Harvard Professor Joseph Nye on America's "Rebalance" Towards Japan & China

March 12, 2014

Joseph Nye
, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, Harvard Kennedy School

Mark Halperin
, Editor-at-Large, Time Magazine

On March 12, 2014, Japan Society enjoyed a return visit with Joseph Nye of the Kennedy School at Harvard, who shared his thoughts on how to promote stability in the world through a "triangle of good relations" among the U.S., China and Japan.

The Obama administration spoke of a "pivot" to Asia, but the choice of terms led to a lot of questions. "Had the Americans ever left Asia? The answer to that of course is no," Professor Nye said. "Did it mean that the United States was turning away from Europe and the Middle East? The answer to that is no, which is why the original pivot got rechristened a rebalance."

A policy of rebalance makes strategic sense in historical context, he said. "In 1800... more than half of the world's people lived in Asia, and more than half of the world's economy was in Asia." By 1900 Asia had half the world's people but only 20 percent of the world's economy. This was not because of something that happened to Asia, but because of something that didn't happen: The Industrial Revolution created booming economies in Europe and North America, but hadn't yet taken hold in Asia.

Thus "what we've been seeing... is what you might call the recovery of Asia to normal proportions." It began with Japan and continued on to South Korea, parts of Southeast Asia, China and, increasingly, India.

"Some time in the latter part of this century, I think you'll get back to what you might call normal proportions: Asia is more than half of the world's population, and Asia is more than half of the world's economy."

The Recovery of Asia

Economic Power. The recovery of Asia—not rise, but recovery, Professor Nye emphasized—has brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Yet some observers warn of a dark side to the shift in the center of the world economy. They worry about a rising risk of political instability and in turn, inevitably, war.

The argument goes back at least to Thucydides, who saw the Peloponnesian War as caused by Sparta's fear of a rising Athens. Some see World War I as the result of Britain's fear of Germany—and likewise believe China-U.S. conflict is inevitable as America comes to fear a rising China.

"I personally don't believe that," Professor Nye declared. "I think it's bad history and bad analysis." Germany overtook Britain "well before World War I." And today, "in per capita income, which is a better measure of the sophistication of an economy, China is not going to catch up with the U.S. in the first half of this century," if then.

So "rather than having a threatening country on our heels and little chance to reflect, there is time for the U.S. to manage a balance of power in Asia, and to manage a relationship so that we don't need to succumb to this kind of fear that creates instability."

Military Power. China's military budgets may be growing by double digits annually, but "there is still an enormously long way to go for China to catch up with the U.S." The U.S. has 10 or more carrier battle groups; China has a single aircraft carrier, its first, a refurbished vessel put into service in 2012.

Soft Power.
China has invested billions of dollars in efforts to gain soft power, but to less effect than its leaders would have hoped, Professor Nye said.

In theory, if you increase your soft power—that is, make your culture and policies more attractive—your neighbors will be less likely to form coalitions against you in reaction to your growing hard power. "The trouble is it's hard to do. You can start all the Confucius Institutes that you want, but if you have a problem of threatening your neighbors, because of territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea, it's very hard to build your soft power. It's hard to see how China gets out of that."

Looking Forward: The Benefits of Cooperation

China, the U.S. and Japan have a good deal to gain from cooperating with each other, Professor Nye continued.

"Yes, there is bound to be competition, as there always is among great powers," but it "doesn't have to be as severe as the Thucydides proposition makes out."

And "on many of the things that are going to matter in this 21st century, whether it's climate change, or international financial stability, or avoiding pandemics, or what have you, these are not things which any one country can solve by itself. They are things that are going to require cooperation."

Containment vs. Integration. During the Clinton administration, Dr. Nye, serving as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, authored a report on East Asia security issues that was published in 1995 as the East Asia Strategy Report.

"There were a number of people who said we should contain China, we should try to hold China back—that China will be a danger. Stop them before it's too late," Professor Nye told the Japan Society audience. "The reaction that we had in the Clinton administration was that would be a mistake."

The U.S. chose to pursue China's integration into the international system. America would champion China's joining the WTO; "accept massive trade with China, including a trade deficit"; and welcome 200,000 Chinese students to American universities.

"We would hold out a hand of openness to China to join the international system and act responsibly; but in case China didn't we would have the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty as a guarantor for Japan, and for the U.S., as well as other countries."

