World view

Dhruv Aggarwal interviews Andrew Nathan

Andrew Nathan, the Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, is an expert on China's foreign policy and human rights issues across East Asia. In early February, he delivered the 2014 Hume Lecture at Yale on "What Drives Chinese Foreign Policy: Vulnerability or Ambition." I sat down with Professor Nathan to discuss his career as an preeminent authority on international human rights, his experience as a Sinophile, and his thoughts on academic freedom in North Korea.

When I ask how he first became interested in China, Nathan says he "sort of stumbled into [the study of China] step-by-step" when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. He was required by the undergraduate curriculum at Harvard to pick up a social science course. "East Asian History was a course that struck me as very exotic in the 1960s. I'm here at this big university and this is really weird - so I'll do it." Nathan enjoyed the course and ended up majoring in Modern Chinese History at Harvard. He picked up Mandarin while attending graduate school at Harvard, where he received a fellowship to travel to Hong Kong.

After finishing his training as a political science PhD, Nathan began teaching at Columbia in 1971. This was when he became involved in the newly founded and expanding American chapter of Amnesty International. Based in New York, Amnesty formed several "adoption" grassroots groups with political prisoners from both Communist and capitalist countries. Nathan got involved in an adoption group when he was assigned a Chinese political prisoner. Later, he was on the advisory committee when the New York-based Human Rights Watch established its Asia division.

I then ask Nathan about his choice of topic for his Hume lecture. "There exists a widespread debate about the 'China threat,' and I think it is overheated," says Nathan. He knows about the complexities of China's supposed expansionism, having coauthored a book, "China's Search for Security," based on his class on Chinese foreign policy at Columbia. "China's security is under threat. It has 19 difficult neighbors, none of which are natural allies," he elaborates. He points to Tibet and Xinjiang, domestic instability, and food and oil problems as some of the biggest threats to Chinese security. "Most of Chinese foreign policy is to preserve the integrity of its national territory," he concludes. Thus, Nathan does not believe China is challenging US supremacy as the global power. What China does want, however, is for the US to back off from its large deployments of military strength in East Asia. Nathan paints a picture of a threatened, rather than ambitious China, seeking to change the balance of power.

But if China is changing the balance of power, is it still feasible to be critical about China's human rights violations? Nathan believes the West definitely still has room to be more critical of China's human rights record. "Military force or economic sanctions are of course unrealistic," Nathan argues. "However, the West - especially Europe - is weaker than it should be when it comes to using diplomatic methods."

Nathan's take on Chinese involvement with the two Koreas is fascinating and insightful. He calls Korea a "range of risky possibilities" for China. The current situation in Korea is threatening to China, according to him, as it raises tensions with Japan and the United States. However, the alternative to propping up North Korea is even worse, with China foreseeably having to deal with millions of refugees, nuclear contamination issues, and a unified, pro-American Korea in the long run. "A unified Korea with a large military capacity and advanced nuclear technology will stress independence from China," says Nathan. "Hence, China needs a divided Korea but a divided Korea is a problem in itself." Nathan points to this dilemma as the reason why the Kim regime in North Korea is able to take advantage of China, and how it uses China's support to keep itself in power.

Nathan's personal experience researching in and travelling to China has been bittersweet. "I have been denied a visa to China since 2001 because of my book 'Tiananmen Papers,' and before that for five or six years because of my book on the private life of Chairman Mao," he says. However, despite the challenges faced by journalists and fellow academics, Nathan believes academic freedom in China has increased over the years. He points to many of his PhD students who now live and teach in China. "However, when you talk to Chinese academic, it is no secret that you know what you can and cannot say."

Nathan stresses that communication is the primary method to maintain and foster US-China relations. "Someone at my talk at Yale asked me about the friction between the US and China and asked me what should be done. I think the answer is to keep communicating at every level," Nathan says, pointing to bilateral contacts at the level of governments, business, students, tourists, and academics. "US-China relations requires communication and we must keep the dialogue going."


Dhruv Aggarwal is a sophomore at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact him at

This article also appears in China Hands.