Channeling his inner Kaiser Wilhelm, Xi calls on China’s navy to “aim for the top ranks in the world. . . . Building a strong and modern navy is an important mark of a top ranking global military.”
At a recent show of Chinese naval might in the South China Sea, President Xi Jinping called for China to acquire a world-class navy, declaring to the assembled officers and crews that there has never been a more urgent need for the country to possess a powerful fleet. This demonstration of naval power was the largest ever put on display by the People’s Republic of China: forty-eight surface warships and submarines, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, along with seventy-six aircraft, all paraded on review before the Chinese leader.
What better way than this rousing display of naval might to boost the dream of a resurgent China, determined to play the role of a rising great power on the world stage, as well as rally popular nationalist support for the regime? A line of powerful warships steaming confidently ahead in formation and fast planes streaking overhead certainly makes for great theater. Standing tall at center stage of this spectacle, Xi took the fleet’s salute. He delivered his lines, posing as the heroic warrior dressed in military uniform—the lead actor to be reckoned with in an unfolding grand historical drama involving the fate of nations.
There were echoes in his speech of a similar call to national greatness by the leader of an earlier aspiring world power. At the turn of the twentieth century, Kaiser Wilhelm II proclaimed that his country had an urgent need for a naval buildup to counter the British Royal Navy in its drive to find a “place in the sun.” Along with Admiral von Tirpitz, the Kaiser championed the Reich’s effort to become a great sea power, taking the lead in calling upon the German people to build a mighty navy.
The Kaiser saw a burgeoning navy as a sign of Germany’s increased standing in the international arena. To the Kaiser and his camarilla, no country could aspire to stand as a respected world power without a potent high-seas fleet. Along with Germany’s rise, an end would come to Pax Britannica, the existing international order led by the United Kingdom. Instead, Germany’s leaders foresaw the emergence of a multipolar international system. A German admiral maintained that “The globe is constantly being redistributed, and it can be said that another redistribution has just begun.” Meanwhile, the Kaiser proclaimed: “Old empires are fading away and new ones are about to be formed.” In this transformation of the international balance of power, Germany’s rulers insisted that the navy would, “in the coming century, become increasingly important for our defense policy, indeed for our entire foreign policy.”
The Kaiser’s gleaming fleet of battleships also provided a symbol to rally the German people behind a patriotic national endeavor and, coincidently, to buttress the regime’s control of society and domestic politics. Along with Germany’s industrial rise came a growing and restive urban working class that challenged the political hegemony of traditional elites. Germany’s rulers saw in the construction of a modern navy a way to mobilize popular opinion so as to stave off social unrest and demands for political reform. Bernhard von Bülow, Germany’s foreign secretary and chancellor, maintained: “We must unswervingly wrestle for the souls of our workers; [we] must try to regain the sympathies of the Social Democrat workers for the state and the monarchy [and] to keep the non-Socialist workers away from Social Democracy.” Defenders of the existing political order held that the government’s naval buildup would “revive the patriotism of all classes and fill them again with loyalty to, and love for, the Emperor and the Reich.” The regime portrayed the warships coming out of the dockyards—named after German states, cities and military heroes—as steel guardians of Germany’s cultural heritage, rising power and future greatness. All Germans, regardless of social background, political beliefs, or regional loyalty, could take national pride in the Kaiser’s fleet.
But Germany’s growing naval might was not just a symbol, a show force for display purposes, to parade before and unite the German people behind the Kaiser’s regime. Germany’s warships also were potent weapons of war, instruments to coerce the then reigning world power Britain. Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Germany’s chancellor at the war’s outbreak, told a confidante:
[The Kaiser’s] first and basic idea is to break Britain’s world position in favor of Germany; for this, a fleet is required, and to obtain it, a lot of money, which only a rich country can afford; so Germany should become rich; hence the priority given to industry . . . . [The Kaiser’s grandfather] founded the German empire with the army, he will establish Germany as a commercial and colonial power with the fleet.
