Sino-American Conflict: Historical Precedent

The Americans had an apt phrase to describe a situation like ours, where your strength grows but your options become ever more limited: Manifest Destiny. “Destiny drives you forward but ties your hands.” -Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

China’s rise has left it with great potential but few options. Many of its needs and policies run counter to the current international order. A rising power must expand and amass power and influence to survive, or else it risks being left to the annals of history. China cannot maintain its more than three decade long economic boom for much longer without massive changes to the regional and global order in its favor. Failure to seize opportunities created by American indifference and decline, would delay China’s ascendancy to hegemony and perhaps threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy and power. Historically, many of the battles fought between hegemons and their challengers have been decided by whomever controls the seas and the lucrative trade routes that travel through them. In Southeast Asia, the fight for those key maritime trade routes in the South China Sea (SCS) will fall between the nations of ASEAN, the US, and China. China has already taken steps to secure the South China Sea by constructing and militarizing artificial islands that it says justify its claim to the entire SCS, threatening those who challenge its internationally-recognized-as-illegitimate claims. In order to understand just how important control of this region is to Chinese ascendance, we must first look at how previous states have come to power, and what drove them to war.

Hegemonic conflict is far from a new concept in international relations. Empires rise and fall with the changing of the tides, and those tides are often red with the blood of competing powers. Sino-US competition in the Pacific will likely be no different. The end of Pax Americana does not simply mean an end to the world order created in the 25 years since the fall of the USSR, it means the beginning of the end for many of the US-backed international institutions that have existed since the end of WWII. China cannot complete its rise to hegemony without reorganizing the international order in its favor, nor could it do so without having influence over much of the world’s economy and trade. Given the recent slowing of the Chinese economy, Beijing cannot wait decades for these institutions to erode on their own and for the US to fall back on its own, it must force the issue, most likely within the next decade, if it wishes to supersede US dominance of the world stage.

The beginning of the modern hegemonic cycle began in the 15th Century, at the dawn of the Age of Exploration as Portugal sent its ships to the farthest reaches of the world, and gained an edge in the colonization of the New World. The Portuguese dominance of navigation and their superior knowledge of the Earth’s oceans enabled Portugal to seize valuable ports and resources, establishing lucrative trade routes and relationships with far-flung regions. The US has a similar advantage in that it is the world-guarantor of freedom of navigation. In fact, America’s first post-Independence conflict was fought over freedom over navigation rights in the Mediterranean and those same rights have become a major talking point for the US in the South China Sea.

In the latter half of the 16th century, the Dutch came to power through their control of credit markets and investment. As Portugal began to decline, the Dutch could invest heavily in private expeditions and their navy to challenge the Portuguese status quo. The Dutch attacked the overseas holdings of Portugal across the globe, securing much of the spice trade and enriching the Netherlands at the cost of Portuguese power and influence throughout the world. Increased Dutch wealth and overseas investment enabled the Dutch to expand as Portugal was occupied with other conflicts and interests (notably the 80 Years’ War). As the US spreads its forces thin across the globe and hollows them out through sequestration, China can pick and choose which territorial disputes it wants to focus on and can concentrate its forces with less effort than the US. Chinese overseas investment and corporate influence is enough to force some states to make concessions to China in exchange for such investment, weakening the US’ ability to hold onto and protect allies that cannot survive without Chinese investment. The Dutch used their economic strength to further enrich themselves through the funding of military expeditions in places that would enable Dutch control of vital trade routes and commodities. Chinese ambition in the Southeast Asia and Africa should be viewed no differently.

Ironically, it was Dutch expansion and ambition that led to a power shift in the late 17th century from the Netherlands to England. Dutch-English cooperation in military and economic affairs enabled the English to take advantage of peace and enlarge their navy and control over world trade routes, soon overtaking the Dutch and some of their colonies. Those who encourage Sino-US cooperation should be wary of similar partnership. American economic weakness and military decline would ensure that the US is the weaker partner in such a relationship.

