The following interview with Denny Roy[1] was carried out in Honolulu on March 26, 2015 by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann. The main focus of the interview was on Chinese land reclamation activities in the South China Sea, U.S.-China relations, the U.S. strategy towards China and Chinese relations with Japan and Taiwan. All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge and providing the links to the cited documents so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.


Chinese Land Reclamation in the South China Sea

What do you see as the strategy behind China’s land reclamation and the buildup of military structures in the South China Sea[2] How are they influencing tensions in the region?

 The strategy is to increase China’s military infrastructure in the area, either to increase their chances of winning a battle over territory in the area, or ideally to strengthen the message towards other claimants that they should surrender to China’s terms without a fight. The military benefit for China in a China vs. the U.S. scenario is minimal. It is probably a liability. But China sees the military infrastructure on balance as a plus anyway because the more likely scenario is China vs. another claimant without U.S. involvement. In that situation, it might be an asset rather than a liability.

Regarding the question whether it increases tensions or not, there are two ways to look at this. From the point of view of the other claimants and the U.S., of course it increases tensions because it appears to be China pushing more aggressively some of the other claimants to solidify its own claims to the detriment of those of the others. This is recognizing of course that some of the other claimants have reclaimed land before China. But China is simply in a position to do things that unilaterally increase the strength of its claims in a much bigger way, whether it is reclaiming land or putting ships at sea. From the other claimants’ point of view it increases tensions. From China’s point of view, it could be seen as hastening the process of other claimants reaching the conclusion that they should stop resisting. From China’s point of view, this reduces tensions because China gets what it wants without a war being necessary.

And why is there no strong reaction from the international community and especially from the U.S.?

There is reaction, but mostly talk. There is no effort to physically restrain China from reclaiming land. This is because it is disputed territory, the territory itself is uninhabited and of little economic value. No one is being hurt by China reclaiming land. It’s not enough to go to war.

Looking at this from a legal perspective, some Chinese scholars argue that the land reclamation might justify the reefs to qualify as islands according to Art. 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[3] Does the legal discussion on the issues in the South China Sea have any impact on the resolution of the conflict?

The legal discussion might have some value in publicizing the fact that there have been other cases of equivalent or greater difficulty that have been solved by negotiation, compromise and appeal to legal principles. This might even serve to perhaps embarrass some of the claimants that refuse to consider those arguments, but I don’t think the conflict depends on finding the right legal argument or formulation. Ultimately, it is a question of politics.

U.S. Strategy towards China

With the U.S. pivot or rebalancing to Asia, do you believe that the Chinese neighbors feel stronger in their position against China?

I think that was largely the intention of the rebalance strategy. I heard from many quarters, some of them private, that the stronger U.S. at least rhetorical intervention in the South China Sea beginning in 2010 was a result of importuning from the Southeast Asian governments. They saw themselves under tremendous pressure from China and wanted support from a stronger outside power to balance. Both the U.S. and China see it that way. The Chinese explicitly describe the problem as their rival claimants being irresponsibly encouraged by the U.S.

Last year, the trouble in the Middle East and with Russia in Eastern Europe was at the center of media attention and not China. Do you see this shifting focus also in policy areas?

In both media coverage and in the attention of policy makers, crises and other issues that are above the surface get the majority of attention. In this sense China was not in the news for some months prior to the land reclamation issue because there was not a China related crisis along the lines of the deployment of the deep sea oil rig[4] or the declaration of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea.[5] But analysts in the U.S. government and their counterparts from other countries in the Asia-Pacific continue to follow China. Lots of analysts see a methodical march of the Chinese that involves periodic crises. No one of these crises rises to the level of the U.S. or other Asia-Pacific countries taking serious substantial counteractions. So in effect the Chinese are very gradually through salami slicing rearranging the chessboard to increase their position hoping that in the long run the totality of the superiority of their position will cause those who oppose them to cease resisting and make an agreement along the lines of the Chinese proposal.

When President Xi Jinping took office there was a lot of optimism about him being a great reformer. How do you assess the reforms China is undergoing at the moment? And in how far does this impact U.S. policy towards China?

