Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Bismarck or Wilhelm? China's Peaceful Rise vs. Its South China Sea Policy

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Bismarck or Wilhelm? China's Peaceful Rise vs. Its South China Sea Policy

Article excerpt

For Washington and for China's neighbors, the question is quite simple: Is a rising China going to follow in the footsteps of Otto von Bismarck or Kaiser Wilhelm II? These two German leaders presided over a rapidly rising Germany but chose starkly different paths for their nation's foreign policy. After unifying the disparate German federal states into a strong and powerful German nation-state in 1871, Bismarck managed Germany's rise while, importantly, not eliciting a balancing coalition against it, or a war. Despite the expectations of modern realists that a rising power should/would provoke a balancing coalition (at least) and/or war (at worst), Bismarck's grand strategy elicited neither (Allison 2015). Of Otto von Bismarck, Eric Hobsbawm (1987, 312) famously said he "remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [and] devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers." In contrast, in 1890 when Kaiser Wilhelm II relieved Bismarck of his duties as senior statesman and took over Germany's foreign policy, he took Germany in a military, political, and economic expansionist direction that entailed few attempts to assuage Germany's neighbors and/or competitors, or to effectively manage the regional alliance system his predecessor had worked so hard to keep in balance. Nor did he apparently give serious consideration to the insecurities his nation's rapid rise might cause Germany's neighbors. The result, of course, was an arms race as Russia, France, and Great Britain, in particular, responded to Germany's new unilateralism, military buildup, and economic growth in the early twentieth century. All of this, with the important roles of smaller powers like Serbia and individuals like Princip and his assassination of Arch Duke Francis Ferdinand, led to World War I in 1914. One can only wonder how Germany, and Europe, would have fared had Kaiser Wilhelm not taken over German foreign policy but allowed instead someone in the tradition of the master statesman, Otto von Bismarck, to continue guiding German foreign policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Like Germany under Bismarck and Wilhelm, China is a power that is rising rapidly, upsetting the regional balance of power. Like Germany under Bismarck and Wilhelm, it faces choices in how it will conduct its foreign policy now and in coming years-choices that will have a momentous impact on regional peace and security. The South China Sea is and will be one of the most important strategic arenas in which China will have to decide how to exercise its power in coming years. In fact, there has been much discussion in the media and increasingly in academic circles as well about the rising importance of the South China Sea in not just regional (East and Southeast Asian) international relations but international relations writ large. The recent ruling of the Arbitration Tribunal at The Hague on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as it pertains to the Philippines' charges against China1 has made it clear that this is an issue that has international importance. Robert Kaplan says the South China Sea is to China today what the Caribbean Sea was to the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that the South China Sea is to the East Asian strategic context what the Mediterranean Sea has represented to the European, African, and Near-Eastern context from the days of the Greek city-states to the present, and that "the South China Sea beckons as the key to China's geostrategic future" (2015, 20). While these comparisons are apt in their own ways, the South China Sea and its local context are in many ways particular to themselves and the twenty-first century, such that while learning from the past we must treat the South China Sea as a twenty-firstcentury strategic phenomenon in its own right. Alluded to here are important factors such as China's Anti-Access Area Denial strategy (as it has been deemed by the United States) and the US response, Air-Sea Battle, which, pitted against each other, create a discomfiting level of escalatory potential (Moore 2014). …

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