Between 2000 and 2003, I was based in Hong Kong and taking regular trips to mainland China. We foreign correspondents in those days were often impressed by how sophisticated and erudite the Communist Party’s young scholars were. They were a far cry from how Westerners imagined the cadres of an aging post-Marxist regime. In our minds, we were coming to interview them. What often happened instead is that they quizzed us – such was their ravenous curiosity about the world.
One subject that fascinated, even obsessed, them was the changing dynamic between Britain and Germany between 1871 and 1914. In their minds, that relationship was the analog to the coming tension between America and China in our time. Back then, Germany was playing industrial catch-up with Britain, building up its own fleet to rival the Royal Navy, and projecting its power into Africa and Asia to earn its colonial “place in the sun.”
Similarly, these Chinese analysts assumed, China would increasingly challenge the United States. The problem is that in 1914 the German challenge culminated in the Great War. By contrast China’s policy goal was – and ostensibly still is – a “peaceful rise,” without the disaster of war between the declining and rising superpowers. That’s what the brightest minds in China were working on.
Europe, Africa and the rest of the world played side roles in these strategic ruminations. China’s plan is to pry these regions loose from American influence. With “One Belt, One Road,” China is investing in a vast geo-political and geo-economic project to dominate the Eurasian and African land masses. Simultaneously, it is stealthily buying up stakes in Europe’s economy, from the port of Piraeus to Germany’s car companies, banks, tech firms and power grid.
The real dangers to the European way of life all come from the east.
In Asia, meanwhile, China has been slowly but steadily turning the South China Sea into a geologically moored fleet of permanent aircraft carriers by weaponizing islets that are located in international waters. The purpose is to drive the United States out of Asia.
The rubber-stamping this week of President Xi Jinping’s wish to remove the Chinese constitution’s term limits should therefore make not only America but all Europe take note. In effect, Mr. Xi has signalled his intention to build something between a new Tang Dynasty and Maoism 2.0, with himself on the throne. He scorns Western ideas of liberty. He delights in the rift between old friends such as the United States and Western Europe, who currently seem bent on stumbling into an utterly unnecessary trade war.
“China has a plan, we don’t,” as Germany’s former foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, recently put it. And that must change, as Torsten Riecke, Handelsblatt’s international correspondent, argues. Germany and the European Union must stop dealing with the Middle Kingdom naively, and drop their illusions about who Europe’s natural foes and allies are.
It is understandable for Germans to be indignant about threats of car tariffs from Washington, their former Cold War protector. But the real dangers to the European way of life all come from the east. The immediate threat is from a neo-Czarist Russia with an atavistic KGB mentality. The latest reminder was what appears to be yet another attempt by Russia to murder one of its former spies in Britain. This attack brought Russia and the United Kingdom the diplomatic brink this week. Fortunately, the US, France and Germany are unequivocally on Britain's side.
But Russia, though dangerous, is a declining power, whereas China is rising and knows it. It subscribes to authoritarianism with Chinese characteristics, and will increasingly make its weight felt. For the West that will be unpleasant.
But the even greater peril facing all of us – west, east, north or south – is of another 1914, of another clash between the declining and rising powers of our time. China’s policy makers used to be conscious of that risk and determined to manage it. It is disconcerting that they seem to be losing interest. The Chinese should remember their own goal of “peaceful rise.” And the West, including Germany, should at last conceive a diplomatic vision that would help China achieve its rise peacefully – and in such a way that the West can live with the result.
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