The Sleeping Dragon Awakes

Report on a public lecture: The Rise of China & the Future of International Security by Prof. Joseph S. Nye Jr. (Prof. Nye is the Dean and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy in Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Governance. He has served as the United States’ Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs and in other top-level government posts. Prof. Nye recently conducted this lecture as the Lee Kuan Yew Distinguished Visitor for the period 6-9 January 1998.)


Within the last 20 years, the world has witnessed the awakening of China, the sleeping dragon of the east. In 1978, the country instituted reforms and opened up its economy. Within two decades, the Chinese economy has seen tremendous progress, its gross domestic product (GDP) growing more than 20 times, from 364 billion yuan in 1978 to 7,477 billion yuan in 1997. The country has also seen tremendous economic growth, sustaining a 9.8 % annual growth rate compared to world averages of 6.5 %. In terms of foreign trade, Beijing has also expanded substantially. Its foreign exchange reserves and foreign capital inflow in 1997 now stand at the top in the world, second only to the United States. How will the country proceed from here, and will its policies endanger the future of international security?

China is most likely to persist along its current course of economic development. So says Lee Kuan Yew Distinguished Visitor Prof. Joseph S. Nye Jr. In a public lecture, Prof. Nye noted that the present "East Asian development style" would result in a gradual transition towards a pluralistic world order with the United States and China among the dominant actors on the world stage.

Addressing analysts’ concerns that China would overtake the US in economic growth within the next decade, Prof. Nye noted that such a situation is unlikely. This is because an economic growth of 6 % would only enable the country to overtake the US economy within thirty years. However by that time, America itself would have progressed far beyond Beijing’s level of economic achievement.

Considering the country’s military development, Prof. Nye noted that a number of military observers believe that most of its military equipment is obsolete. In addition, Beijing is currently grappling with problems regarding information access. This, according to the professor, is a key consideration, because military power in today’s information age depends on how well systems are able to integrate.

However, Prof. Nye noted that China’s military power must be taken seriously. He said that military spending has increased in the 1990s with the onset of the Tiananmen Incident and the Gulf War. This is in comparison to declining figures of the 1980s. However, it is believed that much of the spending is set aside for infrastructure building and not for the advancement of weapon systems or the building up of an armed forces. These comments were reinforced in recent statements by Chinese Ambassador to Singapore Chen Baoliu, who mentioned that the size of China’s armed forces has been slashed twice, from 6 million to 2.5 million this year.

Noting that many analysts have compared the rise of China to that of Germany after World War One, Prof. Nye noted that most of these historical analogies are flawed due to the difference in circumstances surrounding the two events. He cautioned that a belief in the inevitability of war can itself be a cause of danger, a point also shared by Ambassador Chen. The ambassador said that one way of judging whether a country is aggressive or not is to look at its domestic policies. In the case of China, she noted that its domestic and foreign policies have been consistent towards working for peace.

Turning towards the US foreign policy towards China, the professor commented that there are five possible alternatives to a US presence in the Asia Pacific region. Probable methods of handling the US-China situation include an American withdrawal to the Atlantic, the creation of a local balance of power, the emphasis of regional security institutions, and the creation of coalitions to contain China. However, Prof. Nye stressed that a fifth solution, known as constructive engagement, is the most viable. This orientation is important because it signifies the rejection of the inevitability of conflict. Among other instances, the policy ensures that America is committed to the protection of Taiwan from Chinese military activity unless the island declares independence unilaterally.

One extension of the constructive engagement strategy, the policy currently being adopted by the US, is the importance of an American alliance with Japan. This results in China not being able to play a "Japan card" or allying with Japan against the US, a situation similar to Cold War instances of America playing a "China card" against the former USSR. Despite such differences, all three countries agree that a strong China is important for economic growth and prosperity. This justifies the triangular arrangement of powers in the Asia Pacific region.

In conclusion, Prof. Nye renewed support for American foreign policy in the Asia Pacific region. He said that a continued US presence will provide the economic stability for the region to prosper. In the absence of Chinese foreign aggression, this is and will be the best strategy to pursue.

"If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed." - Ancient Chinese Proverb


The above article was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on 9th February 1999 and appeared in The Ridge (98/99 Issue 5) , a publication of the National University of Singapore Students' Union.


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