Issue: 2013: Vol. 12, No. 2

The Clash of Historical Memory: The “Century of Humiliation” vs. the “Post-WWII Liberal World Order”

Article Author(s)

David Blair

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David Blair is a Professor of Economics at the Eisenhower School, National Defense University, Washington, DC. In 2013, he is on sabbatical and is scholar-in-residence at CITIC Securities in Beijing. Any views expressed in this paper are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Citic Securities, National Defense University, or the U.S. Department of Defense. 
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The U.S. and China share many fundamental interests. Their economies are so tightly inter-twined that any disruption would be extremely painful to both sides. There are no substantial, quantifiable disagreements between the two countries — meaning that there are no direct territorial disputes and neither country would gain by directly threatening the other’s vital interests. With so little to gain, and so much to lose, one might conclude that the probability of armed conflict between them would be negligible. But, it is not reassuring that the current disputes are not about “real” resources. Arguments about what are ultimately relatively small assets could be settled by economic agreements and compromise. The current disputes between the U.S. and China are more dangerous than they first appear because they are driven by each nation’s elite and public core beliefs, which were learned from key national historical experiences.

The most fundamental U.S. strategic beliefs are derived from the successes of the liberal world order established after World War II. The U.S. has repeatedly shown itself willing to go to war or risk war to maintain this system even when its physical survival or major economic interests are not at stake. Similarly, China’s core strategic beliefs are derived from its historical experiences of national “humiliation,” including foreign occupation of its territory, during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Unfortunately, each country is now developing military capabilities that directly threaten the other’s historical core beliefs. China’s new capabilities to destroy U.S. naval assets, plus its claims on what the U.S. sees as international waters and airspace, threaten the freedom of the seas and the alliance system that has been fundamental to the post-World War II system. Similarly, U.S. “Air-Sea Battle” doctrine, which logically implies striking military forces on Chinese territory, will seem to Chinese thinkers to hark back to the “century of humiliation.”

I. U.S. Lessons from Strategic Successes after World War II

U.S. strategic thinking and policies have been shaped by the failures of the inter-war (1918-1939) period and the successes of the post-World War II and Cold War periods. In particular, three historical lessons drive U.S. strategic thinking about China (and the rest of the world) to-day: First, the “lessons of Munich” contrast Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1937-38 with the success of the containment of the Soviet Union. Second and more positively, the benefits of a liberal international system with U.S. leadership are contrasted with U.S. isolationism, international economic collapse, and the failed League of Nations in the inter-war period. Much of this thinking also is shaped by a generally favorable view of the role of the British Empire in the 19th century. Finally, much thinking about military-operational planning is shaped by the Air-Land Battle strategy NATO adopted in the early 1980s to create a credible counter to the Soviets’ overwhelming conventional superiority in Europe.

Lessons of Munich: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, when arguing for intervention in Syria, famously said, “This is our Munich moment.”1 Kerry, who one might have thought would be more guided by the “lessons of Vietnam,” showed that U.S. policy is still informed by events of more than 75 years ago.

One lesson drawn was that failing to stand up to an evildoer early on leads to worse behavior lat-er. Thus, appeasing Hitler over the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia led him to conclude that an attack on Poland would not be resisted. Another related lesson is that not appeasing a “bad guy” may well lead to changes in the potential adversary’s internal politics. It is widely argued that Hitler might have been overthrown if Britain and France had resisted his aggressive moves in 1936-1938. These lessons of Munich have had a large influence on both the grand strategy and the details of U.S. policy since World War II. They drove both the overall policy of containing the Soviet Union and such otherwise inexplicable decisions as the intervention in Vietnam. Despite problems, policies based on the lessons of Munich are widely seen as leading to the successful conclusion of the Cold War.

Liberal International Order with U.S. Leadership: Lessons drawn from the inter-war period were far from purely military. U.S. grand strategy after World War II focused on creating strong prosperous allies in Western Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, and on establishing international organizations, norms, and rules. Especially in its trade policy, the U.S. was willing to go against its short-term economic interests to implement this strategy. In the U.S.’s eyes, U.S. leadership has largely been about providing international public goods—which are not only good for the U.S., but also for most of the rest of the world.2

American strategic thinkers are most familiar with, and influenced by, the history of the British Empire in the 19th century. In particular, the Royal Navy’s role is seen not only as promoting British interests, but also in providing an important benefit for the world—“freedom of the seas.” In this view, the U.S. Navy has continued this responsibility and therefore provides an international public service that is critical to continuation of a liberal world order.3

Air-Land Battle: NATO’s primary strategic problem throughout the Cold War was always that the Soviet Union had numerically far superior conventional forces near the “central front” at the inner-German border. Plus, the geography dictated that the Soviets would have a much easier time resupplying or replacing combat forces in the event of war. NATO initially tried to deter the possibility of a Soviet surprise attack on Western Europe by threatening to escalate to the use of nuclear weapons, but such a threat always lacked credibility since it implied subjecting the U.S. homeland to nuclear strikes and entailed tactical nuclear warfare in densely populated Ger-many. By the time the Soviets achieved large nuclear and rocketry capabilities in the mid-1970s, the threat to answer a conventional attack with nuclear escalation lost even more plausibility.

