The China threat is not existential, but it is significant. With Andrew Nathan

April 25, 2022

Professor Andrew Nathan, Columbia University, discusses China's rise as a powerful global actor, on International Horizons.

China has become a powerful global actor with what increasingly seems like a potential claim to global primacy. Is it an economic powerhouse and a rising hegemon? Or is its economy more fragile than we tend to think? Some have suggested that we're in a new Cold War, but how does the relationship between the U.S. and China compare to that which existed during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union?  Against the background of these kinds of questions, what is the United States' current policy towards China?  

Andrew Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University, talks with Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about the Trump administration’s panicked stance toward China as compared to President Biden’s more measured view, whether China poses a threat to the liberal order, how the Chinese perceive the U.S., and how Russia’s ill-advised war on Ukraine is enhancing U.S. power relative to China.

Subscribe to International Horizons on SoundcloudSpotify, and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited selection of the transcript follows below.

International Horizons - Ralph Bunche Institute · The China threat is not existential, but it is significant. With Andy Nathan


John Torpey  00:08

China has become a powerful global actor with what increasingly seems like a potential claim to global primacy. Is it an economic powerhouse and a rising hegemon? Or is its economy more fragile than we tend to think? What about China's soft power; does it really have any? Some have suggested that we're in a new Cold War, but how does the relationship between the US and China compare to that which existed during the Cold War between the United States in the Soviet Union? And against the background of these kinds of questions, what is the United States' current policy towards China?  

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. We're fortunate to have with us today Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University and author of the cover story in the current issue of FP [Foreign Policy], which is titled "What Exactly is America's China Policy?" Thanks so much for joining us today, Andrew Nathan.

Andrew Nathan  01:22

Thank you, John. I'm glad to be here.

John Torpey  01:24

Great to have you. So let's get started with you know, some discussion of the cover piece for the FP. You argue in the piece that if the United States is going to address the China challenge properly, it has to, as you say, "right size the threat". Trump and his people were pretty alarmist about the China threat. By contrast, Biden seems concerned, but not panicked. So what size would you say the threat is?

Andrew Nathan  01:52

Well, China has been rising, as you know, especially since the 1990s with rapid economic growth. The economy's been growing, and they've used that new wealth to build up their military and to try to improve their security situation. And this does challenge the established position of the United States, a kind of privileged position that the United States has had since the end of World War Two, but even more so since the end of the Cold War, the United States has enjoyed a historically unusual position of preeminence around the world and in Asia.  

So as China has risen, it is definitely upsetting the US privileged position in Asia, but the debate that goes on among China specialists and policy makers is: does China intend to (and if it doesn't intend to, can it) replace the United States as the most dominant power in the international system? Does it want to undermine our core interests? Does it want to even undermine democracy around the world? And maybe even including in the United States?  And I think at the extreme end of that spectrum, there are people who argue that China wants to undermine Western civilization and our way of life. 

These kind of people -and I'm thinking of Steve Bannon or Mike Pompeo- their rhetoric is hard to decipher exactly what they have in mind, but they see China as a really enormous threat. And then I think, on the other end of the spectrum, and there aren't too many of these people who think that China has what they call legitimate security interests in Asia and we can live with that.  

I personally think the idea of legitimate security interests is sort of mixing foreign policy analysis with some kind of moral analysis. If you want to be moral about it, every power has legitimate security interests. So I think that China does threaten some of our core interests, for example, Taiwan, but that China does not intend to overthrow democracy around the world or to sort of remake what is called the liberal international order. So my position is kind of complicated. It's hard to explain, but the China threat is not existential, but it is significant. And we have to deal with it.

John Torpey  04:31

Right. I mean, some of the things you say in the FP piece suggest a kind of middling position, not freaked out the way Bannon et al. are not concerned that China is trying to take over the world. But one of the things that has long struck me in China's recent rise is not only it's remarkable economic growth post-1978, but, you know, also the fact that far as I know, for the first time in history, it's kind of got a reach outside the Middle Kingdom. And you know, a lot of that has to do with its need for certain kinds of minerals and raw materials and that sort of thing, which are to be found so let's say in Africa, and that has led to a lot of sort of Chinese intervention in building infrastructure, that sort of thing, but also reducing the countries in question to a kind of debt -I don't know what to call it: peonage, vassalage, debt- problems?  So, well, I know you say you're not concerned particularly about China trying to take over the world. But this seems to be a different phenomenon than China historically. I mean, they've got ports now in Greece, and in Trieste in Italy. And I mean, this, to me, is quite remarkable. So I'm wondering if you could reflect a bit on the novelty of this development.

