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Misperception Risks Replaying An Avoidable Tragedy

In this centennial anniversary of the outbreak of World War I  in many ways the most traumatic event in Western history after the fall of Rome  it's probably inevitable that comparisons would be drawn between the Anglo-German rivalry at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th and U.S. relations with a newly assertive China at the beginning of the 21st. 

The similarities come easily to mind. In both cases, a long-dominant world power found itself challenged by a rising and ambitious competitor, in Bismarck's Germany one newly created, in post-Mao China, one resurrected after centuries of decay.

In both cases, ironically, each new competitor was at least in part the older one's creation. Wilhelmine Germany was ruled by Queen Victoria's grandson, who simultaneously admired and envied his British cousins. The Chinese Peoples' Republic re-engaged with the wider world initially largely at the behest and with the (self-interested) assistance of the United States.

In both cases, the rising power interpreted as condescension behavior intended by the dominant power to be benevolent. In both cases, the dominant power began to feel threatened by behavior considered by the rising power to be its rightful privilege. In both cases, therefore, relationships that began as tacit partnerships gradually deteriorated into hostility. 

In the case of Great Britain and Germany, the result was an escalating military  chiefly naval  competition, together with hardening and mutually antagonistic alliance relationships, in Great Britain's case an alliance with France and Russia that scarcely a decade earlier would have been unthinkable.

We're not quite at that point today. So far, U.S.-Chinese military competition remains mostly technological, and neither nation has sought to form alliances aimed unambiguously at the other. But U.S. demarches toward the nations on China's maritime periphery  Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines  are mirrored in China's revived relationship with Russia, which shares its resentment of U.S. predominance.

Of course, as with most historical analogies, this one is superficial. China isn't Wilhelmine Germany without history even of nationhood, let alone empire. Neither is the U.S. a small island off the European continent controlling an empire covering a quarter of the earth. Moreover, the U.S. and China are nuclear powers, enforcing at least a modicum of restraint. 

But it would be unwise to rely too heavily on that enforced prudence. Wars rarely begin with ultimate weapons. In any case, the dynamics currently at play between China and the U.S. have recurred too often in history for comfort. Commentators in both nations haven't hesitated to see in China's foreign policies and the U.S.'s military and diplomatic responses to them an inexorable if not yet irreversible path to war.

Thus, one Chinese newspaper with strong links to the Chinese government predicts that war could erupt over any or all of six different disputes, from the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland, to China's historic claims to sovereignty over islands in the South and East China Seas. 

 Similarly, in the U.S., discussions of "the coming war with China" have proliferated like weeds during the past several years, including at least half a dozen books on the topic. As recently as last week, an article in Foreign Policy by longtime China-watcher Michael Pillsbury asserts baldly that "China and the United States are preparing for war." 

 In this too, there are parallels with events in Germany and Great Britain in the waning days of the 19th century, with Cassandras in both countries increasingly alarmed by what they considered the intentions of the other. Noted one British writer, "During the four decades immediately prior to the outbreak of the Great War of 1914ñ18, [war with Germany] was described so many times by such an array of military experts (official as well as self-appointed), journalists, and popular writers that it clearly reflected a grave national psychosis." 

Which may explain why a senior U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who sparked controversy earlier this year with warnings that China was preparing for war with Japan has since lost his job, allegedly  but unconvincingly  for reasons unrelated to his views. And even as cautious a foreign policy expert as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger  himself as responsible as anyone for China's reemergence  has warned of the growing threat of war on the Pacific Rim. 

"Asia is more in a position of 19th-century Europe, where military conflict is not ruled out," Kissinger warned at a meeting in Germany last February. "Between Japan and China, the issue for the rest of us is that neither side be tempted to rely on force to settle the issue."

That was perhaps the principal argument for the Obama administration's so-called "Pivot to Asia." But a U.S. unwilling to divest itself of its expensive obsession with the Middle East has neither the energy nor the resources to make that more than an empty slogan.

Which of course merely feeds China's mistaken belief in America's decline. And, as was true a century ago, it's that error more than any other that invites avoidable tragedy.

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