Estimated Reading Time: 9 Minutes
By: Daniel Myers
This past Veterans Day, as we paused to honor the profession of arms, we also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the First World War. For most Americans, World War I represents the United States’ entry onto the world stage as an industrial and military power. Unfortunately, the American Public School system covers an abridged version of the Western Front from the sinking of the Lusitania and American mobilization to the Treaty of Versailles and President Wilson’s unrealized Fourteen Points agenda.
As a result, we often forget that 1914-1918 was far more dramatic. It saw the entire world order overturned and left over 20 million dead. Across Europe, the Great War, as it is more commonly known, symbolizes the deaths of entire generations and the collapse of historic empires. As the war’s long-term effects continue to unfold today, it is important to understand why World War I happened and acknowledge how the same volatile political forces are shaping current events.
Historians attribute World War I to four major causes: militarization, multinational alliances, imperialism, and nationalism. The effects of a rising German military and economy in 1914 eerily resemble the influence China is gaining today, and just as in 1914, the fate of powerful nations like the United States hangs in the balance.
The late nineteenth century was dominated by rapid industrialization, leading to major advances in military technology and production capacity. It also fomented regional instability as martial competitions emerged. When World War I began, Germany had only been established for forty-four years, but it was already the premier land power in Europe. Formed after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Germany immediately recognized the importance of asserting its sovereignty through military strength and combined largescale weapons production with a highly effective mobilization plan.
In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s hallmark book, The Influence of Seapower upon History, revolutionized military strategy. By the turn of the century, a strong navy was analogous with national survival. At around the same time, advanced shipbuilding technology leveled the playing field for Germany to compete against Great Britain, the naval superpower of its day. Old ships of the line that had dominated sea warfare just a few years earlier were rendered useless against newer, more expensive Dreadnoughts. This new class of ships was faster, deadlier, and required existing naval strategies to be overhauled. As the arms race with Germany intensified, the once invincible British navy was forced to reconstitute its fleet at tremendous financial cost.
If we look at the current military climate, there is a parallel between nineteenth century industrialization and its modern equivalent, the Dotcom Era of the late 1990s. Just as armies one hundred years ago used new technology to increase their destructive power, today’s militaries have learned to employ the internet as a weapon of war. Our reliance on digital servers for everything from financial transactions to regulating national infrastructure has created a vulnerable center of gravity.
The fastest and most proficient state actor to capitalize on this paradox was the Chinese government whose teams of hackers first attacked US government websites in 1999 during the Kosovo conflict. Since then, their cyber offensives have become increasingly relentless and sophisticated, forcing the United States to allocate large portions of defense spending for network protection. Despite our efforts, China has successfully carried out cyber attacks against dozens of U.S. corporations including Google, Northrop Grumman, Yahoo, and Dow Chemical. This year the White House released a statement stating that cyber attacks in 2016 are assessed to have cost the U.S. economy up to $109 billion. In addition to damaging American financial interests, China has attacked our strategic partnerships by using cyber espionage to eavesdrop on meetings between world leaders, syphon personal information, and load malware onto government networks. In 2018, Chinese hackers were implicated in attacks on Finland, Singapore, Cambodia, Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom—all US allies.
China has also used cyber warfare to steal US military technology, including designs for the F-22. In 2016, the Chengdu J-20 debuted at an airshow in Guangdong province, publicly challenging the US Air Force’s longstanding claim to air supremacy and its aging fleet of primarily fourth generation aircraft. Like the Germans circumventing their naval disadvantage by skipping straight to Dreadnought class ships, China quickly matched US fifth generation fighter capabilities by adapting US designs for a fraction of the cost. While the F-22 project cost American taxpayers approximately $62 billion, China’s J-20 reached initial operational capability for only $4.4 billion. Given the tremendous impact China’s ongoing cyber campaign has had on the US economy and its military, these attacks constitute acts of war that cannot be ignored indefinitely.
The second major cause of World War I was the forging of international alliances. In 1914, Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia in response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists. Forced to defend its Austro-Hungarian ally, Germany recognized that Serbia would seek assistance from Russia and that the only way for Germany to defeat Russia in the east was to eliminate the need for security on Germany’s western border with France. This necessitated a pre-emptive assault on France through Belgium known as the Schlieffen Plan, which brought Great Britain and eventually the United States into the war. As a result of an overly ambitious OPLAN to defend its allies, Germany quickly found itself fighting for its own survival while bound to inferior states that provided little assistance. Despite having the greatest army in all of Europe at the time, the threat was insurmountable and Germany was forced to surrender after a long and devastating conflict.
