Joseph Nye – BGF Distinguished Lecture Briefing

2014-03-14 02.36.01 pm

(Photo Credit: dapd)

By Philip Hamilton

(BGF) – On February 26, 2014 Joseph S. Nye, Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a member of the Boston Global Forum’s Board of Thinkers, participated in the latest installment of the BGF Distinguished Lecture Series. Professor Nye’s Distinguished Lecture commenced BGF’s Topic of the Year for 2014, which is the relationship between the United States, China, and Japan. In the lecture Professor Nye addressed numerous topics related to U.S.-Chinese-Japanese relations, placing a particular focus on the common comparison between current U.S., Chinese relations and pre-WWI relations between Germany and Britain.

As Professor Nye argued, the comparison of 1914 relations between Germany and Britain and current relations between the U.S. and China is premised upon the assertion that China will soon surpass the U.S. economically. As he noted, Germany was a rising power in the early 20th Century and was already beginning to surpass Britain in terms of economic power. The rapid increase in Germany’s power stoked fears in Britain, thereby increasing tensions and ultimately resulting in the onset of WWI. Many political scientists paint a similar picture of current U.S., Chinese relations. China, they note, is a rapidly rising economic power which will soon surpass the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy. According to this line of argument, China’s rapid rise will raise fears in the U.S. regarding China’s power, similar to the fears in Britain in 1914, thus resulting in the outbreak of war, as occurred in the early 20th Century.

While this view is prevalent, Professor Nye was quick to note it is flawed and that any threat of war posed by the rapid rise of China is greatly exaggerated. There are a number of reasons for this, which Professor Nye carefully laid out throughout his Distinguished Lecture. Firstly, while China is experiencing impressive, rapid economic growth, the sheer size of it’s economy alone is not a definitive indication of it’s economic power. Of course, the overall size of an economy gives an indication of it’s market power, but it does not capture the sophistication of the economy. Rather, Professor Nye suggests that we assess economic strength through the lens of per capita income. Using per capita income as the metric, it quickly becomes clear that China will only begin to approach the economic power of the U.S. by the middle of the 21st Century.

Additionally, Professor Nye noted that there is more to power than simply economic power. Power is comprised of hard power, which is made up of a country’s military power and economic power, and soft power, which is a country’s ability to “get what it wants through attraction or persuasion”. In terms of military power, China has spent significant amounts of money in order to bolster its military power, including purchasing and refurbishing a former Ukrainian aircraft carrier. However, in practical terms, China only has one carrier, which is primarily utilized in a training role. What is more, China lacks the ability to project its military power globally.

In terms of it’s soft power, China has made significant efforts to expand the reach of Chinese culture through the establishment of Confucius institutes and efforts to transform it’s media outlets into global news sources similar to the BBC or CNN. Professor Nye notes that China’s emphasis on soft power is a smart strategy. Rapid growth in a country’s power can lead it’s neighbors to form alliances in an effort to rebalance the power structure. But, by increasing it’s soft power, China can allay such fears amongst its neighbors. Yet, China faces difficulties in terms of the efforts to expand its soft power. The primary issue is that much of a country’s soft power stems from its civil society. This is exemplified by the U.S., who attains much of its soft power through its universities and through Hollywood. Thus, a free civil society is crucial to any effort to expand soft power.

Another issue facing China’s efforts to expand its soft power is the way in which it is perceived by its neighbors. Consequently, Professor Nye notes that it would be in China’s best interest not to utilize hard power in it’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea, particularly the dispute over a set of uninhabited islets that China calls the Diaoyu Islands and Japan calls the Senkaku Islands. The use of hard power in this dispute would only serve to fuel a perception amongst China’s neighbors that China is a bully, thereby undercutting it’s efforts project it’s soft power.

Given that the claims alleging that China will surpass the power of the United States appear to be exaggerated, Professor Nye emphasized the importance of collaboration between the U.S., China, and Japan. Since China will only truly challenge the U.S.’s economic power by the middle of the 21st Century, it is clear that the U.S. and China have time to continue to work on their relationship, an opportunity that Britain and Germany lacked in 1914. Moreover, building on the policy precedent set by the Clinton Administration during the 1990s, it is crucial to foster an inclusive environment for China so that it can participate and be a responsible actor on the global stage. Moreover, a strong relationship between the U.S. and Japan is a key component in the efforts to ensure stability in an environment that is inclusive of China

As Professor Nye argued, “There is so much to be gained through cooperation in the U.S.-China relationship that the competition, which is bound to be there, doesn’t have to be the dominant strand of the relationship.” Therefore, the key takeaway from Professor Nye’s Distinguished Lecture appears to be that cooperation and strong ties between the U.S., China, and Japan, rather than merely competition, are the order of the day.