Germany’s rulers believed that their navy would act to deter Britain from contesting German political ambitions on the world stage. London would back down in any confrontation with Berlin rather than risk losing a war at sea and, along with it, the British Empire. Britain would eventually come to recognize that it made better strategic sense to appease the rising German super-state and, hence, avoid defeat and avert the collapse of British power. With Britain cowering on the sidelines offshore, Germany could then seize the strategic initiative, overturn the international balance of power and emerge as Europe’s overlord. Or, at least, that tale of future greatness was what Germany’s leaders told themselves and looked forward to happening.
But history did not unfold according to this triumphant nationalist narrative being written by the regime in Berlin. Alarmed by Germany’s naval buildup, Britons took countering steps to provide for their security. The resulting naval arms race riveted the world’s attention. Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote: “The rivalry between Germany and Great Britain today is the danger point, not only of European politics, but of world politics as well.” A British commentator on naval affairs wrote:
We are on the eve of a real, continuing, and cumulative naval crisis which will test our character as a people, our finances as a State, and our industrial resources as a manufacturing community. If we mean to win through in this bloodless war we can, but we must begin our preparations at once and determine that, however onerous the burden, it must be borne if we would not have the trident struck from our hands.
The naval competition contributed to Britons looking upon Germany as the coming enemy. To counter Germany’s strategic designs, Britain undertook a pivot to Europe, concentrating its naval forces in home waters and preparing its army to intervene on the continent in case of a German attack on Belgium and France. And, when Berlin unleashed a war to impose a German hegemony on Europe in the summer of 1914, the Kaiser’s navy did not deter Britain from entering the lists against Germany. The competition in naval weaponry did not remain bloodless.
Once at war, the German navy showed itself as a dangerous adversary, inflicting great damage on British naval forces and merchant shipping. Britain’s naval leaders feared losing their Grand Fleet of capital ships by operating too close to the first island chain formed by the islands of Sylt, Heligoland and Borkum, along the German coastline. German mines, coastal artillery, torpedo-carrying submarines and small surface ships represented a lethal operational environment for Britain’s Grand Fleet. Admiral John Jellicoe, the fleet’s commander, determined that the risks of taking the offensive toward the first island chain far outweighed the strategic rewards. Hounded by British political leaders who pressed him for a decisive naval action, Jellicoe warned:
The danger is very real and the disaster may occur in a few minutes without warning. It only requires the fleet to be inadvertently taken over one minefield for a reversal to take place in the relative strength of the British and German fleets. The existence of the Empire is at once in the most immediate and grave danger.
Thus, while the German navy did not deter British political leaders from going to war, Germany’s naval warfighting capabilities deterred Britain’s top admirals from executing a major offensive across the North Sea. The war at sea, consequently, settled into a stalemate, with the battleships of the Britain’s Grand Fleet and Germany’s High Seas Fleet cautiously watching each other, safe in their anchorages. In 1916, when the two mighty navies did at last clash at the famous Battle of Jutland, the fleet commanders avoided a decisive sea fight, turning their battleships away from the foe at critical moments during the encounter, both sides determined to protect their force.
With the German fleet only barely escaping annihilation, sailing back to port under the cover of night, the Kaiser proclaimed the Battle of Jutland a great victory for the Fatherland. Celebrations were proclaimed throughout Germany. A jubilant Kaiser visited the fleet just days after the battle, showering medals and awards on officers and crews. He proudly proclaimed to his fleet:
At last came the day [of battle]. The enormous fleet of Albion that dominated the oceans, that imposed a tyrannical rule on the sea over the whole world during the [past] hundred years since Trafalgar, that has worn the nimbus of overwhelming power and invincibility—came out [to fight]. . . . And what happened? The English fleet was beaten! The first hammer blow has been struck, the nimbus of English global domination has been ripped down, the tradition of Trafalgar torn to shreds.
Despite the Kaiser’s heroic rhetoric, the German battle fleet remained a captive in its homeports. However much the failure to crush the German fleet frustrated British politicians and public, the stalemate in the North Sea worked to Britain’s overall strategic advantage. The British navy followed a strategy of offshore control that strangled Germany’s seaborne trade with the outside world. British warships—operating outside the second island chain, stretching from the English Channel, Britain, the Orkney, Shetland and Faroe Islands, to the coast of Norway—intercepted German trade into the Atlantic. The German economy and war effort suffered from losing access to distant overseas markets and sources of supply. Much to the Kaiser’s chagrin and the embarrassment of his admirals, Germany’s battleships could not break the British blockade.