Andrew Nathan  05:58

So this is what you're describing is what China calls the Belt and Road Initiative. And they have been using their money that they've built up to try to extend their influence in a lot of places, including, as you say, in Europe, and Southern Europe and Eastern Europe in particular, but all around Europe. They've had a lot of influence even in Britain with the financial industry, not the Belt and Road Initiative. And in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and of course, in their own backyard in Asia, they're using money, and what are they using money for?  

So I think one thing is, because they're a highly globalized economy, and as you said, they need raw materials, and they need markets. And then another thing is they have some pressing diplomatic issues for them, such as Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, human rights, and so forth. And they want countries to to be deferential to their diplomatic interests.  More debatable is whether they're using this money to build up a globe-spanning military network, that's really not very clear. Ports, as you said, have military uses potentially. But it's not clear that China wants to replicate what the United States built, which was a network of about 800 large and small military bases around the world. My own assessment is that that's not their strategy.  

As far as debt diplomacy is concerned, yeah, they're financing. Oftentimes, it takes two to tango. So the Chinese side is willing to lend money and some elites in some of these countries are willing to borrow money for their own political purposes in their own political system. And that has created some debt problems in some of the countries, not all of them. And I don't think China's sort of intentional strategy is to saddle everybody with debt, but they have done so in some places.  

So it is new, it's novel, but China has money, and it has reasons to spend money. It's not clear by the way that these projects will produce profit for China, they may and many of them may lose money. So that's important. And I think what we have to do is get in the game ourselves. We've been very weak in helping; these countries need infrastructure and investment. And if China offers it, and we don't, then countries will take China's terms.

John Torpey  08:33

Right. So I mean, another thing that you say in the piece is that the core of the sort of rivalry between us and Chinese is about moral values, if I understood correctly, I mean, about values. And I wonder if you could expand on what you mean by that, and, you know, what's the nature of this disagreement/rivalry?

Andrew Nathan  08:57

Yeah, so this is a very complicated question. So I myself have been engaged a lot in human rights work relating to China. I have felt as a China specialist that I needed to do that. And to me the human rights system that is a novel system in the international setup post-World War Two is very important. It's weak. It may be declining in influence, but it's sort of the last best hope, as I see it. I think there's a lot at stake there for international human rights standards to be articulated, and you know, for us to pursue that.  

But at the same time, there are these people whom I mentioned before, like Bannon, Newt Gingrich, Pence, Pompeo, who want to see the US China or the competition or the China between the US and its allies and China, as an overarching clash of systems. So when we talk about something like, as you just did, the Belt and Road Initiative, we sort of paint it -not we, but I mean, those people- paint this as we're the good guys and the Chinese are undermining international order and international standards. And when we talk about the so-called level playing field of international trade, the Chinese have a different model. They do, in fact, have a different economic model from our model, and we say their models threaten our values.  

I am conflicted, because I think painting it as a sort of black hat/white hat thing is dangerous. It confirms the Chinese leadership in their view, which is an entrenched view that the United States wishes China ill, does not want China to rise, does not want China to be secure; that the chief threat and international politics to the welfare of China is the United States threat. So it makes it very hard to cooperate with China in any areas where we could or need to cooperate, like climate change, pandemic control, and so forth, arms control. And this kind of rhetoric also enrages the American people about China and stimulates anti-Asian racism, among other things that are negative. So I would like a world in which we manage the US-China strategic competition in a managerial way, understanding that realpolitik. The world is what it is, China is what it is, we have to manage it, we have to compete, but also not giving up the human rights agenda. But it's really hard to walk that thin line.

