Is New China the Old Germany?

As I write this, a MacBook Air I've purchased from Apple's online store is on a flight over the East China Sea towards my home on the other side of the globe.

As I await my new toy, fighter jets from Japan, South Korea, China and the United States track each other warily over the very same sea. Trade between our economies has not created true trust between our governments. Soldiers and political leaders now play a tense diplomatic and military game with weapons that are not toys. One reckless move could put an end to my laptop's voyage, the gadget-driven consumerism it embodies and a generation's worth of global economic growth.

The strangeness of this situation struck me when I received an emailed notice from Apple saying that my laptop had shipped from Shanghai. The very same day, the Chinese government announced that its jets had tracked U.S. and Japanese military flights through its recently declared "Air Defense Identification Zone." The proclaimed zone stretches hundreds of miles away from Chinese coastal waters and includes airspace over a chain of deserted rocks that the Japanese, the Chinese and the Taiwanese all claim as their own. Worth little in themselves, the islands lie near fossil-fuel reserves, fishing grounds and major shipping lanes -- like Monopoly properties superimposed upon a Stratego board.

For years, we have worried about the potential for confrontation between a rising China and a coalition of mainly U.S.-allied countries including South Korea and Japan. But the danger always seemed far away, like the call of a distant bugle heard from beyond the horizon. Now, suddenly, the potential for conflict is here, in the front of our faces, like the fist of a sucker-punch just an inch away from our heads.

Wasn't the global economy supposed to put an end to such brinkmanship? How could countries that have gained so much through trade, and whose economies are so dependent upon each other, even think about jeopardizing their economies for several uninhabited islands, even if they strategically important? Isn't trade worth trillions of dollars more important? Could the world's largest and most dynamic nations really throw everything away over something as silly as national pride and the conflict it can provoke?

Hard to say, but it's happened before.

We are witnessing another test of an old theory best formulated by an axiom attributed to the 19th-century French thinker Frederic Bastiat: "If goods don't cross borders, armies will." The idea is that economic cooperation makes military confrontation less likely.

In the broadest terms, that's often but not always true. After all, there was a time in modern history when global economic interdependence was even more advanced than it is today. That was just before World War I.

In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, the great British economist John Maynard Keynes, writing just after the war, gave us a sense of that world. In August 1914, "[t]he inhabitant of London," he wrote, "could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep." Replace the telephone with an internet connection and it sounds like Keynes is talking about Amazon.

This trade encompassed not just empires but potential enemies. Imperial Germany and Great Britain were among each other's biggest trading partners before the outbreak of conflict. It turns out that they just exchanging the resources they needed to beat each other senseless.

This brings us to the massive question: Is pre-1914 Germany relevant to 2013 China? There are disturbing parallels.

First, Keynes described Germany's pre-war economy as a top that had to spin faster and faster in order to remain upright. Today, it's said that China needs to grow at eight percent a year just to maintain full employment. Recently Chinese growth has begun to slow and a crisis may be looming. China's economic top is still spinning, but it's begun to wobble.

Second, Germany and Great Britain came to fight each other through their allies and proxies. World War I began when an assassination in Sarajevo that invoked a series of alliances that, in turn, eventually led to European-wide total war. Today in Asia, the U.S. is backing up its allies South Korea and Japan, while also defending the Asia-Pacific status quo.

Third, like Imperial Germany, new China has deep grievances with the established order. I'm not just talking about Taiwan. I'm talking about a global system of standards, values and agreements that, in many ways, Chinese leaders would like to revise.

The similarities run even deeper into the past. In 1848, still-fragmented German territories had a chance to unite as a constitutional monarchy based on parliamentary and democratic values and principles. That chance was missed. The Frankfurt Parliament of liberals and nationalists disbanded in 1849 as a failure. Instead, some two decades later, Germany was united through victory in war conducted by Bismarck and the forces of conservative reaction. Worker alienation was channelled not into freedom and self-expression but into nationalist passion and a romance for violence geared towards militant geopolitical revisionism. The failure of Frankfurt had terrible consequences for Germany and the world.

In 1991, China too had a chance to liberalize -- a chance to that was not only missed, but repressed. More than 20 years later, the full consequences of that failure have yet to reveal themselves to us. But in historical terms, this is early. The reverberations of 1848 were not felt fully until 1938. Like Imperial Germany, worker alienation in China has been channelled into nationalist passion. And the consequences of Tiananmen Square could yet be terrible for China and the world.

One could object that the U.S. and China have no real reason to fight a war. They don't even share a land border. Of course, neither did Germany and Great Britain. In the end, despite their physical separation and all their shared economic progress, they found a way and the will to fight. In fact, their growth gave them the means to fight.

And that is our irony. The same sophisticated technologies that allow both our countries to produce MacBooks will also help China to build missiles and us to build drones. The same sons of Chinese peasants, uprooted and mobilized by global economic trends, who now assemble MacBook parts in factories could also fill the ranks of mass armies, and the GPS technologies that we use to find a lost MacBook could be used to bomb those armies. When I receive my laptop, I will hold in my hands the result of 30 years of successful economic cooperation. But it could also be the harbinger of a deadly and devastated future.

Our economic and technological ties are important but they are not the emotional bonds that would lead to long-run understanding and permanent peace. We have our stuff. We don't know who makes it. And mostly, we don't care.

I wonder if the Chinese workers who assembled my laptop consider the product of their efforts to be the key to a shared and peaceful trans-Pacific future. Most likely, they're just trying to get to the end of another day.

I wonder if a student typing away in a New York coffee shop reflects upon the efforts of those Chinese workers and feels a sense of compassion for them. She's probably too busy trying to write that paper.

I wonder if the military pilots and sailors in and around the East China Sea think about the millions of other laptops and goods traveling through the air and on the seas around them. I doubt it. They're probably too tense, and they may even be a little bit scared.

And I wonder if political leaders on all sides feel a sense of terrifying responsibility and caution when they are tempted to risk everything over a few pieces of strategic rock. I hope they do. I fear they don't. I fear they're motivated by pride and demagoguery more than reason. I fear that they think like children playing a game in which the pieces are the lives of innocents, as disposable as the MacBook Air whose delivery I so eagerly await.

One misstep, one itchy trigger finger, one rash move could not only put them and the global economy in danger. It could begin a dangerous new chapter in human history when one rising, potential hegemon tries to uproot and replace another through force. I just hope that, before that moment, we are wise to enough to realize that trade isn't enough for peace. We need the trust that only real understanding and dialogue could build.