Current events are frequently viewed through the prism of analogies. Words become shorthand for a particular type of situation. “Munich” equals the danger of appeasing bloodthirsty dictators, “Vietnam,” and now “Iraq/Afghanistan” means the folly of getting involved in (or, in the case of Iraq, starting) civil wars in countries whose societies the outsiders neither understand nor can effectively influence. In some cases, acting on these parallels turns out to be wise. The fear of repeating “Munich” helps explain the forceful and successful American response to Soviet expansionism at the start of the Cold War (Berlin, Korea, etc.). In other cases, they are misguided, as was the case in the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, where Nasser was no Hitler and giving up the Suez canal would not have equated to throwing Czechoslovakia to the wolves.
The analogy that is currently in vogue in Asia is “1914.” This is a particularly complex one, as there are two distinct narratives of that fateful year. The one that was prevalent in the U.K. and the U.S. for many decades after the conflict that ensued perceived the war through the “Sarajevo” lens as a giant cataclysm in which all the players bore a share of the blame for the destruction of Western civilization. Another interpretation, which is more dominant today, is best illustrated by the late German historian Fritz Fischer’s Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1961), which assigns most of the responsibility to Berlin.
The “2014 as 1914” discussion covers both theses. Those who dread that a minor maritime collision could escalate into Armageddon subscribe to the “Sarajevo” theory, where an assassin’s bullet set off a chain reaction which even men and women of good intention could not stop. Others think that Beijing is bent on regional, if not world, domination. They see China’s hypertrophied ambitions as an early 21st century of the German Empire’s quest for power described in Fischer’s works. Many officials and analysts who refer to “1914” fall in between. They often know little about European history but see an ominous danger of war that reminds them of what they think “1914” was.
The one common threat in the “1914” warnings is that the People’s Republic is perceived as the Asian counterpart of Wilhelmine Germany. A rising continental autocracy with territorial ambitions on land and dreams of overseas expansion confronting a potential coalition of onshore (India, Vietnam, ROK, maybe even Russia) and offshore (Japan, Taiwan, parts of ASEAN, U.S.) powers. For some, Beijing’s expansionist aims are obvious ; others see them as moderate and blame Washington and its allies for not accepting China’s rise, reflecting the same differences of interpretation that existed in Europe before (and after) World War 1 regarding German goals.
The critical error in this comparison is that China today bears little resemblance to Germany a century ago.
First, their domestic situation is vastly different. The Hohenzollern dynasty did face discontent at home, in particular a powerful Social-Democratic movement. But the socio-political fabric of Germany was vastly stronger than that of the People’s Republic. In comparative perspective, Prussia-Germany had enjoyed a stable and productive century prior to 1914, something that does not apply to China in 2014. Prussia-Germany was autocratic but had developed a more effective system to partially include citizens in the political process than China has. Frequent violent protests, and the massive export of capital by rich Communist Party members to overseas accounts, illustrate this point about China’s fragility. It is interesting to note German society, as in existed prior to World War I, was so solidly anchored that much of its establishment survived relatively unscathed four years of total war, defeat and revolution.
Second, we know that Germany in 1914 had an outstanding army. Estimating the worth of the PLA is harder since it has not fought a major campaign since Vietnam defeated China 35 years ago. As a military historian noted “A day’s trial by battle often reveals more of the essential nature of an army than a generation of peace.” (in Russell F. Weigley, Eisenhower’s Lieutenants, 1990) so discussions of the abilities of the PLA are hard to validate. But one thing is clear. In Imperial Germany, especially in its Prussian core, the ruling classes took military service very seriously. Young men of privilege served in the officer corps, one’s rank in the reserves of prestigious units was a source of great pride and social standing. From what we know about the sons (and daughters) of China’s elite, we are more likely to see them studying in Ivy League campuses, eating in Wall Street cafés, and living in Hong Kong flats than leading platoons and companies of soldiers in the frozen hills of Manchuria or the scorching deserts of Xinjiang.
Third, Germany was not the world’s largest economy on the eve of World War I, the United States was. But in many fields, Germany was the most advanced country on the planet. A German doctorate was the gold standard of academia until Adolf Hitler destroyed the universities. Germans led in countless disciplines, be it physics, archeology, or medicine. Germany was ahead in many industrial technologies as well. China has progressed, but its relative position lags well behind that of Germany a century ago.
Fourth, the geopolitics are different. Germany had two continental associates, the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. It took several years before the United States joined the Allies. Today, China is essentially bereft of allies and is confronting what is a de facto U.S.-Japan-Australia coalition, potentially augmented by several Asian states and under certain circumstances most of NATO Europe and Canada.
Fifth, Germany in 1914 was a demographically dynamic country. China, due to the twin consequences of the one-child policy and economic development, is aging at a rapid rate. This is not unique in Asia, but compared to its major global competitor, the United States, China is in demographic decline.
What are the implications of these facts ? For China’s foes, namely the United States, Japan, and others, they mean that the situation is not as dire as it was in 1914 for Germany’s opponents (whom we should remember came close to being dealt a terminal blow in the opening stages of World War I). For the Chinese Communist Party, they imply that it would be even riskier for it to initiate a conflict than it was for the Central Powers in 1914.