The naval momentum

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 US. 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.

It goes like this: Even under the inward-looking Mao Zedong, China marshalled a large army and of course had a tranche of nuclear weapons. His successor Deng Xiaoping kept China’s focus on economic modernisation and “warned his compatriots to eschew external adventures that might jeopardise 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 bestseller. “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 neighbours.”

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 neighbours. 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 US 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 US State and Defence Department, takes the view that China has to be careful not to lose its sense of balance, scare its neighbours half to death and play into the hands of those in the West who are convinced that military conflict with China is inevitable.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 the way many Chinese look at 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 knowledgably, 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. – Khaleejnews