Under Xi Jinping, China has backslid on the matter of the state yielding more power to society. U.S. foreign policy towards China mainly reacts to Chinese foreign policy. But what is going on in China domestically affects the atmosphere of U.S.-China relations. For example there have been periods in U.S.-China relations where there was a fair degree of optimism in the U.S. and an obvious example was when Deng Xiaoping visited the U.S. and put on the cowboy hat.[6] At that time, there were phrases used such as “China has come to its senses” with the implication being that China has gone from irrationally ideological to pragmatic and that it would now be easier for us to work with China. In that kind of atmosphere it is easier for the U.S. to see an unfavorable – from a U.S. point of view – Chinese policy as an aberration rather than a pattern.

But now I think what we are seeing is the opposite. There is a sense that Xi Jinping is moving China in a direction the U.S. would consider backward in terms of the flow of history. The American view is that countries should go from something like Maoism in China’s case towards political and economic liberalization. Xi Jinping seems to have retrenched. This certainly does not make it any easier for the U.S. to pay less attention to an unfavorable development in U.S.-China relations in the foreign policy arena and it increases suspicions that the agenda of Xi Jinping might be in a fundamental way unfavorable to U.S. interests.

There seems to be a misunderstanding in China. Visits by former officials such as Henry Kissinger and statements made by him are by many seen as an indication for U.S. policy. How would you explain that?

There would only be a connection if someone working in the current administration is an admirer of someone like Henry Kissinger. In that case a policy-maker might absorb and implement a Kissinger idea. There is sort of a Chinese model, and I am oversimplifying it, of one’s official position not mattering very much and one’s GuanXi (关系) being everything. So for example you could have a leader like Deng Xiaoping who in effect was the paramount leader when his only official position was honorary chairman of the bridge association. But then there is the Western model that we strive for, where we like to think that someone has power as long he is in office and none once he leaves.

Probably Western democratic governments get pretty close to that latter model, particularly when you consider that the expert you are talking about in this case is from a different party than the current party in power. You have to think that the influence is limited to one of many other possible voices in the expert and the scholarly arena that policy makers may draw from, but there is no interaction. Now if we had a Republican administration it would be more likely that foreign policy makers were actually admirers of Kissinger. They might have worked at a lower level when Kissinger had just left office or even when he still was in office. But I would hesitate to characterize it as any kind of hidden, unofficial but quasi-policymaking connection between someone like Kissinger in his state of life and policy makers. It may however be useful to have someone the Chinese think is influential saying positive things about China and Kissinger is obviously very sympathetic towards China. So they focus a little more on Kissinger and a little less on Mearsheimer, whom the Chinese cite as evidence of an American intention to “contain” China.[7]

US-China Relations

You are commenting on China’s rise since the 1990s. Would you say all these years have made you more optimistic or pessimistic about a peaceful coexistence of the two superpowers in the Asia-Pacific?

I was pessimistic to begin with, and have remained so over the years. My starting point studying under Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago is that this situation is expected to generate conflict. You have a region dominated by a great power and another great power that emerges. There will be high tension, not necessarily warfare but the risk of warfare, unless there is some peculiar feature that acts as a mollifying force. Such a special circumstance might be that the two countries have a cultural affinity or that they have confidence to share some basic common values about the operation of international affairs. For example the U.S. and Britain arguably faced that kind of scenario around the year 1900 when Britain was a – if not the only – world power. Probably everyone recognized that Britain’s days were numbered with the U.S. as a young and vigorous country that had not yet fulfilled its potential and was increasing its power very rapidly. The transition was relatively easy in that situation because America was founded by former Brits. There was wide agreement on what kind of international trade system we should have and what should be the basic values on which international affairs should be founded.

In a U.S.-China scenario, there is not only a lack of peculiar additional factors that mollify the natural tension, but if anything the additional factors increase the tension. There is certainly not an agreement on the basic principles of international affairs between these two countries. There are racial differences, there are cultural differences. To use a word that is commonly used – even though I do not like it – there is a degree of trust between the U.S. and Britain but there is a deficit of trust between the U.S. and China. Adding on to this is China’s historical experience of having been a victim of imperialism. Chinese see the U.S. as first of all one of the eight imperialist powers, which deepens Chinese suspicion. America is the inheritor of the leadership of the capitalist countries, which the Chinese think are inveterately opposed to the survival of the socialist countries. This adds another layer of suspicion. The interactions between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China in the Korean War only add on to that. So there are layers of suspicion that worsen the natural tendency towards tensions. This was the starting point between both countries.

