Joseph Nye tells NPR’s Neal Conan China’s concerns over containment can be dismissed

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?

6 thoughts on “Joseph Nye tells NPR’s Neal Conan China’s concerns over containment can be dismissed

  1. I don’t think Joseph Nye is a helpful voice of moderation at all. At least not from the quote you provided.

    About China’s perceived threat that it is militarily surrounded on its Eastern front, Nye said:

    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.

    That’s an unfair way to talk.

    How about I cock my gun to your head, and say, hey, it’s no problem. If we get into a fight, yes, there might be a problem, but as long as we talk about your proper role in the world – a role that you can take responsibly while I cock my gun to your head – then everything is just fine.

    You see, as long as you don’t cause trouble, there is no problem.

    That’s the perspective of a coercive hegemonic power.

    Hey Iran, North Korea, Kosovo, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Lebanon, Latin America, etc. … don’t worry about our military power. Hey rest of the world (not under the U.S. military alliance), don’t worry if we have maintain enough fire power not only to destroy the world a few hundred times, the arsenal to attack any country at will. It’s not a problem if you don’t go to war with us. Let’s just talk how you can behave “responsibly” – and all is “hunky dory.”

  2. I am going a little off topic here. But given the pretty adverse way the West is approaching China, the only option China can do is to “play judo” – the art of respecting your opponent’s strength and letting that strength play to your advantage.

    So the West wants to be the military huncho. Let them be. Let them be the “cop” of the world.

    In the mean time, try to align as much of your interests with that of the West so that you can leverage the “peace” they keep and so they don’t have that much reason to attack you even if they are the “cop” and may oftentimes be bellicose toward you.

    Resist only on a few core issues where you can raise the stakes so high that it’s not worth them attacking you on those core issues.

    This is the only game China has, and I think it has played well.

    Of course, things are not stable, and China has to constantly adapt tactically. But strategically, I think it has the right tact – Joseph Nye or not.

  3. Agreed. And uncritical Westerners have a blind pulled over their eyes when Nye dismisses something so glaring as this legitimate concern over encirclement. That’s how this blind is preserved even by someone who seemed to be fair.

  4. @Allen

    Allen :

    How about I cock my gun to your head, and say, hey, it’s no problem. If we get into a fight, yes, there might be a problem, but as long as we talk about your proper role in the world – a role that you can take responsibly while I cock my gun to your head – then everything is just fine.

    Fully agreed, even though I think Nye is relatively moderate and is therefore marginally helpful.

    And don’t forget recent experience: This person had held a gun over your head before, talking sweet in the same tone while picking your pocket clean; and this person has subsequently behaved similarly to numerous others. More blind trust in the same coercion would verge on being retarded. If that should earn China the reputation of being “irrationally fearful of “Western” intention”, so be it. Furthermore, we all know what it means to be a “responsible” player in the highly irresponsible game dictated by a few.

    There seems to be fundamental cultural differences that foster public misunderstanding of intention though. Perhaps this is an area where time and exchange could ameliorate.

    In the imperialist tradition, power means deciding influence (if not subjugation and direct governing) over a larger and larger territory. So, to the American mind, if the Chinese are becoming more “powerful”, then the next step would naturally be similar dominance overseas.

    To the Chinese, “power” means a secured homeland not threatened at the border, and “respect” from everyone outside “Middle Kingdom”. The nomadic tribes were different at first. But once integrated, even the Mongolians eventually lost appetite in harsh and pointless foreign campaigns, not to say shouldering everyone else’s problems. There has never been a shortage of headaches to play with at home.

    Even the most hawkish Chinese would not dream of “ruling the world” because there’s no rational argument for it. History has repeatedly proven this ambition to be short-living and nightmarish. However, perplexingly perhaps, it remains a hidden dream in the American political psyche, hence their difficulty in believing that this “dream” is not secretly shared by others.

    Another cultural factor is faith in the government. The Chinese in general “distrust” those in power for as long as they are humans. By tradition (and from experience), they remain somewhat wary of even a very good government. Adopting a Western style democracy won’t change this deep-rooted mentality, especially given the vast amount of evidence how democracies are abused or manipulated. For this reason, outside antagonists, annoying as they may be, are not necessarily “bad” for as long as their threats are contained and manageable — they serve to keep China’s own government on its toes! By the same token, the “World Power”, though useful for this purpose, is of course not to be trusted.

    Conversely, the American public (and Europeans to a much lesser extent) have been more trusting (this appears to be changing though) of their governments, even obviously lousy and lying ones. They are also generally faithful to the official ideology (i.e. democracy) nearly unthinkingly, as if a religion. Given the education standard and individualistic tradition, this is somewhat puzzling to me. I suppose it could be a consequence of having been a “faith-based” culture for centuries? Whatever the reason, this “faithful” mentality makes it easier for government mouthpieces to propagate negative “impressions” (“ideas” are too complicated and out of fashion) against outside competitors, or fabricated threats, which don’t share their values. They are modern day heathens.

  5. I recall a few years ago there were some papers published in an academic journal called “China Security”, in which a few authors suggested that China had “little reason” to fear for its maritime energy security, given that even if the US or India attempted to blockade trading vessels from reaching the PRC, the impact would be “limited”, given that Chinese trade is too large to be blocked, and that China could always re-flag or hire foreign vessels to carry its oil, along a host of other tactics to bypass a US or otherwise hostile maritime disruption of trade. So I guess the argument this author was trying to push is that China doesn’t have a legitimate need to modernize its navy.

    The whole time I was reading this trash, I was thinking to myself, if we were to actually apply that “logic” equally, why would the US, Japan, S. Korea, or any of the EU states need modern navies? Certainly all of these supposed methods of bypassing a blockade are equally available to them as to the PRC. Can anyone in the US or any western country even contemplate publishing the same thoughts along similar lines, or simply lying down and accepting a position of impotence – the same type of impotence to which they suggest China acquiesce?

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