Its factories ‘hum’ with activity. Revenue, expertise, and technology pour into China and grant the Communist Party a legitimacy through rising living standards and the other benefits of growth. For a system so lacking in democratic legitimacy, this is vital.

Finally, the world has changed much since Germany and Britain eyed each other warily over the gloomy North Sea. Power today is not measured in colonies and Viceroys. A military presence overseas is seen by most nations as a costly necessity, not source of prestige. In short, empires are passé.

Economies are also much more integrated than a century ago. China and the US are each others biggest single trading partner. Even if that weren’t the case, each needs the other to be strong because each also supports so many other economies that the other relies on.

In the end, it all comes down to economics. Washington and China are like two drunks in a bar; they may get rowdy, maybe paranoid, but they always prop each other up at Last Orders.


  1. Really good article! Trade has seen to the end of the realist idea of international relations – at least in the developed world. The way I see it is if the world can trade MORE, in areas which are perhaps less developed, I think that there would be far less wars around the world.

    Like you say, China and the USA cannot afford to go to war with each other, they rely on so many of the same economies that they need each other to be in pristine condition to keep themselves afloat.

    • Thanks Francesca. There’s a very old saying which has some resonance here I think too; “when trade can’t cross borders armies will”.

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