Yet the Kaiser’s admirals still had a weapon in the submarine that could disrupt Britain’s worldwide network of trade and shipping. Submarines became Germany’s real high seas fleet, ranging out into the waters around the British Isles to strike at shipping that carried the manufactures, food, energy and raw materials that Britain and its allies needed to carry on the war. The British seaborne lifelines stood in peril from the submarine offensive. In 1917, German submarines inflicted such immense damage on world shipping that Britain’s naval leaders thought they faced imminent defeat. Winston Churchill characterized the fighting at sea as “a life-and-death struggle” between the British and German navies. The stakes were certainly high in this clash at sea, in the contest to defeat the German submarine offensive. Whoever won the struggle for naval mastery would win the war.
Today, as did the leaders of Imperial Germany a century ago, China’s rulers view a naval buildup as a precondition for furthering their geopolitical ambitions on the world stage. Economic development and increased armaments go hand-in-hand to rising challengers who harbor dreams of remaking the international system in their own image. New policy guidance from Beijing states, “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned.” China’s naval buildup is an extraordinary manifestation of Beijing’s commitment to challenge American leadership on the maritime commons and in world politics. Channeling his inner Kaiser Wilhelm, Xi calls on China’s navy to “aim for the top ranks in the world. . . . Building a strong and modern navy is an important mark of a top ranking global military.”
These words are no empty boast. One recent assessment forecasts a Chinese fleet consisting of 500 combatants by 2030, including an undersea force of seventy-five diesel submarines and twelve nuclear attack submarines. China is adding to its undersea nuclear force even as it increases the strength of its land-based missile capabilities. It is reported, too, that China has ambitions to possess six aircraft carriers. Building and maintaining such a large navy will require an immense commitment of resources. This effort is a telltale sign of China’s determination and long-term ambition to play a larger global role.
China’s warfighting capabilities are also improving in technological sophistication and professionalism. Paul Bracken fears that new technologies could transform the balance of Sino-American military power: “China is choosing its strategic posture based on a careful study of U.S. vulnerabilities. It fits the framework of a first striker trying to minimize the residual capability of U.S. forces.” China’s seeks to establish a lethal killing zone within the first island chain in the Western Pacific, as a springboard to contest the global maritime commons and project naval power. The magnitude of the Chinese buildup to fight at sea presents a challenge the likes of which the United States has not seen since the closing days of the Cold War.
Moreover, in working to undermine America’s standing as a global power, Beijing is not confining its efforts to developing capabilities to fight in the maritime domain. China is also developing an overland network for trade and strategic posturing in its One Belt, One Road Initiative. Developing transportation and basing infrastructure across the rimlands and heartland of Eurasia provides China with a way to partner with other countries, to acquire staging areas and form coalitions to overstretch American power. This strategy means that the United States will face challenges from China on multiple geographical fronts and operational domains.
This ambitious Chinese scheme of infrastructure development is reminiscent of Imperial Germany’s bid to expand its strategic reach by building railways across the Middle East, hoping to connect Berlin to Baghdad. German efforts to construct this transportation network and to improve the military effectiveness of the Ottoman Empire’s armed forces threatened Britain’s position in the Middle East. Germany could strike overland at the British Empire, as well as challenge Britain in the maritime domain. During the war, Berlin also sought to incite a clash of civilizations by encouraging Moslem peoples to fight Britain. The demands of waging war in the Middle East prevented Britain from fully pivoting its forces to the fight against Germany.
It is often said that Beijing does not want war. After all, China’s ancient book of military wisdom, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, maintains that to win without resorting to fighting represents the height of strategic skill. But the same could have been said for the Kaiser. He, too, would have preferred to win without fighting, to achieve the German dream while avoiding an existential struggle. The Kaiser hoped that Britain would appease German ambitions and elegantly decline, letting Germany win without having to battle its way through to achieve world power. When Armageddon broke loose, the Kaiser sincerely believed that war had been forced upon him by a conspiracy concocted by the other great powers to thwart Germany’s international aspirations. In German eyes, Britain’s machinations lurked behind the coalition that encircled the Reich and frustrated Berlin’s ambitions. To rally the German people behind the regime, Germany’s rulers then constructed the narrative that they had done everything possible to preserve the peace, only to have war forced upon them by predatory foes, the most cunning and dangerous of which was Britain.
