There is more than one way to think about modern U.S.–China relations, but one would never know it from the historical analogy most commonly applied: the Anglo-German relationship from the early 20th century. Thinkers ponder the early 1900s and see the liberal dominant power in relative decline, a rising autocratic power hungering for influence and status, the intertwining of those two powers’ commercial relations amid economic competition, and a naval rivalry that seems to be both a cause and a consequence of the bilateral relationship’s overall direction.1 By implication, what happened in 1914 will happen again.
But there is another way to think about U.S.–China great-power relations: the Anglo-French relationship during the Pax Britannica (1815–1914). As historian Michael Howard observed:
The longest and perhaps the bitterest arms race in modern history was that between the French and British navies between 1815 and 1904, a period of 90 years in which peace was successfully preserved between two powers who had for 125 years before that been engaged in virtually continuous official or unofficial conflict.2
Naval rivalry and maritime issues plagued the Anglo-French relationship, but the two sides managed to maintain peace between themselves: first, through France’s diffusion of its naval power, and second, through Anglo-French cooperation in foreign-policy ventures, many of which involved a vital naval aspect. These steps helped Britain and France manage their post-Waterloo relationship in ways that helped them recognize both the rising state’s interests and status and the dominant state’s position and unique role in the international system. Their example offers lessons for how the United States and China can manage their relationship, too.
The Limits of the Anglo-German Analogy
Historical analogies can shape the range of strategic choices from which decision-makers choose their policy responses.3 For example, if an issue is seen as analogous to the 1938 Munich negotiations over Germany’s threat to invade the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, then compromise cannot be a serious option. The chosen prism structures the resulting images—and can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.
When applying the Anglo-German naval antagonism to U.S.–China relations, it is difficult not to see the specter of the security dilemma, misperceptions and misunderstandings, and the near-inevitability of conflict. However, three problems present themselves. First, the issues that plagued Berlin and London more than a century ago were self-fulfilling. The Anglo-German analogy is a dangerous one, not only because of its implied result, but also because of the unthinking automaticity that can take over policymakers’ diplomatic and military calculations.
Second, because the Anglo-German analogy has become the dominant analogy, it risks becoming the one policy-makers latch onto, truncating any search for other analogies that could offer their own distinctive lessons.4 Third, the Anglo-German relationship only suggests what should not be done; it does not necessarily suggest what should be done. The Pax Britannica Anglo-French analogy is a positive alternative, one that militates against the knee-jerk adoption of a historical analogy that can offer only a dismal future.
Fleet Diffusion, Not Concentration
British cabinet deliberations show that one of the principal reasons the United Kingdom found Germany so threatening in the early 20th century was not only that Germany built a navy when it already had one of the world’s strongest armies, but also that Germany kept its burgeoning fleet in home port, less than 24 hours’ sail from the British coast.5 This was a result of Berlin’s deliberate policy to construct a force that could threaten London and give Germany greater autonomy in foreign policy. However, the case of 19th-century France was different. The French fleet of that era, while proportionally larger than the German one of the early 1900s, was widely dispersed to cover what eventually grew to be the world’s second-largest empire.
French naval ambitions post-1815 did not prioritize posing an explicit threat to Britain. France had learned from Emperor Napoléon I’s experience that trying to pose an existential threat to Britain would result only in catastrophe. Instead, the French Navy pushed overseas to achieve national glory, prestige, and commercial benefits.6 The French fleet’s diffusion resulted in a smaller concentration of vessels in home ports across the English Channel and reflected post-Waterloo France’s continuing belief that “there must be an important role for France on the seas without antagonizing Britain.”7
It is ironic that a larger navy supporting a larger empire controlled by a French state that sat within literal sight of the British coast did not arouse the intense response from London that the German navy later did. While the Anglo-French rivalry did not dissolve overnight, no Anglo-French conflict erupted during the hundred years of the Pax Britannica. One major contribution to this relative tranquility was that the dispersed French Navy simply did not threaten the British homeland or interests in the way the concentrated German Navy later would.
For U.S.–China relations, this history suggests the United States should encourage the dispersal of Chinese naval assets. Such an act would lower tensions between Beijing and Washington if the latter encouraged the former to play a constructive role in international affairs. It would send the signal that the United States is not seeking to arrest China’s great-power status—or responsibilities. It would decrease China’s paranoia that the United States seeks to “contain” it in the same way the Soviet Union was subjected to a containment policy. And it would mean the United States and its allies would be less likely to face the entire Chinese Navy concentrated in the South and East China Seas.
