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Why the US-China struggle is nothing like pre-WWI Europe

There is no need to make a military challenge out of a battle over global network dominance.

Is a hegemonic war between the United States and China inevitable? Many scholars believe so. 

Most recently the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs featured an important article by Christopher Layne arguing that “great power conflict” — once thought a problem of the past — had returned. Layne contends that the rise of China coupled with Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy has created a destabilizing power transition reminiscent of the Anglo-German antagonism prior to World War I. Layne warns that the chances for global war have greatly increased today, an argument echoed by fellow Realists John Mearsheimer, who believes the United States will never accept China as a “peer competitor,” and Graham Allison, who fears that to avoid a world war the United States must learn to acknowledge the spheres of influence of both China and Russia. 

The deteriorating situation in the South China Sea caused by China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy and continuing threats to invade Taiwan have justifiably raised concerns of war between the two powers. Conflict in the SCS, however, can be localized. Power transition theory suggests something far worse: a global conflict between a reigning hegemon fearful of its own decline and a rising challenger eager to lead a new international order.  

However, while China is determined to create a Sino-centric world, it seeks to do so without the destruction of a global war. Instead, its rivalry with the United States will be a battle for dominance in global trade, international finance, telecommunications, technology, and international governmental institutions, critically important networks dominated by the United States that Beijing aims to control to create a new “China Century.” American national security strategy must prioritize winning this “war of the networks;” however, this can’t be done by military power alone.  

World War I Parallels?

Like the Cold War, World War I remains a favorite historical comparison for the U.S.-China rivalry. I have argued elsewhere that while the Cold War analogy is misleading, the similarities with World War I are also exaggerated, principally the belief that the war was a consequence of declining British power in the face of rising German power. In fact, the situation was the reverse, it was Germany’s deteriorating strategic position, not Great Britain’s, that fueled the European crisis. In 1865, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck launched Germany’s rise with the Wars of Unification, a series of short, stunning victories over Denmark, Austria, and France, that established Germany as the new dominant power on the European continent. However, rather than bask in his success, Bismarck recognized that Germany risked encirclement by its European rivals, especially France in the West and Russia in the East. His chief foreign policy objective was to prevent France, furious over its defeat in the war of 1870-71, from creating an anti-German coalition. Instead, he aimed to isolate France. 

Bismarck succeeded by currying favor with both the British and the Russians. Bismarck exploited Britain’s ancient rivalry with France and refused to challenge Pax Britannica and Britain’s Naval superiority, despite Germany’s growing industrial power and global ambitions. Instead, Bismarck considered the Royal Navy “the greatest force for peace” and exploited the stability of Pax Britannica to expand German interests throughout the world. Next, he invited Russia’s Tsar Alexander II and Austria-Hungarian’s Emperor Franz Joseph to join Kaiser Wilhelm I in the Three Emperors League. When the league collapsed in 1887 due to Russia’s growing rivalry with Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, Bismarck negotiated the Reinsurance Treaty, a secret protocol that pledged both nations’ neutrality should either Austria attack Russia or France attack Germany. Consequently, despite international alarm over Germany’s growing power, Bismarck’s adroit diplomacy allowed the British to continue to enjoy their “splendid isolation” and kept Russia apart from France.

In 1890, the recently crowned Kaiser Wilhelm II fired Bismarck and replaced him with a series of chancellors who favored a “New Course” that challenged Pax Britannica with a massive naval buildup and strengthened Germany’s ties with Austria at the expense of its relations with Russia. The New Course shattered Bismarck’s carefully laid plans and quickly provoked the creation of the coalition he had long feared. In 1894, France and Russia put aside their historic differences and created an alliance that ensured Germany would face a two-front war should conflict with either party erupt. Germany’s naval buildup prompted Britain to launch its own massive naval expansion to counter Germany’s growing threat. 

By 1913, Germany’s relations with the great powers of Europe had deteriorated rapidly. Britain had won its naval arms race against Germany and ended its historic antagonisms with Paris and Moscow. The French and Russians were rapidly modernizing their forces, and German efforts to improve relations with the United States floundered. Berlin recognized Germany’s increasing isolation and feared that when Russia completed its military modernization in 1917, the nation’s strategic position would become untenable. Germany’s only hope, the General Staff believed, was a war before that date; the crisis of July 1914 provided Germany with the pretext for that war.

There is very little in the way of comparison between the current strategic situation and that which led to World War I. There is nothing yet analogous to the Franco-Russian alliance which posed a long term threat to Germany and pushed it toward a preventive-war strategy that undermined European stability. Moreover, while China is engaged in a large-scale naval buildup, it does not endanger the United States as the German naval buildup seemed to threaten the very survival of Great Britain. 

Hegemonic Challenge in the 21st Century

While the threat of hegemonic war might be exaggerated, the reality of a hegemonic struggle is very real. Only this will be a battle for control of the global networks that make the modern international system operate. History offers us an important lesson.

The Royal Navy may have secured Britain’s global dominance, but it was Britain’s superiority in international finance, trade, and communications that ensured its supremacy before the First World War. Following its victory over France in 1815, Great Britain built a global trading system reaching every corner of the world. Britain constructed a global network of ports and harbors that the whole world would soon come to depend on, particularly after the switch from sail to coal-burning steam engines in the late 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century, 80 percent of the world’s ships would burn British coal, widely recognized as the best in the world. 

In the 1870s, Britain would also lead a telecommunications revolution as it laid undersea telegraph cables connecting the world. British merchant ships would also account for half the total tonnage of the world’s merchant fleets, five times more than Germany and ten times greater than the United States. By World War I, the world’s navies and merchant fleets relied on British coal and communicated using British telegraph cables. Britain maintained the premier global network primacy until 1914; it would take two world wars to finally break its that hold.

Following World War II, the United States created its own system of networks that similarly ensconced it as the dominant power of the international system. However, over the past decade China has moved aggressively to challenge U.S. supremacy by creating the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative designed to bind world commerce more closely to Beijing, promoting Huawei’s 5G cellular network to dominate international communications, and taking more leadership positions throughout the United Nations and other international organizations. China also aims to beat the United States in developing the first quantum computer and fusion reactor — each considered equivalent to “moon-shots.” This is where the hegemonic battle of the 21st century will take place.

While the risk of conflict over Taiwan remains serious and requires the United States to shore up its deterrent capabilities, American grand strategy must avoid accentuating the military dimension to what will likely be a lengthy, intense, yet non-military, struggle over the networks of global power.

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