Of course, this narrative ignores Germany’s self-defeating behavior that resulted in the country’s encirclement. In the international confrontation that triggered the war during the summer of 1914, Berlin refused to back down and instead escalated the crisis so that diplomatic options were closed off. Germany’s rulers set in motion an aggressive plan of military action to march on Paris in response to an assassination that took place in Sarajevo, on the other side of Europe. By striking hard and fast, Germany’s warlords contended that an offensive first strike represented the best chance for winning the war.
Later in the war, in 1917, Wilhelm’s generals and admirals would compound their strategic error by provoking American intervention in the fighting. Again, in trying to escape from a strategic trap of their own making, Germany’s leaders chose to take the offensive, to escalate the war at sea in the attempt to gain a quick victory. This escalation brought an overwhelming American response, with the United States taking up arms to fight Germany. A rising American superpower would bring the resources of the New World into action to restore the balance of power in the Old. By provoking the entry of Britain and the United States into the war, the Kaiser, with his generals and admirals, brought about Germany’s ruin, killing millions along the way, wrecking the German economic miracle and blighting the happiness of future generations. The dream of world power became instead a hideous nightmare that continues to haunt us a hundred years later.
In an international crisis, will Beijing show more prudence than did Berlin in 1914 and seek to avoid conflict? Or, will Chinese leaders see a crisis as an opportunity to achieve a major foreign policy success? Will China’s rulers choose to pursue a strategy of escalation in the hope that American leaders will blink first in a test of brinkmanship? As a crisis unfolds, will China’s military chiefs and operational planners push the regime to take swift action, to strike first because—in their assessment—such an offensive blow will increase their chances for winning, as did Germany’s warlords? Will China’s political leaders give the green light to aggressive military action in the hope of quick victory? Answers to these questions will help determine whether the peace holds during an international confrontation embroiling China with its neighbors and the United States.
An international crisis, however, might prove too late to impress upon political and military leaders in Beijing the determination of the United States to prevent China from imposing its hegemonic ambitions on Asia and asserting its standing as a global superpower. Instead, American foreign policy should act to strengthen the security ties that bind the United States with partner democracies in East Asia, Australia, Japan and South Korea. In addition, the United States must continue its patient development of a security partnership with India. By working with partners, Washington can seek to limit the strategic reach of China and avoid the overextension of the American armed forces.
Diplomatic alignments are not enough. After all, Germany sought to break its strategic encirclement through swift military action. The United States and its partners must also boost their defense efforts so that no Chinese military planner can convincingly brief his political masters a plan for how Beijing might win quickly by executing offensive first strikes. The military balance must be tilted so decisively that Chinese statesmen and military chiefs view with dismay their prospects for victory. If China’s rulers are pessimistic about their chances for winning a trial of strength with the United States and our allies, then the peace in Asia will rest on a more secure foundation. The United States has a special responsibility to ensure that the drama of China’s rising power does not turn into a tragedy, with all the players on the world stage suffering grievous losses.
Finally, there is an epilogue to the drama of Kaiser Wilhelm and the German navy that President Xi might well want to recall and ponder: the regime that took Germany into the war did not survive its ending. In the closing act of the Great War, when ordered to undertake an offensive against the formidable defensive barrier along Britain’s island chain, the crews aboard the Kaiser’s fleet of battleships had the good sense to mutiny and thereby avoid certain death in a suicidal mission. The crews, who had once cheered Wilhelm before the war, now turned on him as it became clear to the sailors that the Kaiser’s admirals were only all too willing to sacrifice them on a death ride for no tangible gain—their warships to serve as their steel coffins. The mutiny of the sailors triggered a revolution that quickly spread throughout Germany, bringing an end to the Kaiser’s regime. Wilhelm had to run away, never to return to Germany, his cherished fleet’s mutiny acting as the catalyst for political upheaval. How ironic a twist of fate that the fleet built to unite the German people behind the regime instigated its downfall.
By John H. Maurer