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HomeGeopolitical CompassEast AsiaHow not to Deal with a Rising China: A US Perspective

How not to Deal with a Rising China: A US Perspective

Author: Joseph S. Nye Jr.

Affiliation: the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government
Organization/Publisher: Journal of International Affairs
Date/place: September 6, 2022/New York, USA
Type of Literature: Journal Article
Number of Pages: 17
Keywords: US-China Relations, Power Competition, US-China Interdependence, China’s Rise
In this journal article, Joseph S. Nye Jr. poses the question of whether China will displace the United States as a major power. Throughout the article, he attempts to answer the question of how the US should behave towards China and how it should react to China’s rise, in a way that will shape China’s behavior and environment without resorting to war.
Many people believe that China is declining due to factors such as its failure to avoid the middle- income trap, its declining demographics, and low factory productivity. However, the future is uncertain and will depend in part on the strategy that the United States pursues, according to the author.
According to Nye, realism has traditionally been the dominant model of international relations. He discusses various forms of realism, such as Hans Morgenthau’s classical realism and John Mearsheimer’s offensive realism, as well as alternative versions that focus on the balance of power between a hegemonic power and a rising competitor. The author also mentions various historical metaphors that have been used to describe the current state of relations between the United States and China, but admits that these metaphors can be oversimplified or misused. He specifically mentions the Thucydides trap, the New Cold War, and the 1914 Sleepwalker as three relevant metaphors. The Thucydides trap refers to the fear that a rising power (in this case, China) can instill in a dominant power (the United States). This concept has often been applied to past events, such as the relationship between Britain and Germany before World War I. However, the author argues that the gap in power between the United States and China is larger than that between Britain and Germany, and that the relationship between these two countries was more complex than simply a response to a rising power. The author also notes that other factors, such as Russia’s rise and the growth of Slavic nationalism, influenced Germany’s decision to go to war. In addition, the author discusses the role of American foreign policy in influencing the level of fear between the two countries and the potential for misjudgments that could lead to the Thucydides trap. The author also addresses the issue of hegemonic transition and asks whether China will be able to provide global public goods, such as climate finance, stability, and freedom of the seas. The author points out that China is currently the second largest funder of UN peacekeeping forces and heads four important UN agencies, and is also building its Belt and Road Initiative and collaborating on efforts to address climate change.
Nye discusses the metaphor of the “New Cold War,” which is often used to describe the
relationship between the US and China. However, Nye disagrees with the use of this metaphor and points out differences between the US and China, as opposed to the US and the Soviet Union, which make it an inappropriate comparison. Nye also notes that attempts to economically detach the US from China would come with significant economic risks and costs. In contrast to the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which was primarily driven by military and ideological threats, Nye believes that the US must consider its allies and the combined wealth of western democracies in order to address the challenges of dealing with China in the current globalized, interdependent world. Nye argues that “the politics of global interdependence involves power with others as well as over others.” Nye’s third and final metaphor is that of the “1914 sleepwalker,” which he believes is the most applicable to the current situation. This metaphor refers to the period leading up to World War I, when all major powers were anticipating a Balkan war that would shape the balance of power.
Nye emphasizes several key features of this time period, including the rise of nationalism, which posed a threat to both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and the rise of pride and arrogance that led to a lack of moderation. Additionally, Nye notes the role of German policy, which was both eager and determined, yet unclear. In light of these historical lessons, Nye argues that it is important to stay alert to the rise of nationalism in China and populist nationalism in the US. He also points out the outdated nature of the US’s “double deterrence” policy, which aims to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence and China from using force, and warns against reacting to tensions by blocking assets or cutting off trade with China. Instead, he advises finding ways to prevent a cold or hot war between the US and China.
Following the 1992 elections, some politicians in Washington came to believe that the Cold War was over and focused instead on the perceived threat from Japan. Joseph Nye believed at the time that this issue was exaggerated and that the real challenge of China’s rise was being overlooked and underestimated. Nye argues that, while the US based its policy on realism in dealing with Japan, it took a more liberal approach to trade. Therefore, a strategy of containment would not have been effective and would have jeopardized the US’s relationships with its allies. Instead, Nye suggests that the US should try to shape China’s environment in order to influence its behavior.
While it may be unrealistic to expect the US to change China’s entire political system into a
democratic and liberal state, a more realistic goal would be to coexist on terms that are
beneficial to US interests and values. Some believe that China is showing signs of change and opening up, while others believe that these efforts are simply strategic moves.
Nye argues that, while terrorism is a significant issue, it is less important than great power
competition in the current global landscape. He suggests that a strategy focused solely on
terrorism could have two problems: it could lump together various types of states, leading to an underestimation of powers like Russia, and it could overlook threats from ecological globalization, such as climate change, which could have significant economic costs and potentially lead to war. Instead, Nye advises the US to adopt a strategy of “competitive coexistence” with China, viewing it as a “cooperative rivalry.” He suggests that, by working together and coordinating their policies, the US, Japan, and Europe can create a rules-based international order that protects their interests and shapes Chinese behavior. Nye also highlights several advantages that the US has over China, including its geography, energy resources, financial power, and technological innovation, but notes that China is investing in research and development and aims to lead the
fourth industrial revolution.
According to Nye, the US should maintain its alliance with Japan and not halt all immigration, as demonizing China and starting a Cold War would hinder cooperation on ecological interdependence and potentially lead to the growth of nuclear weapons. Nye also notes the challenges of political polarization and dealing with social and economic problems, as well as the rise of populist nativism, which could reduce immigration and undermine support for international institutions and alliances. Additionally, he highlights the importance of having a clear vision and values in crafting a successful and necessary strategy for the US. This approach should include both realism and discretion, but also a focus on democratic values and human rights in order to effectively wield soft power.
In conclusion, Nye argues that a successful strategy for the US must begin within its own borders by maintaining democratic institutions and investing in research and development to stay current with technological advances. The US should also be open to the world, while structuring its military and strengthening its ties with allies. To succeed, the US must not succumb to fear of weakening or decline and should continue to cooperate with China on transnational interdependence.
Ultimately, Nye offers guidance to US policymakers on how to approach the challenges of
dealing with China in an era of globalization and interdependence. He emphasizes the
importance of cooperation, especially in issues like climate change and global pandemics, and points out the need for cooperation that has been demonstrated in the past couple of years with the spread of COVID-19. However, Nye does not advocate for a focus on regime change in China, which he sees as unrealistic. Instead, he suggests that the US and its allies should aim to shape China’s environment and influence its behavior to align with their interests, recognizing that regime change could be a welcomed outcome if it occurs.
By: Sara El Souhagy, CIGA Research Intern



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