The following interview with Prof. Avery Goldstein [1] was carried out in Philadelphia, USA, January 8, 2014 by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann. The main focus of the interview was on crisis instability in U.S.-China relations, the incident with the USS Cowpens and the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge and especially giving the links to the cited documents so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.


. Crisis Instability

In your article “First Things First: The Pressing Danger of Crisis Instability in U.S.-China Relations” [2] you define a crisis as a confrontation between states involving a serious threat to vital national interests for both sides and we were wondering how you evaluate the South China Sea dispute. The disputes in the region seem like a vital interest for China, but do you see this as something that is also of high interest to the U.S.?

Yes, I do think that the U.S. does view this as a vital interest, even if it is not very explicit and precise. Its interests in the South China Sea are really of two sorts. One is a matter of principle, which is freedom of navigation. The concern is that depending on how China stakes its claims in the South China Sea, it may then impose certain restrictions on the freedom of navigation especially that of military vessels. Freedom of navigation is a principle that the U.S. Navy in particular insists on and won’t compromise at least officially, as a matter of principal. In practice it seems likely − again this is a kind of thing where you get winks and nods from people but no official statement − that the U.S. and China have actually tried to talk about ways in which the U.S. can engage in operations in the waters off Chinese territory that China can’t publicly accept. And China’s restrictions are rules that the Americans can’t publicly accept but they are trying to figure out how to manage it. The other concern, a vital interest of the U.S., is standing by its allies and its commitment to allies in the region, especially the Philippines in the South China Sea. The U.S. also has an interest in ensuring that states don’t rely on military force or the threats of military force to infringe on other states’ interests. The U.S. does not have an alliance with Vietnam and there is no automatic logic to the U.S. supporting the Vietnamese against the Chinese. However, I think it is likely that the U.S. would in fact take a pretty harsh stance if China were to use threats of military force to actually confront Vietnam – even more clearly with respect to the Philippines. So the US has an interest in preserving its reputation for standing by allies, as well as in upholding the principle of freedom of navigation on the high seas. But as you know from the article, one of the catches here is that the exact limits of these interests are not clear.

Going back to your book “Rising to the Challenge”: [3] you say that you could compare China to Germany under Otto von Bismarck. Recent publications however compare China to Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm. Do you still think your comparison holds up?

That book’s argument was based on things that took place up until that book was published obviously and the comparison I drew was not so much that China was like Bismarck’s Germany but rather that the logic of Bismarck’s strategy for ensuring Germany’s security was similar in some ways to the logic of China’s grand strategy for ensuring its security − which is to say to balance interests and avoid provoking others. While in the German case Bismarck was trying to strengthen Germany as a nation state, in the case of China, China was trying to modernize and establish its role as a major power. I do believe that in fact that logic was in place from the mid 1990s up to 2005 and even beyond that. I suggested in the later chapters of that book that I expected this would last at least through roughly the 2020s. Jiang Zemin was talking about the period of strategic opportunity that would be roughly 20 years long and he said that in the beginning of the 21st century, that’s what I anticipated. I will say that China’s behavior in 2009 and especially in 2010 was not consistent with my argument. I said to people who asked me this at the time, that either I was wrong–which is to say that they abandoned the strategy I said they were relying upon before I said they would abandon it– or that I was right and the Chinese would adjust and realize the costs that they were incurring by departing from that strategy. So far it is a mixed bag. The Chinese have recognized the costs. Dai Bingguo made a famous speech in late 2010 arguing that China would stick to peaceful development and peaceful rise. [4] I think the problem is that Dai Bingguo does not make all the decisions and Hu Jintao was probably too weak a leader in the last years of his rule to insist that some of the more assertive aspects of China’s foreign policy were reined in. It is unclear what Xi Jinping is going to do. I do think intellectually they understand the logic of what I wrote about in the past and I think it is still a good approach for China, but the Chinese government for its own reasons – some having to do with domestic interests, some having to do with foreign policy interests – seems quick to overreact to provocations or actions by others and they find it difficult to respond in a constrained way. This would be more consistent with my argument about what they were doing in the past.

