Jonathan Holslag On world order and disorder

The responsibility of global trading powers

HAMBURG – “A hard necessity it is for us to have a strong German navy.” It was in the autumn of 1899 that the German Emperor Willem II had come to the port city of Hamburg to make his case for a more forceful international policy and, most of all, a forceful fleet. In the town hall of Hamburg, a large stately stone-hewn tribute to the sea, he found an enthusiastic audience of merchants, industrialists, and colonialists. The Hamburgers had just entered a new golden age. Factories overflowed, exports boomed. The town hall’s main purpose was to glorify the Hamburg as a centre of commerce, in the tradition of Athens, Rome, Venice, and Amsterdam.

It was not the first time that so prominent an advocate of German sea power travelled up to Hamburg to rally support. In 1898, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz conferred in the imperial room of the town hall with a small group of industrialists to discuss the options to defend the country’s growing maritime interests. It was a time that tensions with Great Britain built up fast. An expression of growing fear of Germany’s industrial prowess, Fabians in London proposed to set up a committee to investigate “Made in Germany” products for unfair practices.

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The Imperial Room

One of Tirpitz interlocutors was Adolph Woermann, a ship-owner who spearheaded trade with Western Africa. A few years earlier he and other merchants had asked protection, which prompted the empire to dispatch some first policemen and advisers to Windhoek. But, still, not everyone was convinced of the need for the flag to follow the trade. “A trade that does not dare to venture further than our state support and war flag reaches, is a powerless creature without,” claimed the Hamburger Fremdenblatt.

The meeting about Germany’s future security strategy was held in the imperial room, a marvel of craftsmanship, its alcoves elegantly sculptured in red marble, walls covered by ornamented leather tiles, and light thrown around by majestic chandeliers. The room pays homage to the finalization of the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal. On the one side, Amphitrite embodies the calm East Sea, on the other, Poseidon the restless North Sea. In the middle of the ceiling is a large fresco of Fortuna waiving the black, red and white Hanseatic trade flag, surrounded by emblems of the different continent: Indians, aboriginals, geishas.

It is in this room that the Körber Foundation brought together about twenty officials, academics, and business leaders for a discussion about the responsibility of global trading powers in the Asian century, quite an achievement as this group counted senior representatives not only from Europe, but also from China, India, Japan, and South Korea.

China inevitably found itself at the centre of the debate. Today, China has arrived at the point where other trading powers in the past decided to convert their economic clout into global military presence, which aggravated tensions with other trading nations. In 2008, China became the world’s largest exporter, just before Germany. The question that arose was whether China could emerge as a responsible trading power, not in the mercantile spirit of Germany on the doorstep to the 20th century, but in the spirit of today’s Hamburg, embracing international sea law, refraining from military harassing and not to prevent territorial disputes from hampering regional cooperation.

“We must not forget that there was a time that the North Sea looked very much like the South China Sea today,” explained a German politician over a coffee break, “In 1969, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany managed to settle the delimitation of the oil and fish-rich continental shelf of the North Sea peacefully. Why should this not be possible in Asia?”

The Chinese group set out by stressing that the world better learned to live with China’s rise. “You never lead forever,” highlighted a highflyer of the Central Party School, “If China grows, the whole world will benefit… We will assume more responsibility as we grow, but we are responsible to our own people first.” China’s plan is to double its GDP by 2021, when the Communist Party celebrates its centenary. The Chinese delegation went all out to show its country’s good intentions. China needs secure sea lanes, it argued, so it has no interest to risk an armed conflict in the South China Sea. It will continue to work with other countries against piracy. It has searched in Australian waters for the crashed Malaysian plane under Australian command and control. It participates in the Western Pacific Maritime Security Forum.

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Exports (US$ billion)

“We stick to the post-WWII order,” one delegate concluded, “We do not want to change the framework of rules. We want to operate and solve disputes within it.” A short while later, though, another delegate asserted that China does want to change the international order, but that it will do so constructively and that neighbouring countries must not respond so nervously if Beijing makes proposals for a new Asian security framework. It was remarkable how hard the Chinese group tried to be polite and to be seen as the wise side of the table.

In vain: It did not convince the other Asian delegates. A senior Japanese official repeatedly sought to draw his Chinese colleagues out about their long-term goals. “China dream? What is the China dream? Is it a nationalist dream, or is a common dream?” Said another Japanese official: “The Majority of the Japanese people think that China’s rise is inevitable, but what kind of international order does China want?” Accusations, veiled or not, flew across the table. China was using terrorism as a pretext to trample the rights of minorities. Its disrespect for the rules was the main cause of trouble in the South China Sea. Its coast guard was illegally backing red coral fishers in Japan’s claimed exclusive economic zone. Its behaviour in the South China Sea mirrored Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine. It uses trade to intervene in political affairs.

The Indian and South Korean participants showed more restraint. Asked an Indian participant: “What is it that the Communist Party of China wants: a kind of liberalism or back to Tienanmen and opt for strong leadership?” “South Korea has a destiny between China and the others, but claiming that Asia belongs to Asians, as China does, is challenging the US-led system,” explained a Korean official, “Countries should show restraint. China often does show restraint, but when it behaves assertively, the Japanese will respond with militarism and nationalism.” It is difficult to summarize South Korea’s unenviable geopolitical position more any clearer. On the Japanese side, a quick response followed: “If there is any revisionism or militarism, it comes from an emerging power.”

As the Asian delegates traded barbs, the other participants tried to propose idea(l)s to avoid yet another violent breakdown of the international order. The Westphalian order is death, I heard one academic saying. “Soft power matters,” tried a representative of a large energy company. “We have to mind interdependence. The crisis of one country is the crisis of the other,” tried a German official. “We need global leadership and that should be less sexy and more technocratic,” posited an academic. The energy firm’s representative concurred: “The politicians should learn from multinationals and make global governance boring.” Others highlighted the importance of international maritime law to prevent conflicts. Another participant called for restraint. “Interventions have to be safe, legal and rare,” he said. A French opinion leader asserted that the world needs “clarity and modesty”, “ to mind the geography of values instead of the value of geography”.

That the value of geography can madden politicians was also understood by one of the greatest of those politicians: Otto Von Bismarck. The whole conference long, I had his white marble bust in the imperial room right opposite to me. During his last meeting with the emperor in 1897, he reportedly said that if Germany would not stick to its borders and show restraint, it would over-extend itself and collapse. Perhaps, still, it is that kind of awareness that stands the greatest chance to discipline rising trading powers, more than any notion of soft power and global governance. A good chance is still no guarantee, but at least it is something to build on.

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