The Napoleonic Wars not withstanding, the British ruled the world’s seas and remained hegemon for more than two centuries without a significant challenger. British naval power, reinforced by its industrial innovations, enabled Britain to rule a quarter of the world at its height. While the British Army had never been anything to marvel at, and was often much smaller than those of the Continental powers, Britain’s successful policy of offshore balancing against any rivals in Europe kept aggressors at bay by relying on its control of the seas. The end of Pax Britannica began in 1914 with the outbreak of the first World War. Despite Britain’s eventual victory, the war destroyed an entire generation and weakened the economic and military power of the British Empire.

The German Imperial policy prior to the lead-up to World War I was summarized as security and strength without hegemony. The famous German leader Otto von Bismarck encouraged this policy as Chancellor, and until his death was adamantly against German attempts at hegemony in Europe. Unfortunately, his legacy was not enough to hold off the forces that encouraged German expansion. The fact was that Germany could not sustain itself without an empire and expansion, it simply did not have the resources to match the other powers in Europe. China has followed similar advice in its development since the end of the Cold War. Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy encouraged an inward focus and development without attempts at expansion or aggression. However, that focus was largely an effort to keep China from making attempts at expansion before it was ready, as so many failed hegemons had done before it. Deng did not say that China should never make an attempt at hegemony, and that is what is worrying. Chinese scholars often point to Deng’s strategy as reason for no concern towards Chinese military and economic development, because of the “never claim leadership”portion but they downplay the part that says “hide our capacities and bide our time.” Any attempt to minimize the threat a rising China’s ambitions pose to the Western order should be looked at with great suspicion not simply because of historical precedent but because of the very strategy that CCP leadership so closely follows.

The arguments against seeing China as a serious, aggressive threat to US-led world order are similar to the arguments made against those who foresaw conflict between Europe’s great powers in the run up to August 1914. The argument that globalization and the economic intertwining of states makes war between states too costly was the one of the more popular cases against European conflict. In the decades prior to WW1, the world became globalized through the invention of the first telecommunications systems, industrialization and relative peace enforced by Pax Britannica. This period of peace eventually encouraged those with imperial and hegemonic ambitions to take advantage of dying old empires, increased wealth, and the fear of burgeoning new empires to encourage their nations to arm, expand, and plant their flag around the globe. The globalization argument is still rather popular today, particularly by those who do not understand what China values and what it thinks it could gain from a successful conflict with the US. Other scholars and policymakers are still confident in superior American power, either because of ignorance towards China’s growing capabilities or because they still believe America is invincible. In my opinion, that degree of hubris is more dangerous than any weapon that China could build.

Despite growth in arms development, nationalist rhetoric, and even commentary by some leaders about their ambitions, fears of an end to the ‘Belle Epoch’ were dismissed as part of the old world, one that was not economically intertwined like modern Europe. War would simply cost states too much money, and that argument resonated with many because it made people feel secure and because it made sense to the average person that attacking someone who gives you money would be counter-intuitive to prosperity and success. Many simply did not see how the benefits of a victory in war could outweigh the benefits of peace, but for a revisionist power like Germany, both the people and their leaders saw opportunity in war. For Germany’s leaders, victory meant ending its encirclement by British-allied states and the ending the threat of the ‘Russian hordes’. For the people of Germany, it meant taking their rightful place atop Europe and righting the wrongs done unto them by the other empires of Europe. For other states, it meant reasserting themselves after years of decline or seizing new territory for economic gain. If any of this sounds familiar it is because much of the same rhetoric is used by the CCP as justification for its military buildup and territorial ambitions.

Despite all of the talk about economic peace, hyper-nationalistic rhetoric was rampant in Europe in the run-up to 1914. The elections of populists like Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump, in conjunction with increased nationalistic propaganda and stricter enforced adherence to CCP ideology within China suggest that a wave of nationalism like that found in Germany, France, and the Balkans prior to 1914 has arrived in the Asia-Pacific. Thus, while the idea of war in the Asia-Pacific may have been too terrible a thought less than a decade ago, nationalistic sentiments tend to encourage the romanticizing of conflict over the sober reality of war, dissuading the voices of caution and raising the influence of war hawks in capitals around the world.