Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Saturday, July 13, 2013

China: Germany or Italy?

In recent years as China has begun to emerge as a rising naval power in both the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans, there have been many comparisons between Germany between 1898 and 1914 and China. Henry Kissinger made this comparison in his latest book, On China, but noted that unlike in Europe in the early 20th century it did not have to end in disaster. In this comparison the United States is naturally cast in the role of Great Britain--the satiated status quo power and major naval power. Presumably India can be cast as France, the lesser naval power and continental power that has been a past rival to Great Britain but is now available as an ally.

In the 19th century/early 20th century European balance-of-power system half of the powers, all located in Eastern or Central Europe, were weak states on their way down: Russia, Austro-Hungary, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Italy. The Ottoman Empire had been "the sick man of Europe" for three-quarters of a century as it lost its European colonies in the Balkans (much like Spain in North America in the 19th century) and would furnish the battleground and casus belli for the start of the First World War. It lost Greece and Serbia in the 1820s, Bulgaria in the 1870s, Bosnia in 1908, and Albania in 1912. Russia was full of national minorities and had suffered from a failed revolution in 1905 as a result of its humiliating defeat to Japan in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. Austo-Hungary suffered from the fact that both the Austrians and the Hungarians were minorities in their respective portions of the Empire and the conservative Magyar landed interests were opposed to turning the dual monarchy into a triple monarchy by sharing power with the Slavs who made up a majority of the Empire's subjects.

This leaves us with Italy. Italy like China today was (and still is) a largely homogeneous nation state but deeply divided on economic terms. Here is Ian Bremmer's analysis of the needs of the various sectors in China. Italy was composed of a modern European industrialized north with major industrial centers in Turin and Milan and a port in Venice, and a backward agrarian south made of pious Catholic peasants, many of whom were only too happy to emigrate to America and take their chances in the major cities of the East Coast. Italy yearned to be treated as a great power and so challenged France in North Africa over Tunisia in 1882--and lost. It then fought Ethiopia in 1896 and was humiliated by a loss at Adowa. It next tried its luck by invading Tripoltania (Libya) in 1911. This begins the real short period of Italy as a great power, which lasted until 1940-41 when Italy tangled with Great Britain in North Africa in World War II. Italy was unified by the Piedmont royal family and state between 1860 and 1870 and was an alliance of romantic revolutionaries and adventurers like Mazzini and Garibaldi and a supreme realist in the person of Prime Minister Emile da Cavour of Piedmont. After unification Italy became superficially a liberal democracy but with a very restricted franchise and all power in the hands of a small ruling class.

China is divided between an entrepreneurial Pacific Coast that is thoroughly capitalist and an agrarian interior that is still peasant and socialist. The ruling Communist Party attempts to bridge the divide by ensuring minimal living standards for the peasants in the interior while supervising the gradual migration of the interior's peasant population to the east coast. The Communist Party now uses nationalism as a substitute for Communist ideology and terror as the mortar that keeps the entire state together.

Germany was united in a series of three very short and successful wars in the 1864-71 period by Prussia, which played the same role as Piedmont in Italy. Otto von Bismarck first defeated Denmark in a short war in the summer of 1864 to acquire its southern province. Then in 1866 he defeated Austria (which helped to lead to the 1867 reforms that created the dual monarchy) in a short war. Then in 1870 he provoked a short war with France and defeated the French army in a series of brilliant encirclements in the summer. This changed France from an empire into a republic as Emperor Napoleon III was forced to abdicate and the parliament emerged supreme.

China has engaged in three wars since the Chinese Civil War of 1945-49. In 1950 China invaded North Korea and fought the U.S. Army and Marines to a standstill at the cost of tens of thousands of "volunteers" killed. By this means China preserved North Korea as a weak buffer state between the powerful U.S.-allied South Korea and Manchuria. In October 1962 China fought a short border war with Indian troops in the frozen disputed border area of the Himilayas. In 1979 China invaded the newly-united Vietnam to teach Hanoi a lesson. China won but the war was no great show of military efficiency. It was more like the Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40. In the last three decades China has refrained from all external wars in order to modernize both its civilian sector and its military. Most of  its defense investments have gone into its strategic nuclear forces and its navy. The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has gone from a coastal brown-water navy to a blue-water navy operating throughout the Western Pacific and Eastern Indian Oceans. It has done this by first purchasing Russian weapons and then reverse engineering the technology to produce its own copies.  It has recently purchased its first aircraft carrier from Ukraine.

China is probably secretly pleased to be compared to Wilhelmian Germany. But the real question is whether the Chinese leadership can manage successfully the transition from being an Asian Italy to an Asian Germany without accidentally provoking a war with its Asian neighbors? Rome was prudent enough to sit out World War I for the first year, but not prudent enough to avoid it completely. So far Beijing has been prudent. Will this continue if Washington manages to build an effective Asian coalition to contain China? Or will China provoke a war with Washington over Taiwan to prevent being encircled by Japan, Vietnam, Malyasia, South Korea, and India supported by the United States?  Will Beijing be governed by a Bismarck/Cavour or by a Wilhelm II?

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