Dr Michael John Williams is Reader in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. From 2012-2013 he was a Bosch Fellow and special advisor in the German Ministry of Defence.
For at least the last two decades, Europe and the United States have tried to figure out what the rise of China meant for world politics. One side argued that engagement with Beijing and the integration of China into the international system could ensure China’s “peaceful rise”; more sceptical parties, that China needs to be contained. Ultimately, said the sceptics, a rising power will want to reorder the system to reflect its preferences and interests, and when this happens, war is inevitable.
Since the Clinton Administration’s decision to engage China, it has seemed that Beijing was out to prove the sceptics wrong. The policy of “peaceful rise”, now called “peaceful development”, seemed intended to assuage global concerns about what an increasingly powerful China aimed to do with its new wealth and status. But the last year provides many reasons for concern. The most recent decision, to impose an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea over the Japanese Senkaku Islands, is only the latest in a series of bellicose policies that lends credit to the more pessimistic view.
Some say that the structure of the international system makes such conflict among great powers inevitable. This school of thought often cites Germany’s Second Reich under Wilhelm II as an example of a rising state bent on conflict. This argument, however, conveniently overlooks the fact that Germany was unified long before conflict broke out in 1914, and managed for 30 years not to raise the hackles of neighboring powers such as Britain, until the early 20th century.
With unification in 1871, Germany became an immediate threat to its neighbours. Surrounded by six states, the German Reich needed a military that could defend the nation in a two-front war. This meant, of course, that the military could easily defeat a single opponent in a one-front war. Why, then, did Germany avoid war until 1914? The answer is that the personality of Germany’s first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, led to a carefully calibrated foreign policy that kept Germany secure, unified and at peace. Beijing should follow Bismarck’s lead, and not that of Wilhelm II.
A critical component of Bismarck’s policy was to avoid anything that would unify Germany’s neigbours against the Reich. In fact, Bismarck went a step further, doing what he could to get his opponents to turn on each other, and consequently to look to Germany for leadership.
Beijing is doing just to opposite. Challenging the status quo over the Senkaku Islands, which have been under Japanese control since the nineteenth century, is not exactly demonstrative of a policy to maintain peace and stability. Even after the US warned that the islands were part of the US-Japan Defence Treaty, Beijing persisted with its claim, instituting the ADIZ and stipulating that all aircraft entering the ADIZ file flight plans with Chinese authorities.
The US promptly flew a few B-52 bombers through the ADIZ, without notifying Beijing. But just a few days later the US Administration instructed all US commercial airlines to comply with Chinese demands to ensure passenger safety. While one can hardly quarrel with this advice, it does play directly into the hands of Beijing – a new status quo over the Senkakus is already beginning to form.
It does not take much imagination to see how this policy will soon be extended to other disputes in China’s maritime region, as well as inland. China’s neighbours, many of them with disputes of their own with Beijing over territory, will be looking to the United States and the international community to hold ground against these new designs. Rather than pushing the US out of East Asia, Beijing is providing Washington with a clear rationale for further involvement in the region. If President Obama backs down, then the Chinese gamble will have paid off but, have no doubt, this is a dangerous gamble.
Perhaps more importantly in Britain, how does this Downing Street’s desire to kiss and make up after the Prime Minister’s audience with the Dali Lama back in May 2012? The Prime Minister bent over backwards to rectify his “mistake”, going so far as to state Britain’s opposition to Tibetan independence in the House of Commons earlier this year. It was a mistake for the PM to bow down to China, especially given that Chinese investment into the UK increased during the cold spell in relations. In 2010, the UK was the twenty-first most popular destination for Chinese capital. Today, the UK is fourth on the list of outward-bound Chinese investment, totaling over £15bn.
By succumbing to Beijing’s bullying on Tibet, David Cameron set a dangerous precedent. He might try to salvage a bit of the UK’s sovereignty on this visit. The Prime Minister might, for example, want to use the German analogy to delicately suggest that Beijing ought to rethink recent developments – after all, a serious increase in tensions in East Asia is not conducive to good business relations: wouldn’t it be best to prove the sceptics wrong again and calm things down, President Xi? Bismarck certainly would approve.