Technology pushed by the Carter administration that came to fruition in the early Reagan administration gave NATO a much more plausible non-nuclear option for stopping a Soviet invasion. Using the combination of vastly improved intelligence (to find Soviet reinforcements), stealthy aircraft and cruise missiles (to penetrate Soviet defenses), and precision-guided weapons (to be able to hit key forces and transportation nodes), NATO would strike Soviet second- and third-wave forces and supplies with purely conventional weapons. This operational plan was known as “follow-on forces attack” or “Air-Land Battle.”4

It is hard to remember now how credible the threat of a Soviet surprise attack on Western Europe seemed in the early 1980s. Now, the concept of Air-Land Battle is most widely known as a best selling video game. It is plausible that NATO’s advanced conventional capabilities led the Soviets to agree to the truly revolutionary 1986 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and the 1989 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE).5 By foreclosing the option of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, these capabilities may have contributed to the rise of Gorbachev and the peaceful end of the Soviet Union. So, in the light of this history, Air-Land Battle can be seen as a stunningly successful solution to NATO’s strategic problem.

Despite the fact that the new highly coordinated precision deep-strike capability was developed for dealing with a Soviet attack on Western Europe, the first Gulf War also demonstrated the value of this operational doctrine in a very different scenario. It’s not surprising that U.S. strategists seek similar solutions to today’s problems.

II. Chinese Views from the Century of Humiliation

Anglo-Saxon strategic thinkers look at the pros and cons of the British Empire, but the widely used term Pax Brittanica implies that it was, on net, a positive for the world. Americans often see U.S. policies in the world as an even more benign follow-on to the British Empire. Chinese, on the other hand, remember the British Empire as an organized gang of drug traffickers.

China’s century-plus of “humiliation” began with the first opium war in 1839, progressing through various military defeats and “unequal” treaties, culminating in the 1937-1945 Japanese War. So the Chinese view of the 19th and early 20th centuries is very different from the generally positive view of Britain or the U.S. It’s hardly surprising that Chinese, based on their history, are particularly emphatic about avoiding further humiliation. Of course, the government rein-forces these views both in education and in the media, but average Chinese of all political persuasions are widely believed to share them.6

Recent history also looks different from a Chinese perspective. Americans remember 1999 as the year U.S. airpower finally stopped the ethnic murders in the Balkans. Chinese remember that as the year the U.S. bombed their embassy in Belgrade. Americans and Western Europeans are likely to see the fall of the Soviet Union as being good for the Russians and others — essentially they were being invited to join a benevolent liberal world order. Chinese (and Russians) are much more likely to see those events as a defeat for the Russian nation.

III. U.S. Perception of Growing Chinese Area-Denial Capability

As recently as 2006, Philip Saunders, a leading U.S. analyst of the Chinese military could summarize Chinese strategy as seeking to reassure neighbors (partly by downplaying territorial disputes) and seeking “to reassure Washington that China regards the U.S. military presence in Asia as a stabilizing factor and does not seek to push the United States out of Asia.”7 However, in August 2013, the same author argued, “Washington is concerned about China’s increasingly muscular military, which is developing anti-access/area-denial capabilities that might challenge the U.S. military’s ability to operate in Asia.”8 China’s neighbors, meanwhile, are pushing for increased U.S. capability in the region.9 What changed over those seven years?

On the Chinese side, a decade of double-digit growth in defense budgets (albeit from a low base) has greatly increased the PLA Navy’s offshore capability and portends even greater future capability. Much of this capability, especially “carrier killer” anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons, could deny the U.S. Navy the ability to operate in international waters throughout the region.10

Chinese military strategists discuss denying U.S. Navy ability to operate inside the “first island chain” (Japan-Taiwan-the Philippines-Malaysia).11 This would eliminate “freedom of the seas” in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea — all of which are major ship-ping corridors. Thus, China’s new military capabilities, combined with its newly assertive claims on disputed islands,12 can be seen as a fundamental challenge to the key U.S. strategy of securing a liberal international order. If the U.S. ceased operating in these areas, it would certainly be accepting that it has no leadership role in the region and cannot provide assurance to its allies.

