Interview: Joseph Nye

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Interview: Joseph Nye

Author and political scientist Joseph Nye on China and the U.S. rebalance to Asia.

Interview: Joseph Nye
Credit: Chatham House

Joseph Nye is a University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University. He is also the former Dean of the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, the Assistant Secretary of Defense under the Clinton administration from 1994-1995, and a current member of the Foreign Affairs Policy Board. He is the author of many books, most recently Is the American Century Over?

Following a speech at the University of Oxford in early June, he spoke with Samuel Ramani. That interview follows.

The Obama administration has made the Pivot to Asia strategy a central element of its foreign policy. The extensive transfer of U.S .military resources to the Pacific has been countered however by China’s rapid military buildup. Since China’s military presence is growing at a faster rate than that of the U.S., do you think the Pivot to Asia strategy will be effective in balancing Chinese regional hegemony in the long run?

I think the rebalance phrase, which is the term that the Obama administration prefers, makes a lot of sense. The pivot to Asia is more than just a military policy. Asia, East Asia in particular, is the fastest growing part of the world economy and I think the Obama administration felt that we had not paid enough attention to it. So the rebalance is an effort to focus on the most dynamic parts of the global economy. It does have a military component, as it does commit the United States to having 60 percent of its naval forces in the Pacific by 2020. But it is important to emphasize the impact of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and diplomatic efforts in the region. As for the military component, the United States has the capacity with 10 carrier task forces to surge forces into the Pacific if necessary. So U.S. capabilities extend well beyond forces that are just stationed there at any given time; the ability to easily bring in additional forces is a crucial asset. Also, the United States retains 50,000 troops in Japan and another 20,000 in South Korea; which are partly supported by Japan and South Korea in budgetary terms. So I think the rebalance towards Asia makes sense and that we should stick with this strategy.

Recently, friction has become more pronounced among traditional American allies in the Pacific region, Japan and South Korea, especially in public opinion surveys. Why do you think this friction has developed? And is Abe’s more aggressive posturing towards China destabilizing for the region?

I do not think there are serious concerns within the United States about Abe’s attempts to improve Japan’s defense posture. I think they are welcomed, but I do think there is a concern in Washington about relations between Japan and South Korea. The reason is that there are major dangers coming from North Korea; and confronting that threat requires close coordination between the U.S., Japan and South Korea. The United States has been working behind the scenes and sometimes publicly to persuade Japan and South Korea to improve their cooperation, and to put the history issue behind them, which is a major source of tension. It is a pity that so many policymakers in Japan and South Korea are stuck in the 1930s rather than thinking about the problems of the twenty-first century.

Xi Jinping has escalated nationalist rhetoric in China that is sometimes regarded as a precursor for Chinese belligerence. Do you think the economic slowdown in China is fuelling this new nationalism? 

Xi Jinping needs a legitimizing force for his power and for the power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Economic growth has historically been the primary legitimizer of its authority, especially since communist ideology has declined greatly in importance. As China has an economic slowdown, nationalism will increase further, and I think we are undergoing a period of heightened attention to nationalism. I think nationalism has made it more difficult for China to resolve conflicts with its neighbors in the South China Sea. So far there is no clear indication that increased Chinese nationalism will result in military aggression. The high level meeting between Xi Jinping and Abe at the APEC summit was a positive step, as China had been resistant to these meetings in the past. But the potential for nationalism to boil over, it is something we need to watch closely.

Barack Obama has accused Xi Jinping of personalizing power to a greater extent than any other Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. This personalization of power has coincided with Xi Jinping’s emphasis on cracking down on corruption within the CCP. Do you think the anti-corruption campaign has strengthened the regime’s survival prospects and caused China to tilt in an even more authoritarian direction?

I think the anti-corruption campaign is an integral component of Xi Jinping’s objective of legitimizing the party and increasing its power. The people hit first by the anti-corruption campaign are potential political rivals, but I think Xi Jinping recognizes popular resentment towards corruption in the Communist Party. What worries me more than the anti-corruption campaign is the crackdown on political liberalism, freedom of speech, academic discourse, what can be printed in the press, how tight the censorship of the Internet is, and so forth. I think deteriorations in these kinds of civil liberties relate closely to his efforts to consolidate power, and we have to see if this is a trend over time to get tighter or tighter, or a temporary phase.