John Torpey  11:52

Right. So I mean, another issue that you address in the piece concerns basically China's economic situation. And it's had these incredible rates of economic growth since by and large at least since 1978, that has catapulted into the sort of ranks of the middle-income countries of the world, raised millions, hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty. And it has seemed to be a kind of technological competitor to us. And not least, when, at least, I discovered that they were also making a lot of the semiconductors that we need to sort of operate our own computers, and that was a bit of a problem when the pipeline, the supply line was not flowing. So I wonder if you could talk a bit about the real situation. I mean, a number of people have pointed to in particular, the demographic situation of China is now one that really involves very heavy burden of people in a dependency kind of situation, i.e. not working really anymore and needing to be supported by people who are of working age, so maybe you can talk about that situation. 

Andrew Nathan  13:08

Right, OK. So yeah, China with the money that they have, they've built up a higher education system and so forth. They've developed incredibly rapidly, and the leadership wants to seize it as if it were the commanding heights of the so-called 21st Century economy. So they want to have the most advanced computer chips and most advanced renewable energy vehicles, batteries, nanotechnology, biotechnology, space technology. They would like, as we would like, any country that has the capacity would like to dominate these technological fields that seem to be the fields that will make you the most money, give you the most influence, help you build up the best military in the coming decades. So they're in that competition very, very heavily.  

But they seem to be ahead in a couple of areas. Now this is really beyond my expertise. But what I read is that China's ahead for example, in artificial intelligence, facial recognition, speech recognition, but not ahead in computer chips. So the computer chips that you mentioned are the sort of what have become the everyday chips in your phone and computer, but they're not the advanced chips. In that area, we are still ahead, and Taiwan is ahead of mainland China in the design and fabrication of those chips so it's a very very intense competition, and I'll repeat my view that in order to win we have to compete. You know, we're not going to stop China from competing or drag China down. The game is we have to do better, so we need to compete.  

And they do have problems. (We have problems too, right, but this is a podcast about China.) They have an aging population. They have a lower birth rate. They don't have immigration, we have immigration. We seem to, you know, not like it, but it's actually a benefit to us demographically. They have water problems. They have severe ethnic problems with the Tibetans, with the Uyghurs with some of the other ethnic groups. And they have a political system that has performed very well in recent decades by and large, but which seems to now be showing some of its disadvantages.  

And the big example of this is the lockdown in Shanghai, which is showing all the bad sides of an authoritarian type of political system and is enraging a lot of the Chinese population. How long can that go on? Nobody really knows. And Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader is prepared in the fall of this year in October to probably take his third term as party leader, which breaks a precedent and means that he's consolidating power. So they have a lot of risks. And as I said before, they think the United States wishes the ill. And I think there's a lot of truth in that. And we do surround them with our allies, Japan, South Korea, our partners, Vietnam, you know, Taiwan, Singapore, India. So they face very, very severe problems, and it's not clear who's going to win. But I mean, the answer for us is to be in the game and to compete.

John Torpey  16:40

Well, as you say, this is about China, but it's also about America's relationship with China. So I kind of want to follow up on that. And by the way, I've taught twice in Shanghai and pictures showing no one, and no cars on the street are absolutely inconceivable, as I'm sure you would agree. Just unbelievable.  

But in any case, you know, I'm reminded of the Sputnik launching in 1957, and what kind of an impact that had on American leadership. And, one of the first responses, of course, was this National Defense Education Act, which poured a lot of money into scientific and technical training, because the leadership of the country thought that we were behind the Russians, after they did that. And I guess I wonder, has the rivalry, the competition, come sufficiently into view for people to respond in those kinds of ways? I mean, do we have the wherewithal? Do we have the focus to compete, as you say, we need to, without necessarily calling it a Cold War or anything like that? If it's just a matter of competition, you know, can we be in the game? Do we have the wherewithal to do that?

Andrew Nathan  17:55

I'm very worried about that, because Biden tried to use this compete with China argument to get Congress to support his Build Back Better program; [he] said that if we don't do these things, China will "eat our lunch" was a quotation of his. But the polarization in the Congress, which of course, reflects polarization in the population, seems to be so intense that these competitive programs that Biden wants to put in place have stalled in the Congress. So it's ironic that the right wing, the Trump wing of the Republican Party shouts and yells about the threat that China poses to us, but doesn't want to get behind the programs that would accelerate our ability to compete. So it's very worrisome. 

