Bad History, Worse Analogies: Fumbling Toward a China Strategy
Walter Russel Mead, usually one of the web's best and sharpest reads, makes a few important missteps on China in the Wall Street Journal (and RealClearWorld). It's easy to see understand the appeal of hinging one's view of how to 'deal with China' on a few big analogies to European history. But the history has to be right. Mead's vision of America's China strategy -- a "realistic, humane, forward-looking, and enlightened" path to a true Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere -- is so alluring, and the alternatives so nettlesome, that he bends history to make it appear more like the outworking of reason than the revisionist fantasy it is.
The vision is simple, venerable, and liberal enough: encouraging "Asian powers to get rich by participating in the most open trading system in the history of the world. In exchange for commitments to abide by that system's rules, countries such as India, Vietnam, Indonesia and China would have the opportunity to industrialize and to help shape the future of the global economy."
Why power the prosperity of potential rivals? Easy, says Mead:
countries busy getting rich are unlikely to seek to overturn an international system that facilitates their prosperity. This was the case with both Germany and Japan after World War II, and the U.S. hopes the same will be true for India and China. [...]
[A]s countries deepen their participation in the global system, they become increasingly dependent on it. Hitler and Tojo learned the hard way what it meant to fight major wars without secure access to the resources and capital required.
No, you are not alone if you found yourself wondering how to analogize the utterly broken and conquered regimes of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to China -- a vast land with a billion souls, a huge and growing army, and a degree of wealth unlike any in its history. There's already an international system in place that facilitates China's prosperity, and China is one of its indispensable pieces. The Middle Kingdom of 2012 is less like Germany's Federal Republic of 1949 than its Second Reich of 1912.
More on that in a moment. First, recall that it was the Western Allies who learned the hard way what it meant to fight major wars to prevent access to the resources Hitler and Tojo required for hegemony. A war over lebensraum and Indonesian oil might not have been worth it for twentieth-century Germany or Japan, but "War: It's Not Worth It" does not a strategy make when coming to grips with twenty-first-century China.
And Mead knows this, judging by his swift analytical pivot to America's military and political moves in the Pacific. The counterbalancing push "poses a strategic dilemma for Beijing. If it doesn't push back, the new U.S.-centered Asian system will continue to develop. But if it tries to block the system, it may frighten its neighbors into an even closer American embrace." Yet Mead declines to countenance the possibility of a third alternative -- or the degree to which China might be apt to choose it.
Why wouldn't the very strategy designed to make China play by American rules in an American lake provoke the Chinese to adopt a more belligerent strategy in return? Because, Mead reassures us, China's Asian situation contrasts so sharply with the Second Reich's in Europe:
the U.S. faces something different in Asia than the "inexorable rise of China" described by so many analysts. Consider a historical analogy. Germany in 1910 was a single rising power in a neighborhood of decline populated by France, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. That was an inherently unstable balance of power. In Asia today, China is not a single rising power in a continent of decline.
Evidently the British Empire, a global colossus and economic giant upon which the sun never set, never got the memo that turn-of-the-century Europe was a neighborhood of decline. The French Empire, whipped like a dog in 1870 by a semi-modern Prussian army, withstood from 1914 to 1918 a fully industrialized Wehrmacht drawing from the full force of a unified Germany. Russia's apparent decline, product of a bloody civil war and the grisly consolidation of communist power, did little to detain the Soviets from unprecedented power by 1945. The weakest major powers in Europe were Germany's allies. The Austrians and the Ottomans extended the Kaiser's power from Berlin to Baghdad. Europe wasn't a continent in decline. We can be forgiven that it seems that way, given Germany's extraordinary power and strength, but in a few seconds we should be able to blink away that misleading impression.
In 1913, the economic interdependence of Europe and the world was at historic highs. That auspicious state of affairs did nothing to prevent the intercontinental conflagration triggered and exacerbated by the West's inescapable maze of interlocked and opposed alliance systems. Every piece and every place on the board, so to speak, was in play. Millions died and empires crumbled because of some difficulty in Serbia.
No nation deserves to be annexed to a nasty neighbor, but Mead's sunny attitude toward America's China strategy can lead us alarmingly astray if we take his version of European history as a guide. It would be one thing if China were more isolated than Germany. (Then we'd have to worry about a dynamic like the one that set off the Pacific half of the Second World War, not the one that gave us two German-made catastrophes.)
But just as Germany had Austria-Hungary, so too does China have a weaker, over-militarized, dynastically unstable ally with an axe to grind: North Korea. America's political and military chess game in the Pacific, carefully calibrated and flawlessly executed though it may be, is a doomed exercise if directed against China alone. China and North Korea are interlocking parts to this puzzle, and we account for one to the exclusion of the other at tremendous peril.
That's why I devoted one of my 2012 predictions to a counter-intuitive scenario involving the precipitous surprise realignment of North Korea's military away from China. It's not a likely development, but it's not outlandish, either; and if events can swing that far in that direction, imagine how far they can swing in the other: toward a North Korean crisis that animates China in yet another way more analogous to Guns-of-August Germany than Mead might dare to imagine.