Today, the United States finds itself in a similarly untenable position in Pacific Command, where it is the guardian of significantly weaker allies such as Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Disputes involving China’s claim to the Spratly Islands with access to rich oil reserves and its ongoing attempts to subvert Taiwan’s sovereignty have already led to a series of dangerous military encounters. As recently as October, 2018 a Chinese destroyer came within forty-five yards of the USS Decatur, a US Navy ship conducting freedom of navigation operations, and forcing it to maneuver to prevent a collision.
China’s capacity to affect free trade has been bolstered by its construction of man-made islands suitable for launching strategic aircraft and its newest aircraft carrier, the Type 001A Shandong. Both significantly extend the PLC’s reach, expanding the possibilities for a deadly event to trigger an unintended series of consequences. In addition, recent arms deals between China and Russia suggest a powerful alliance is forming, threatening the relative position of their mutual rival, the United States, and creating an uneasy military standoff between the world’s three largest nuclear powers.
China’s display of regional military strength ties directly into the country’s increasing share of global economic power. For centuries, Great Britain relied on colonies in places like India, Egypt, South Africa, and the Caribbean to supply critical natural resources needed to fuel its industrial centers. British imperialism allowed a small island country to dominate the global economy for generations and provided a tremendous advantage over Germany in 1914. Throughout the twentieth century, however, as British colonies slowly gained independence and the Imperial Preference System came to an end, their economies became more accessible.
This ushered in a new age of Chinese imperialism using state-sponsored companies. For China, economic expansion serves three purposes; subverting US hegemonic influence, bolstering its own legitimacy as a world power, and overcoming its dwindling supply of domestic natural resources. Chinese fish hatcheries are depleted, its timber regions have steadily disappeared, and the precious metals used in its thriving technology sector are becoming harder and more expensive to acquire. In response, Chinese corporations have targeted struggling economies with weak political infrastructures such as Somalia where Chinese trawlers have displaced local fishermen, Mozambique whose forests are now decimated, and other African countries like South Africa, Namibia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo where scores of mining contracts have been awarded. Closer to home, China even attempted to harvest one of the world’s largest copper reserves in Afghanistan where US troops have been deployed since 2001.
A larger Chinese economic footprint has resulted in new military strongholds as well. Since 2015, China has been the leading trade partner in South America. It has provided billions of dollars in loans to rescue struggling economies such as Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador where China now controls 90% of the country’s oil reserves. When China rescued Argentina’s government from defaulting on $100 billion worth of bonds in 2009, it was rewarded with a satellite control station in Patagonia that provides critical intelligence gathering and challenges the US advantage in the space domain.
The last major cause of World War I was nationalism. It was nationalism that prompted a group of Serbian terrorists to plot the archduke’s assassination and their shared Slavic heritage that brought Russia into the war. The German nationalism that produced a unified and independent republic in 1870 also shackled the new country to the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire and led to both nations’ defeat. These are just a couple examples, yet they were enough to change the course of history and permanently alter the balance of power.
Since the decline of Marxism during the late 1980s, China has experienced a growing wave of nationalism. Chinese nationalism focuses on a proud history of dynasties and civilized tradition. Unfortunately, nationalists tend to blame China’s demise on the West, siting historic examples such as the Opium Wars and Great Britain’s occupation of Hong Kong. Another example is the surrender of Chinese territory to Japan at the Treaty of Versailles. The Chinese losses were ultimately consolidated by Japan and helped the Japanese launch merciless offensives against China during World War II. Infamous defeats such as the Rape of Nanking are seared into the country’s collective memory and are important for understanding China’s determination to re-annex Taiwan and its concept of sovereignty in the South China Sea. It also suggests that as Chinese power continues to grow, it is unlikely that the country’s leaders will relent to Western diplomatic pressure.
China’s place as the United States’ primary economic and military rival is indisputable. Of far greater concern is whether or not the tension this creates can be permanently diffused through means other than war. A century after what mankind wishfully hoped would be the War to End all Wars, our capacity for destruction has grown exponentially. Meanwhile, the same forces of militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism that set the world ablaze in 1914 are prominently visible today. There is indeed a new world order in which Chinese influence cannot be ignored. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Americans have held status as the world’s only superpower. That period is rapidly ending and just as Germany challenged Great Britain, China will continue to subvert US hegemony. We must plan accordingly to ensure continued strength and stability.
Captain Daniel Myers is an instructor Air Battle Manager stationed at Tinker AFB, OK. He has completed two deployments as an Air Weapons Officer onboard the E-3 AWACS and currently serves as the officer in charge of contingency planning for the 552d Operations Group. Captain Myers is a 2013 graduate of the Ohio State University with a degree in military history.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.