Some were doubtful: "'How can you integrate China when you should be containing China?' My answer to that was there is only one country that can contain China: China. If China does become a bully, it will antagonize its neighbors and drive them into an alliance against it," he declared.

Threats to Stability

North Korea. "This is a truly bizarre state in which you have left over from the 1950s a young, untested leader who has already replaced half of the existing inherited leadership, and where there is a high degree of acceptance of risk, as you saw with the sinking of the South Korean frigate, the Cheonan, and the shelling of the islands," Professor Nye said.

"This is a point of worry and concern, which is why it's so important for Japan and South Korea to improve their relationship... and really start thinking of how to work together to deal with this possible threat from North Korea. Sooner or later it will collapse, and we don't know how that will happen."

Japan, China and the Islands Dispute.
"I think both leaderships distinctly don't want war" over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu, as referred to in China), Professor Nye said.

The danger "is not that an order will go out from Beijing or from Tokyo to do something, but that it will come from the bottom up, and the leaders in Tokyo and Beijing will be trapped by nationalism in their own societies into being unable to back down."

A case in point is the 2010 collision of a Chinese trawler and a Japanese coast guard vessel. The collision—actually there were two—happened because the trawler captain was drunk. There was no order from Beijing. Yet the "tit-for-tat escalation" that followed "was very damaging to both" countries.

How to deal with the islands dispute? Follow the advice of Zhou Enlai when he and Tanaka met in 1972. "Zhou Enlai said, 'Let's put it off for future generations. If we try to solve it, there will never be a solution and there will never be normalization. But let's leave it to the wisdom of future generations.'"

A Proposal: Senkakus as an Ecological Preserve. "I have proposed in Tokyo and in Beijing and in Washington an idea that might help to do this," Professor Nye noted. "The proposal is that Japan should declare that the Senkaku Islands are an international maritime preserve."

"The Chinese will say, 'We don't accept that. This is not Japan's to do.' Japan simply says, 'We regard it as our sovereign territory. We hereby declare it a marine ecological preserve.' No militarization. No habitation for the good of the region as a whole."

China "could then reduce the number of incursions in the Japanese waters, even though they don't have to accept that it was a Japanese sovereign act. And Japan could maintain the position that it was still sovereign" while stressing that it was "taking this larger step in the name of peace."


Presider Mark Halperin of
Time Magazine began the Q&A:

What is your sense of the Japanese government's strategy towards improving relations with South Korea?

There's "some progress" in attitudes, Professor Nye said. It appears that the Abe administration won't be pursuing its recent threats to backtrack on the Kono and Murayama statements apologizing for "comfort women" and World War II-era aggression.

A level or two down from the highest levels of government, are academic exchanges, youth exchanges, economic ties bringing Japan and China closer together?

The 20 percent drop in China-Japan trade has recovered somewhat; student exchanges are continuing.

Interviewing Foreign Minister Wang Yi on television recently, "I asked him about a summit," Professor Nye added. He said no, not while Japan refuses to acknowledge that there is a conflict. "But then I asked him, 'What about Prime Minister Abe's suggestion of a hotline at the lower levels?”' And to my interest he said, 'That is possible.' So, I think that maybe on the China-Japan front we ought to be looking for ways to build more things at lower levels."

Is nationalism a rising sentiment among LDP supporters?

Portraying this sentiment "as nationalistic or militaristic is not true; that is just simply not Japan," Professor Nye said.

"But there is a significant faction, or a group within the right wing of the LDP, which essentially is unhappy with what they see as too much apologizing—too much being blamed for history. The net effect of that is what I call defensive nationalism. It's not aggressive nationalism."

Audience members joined the Q&A:

Recent comments from Senegal and South Africa have labeled China as elitist, racist, supporting murderous regimes. What does this do to China's soft power?

BBC or Pew polls show that "China does pretty well in Africa and Latin America. Where it has trouble is with its neighbors," Professor Nye replied. "There is, as you have just described, some pushback when China comes in and brings Chinese laborers instead of hiring African laborers that creates problems. The question is how well will China be able to adjust to that."

Looking at the closed universe of South Korea, Japan and China, how would you say that those three countries have done on soft power with each other?

"At the top levels not well. But if you look at levels of student exchanges... K-pop and Japanese singers, there are things where for younger generations there is attraction across national borders. I would like to see a lot more efforts at the top to get that kind of thing going, to see more of that. I would like to see efforts at the top in all three countries to stop playing the nationalist history card for short-run political advantage, which all three countries are doing."

—Katherine Hyde

Topics:  Policy

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