The Second Term: Joseph Nye on U.S.-Chinese Relations

January 22, 2013
By Doug Gavel, Harvard Kennedy School Communications

President Obama's second term in office began on Inauguration Day, January 21st, and the list of policy challenges facing his administration is daunting. Aside from the difficult task of addressing the nation's economic woes, the president and his administration will also deal with the increasing complexities of global climate change, a rapidly changing energy market, entitlement and tax reform, healthcare reform, and the repercussions from the still simmering "Arab Spring." Throughout this month, we will solicit the viewpoints of a variety of HKS faculty members to provide a range of perspectives on the promise and pitfalls of The Second Term.

We spoke with Joseph Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, and former dean of the Kennedy School, about U.S.-Chinese relations over the next four years.

Q: What are the top priorities for a second Obama administration in the regards to U.S.-Chinese relations?

A: As I argue in "The Future of Power," one of the major power shifts of the 21st century is the recovery of Asia. In 1800, Asia represented half the world’s population and half the world’s economy. By 1900, because of the industrial revolution in Europe and North America, Asia’s share of world product declined to 20 percent. By the middle of this century, Asia should again represent half the world’s population and product. This is a natural and welcome evolution, as hundreds of millions of people escape from dire poverty. At the same time, however, it has given rise to fears that China will become a threat to the United States. The fear is not necessary, however, if we remember that Asia is not one entity. It has its own internal balance of power. Japan, India, Vietnam and other countries do not want to be dominated by China, and thus, welcome an American presence in the region.

Unless China proves able to better develop its soft power of attraction, the rise in its hard military and economic power is likely to frighten its neighbors into seeking coalitions to balance against it. For example, after China developed a more assertive foreign policy in 2009, the net result was that, after a short two years, China had worsened its relations with Japan, India, South Korea, Vietnam and others — quite a remarkable record that has confirmed the premise of the American strategy that “only China can contain China.” But it would be a mistake to focus only on the hedging part of a strategy. We should not over-militarize the rebalance toward Asia. The United States and China (as well as other countries) have much to gain from cooperation on a range of transnational issues. One cannot manage solutions to global financial stability, climate change, cyber-terrorism or pandemics without such cooperation. If power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants, it is important to remember that sometimes our power is greater when we act with others rather than merely over others. As a status quo power, the United States has much to gain from a triangle of good relations among our country, Japan and China.

Q: What are the most pressing/urgent regional issues that need to be addressed right now in Asia? How can the United States help in that process?

A: With nationalism resurgent both in China and Japan, the danger is that the relationship between them may lead to inadvertent conflict. Japan and China have been much in the news lately because of their dispute over seven square kilometers of barren islets in the East China Sea that Japan calls Senkaku and China calls Diaoyu islands. The rival claims date back to the late 19th century, but the most recent flare-up that led to widespread anti-Japan demonstrations in China in September 2012. In October of last year, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton asked me and three other former officials from Democratic and Republican administrations to travel to Tokyo and Beijing to explain the American position and to listen to the concerns of our hosts. Top Chinese leaders told us that they believe Japan is entering a period of right-wing militarist nationalism, and that the purchase of the islands was a deliberate effort by Japan to begin a process of eroding the settlement of World War II, including the Cairo and Potsdam declarations. Since then, Chinese ships and planes have continued to intrude regularly on what Japan claims as their territorial waters. Clearly, there is more going on than a mere squabble over empty islands. And just as clearly, every other Asian state from the Philippines to Vietnam to Australia, is watching what we do.

Q: How can and should the United States involve itself in Asian affairs over the next four years?

A: In 2011, President Obama announced a “pivot,” later labeled a “rebalancing,” toward Asia. Some American analysts argue that China’s rise cannot be peaceful and that therefore the U.S. Government should now adopt a policy of containing China. Many Chinese officials perceive that to be the current American strategy, but Administration officials have denied that is the case, and they are correct. A glance at history illustrates the point. Cold War containment of the USSR meant virtually no trade and little social contact. Today the United States not only has massive trade with China, but also extensive social contact including 125,000 Chinese students attending American universities.

The task for the Obama Administration over the next four years will be to implement a balanced policy that both balances and integrates China. It must shape the environment to deter aggressive actions while holding open the opportunity for cooperation with joint gains.

Q: What opportunities does the United States have to help push forward political reforms in China in the near term?

One of the major questions for the future of China is whether the Chinese Communist Party can reform a political system in which corruption and favoritism lead to discontent. As societies get richer, there is an increased demand for political participation, if not outright democracy. This is even more difficult to manage in the age of the internet which China can only partly control. Unlike India which was born with a solution to the participation problem, China has not passed that hurdle. The danger is that the party, which relies on high economic growth and ethnic Han nationalism for its legitimacy, will rely more on the latter if the former slows. Only China can work out solutions to these problems, but what we can contribute is an open climate which encourages free flow of ideas and peoples.

Tuesday, Jan 20, 2009

Tuesday, Jan 20, 2009

"It [the U.S.] must shape the environment to deter aggressive actions while holding open the opportunity for cooperation with joint gains," writes Nye.

Joseph Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, and former dean of the Kennedy School

Joseph Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, and former dean of the Kennedy School

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