Beginning around the late 1980s the West realized that China has a really high growth rate and could keep it up for a long time, which might lead to China getting the last piece they need to be a great power. The question about the possible implications came up. From the beginning of the time when we could foresee this power transition problem up until today, I don’t see that there has been any breakthrough in escaping from the natural mechanics of a tension-producing Situation.

Commenting on David Shambaugh’s recent article, where do you stand on the China “collapse” issue?[8]

I highly doubt a Chinese “collapse,” but I believe a slowdown of economic growth from 7-8 percent annually to 3-4 percent is highly likely within about a decade. A major (but probably temporary) crisis with a lot of social and political turmoil is also very possible.

When talking about trust between China and the U.S. how do you see the role of military to military relations as an instrument to increase trust?

“Trust” is irrelevant. Suspicions between the United States and China are well-grounded because the two have clashing fundamental objectives. The discussion of “trust” invariably leads to Chinese demands that the United States abandon strategic leadership in the region. I don’t like the word trust in this situation as I don’t think that trust should be the goal. But if you insist on asking me how we could increase trust, I would probably fall back on the idea that good fences make good neighbors as there is less contact. So from China’s point of view, the way to build trust is for the U.S. to stop doing things that bother China. Ultimately that means the U.S. would no longer be a major strategic player in the region, but would break the alliances, leave the bases, withdraw to Hawaii. So could trust be built in that matter? Even then I would not be sure if trust would be the right word. It would be a lack of worry. But in any case, obviously the U.S. is not prepared to accommodate China in that way.

On military-to-military relations, the improvement of these relations does not necessarily create trust. What our military specifically is talking about are meetings, and what our military really wants is to have more meetings and to go from higher to lower levels. Getting down to the level of operators of platforms, for example ship captains. This way, we might actually have a situation where the captain of an American ship and the captain of a Chinese ship who meet unexpectedly in an uncomfortable circumstance might have met each other before or might at least have met someone like the other guy before. From a U.S. point of view more meetings on lower levels means mil-to-mil relations are progressing and are improving. But this does not necessary imply a building of trust. It arguably implies a greater understanding, but understanding is not the same thing as trust.

The U.S. Navy’s deepening cooperation with Southeast Asian navies in the South China Sea is increasing maritime security but at the same time decreasing it as China feels more encircled.

In the abstract, more cooperation equals more maritime security. The real question is whether the U.S. and its friends resisting Chinese bullying is better for regional security vs. yielding to Chinese hegemony. I support increased balancing behavior in response to Chinese bullying.

Taiwanese and Japanese Relations with China

Back home in Europe most experts agree that there will not be conflict over Taiwan. How do you see that?

China is gradually improving its leverage over Taiwan, but this is now matched by the backlash in Taiwan against integration. There is a danger of conflict if, in the short term, Beijing feels momentum toward unification has stopped or reversed. Stretching out the period of negotiation gives more time for the possibility of a Chinese government accepting something less than formal unification. Another important variable is how much hardship Taiwanese are willing to suffer to resist Chinese pressure for unification. So the outcome could go either way, depending on the interaction of these two variables, plus the success or lack of success of continued economic development in China.

Japan and China just restarted their maritime security talks. Are we entering a calm phase in China-Japan relations? What role do you see the possibility for joint exploration of fossil fuels play especially in times of the current abundance of oil and natural gas?

Both want to climb down from this period of high tensions, but often crises are caused by private individuals and the governments are dragged along. I don’t think the world supply of oil and gas has much bearing on the success of Japan-China talks over joint development.


Thank you very much for the interview.

[1]  More about Dr. Denny Roy at:
[2] More on the land reclamation activities especially regarding the previously submerged reefs in the Spratlys archipelago:
[3] UNCLOS Art. 121 defines an island as “a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide” and grants an island an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own are not granted an EEZ or continental shelf, which gives the coastal state rights to resources such as fossil fuel or fisheries.
[4] The Chinese oil rig was located near the disputed Paracel islands in the South China Sea, which are claimed by China and Vietnam. The rig caused huge tension between the two countries. The rig was moved away mid July 2014. More on how relations developed afterwards:
[5] An overview over the Chinese declaration of the ADIZ:
[6 The photo is available here:
[7] Prof. Mearsheimer is an international relations theorist, is most known for his 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and is an offensive neorealist. To find out more about his research and interests, visit his website:
[8] Prof. Shambaugh’s essay “The Coming Chinese Crackup” was featured in the Wall Street Journal on March 5 and is available here:

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