Another part of competition is to foster the relations we have with our allies in Europe, in Japan, and so forth. And I think in that area, the Republicans and Democrats are more on the same page and the Biden administration especially with Anthony Blinken, have done a lot of good work in that area. And Putin's ill-advised war in Ukraine has also helped the United States to consolidate its relations with our allies. And that will, if it's sustained, that can help us to do a better job in the competition with China.

John Torpey  19:30

Well, you walked right into my next question. So thank you for providing the segue. You know, that basically, of course, is precisely about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its effect on China and China's role in this whole operation. I mean, shortly before Putin invaded Ukraine, the two countries announced that they had a friendship without limits. There was a meeting in Beijing and in advance of the Olympics, right, about how they stood to each other. I mean, there's speculation about what Putin did or didn't say about his plans to invade Ukraine. But many people have basically argued that China has a strong interest in the norm of territorial integrity, and therefore is not wildly enthusiastic about what the Russians have done. Yet they seem to be more or less on the same team, and China could perhaps be a mediator here, but shows no particular signs of doing that. So tell us what you think is the consequences of this terrible war for China and China's relations with the rest of the world.

Andrew Nathan  20:45

Yeah. So I think to understand China's position on Putin's war in Ukraine, you have to start with a point that I've made a couple of times, which is that from China's point of view, the major threat to China's security is the United States; the embedded long term hostility of the United States, both to you know, a communist party in power, and as well simply to the rise of a peer competitor in the international system that disrupts American interests.  

So they think that the United States is out to get them in many kinds of ways military, economic, soft power, human rights, the you know, the ideological -making, making the relationship ideological, when from China's point of view, they would rather that it isn't. So the United States is their chief threat. And in facing that threat, they have money, which we've already spoken about, and their Belt and Road Initiative and building up their navy, and so on. 

But in terms of diplomatic partners, the biggest one that they had was Russia, that was an asset. It was a country that shared their aversion to American power and would cooperate with that. So that was an asset. And I think when Putin came to Beijing, and they declared the partnership with no limits, this was about two countries that wanted to reduce what they see as American hegemonism, an excessive American unilateral intervening, and other countries and so on.  

And then Putin did something stupid. And I think the Chinese are smart, they saw that he did something stupid; you launch a war and the American side takes advantage of that war to consolidate its alliances and exercise even more international influence, and then you start losing that war. I mean, how dumb is that? And China has interests in Ukraine; as you said, one is territorial integrity, and other one has significant economic interests as well. And China's economy is very globalized, and the war has disrupted global prices, and so on. So I think the Chinese feel that "Well, this guy went and did something very dumb, and he's failing." However, what are we going to do about that? 

So from Beijing's point of view, do you then gang up with the United States? Well, that would be the worst thing for Beijing to do; you know, sort of say, "okay, the United States comes out of this enhanced, and I'm going to stand on their side". You don't want to do that. You also don't want to sort of go all-in with your partner who has done something dumb and is going to come out of it as a diminished influence. So you have to walk, again, this very fine line. I guess, this is another fine line; the third one I've mentioned in this interview. Two of them, me having a hard time explaining nuanced positions. 

But here, Beijing has a hard time sort of walking this line. They don't want to further damage Putin, they don't want to help the United States, but neither do they want to go all-in with Putin. So their position is, I think, is going to be not to undermine the sanctions, but to continue to do normal business with Putin. And after all of this shakes out, they still have whatever is left of Russia as an ally. I mean, when I say whatever is left, I mean, Russia won't be invaded, but I mean, its diplomatic influence, and its economic influence will be diminished. But that's what you get. The Chinese are very realistic in international affairs. So you, you know, it's a bad situation, but that's the best you can do of it.

John Torpey  24:31

Yes, China's realism is sort of part of the next question I wanted to ask, which is that since the invasion of Ukraine, there's been a kind of broader discussion about what this means for the global order and whether we're not moving into a new kind of configuration and talk about the end of "The End of History" of Francis Fukuyama and maybe the fulfillment now of Samuel Huntington's image of a "Clash of Civilizations." And I mean, one can have alliances, I suppose, outside one's civilization. But it's not clear to me that this is necessarily the way the Chinese are thinking about the world. I mean, as you say they seem to be basically realists and very cautious. And so the idea of banging the drum for some particular civilization doesn't seem like the route they're going down. So I wonder, how you would see that debate insofar as it's a debate and where China might fit into this new world order if that's what's happening.