Cooperation amid Differences
The Anglo-French relationship shows that it is possible to maintain peace in the international system, even between countries possessing the world’s two strongest navies. This century-long state of affairs lasted despite numerous opportunities for conflict. While Britain and France did have significant geopolitical disagreements, such as the 1840 Oriental Crisis and the 1898 Fashoda Crisis, the endeavors on which the two powers cooperated are more meaningful: The Crimean War is perhaps the most famous, but there also were joint endeavors in China, Oceania, and elsewhere.
This is not to suggest that China and the United States attempt to improve bilateral relations by jointly fighting a third great power or turning imperialist. But even in a seemingly ultra-competitive, social Darwinian, zero-sum environment such as the 19th-century international system, the two foremost great (and naval) powers found ways to cooperate, even when one was a democracy, and the other was—at times—an absolute monarchy.
Washington should continue to welcome the Chinese Navy to join multinational exercises and other cooperative endeavors, such as humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations and military-to-military exchanges. China should embrace its growing role on the world stage and, if it is serious about mitigating the U.S. threat perception that it routinely excoriates as “Cold War thinking,” then diffusing its fleet globally to engage in activities that the international community broadly supports would be a win-win.8 The wisdom and necessity of not allowing substantive differences to block progress on important issues of common concern and agreement is readily apparent in the U.S.–China relationship of today, just as it was in the Anglo-French relationship of the Pax Britannica.
Security and Status
Spreading one’s fleet and cooperating on issues of global importance accomplished several goals simultaneously in the 1800s: France did not seek to surpass the United Kingdom but still felt respected as a great power and was able to defend its interests and assert its global standing. For its part, Britain was not faced with a concentrated naval force posing an existential threat and was able and willing to work with France because it was secure in the knowledge that it was still the dominant naval power.
So far, China has not demonstrated a desire to overthrow the dominant naval power’s hegemony writ large.9 It is still positioned to emulate France’s example. China certainly has stood up for what it views as its rightful interests and is seeking to project power in what it views as its rightful geographic sphere of influence, but these are a far cry from seeking to supplant the U.S. Navy as the world’s naval No. 1. China does not appreciate U.S. naval bases in the western Pacific, but that is hardly the same as seeking to overrun the United States. If Chinese naval development does not, in practice, challenge the United States’ fundamental command of the oceans, there may be room enough for both navies on the high seas.
The pressing global issues of the current era will not be resolved in any satisfactory manner without Chinese and U.S. cooperation and action. By encouraging Chinese fleet diffusion and cooperating on other challenges, maritime or otherwise, the United States may feel less challenged and more secure about both its naval power and its continued unique status in the international system, as the United Kingdom was able to for so long.
No analogy is perfect, and the Anglo-French example should not be mistaken for one. The British and the French shared similar cultural foundations, religious experiences, and worldviews that are not replicated in China and the United States. The French policy of being No. 2 at sea was a conscious decision reached after national defeat in war, so a chastened Paris was in the appropriate state of mind to pursue the foreign policies that it did. And however many vital U.S. interests may exist in the western Pacific, they are not the U.S. homeland and do not give rise to the existential concern that France could have posed to Britain from across the 21-mile-wide English Channel. Furthermore, as with all comparisons that span both sides of the year 1945, the role of nuclear weapons, secure second-strike capability, and mutually assured destruction should not be ignored. Perhaps most important, it required pragmatism and political courage for London and Paris to end their millennium-spanning animosity; it will take equally brave diplomacy and sober level-headedness for Beijing and Washington to successfully manage the rapids without capsizing.
Nonetheless, the Anglo-French analogy provides a positive example for a great-power rivalry with a significant naval component to develop in a peaceful manner, to do so via concrete measures that do not simply weigh down one side with all the burdens, to provide both the dominant state and the rising state with a healthy equilibrium of security and status, and to not descend past the point of no return in the self-fulfilling cycle of the security dilemma. The fine balance that Britain and France managed to achieve was impressive, as one side sought more power without forcing a fatal counteroffensive from the dominant power, while the other side managed to share some global influence while retaining its exalted position in the system. It was one of the great but overlooked international political accomplishments of modern history.
In thinking about what China would do with a great-power navy and how it would affect the United States, the bilateral relationship, and the international system, scholars and policymakers keep looking to the Anglo-German relationship of a century prior. The Anglo-French relationship offers a more promising alternative. Things may not always be smooth sailing, but neither is a collision course fixed.
