Thursday, December 05, 2013


"As we also know from the onset of the first world war, seemingly minor events can quickly escalate to catastrophic proportions. Europe never recovered from the disasters of that war, and the even worse one it spawned 25 years later. Today, with China under the leadership of Xi Jinping, an assertive nationalist, Japan under the leadership of Shinzo Abe, a no less assertive nationalist, and the US committed by treaty to defending Japan against attack, the risk of a ruinous conflict again exists. Such an event is far from inevitable. It is not even likely. But it is not impossible and it is more likely than it was a month ago. Again, there are parallels with the rise of Germany. In the early 20th century, that nation launched a naval arms race with the UK. In 1911, Germany sent a gunboat to Morocco in response to French intervention in that country. The aim was, in part, to test relations between France and the UK. In the event, it cemented that alliance, just as China’s action is likely to cement the alliances between Japan and South Korea, on the one hand, and the US on the other. And, as was the case for the UK then, the US of today is increasingly troubled by the challenge presented by China’s desire to assert its rising regional power."
Martin Wolf, "China must not copy the Kaiser’s errors." The Financial Times. December 3, 2013, in
"Martin Wolf is only partially correct in citing the historical parallel to Imperial Germany’s foreign policy (“China must not copy the Kaiser’s errors”, December 4). Specifically, while Mr Wolf is correct that one of the motivations for German behaviour in the second Moroccan crisis of 1911 was (as he puts it) to “test relations between France and the UK”, there was also a domestic political angle as well. In a nutshell, like contemporary China, Kaiserreich Germany was an authoritarian regime that endeavoured to maintain popular support by having a robust and at times aggressive foreign policy (what was known at the time as Weltpolitik). It is precisely this aspect of internal Chinese decision-making, the need to project to its own population a particularly aggressive foreign policy, in order to shore up its political legitimacy, that makes Mr Wolf’s pleas for rational decision-making from the Chinese leadership so utopian. From the perspective of China’s rulers, even the dangerous consequences of their current foreign policy pales when the threat of any undermining of their ruling position vis a vis their own population comes into play".
Charles Coutinho, "Letters: Domestic fears kill Chinese rationality." The Financial Times. 5 December 2013, in
For quite awhile now, going back at least half a dozen years or so if not more, the German Kaiserreich has been seen as the historical precursor to the present-day Peoples Republic 1. Particularly (pace Martin Wolf) its foreign policy. However, to my mind, it is the internal, aspect of present-day PRC domestic political structure which is the most acutely similar to Imperial Germany (pace my own response to Martin Wolf's piece in yesterday's Financial Times). Specifically, it is self-evident to my mind, that just as the policies of Weltpolitik and the Naval Laws of 1898 and 1900, were the fruit of a political leadership aiming to shore up its domestic political legitimacy by engaging in what one may post-facto label a forceful, if not (at times) aggressive foreign policy; similarly, a strong current of Peking's policies vis-`a-vis its neighbors is au fond a result of precisely the very same variable. What the Weimar-period, iconoclastic historian, Ekart Kehr, labeled (per contra to the formulations of the founder of modern, scientific history, Leopold von Ranke) 'primat der Innenpolitik'. And, it was indeed the domestic influences on Kaiserreich foreign policy (specifically the domestic political imperatives behind the build-up of the German Navy from 1897 onwards), that formed the basis of Kehr's thesis 2. In the case of the Peoples Republic, it is self-evident that fostering on a national scale, public support for an aggressive foreign policy in general, and one vis-`a-vis Japan in particular is purely a means of enabling the corrupt and self-selecting ruling clique who runs the country to pass off as 'patriotic' leaders. With the allegedly popular anti-Japanese feelings being strongly aided, if not indeed invented by government policies. Particularly in the educational institutions up and down the age ladder. Not to speak of course of the state controlled media. In short, to expect of itself, that the rulers of China will listen to the voice of sweet reason as it relates to the PRC's disputes with Japan and its other neighbors (`a la Martin Wolf) is (to quote Neville Chamberlain) 'the very mid-summer of madness'. I am afraid indeed that the only logic that they will take cognizance of is the logic of brute force. Id. est., a firm policy of diplomatic and indeed military containment by the Western powers and its local allies such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Anything else will merely result in a policy of appeasement pur et simple.
1. For my own citing of this parallel, back in 2010, see: Charles Coutinho, "China no clone of Bismarck’s Reich." The Financial Times. 23 April 2010,
2. See in particular: Battleship Building and party politics in Germany, 1894-1901: A cross-section of the political, social and ideological preconditions of German imperialism. (1973). See also for a recent discussion of the concept among contemporary diplomatic historians: Leslie Rogne Schumacher, "Primat der Innenpolitik: Promoting “New” Diplomatic History." British Scholar Society. 30 June 2012, in


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