My Take

Stop likening China to 1914 Germany

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 4:24am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 5:55am

"The streets were all crowded with civilians and their wives, cheering us [soldiers] on, bombarding us with flowers from café terraces, railway stations, crowded churches. You never saw so many patriots in all your life!"

That is from the opening scene of Louis-Ferdinand Celine's classic Journey to the End of the Night, in which he describes how Parisians went crazy with joy when war was first declared in 1914. Such scenes were repeated in virtually all the major European capitals, where La Belle Epoque, during which Europeans enjoyed unprecedented advances in science, technology and standards of living, had bored everyone. We, too, have had extraordinary advances in all these categories of life, especially in newly developed countries in Asia. But there is at least one respect in which we are much wiser than Europeans a century ago. No one wants a war now, and everyone appreciates how destructive it would be.

The rise of modern China has of late been compared to Wilhelmine Germany. But such "learning" from history may be more misleading than illuminating. Those who insist on the wrong lessons from history are bound to make even worse mistakes. For one thing, no one in China really thinks an armed conflict with the US or a major power like Japan, a threshold nuclear-weapon power, could be anything other than devastating to the Chinese.

Kaiser Wilhelm II built a powerful navy which, though inferior to the British, had a fighting chance against them. Chinese commanders realise their naval vessels, despite their modernisation, are sitting ducks for the Americans. Wilhelm had no idea that the centuries-old ruling Hohenzollern and Habsburg monarchies could simply collapse after the war. Beijing very much fears the Communist Party may not survive a major conflict.

An influential new book, The China Choice, has attracted the attention of policymakers across Asia and in Washington. The author, Hugh White, a former Australian defence official, argues that China does not seek dominance and has no ability to achieve it in the region. But it wants, and should be accorded, "an equal share in the leadership of Asia" with the US. That is far less ambitious than Wilhelm's, or Hitler's, Germany.