There can be enough room in the world for both the Chinese and U.S. navies. A rising power diffusing the threat that its navy would pose, while still contributing to the international order; the dominant power recognizing a rising great power’s interests and status; both powers choosing to work constructively on global issues despite—or perhaps, because of—the presence of other substantive disagreements: These may not be easy or simple, but they will be necessary to a peaceful 21st century. The Anglo-French experience of the 19th century shows that it can be done.
1. Christopher Coker, The Improbable War: China, the United States, and the Continuing Logic of Great Power Conflict (London: Hurst, 2014); “Could Asia Really Go to War Over These?” The Economist, 22 September 2012; Aaron L. Friedberg, “The Future of US–China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?” International Security 30, no. 2 (Fall 2005): 7–45; James R. Holmes, “An Ominous Centennial: The First World War,” The Diplomat, 12 April 2013; and Margaret MacMillan, “The Great War’s Ominous Echoes,” New York Times, 13 December 2013. I myself am guilty of this comparison: Brian C. Chao, “East Asia’s Lessons from World War I,” The Diplomat, 16 July 2014.
2. Michael Howard, The Lessons of History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), 11.
3. Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
4. Ernest R. May, “Lessons” of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (London: Oxford University Press, 1973).
5. United Kingdom Cabinet Office, photographic copies of British Cabinet papers, 1880–1916, microfilm, CAB 37, especially CAB 37/94/108 (1908), CAB 37/98/46 (1909), CAB 37/100/112 (1912), CAB 37/118/6 (1914).
6. Michèle Battesti, La Marine de Napoléon III: Une politique navale (Vincennes: Service historique de la marine, 1997); Jan Glete, Navies and Nations: Warships, Navies and State Building in Europe and America, 1500-1860, vol. 2, Stockholm Studies in History 48 (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1993); and Franklin Whittelsey Wallin, “The French Navy during the Second Empire: A Study of the Effects of Technological Development on French Governmental Policy” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1953).
7. Glete, Navies and Nations,428.
8. The Cold War is an interesting analogy for China to use; alas, I do not have the space here to delve into what that comparison says about Chinese views of the U.S.–China relationship.
9. There is a robust debate—largely speculative—on the extent and form of China’s naval ambitions. Some argue that China will focus on the near seas, for reasons ranging from homeland defense to national priorities, to mere regional ambitions. See Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century, 2nd ed. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010); Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Military Modernization: Many Improvements, Three Challenges, and One Opportunity,” in China’s Challenges, ed. Jacques deLisle and Avery Goldstein (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015); Andrew Lambert, Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict that Made the Modern World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018); Yves-Heng Lim, China’s Naval Power: An Offensive Realist Approach, Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies Series (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014); Robert S. Ross, “The Rise of the Chinese Navy: From Regional Naval Power to Global Naval Power?” in China’s Global Engagement: Cooperation, Competition, and Influence in the 21st Century, ed. Jacques deLisle and Avery Goldstein (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2017); and Andrew Scobell and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “The Flag Lags But Follows: The PLA and China’s Great Leap Outward,” in Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms, ed. Phillip C. Saunders, Arthur S. Ding, et al. (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2019). Others see a China seeking to usurp the United States’ global position and presenting a force as powerful and ubiquitous as what America does presently, for reasons having to do with protecting ever-expanding interests and commanding global prestige and respect. See Dr. Patrick M. Cronin et al., Beyond the San Hai: The Challenge of China’s Blue-Water Navy (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2017); Michael McDevitt, “PLA Naval Exercises with International Partners,” in Learning by Doing: The PLA Trains at Home and Abroad, ed. Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Travis Tanner (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute, 2012), JSTOR; David Shambaugh, China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021); U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win, January 2019; U.S. Department of Defense, Office of Naval Intelligence, The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century (Washington, DC: Office of Naval Intelligence, 2015). Still others offer a more nuanced interpretation and suggest that China will build far-seas capabilities for specific contingencies but maintain a focus on the near seas: see Sidharth Kaushal and Magdalena Markiewicz, Crossing the River by Feeling the Stones: The Trajectory of China’s Maritime Transformation (London: Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, 2019). An excellent overview of the analytical problems with diagnosing a future Chinese navy is provided in Michael D. Swaine, “The PLA Navy’s Strategic Transformation to the ‘Far Seas’: How Far, How Threatening, and What’s to be Done?” paper presented at the U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute’s “Going Global? The PLA Navy in a Time of Strategic Transformation” Conference, Newport, RI, 7 May 2019.