Do you believe that this increased authoritarianism and polarizations amongst the elites resulting from the anti-corruption campaign could cause an elite schism in China that undermines Xi Jinping’s authority? 

It is conceivable that there could be splits within the elites, but I think this an unlikely outcome. I think the most probable scenario would be if Chinese planes and ships got involved in incidents with the Japanese in the Senkaku Islands, and lost. The Japanese might have superior capabilities in the event of conflict, and a defeat there would be a direct threat to Xi Jinping’s power.

China has recently engaged in a closer economic partnership with Russia. Do you think that Putin’s strategy of rebalancing towards China will be effective in the long run or will Chinese strategic interests in Central Asia undermine Sino-Russian cooperation prospects? 

I think the Chinese-Russian relationship is an alliance of convenience rather than a true alliance. Russia and China still have residual suspicions of each other; and China recognizes that an alliance with Russia could compromise more beneficial strategic partnerships, like China’s relations with the United States. The primary Chinese interest in Russia and Siberia in particular are resources to sustain Chinese economic growth. Increased Chinese influence in sparsely populated regions of Siberia definitely causes anxiety amongst the Russian leadership.

With regards to Central Asia, Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union and China’s One Belt, One Road program could conflict at some point. For that to happen, the Eurasian Economic Union will have to expand from its current influence. There is a certain amount of infrastructure in the Chinese program that will link China to Central Asia to Russia and eventually to Europe, but I do not think current circumstances point to a conflict between China and Russia.

China has greatly increased its economic investment in Sub-Saharan Africa. Public opinion towards China remains favorable in many African countries, pointing to an increase in Chinese soft power in that region. Do you think that China has taken an insurmountable lead in harnessing Africa’s rapidly growing economic and demographic potential? What can the United States do to counter China’s increased leverage in Africa?  

I do not think there is a conflict of interest between China and the United States over economic resources. Chinese demand has created an extensive new market for African exports; but the prospect of China dominating Africa is very slight. Africa does not want to be under Chinese hegemony any more than it would like to be ruled by Europeans. China will have influence in Africa as a result of its purchases but if it continues to build infrastructure with Chinese labor and Chinese managers in extractive industries like mining, there could be a backlash. The protests of Zambian miners against Chinese involvement in the copper industry is an excellent example of this prospect.

China has sought to increase its hard economic and military power and soft power (through Confucian institutes, the Olympics, etc.) simultaneously. How successful has China been in increasing its soft power and has it balanced soft power with hard power effectively enough to possess smart power?

Soft power in China definitely increased after the 2008 Olympics and after the Shanghai Exposition, and then China locked up Liu Xiaobo, and produced its empty seat at the Nobel ceremony in Oslo, which undercut Chinese soft power. The way China treats civil society tends to undermine some of the successes China has with its soft power. Also, China’s inconsistent behavior towards other regional actors compromises its soft power. For example, China has increased military tensions with the Philippines that have diluted soft power gains resulting from its establishment of a Confucian institute there. China’s conversion of hard and soft power into smart power has thus far prevented a hostile coalition from developing within the Asia-Pacific region, but China has not been as successful as it has hoped.

Finally, in light of the shifting rhetoric by the Obama administration on U.S. policy towards China, do you believe that the U.S. should treat China as a strategic partner or adversary?

I think the strategy designed during the Clinton administration remains the right strategy to this day. Clinton’s strategy focused on integrating China into the world economic system, such as joining the WTO. Since then, China has been trying to increase its role within the international monetary system through projects such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) without overthrowing the existing Bretton Woods order. At the same time, the Clinton strategy worked to ensure that China doesn’t become a bully by reinforcing the U.S.-Japan security treaty. This policy has worked through the Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama administrations; and I think the strategy is correct.

Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a regular contributor to Huffington Post Politics and World Post.