In the words of the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force and the Chief of Naval Operations, “To-day, the development, proliferation, and networking of advanced weapon systems specifically built to circumvent U.S. defenses threaten America’s freedom of action and its ability to project military power in strategically significant regions. This development could erode the credibility of U.S. security commitments to partners and allies, and with it their political stability and economic prosperity. Air-Sea Battle responds to this concern.”13

When President Clinton moved U.S. aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait in 1996, he had no fear that those ships might be successfully attacked. The U.S. could achieve its strategic objective by positioning of forces with no realistic possibility of this move resulting in combat be-tween the U.S. and China. In this U.S. view, the decision protected the liberal international order at almost no cost. For Chinese strategists, on the other hand, it was another example of superior Western military capability leading to an outcome similar to those of the century of humiliation.

The growing Chinese sea-strike capabilities mean that this virtually risk-free option is no longer available to the U.S. As a result, a very different strategy, involving strikes against military tar-gets on Chinese territory has been developed. Air-Sea Battle, which was formally directed to be operational doctrine by the Secretary of Defense in 2009, draws on the strategies and capabilities developed for Air-Land Battle in the 1980s. Rather than limiting action to a central battlefield, U.S. forces would strike deep against military capabilities in the adversary’s homeland.14 Following the logic of the “lessons of Munich,” U.S. strategists do not necessarily view this as an aggressive plan. Responding to increased Chinese capability, it simply returns us to the status quo ante (circa 1996). Furthermore, like the 1980s Air-Land battle strategy, this plan is seen as reducing the chance of escalation by giving the U.S. a credible capability to defeat an attack that involves only precision strikes against the adversary’s conventional forces that are involved in the battle.

Of course, U.S. analysts recognize that an attack against the territory of any nation, especially a major nuclear-armed power such as China is fraught with danger. This is the case even if the U.S. is responding to a Chinese maritime attack. T.X. Hammes argues, for example, that U.S. war planning should be focused on an offshore strategy that does not include any strikes on Chinese territory.15 Similarly, Amitai Etzioni argues that Air-Sea Battle will lead to an arms race between the U.S. and China, inevitably increasing tensions between the two nations.16

Let me be clear that no one is planning an attack on China or a war with China. Air-Sea Battle is seen as a way to deter war. In the unlikely event of a U.S.-China war, Air-Sea Battle is seen by American planners as the best way to eliminate the Chinese forces that threaten U.S. maritime capability and reduce the danger of escalation. How will the Chinese see it? A key conclusion of this paper is that Chinese historical memory makes it more likely that Chinese military and political leaders, and the public at large, would view any strike on Chinese territory, even a precision strike that hits only military forces, as a humiliation and as an existential threat. It is difficult to imagine any Chinese government suing for peace in that scenario.

IV. Current Disputes and Policy Recommendations

As recently as five or six years ago, East Asia (apart from North Korea) seemed to be strategically untroubled. The U.S. mostly welcomed China’s economic growth and China appeared to view the U.S. as a fairly welcome balancer in East Asian affairs. Some former flashpoints, most notably Taiwan, appear to be quiet, although not entirely settled. But, the almost daily disputes about the East China Sea and the South China Sea have worsened the atmosphere throughout the region.

The loud disputes between China and Japan about the “fishing”17 islands are not really about fishing rights or about any possible but unproven petroleum reserves in the area. The U.S. has no real interest in any of these islands, but believes that allowing China to claim them by force or retaliation threatens the credibility of its alliance system and the post-World War II, U.S.-led world order. Chinese, both leaders and the general public, interpret these disputes as vestiges of its humiliation. China’s recent imposition of an air defense zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea has been strongly supported by the Chinese general public because they see it as an anti-Japanese move. For example, during a recent business dinner in Beijing, this author faced many questions about why the U.S. supported Japan. And, the Chinese businessmen at the table talked openly about their support for war with Japan.

Several steps could help reduce the danger of the situation:

(a) American strategy, doctrine, and tactics should explicitly be planned with options that avoid humiliating the Chinese. Historical memory implies that any strike on Chinese territory is much more likely to lead to some type of escalation than to an end to conflict. U.S. military forces should develop doctrine and forces that give the president options that protect U.S. and allied interests without escalating to strikes on Chinese territory. If the U.S. military plans, trains, and exercises using Air-Sea battle strategy, we could be giving ourselves the stark choice between going to large-scale war with China or withdrawing from Asia.

