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Joseph Nye interview: China’s artificial isles are vulnerable, fixed targets

(BGF) – In recent interview by Tsuyoshi Sunohara of Nikkei, Joseph Nye, member of Boston Global Forum’s Board of Thinkers and distinguished service professor at Harvard University, shared his different view of China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea.

He believed that China’s works do not change its balance of power at all. These moves actually has made artificial islands into “vulnerable targets”.

Read the full story here or visit the Nikkei website.

China’s artificial isles are vulnerable, fixed targets

TOKYO  (October 29, 2015) — China is not changing the balance of power by building islands in the South China Sea and they are in fact very vulnerable targets, Joseph Nye, distinguished service professor at Harvard University, told The Nikkei.

The U.S. does not recognize the islands as Chinese territory, and it sent a destroyer within 12 nautical miles of the islands to exercise its navigation rights and freedoms under international law, he said in an interview here Tuesday. Nye worked to strengthen the U.S.-Japan security alliance as assistant secretary of defense, and he has served as the chair of the National Intelligence Council.

Q: What tension exists between the U.S. and China now, following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington in September?

A: There were two big issues that were disturbing the U.S. about China. One was the issue of cyberespionage for commercial purposes, and the other was the South China Sea, freedom of navigation.

When Xi Jinping came to Washington, he reversed the traditional Chinese position and said that China would not engage in cyberespionage for commercial purposes. Now, whether they will follow through in practice, we don’t know. But, at least in terms of the summit meeting, it was a 180-degree change in China’s position.

The other issue, the South China Sea, there was no progress, and that’s why we’re going to see these freedom of navigation cruises near the disputed islands.

Q: How does the U.S. view China’s island-building in the region?

A: Our position has been that we do not take a stand on the sovereignty of the various rocks and shoals, but that we take a strong view that the sea should be governed by the Law of the Sea Treaty. And the Law of the Sea Treaty says that you can’t take a rock, pile sand on it and call it a territory and have a territorial sea or an exclusive economic zone.

Q: How do you respond to assertions that China’s buildup of those islands will shift the balance of power in the region?

A: I think not. I think, in fact, they are very vulnerable. People say it’s a “stationary aircraft carrier.” It’s also very easy to sink. It’s a fixed target.

Q: So, you don’t view the islands as drastically changing China’s position?

A: I don’t think so. As one former military friend of mine said, if we really wanted to, we could put certain rockets in the Philippines, which would mean that these [islands] were totally militarily useless. So, I don’t think it’s a game changer if we actually enforce freedom of navigation. And that means this exercise of sailing within 12 [nautical] miles of these artificial islands and flying over them is very important, and I think that’s what we’re going to see in the next weeks.

Q: If you recall, in 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3 plane and a Chinese fighter collided over the South China Sea. Might stepping up activity in the region lead to further such incidents?

A: Well, it’s always possible that you could have another EP-3 incident. It’s also subject to accidents as well as to decisions in national capitals. Many people say that the EP-3 incident was caused by a Chinese pilot who was trying to show how tough he was.

But I think, if you look at the question of whether Beijing wants to have something like this escalate, I think the answer is no. If you have a China that is suffering an economic slowdown, the last thing it needs is a conflict with the United States. And I think that Xi Jinping would run considerable risks if he did get into a conflict with the U.S.

Q: How do you respond to those who say the People’s Liberation Army is slipping from Xi Jinping’s control?

A: China clearly has politics, and Xi Jinping has to worry about his political control. The anti-corruption campaign raises problems because while he can use it as a weapon against his enemies, it also frightens a lot of people who worry that they may be next.

So, he doesn’t have total control. But it’s also true, I think, from my impression, that he has more strength than anybody since Deng Xiaoping.

Interviewed by Nikkei senior staff writer Tsuyoshi Sunohara