Andrew Nathan  25:41

I think that the Chinese see it, as you indicated, in a very realpolitik classical realism framework, which is that it's not about ideology. They don't want it to be about ideology. And it's not about civilizations in the sense of Eastern/Western/Chinese versus Christian or something of that kind. It's really about state power. And they think that the United States is in a process of power decline, which certainly is true in a relative sense that, you know, the because as other powers come up, like China, then the relative power of somebody else as a ratio goes down. But they also think that the United States sort of system has run out of steam, and our political polarization is an example of that. But they don't think we're going to decline in us go up in a poof of smoke, it's going to be a long, long and dangerous process. And other powers still exist and have vitality, including India, which is troubled, but it's big, and it has vitality, and it's going to have a bigger population than China in the coming decades. Japan is big, it's quite influential in Southeast Asia, Europe, for all of its difficulties is also a big, big power.  

So the Chinese don't think we're going to immediately; they feel like they have to manage in a system that's multipolar that has a lot of important actors, each one selfishly seeking its own benefit, as is predicted by classical realism of international politics and the fact that the, in their view, that the United States is trying to make this into a clash of civilizations. And that the end of history is to them a dangerous thing, that they would not like to play that game. 

John Torpey  27:12

Right. I mean, this one leaves one question that I do want to ask before we go, and that is the question of Taiwan, which has been on many people's minds since the invasion of Ukraine by the Russians. The Chinese simply regard this as part of China. And, you know, there's no issue of their territorial integrity other than that Taiwan should be part of China. So how do you see the war and the shift in the international order affecting the future of Taiwan?

Andrew Nathan  27:40

So if you read what they say -and I believe them, when they say these things- in their discourse about what they would like to see in international politics, they would like to see what they call a democratic, which means multipolar international politics in which countries respect to the autonomy of other countries and don't interfere in each other's politics. I think their position is relatively modest. I mean, they do think that they are a great nation, and that they deserve tremendous respect and influence in the international system, but not they don't see coming unipolarity where China rules and everybody else obeys. The Taiwan issue is really the zero-sum issue between China and the United States and a third actor, which is the population of Taiwan. There isn't any compromise solution that would satisfy all sides. And as you say, from China's point of view, this is part of their territory. They have a very plausible, sort of legal claim to Taiwan in international law, a historical claim and it is also strategically very important to them to get control over this island that's 100 miles off their coast and is large and to command some of the important straits through which the Chinese navy has to go. So it is very nonnegotiable to them. 

My own assessment is that Beijing believes, as I said before, that United States' power is declining, it's in secular decline. Putin has sort of interrupted that decline temporarily. But the US Navy is being out; there are more Chinese ships than American ships, and the American military strategy to deter China from attacking Taiwan is in trouble.  

So I think the Chinese feel that if they wait it out, the US will get the message that it has lost the game, and the Taiwanese will get that message. And the problem will solve itself peacefully, but they have to keep a military threat on the table. Otherwise, the long-term game doesn't work. And one of the things that we've seen in Ukraine is that the Soviet military has performed far less effectively than everybody expected it to do. And this must be giving Chinese military officers and political leaders reasons to think again about how prepared they are really for a clash over Taiwan. So I think for both these reasons, number one, that they have a long-term strategy that doesn't require an actual military conflict. It just requires a military threat. And number two, that their military threat, they may be less confident in it than they were before. Both of these things will lead Beijing to not take the Ukraine war as an opportunity to launch an attack on Taiwan. So I think that Taiwan is a very serious zero-sum issue between the United States and China, but it's not a crisis that's going to erupt in the near term.

John Torpey  31:52

Great. Well, that's a judicious assessment, I think of the Chinese-US relationship for the foreseeable future. That's it for today's episode. I want to thank Andrew Nathan of Columbia University for sharing his insights about China and about American policy towards that working country. Pemember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify, and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance as well as to acknowledge Duncan McKay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.