(b) China needs to recognize that military forces that threaten U.S. Navy carriers can be interpreted by the U.S. not as a regional threat but as a challenge to freedom of the seas. Similarly, putting the U.S. in positions where its only choices are to U.S. military force or to ignore treaty commitments turns minor situations into threats to the U.S. global post-World War II strategy. This makes little strategic sense unless China has taken the huge decision to try to overturn the U.S.-led liberal world order. There is no evidence that such a strategic choice has been made at the high levels of the Chinese government. Furthermore, China has gained so much economically from the current world order that it could well be the biggest loser in such a change.

(c) Finally, there is little indication that either government is changing its behavior because it has made a deliberate grand strategic decision. If this is indeed the case, then each side should negotiate accordingly. If each side interprets each dispute as involving its core historical beliefs and strategy, compromise is impossible. It would be a great advancement if we could find a way to put a dollar (or RMB, or Yen) sign on the disputes.

The big danger is that small disputes shape thinking about future strategic options. The extreme Chinese position is that President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” is an attempt to build a military cor-don around China with the goal of keeping China down. The extreme U.S. position is that China’s actions over the past years are the start of a scheme to expel the U.S. from its interests in Asia. Each side needs to take seriously the historical roots of the other’s strategic vision. If we are not careful, a situation will arise in which each side comes to view the other as an adversary.

  1. “Syria: This is our ‘Munich Moment’” says John Kerry,” BBC 7 September 2013.
  2. The literature on liberal internationalism is immense. For a recent article focusing on its success in East Asia, See “Cox, Michael (2012) Indispensable nation?: the United States in East Asia IDEAS reports – special reports, Kitchen, Nicholas, ed SR015. LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK. Nation: The United States in East Asia,”
  3. See Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1783, which is one of the foundations of Anglo-American strategic thinking.
  4. For a good summary of this history, see John L. Romjue, “The Evolution of the Airland Battle Concept”, Air University Review, May–June 1984.
  5. See, for example, David Blair, “After Lance: U.S. Moves the Wrong Way,” The Wall Street Journal, February 14, 1989, p.A14.
  6. An excellent discussions of the century of humiliation is: Wang Zheng, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations (Contemporary Asia in the World). Columbia University Press, 2012. See also, Orville Schell and John Delury, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century, Random House, 2013.
  7. Philip C. Saunders, “China’s Global Activism: Strategy, Drivers, and Tools,” Institute for National Security Studies, National Defense University, occasional paper, October 2006. pp. 14-15.
  8. Philip C. Saunders, “”The US isn’t trying to contain China…and China’s neighbors don’t want it to anyway.” Foreign Policy, August 23, 2013. pp. 2-3.
  9. For an excellent overview of increased Chinese assertiveness in the region, see Anthony H. Cordesman, Ashley Hess, Nicholas S. Yarosh, “Chinese Military Modernization and Force Development: A Western Perspective” CSIS July 25, 2013
  10. See John Reed, “People’s Power: Eight ways China’s military is catching up to the United States,” Foreign Policy, December 20, 2012.
  11. See Global, “People’s Liberation Navy—Offshore Defense,”
  12. For a beautifully illustrated discussions of the disputes, see Council of Foreign Relations, “China’s Maritime Disputes, A CFR Infoguide,”!/ . See also, Jim Himmelman, “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” New York Times Magazine, October 27, 2013.
  13. General Norton A. Schwartz, USAF & Admiral Jonathan W. Greener, USN, “Air-Sea Battle,” The American Interest Magazine, February 20, 2012.
  14. The best public explanation of Air-Sea Battle is Air-Sea Battle Office, “Air Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address anti-Access and Area Denial Challenges,”
  15. Hammes, T.X., “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” National Defense University, Institute for National Strategic Studies, Strategic Forum, No. 278. June 2012, See also, Jeffrey E. Kline and Wayne P. Hughes, “Between Peace and the Air-Sea Battle: A War at Sea Strategy,” Naval War College Review, Autumn 2012, Vol. 65, No.4, pp. 35-42.
  16. Etzioni, Amitai, “Who Authorized Preparations for War with China?” Yale Journal of International Affairs, Summer 2012, pp. 37-51.
  17. Perhaps English speakers can avoid naming arguments just by translating the name of the mail island in dispute. The Chinese name for the island, “Diaoyu,” means “fishing” as does its Japanese name, “Uotsori.” Senkaku means “pinnacle.”