The big question now is whether the new generation of Chinese leaders, led by Xi Jinping, will double down on this more assertive policy. There is a strong chance that they will. This is a group that has come to political maturity during a generation in which China has known nothing but rapid economic growth. America’s problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US financial crisis of 2008, have made a deep impression on them. There is clearly a risk that they will overestimate Chinese strength and underestimate American power.
It has long been fashionable for gloomy theorists to compare the rise of China with the rise of Germany before 1914. The argument is that emerging great powers all too often come into conflict with established powers. The current crisis in Asia also points to a more precise parallel. In the years before the first world war, Britain and Germany both tried to deter each other by building up elaborate networks of alliances. Then, in the crisis of August 1914, they were compelled to honour treaty commitments in ways that they might never have intended or fully envisaged.