Joseph Nye recently spoke to NPR’s Neal Conan about the disputed islands in the East China Sea between China and Japan. Overall, I think Nye adds a helpful voice of moderation within the American public discourse on this issue. In the U.S.-China context, I also fully agree with him that if there is any sort of containment towards China, it is certainly not the same type as conceived by George Kennan against the former Soviet Union where United States allowed no Soviet students and had virtually no trade. However, when Conan posed America’s encirclement as the source of China’s containment fear, I thought it was a mistake for him to outright dismiss the concern in the fashion he did. First, here is how Conan phrased the concern:
CONAN: Yet if you were a Chinese admiral sitting there on the coast and looking out to sea and trying to figure out how to get your navy into the Pacific, all you could see was a series of islands from Japan in the north, all the way down to Australia, all United States allies, all controlling chokepoints that would prevent you from sending those vessels to sea.
To hit this point home, I think it is instructive to imagine China having 50k marines in Mexico which China has an alliance with. Furthermore, there is a Chinese base not too far off of the coast of California (think Guam). China also conducts regular military drills off of U.S.’s Western coast.
In response to the above, Nye said:
NYE: Well, if you’re talking about a war, that’s problem. But let’s hope we’re not going to get into a war-like situation. One of the things I recommended in that New York Times op-ed was that we should start talking to the Chinese about their global role, including the role of their navy in protecting sea lines for the oil that they’re going to import increasingly from the Middle East, whereas our imports of oil from Middle East are probably going to decline in the next decade.
After all, right now, we and the Chinese and other nations cooperate off the coast of Somalia in combating piracy. And in the last year the incidents of piracy have gone down.
So, the truth is that China naturally feels encircled. Granted, the current geopolitical configuration in East Asia is the result of WW2 and the Cold War. Using the specter of war to sweep a legitimate issue under the carpet is not the solution. In fact, I would be surprised if the leaders of the two countries do not discuss that encirclement and what happens when the relative strengths change in the coming decades.
What is not helpful is the American public been mislead to think China’s fears are irrational, and hence everything she does as a result of it is simply ‘bad’ government. There are hawks in China too. This issue not discussed openly and in a honest fashion only serves the hawks.
Even if Nye was to say America simply has lingering fear of China and that the encirclement is a form of hedge, at least that provides an outlet, because in the Chinese eyes, they can see working towards building more trust as the solution.
Conversely, how can America build trust with China such that China’s fear of encirclement is lessened?