Rising superpower floats an aircraft carrier

by Tom Plate

China’s new (and first) aircraft carrier isn’t fully operational yet. But whatever its ultimate naval potency, we know that it does at least float! It’s currently in a mainland dock for further dressing up and hosting of crew training before setting sail.

We recall that the very idea of China even acquiring an aircraft carrier, when originally floated by Beijing, was not popular elsewhere. Hearts sank around the world, then enamored with China’s declared policy of “peaceful rising.” Why would a truly peaceful-rising country need an aircraft carrier?

The answer is that the Chinese apparently want what the Americans have. It’s not that China is preparing for war (as far as anyone knows) with the United States. It’s simply behaving as any rising power has throughout history. It now has serious money to throw around, so why not have a serious military to throw around, too?

You could perhaps wish otherwise, but then you’d be guilty of seriously wishful thinking, if not self-delusion. So let’s sit at the feet of Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye Jr., who explains how the world really turns — and how rising powers tend to burn their money on arms — in his masterful and essential new book “The Future of Power” (Public Affairs Press).

It goes like this: Even under the inward-looking Mao Zedong, China marshaled a large army and of course had a tranche of nuclear weapons. His successor Deng Xiaoping kept China’s focus on economic modernization and “warned his compatriots to eschew external adventures that might jeopardize this internal development,” as Nye writes. Even so, the People’s Liberation Army always was at the top table: China’s leaders were no Gandhi-pacifists decked out in Nehru jackets.

The former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government rightly credits the “peaceful rising” advertising to current China President Hu Jintao, who stylistically preferred what might be called a foreign-relations approach of “soft power.” This clever term was practically invented by Nye and is the exact title of his previous book, a best seller. “By accompanying the rise of its hard power with efforts to make itself more attractive,” he writes, “China aimed to reduce the fear and tendencies that might otherwise grow among its neighbors.”

That worked quite well for a time but two things served to undermine it. One was China’s new feistiness in seeming to assert every single territorial claim it has in the Pacific against its neighbors. That sent off alarm bells throughout the region. Countries, such as Malaysia and Vietnam, which in the past had little appetite for openly hooking up with the U.S. were suddenly inviting Uncle Sam to dinner. Nye understands their alarm: “Over-confidence in power assessment (combined with insecurity in domestic affairs) led to a more assertive Chinese foreign policy behavior in the latter part of 2009.”

The Harvard professor, who has held positions in both the U.S. State and Defense Department, takes the view that China has to be careful not to lose its sense of balance, scare its neighbors half to death and play into the hands of those in the West who are convinced that military conflict with China is inevitable. A consensus over that would trigger a U.S. military buildup of potential Cold War dimensions.

Even so, Nye, and many others, worry whether China is “beginning to deviate from the smart strategy of a rising power and violating the wisdom of Deng, who advised that China should proceed cautiously and skillfully keep a low profile’.”

That was certainly good advice for China when Deng was alive. But to hope that China will continue to low-key it, especially on the naval front, when the United States preeminent Seventh Fleet continues to bob in Pacific waters, is not realistic. If early on the U.S. had taken the initiative to lower its own naval profile in the Asia-Pacific, maybe a strategic bargain might have been struck. But with its treaty commitments to Japan and South Korea — and a bunch of other stuff — the U.S. was never going to do that. China wants to do its own thing, anyhow.

Thus, the Chinese naval buildup — and it is significant — is less alarming than logical. After all, Beijing’s interests sometimes do conflict with ours. For instance, it views both Taiwan and Tibet as integral parts of core China, not as aggressive acquisitions — potential or actual. The central government will appear to lack credibility if it has no muscle. That’s how many Chinese see it.

Thus, some measure of tension — rising, falling, whatever — is inevitable. But war is not. Smart diplomacy on both sides can work wonders. That’s why Nye’s book “The Future of Power” is such pertinent reading. He explains, clearly and so very knowledgeably, why soft power can be more powerful and effective than the harder kind. Elites on both sides of the Pacific should make reading this smart book a must read if they really are mutually committed to a peaceful rising.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate’s latest ‘”Giants of Asia” series book, “Conversations with Thaksin,” will be published by Marshall Cavendish International next month. He is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. © 2011 Pacific Perspectives Media Center