As far as the Chinese and Wilhelm, well, which Wilhelm? In fact when I was researching that book I would give talks in China and the Chinese students, faculty and also think tank people that I was giving this talk to always objected. They said you couldn’t compare China to Germany because it implies that someday it is going to be aggressive like Germany. I then said well that is not my argument. In fact part of the argument in the book is that the problem was not Bismarck’s strategy, the problem was the way it was managed by Bismarck’s successors if you want to call them that. In other words: he was able to manage it while Wilhelm I was in power, but it was one of those cases were maybe only Bismarck was able to manage this complex strategy. One worries that a weak Chinese leader such as Hu Jintao, who was relatively weak by Chinese standards, may not be able to stick to the strategy that was in place. I suppose you could say it is encouraging if Xi Jinping is inclined to stick to this strategy. He may be better able if he is a stronger leader to reign in some of the interests in the Chinese foreign policy establishment who support more provocative behavior. Certainly given the recent events with Japanese Prime Minister Abe visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, China’s response has been pretty restrained. Nevertheless, it is not yet clear how this is going to end because one of the things China is doing diplomatically is trying to encourage others to criticize Japan on this. If China does too much of this they are going to overplay their hand.

You mentioned that one problem between China and the U.S. is uncertainty about red lines. Do you believe that defining clear red lines for both sides would increase or decrease crisis instability in bilateral relations?

Clarifying where the red lines are probably would reduce the risk of inadvertent conflict and crisis, but it could at the same time increase overall bilateral tension because there might be some sharp disagreements about these red lines. Another problem is what happens if the red lines overlap? Then you really have not resolved the issue and you could create a circumstance where the two sides feel that they have to challenge the other by showing they mean business and are serious. The policy implication of my argument was for both sides to understand that there are these hazy areas and the red lines aren’t clear so let’s be careful if we interact in this space or over this issue. It is a risky interaction and we have to be quite aware and clear that we don’t want conflict or crisis to emerge inadvertently, that it is not safe to fool around.

In the context of U.S.-China crisis instability, how do you see the U.S. Prompt Global Strike capability [5] impacting this?

I think it is destabilizing. I think that there are a number of aspects of U.S. military modernization that are potentially destabilizing. Prompt Global Strike is one because it makes China nervous about its nuclear retaliatory capability and reduces warning time, compresses time for managing a crisis or for believing during a crisis that you can afford to wait. You are fearful that if you do not act soon you may no longer able to react. But prompt global strike is just one of the many things. The other is the Air Sea Battle doctrine. [6] To the extent the Air Sea Battle doctrine is ever transformed into practice, one version imagines the use of American military forces in the Western Pacific to attack, and strike deeply against targets on the Chinese mainland. That would have the same destabilizing consequences as Prompt Global Strike. This in particular would have an escalatory effect. There is a big difference between hitting a Chinese ship, missile, or a submarine at sea as opposed to having an American explosive blowing up in Sichuan or somewhere else.

Within the last five years, do you see any improvements in Sino-U.S. crisis communication?

There has been an improvement in military to military communications. The Chinese are going to be at the RimPac exercises. [7] We will need to see whether military to military exchanges can be sustained during the next period of tensions between the U.S. and China e.g. if there is an arms sale to Taiwan. In the past the Chinese just cut off military to military contacts. If that does not happen this time, it suggests that the ties are now much better established. It does appear that in that incident with the USS Cowpens and the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning in the South China Sea, [8] there in fact was ship-to-ship communication. Again, that is a good thing. The problem there however was − and we can never be sure as we don’t have all the information − that the Americans heard the message but didn’t comply. So this doesn’t ensure that we can avoid these problems but it is a step in the right direction. Hotlines are the other method in terms of communication. The problem here is that the hotlines get used in peacetime but when they get put to a test during a crisis in the past they have not been used and we won’t know whether this has changed until they are tested in the next crisis. I suspect that if my assessment of Xi Jinping is correct − and it may not be − I do think he is a much more formidable leader than his predecessors and I would suspect that he would be more likely to take or even initiate a phone call to the U.S. during a crisis.


. USS Cowpens and ADIZ

When you say that currently China is trying to act more restrained, how do you evaluate the announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)[9]?

I think China caused a problem for itself by the way it rolled out or announced the ADIZ. Most of the reports have suggested that this was not something that was decided in November. This is something that was discussed and decided much earlier but it was announced as a surprise. Not to the Chinese but to everybody else. There may have been a few hours or a few days of warning time, but it was a surprise to most people. The main problem was that when it was announced, it was a surprise and the way it was announced by the Chinese military was problematic. The list of regulations was open to interpretation in a way that made it seem not like everybody else’s ADIZ but much more restrictive. Eventually, within a few days the Chinese government especially the Ministry of Defense clarified that it is not a no-fly zone, has nothing to do with sovereignty and they are just saying that they need to be informed about whatever is happening. In terms of enforcement there was no automatic military enforcement of the ADIZ.

We know in practice that Americans challenged the zone by flying through it, [10] the Chinese didn’t do anything and the Chinese themselves reported how many flights they were taking to monitor what was going on and said they were operating in a fashion consistent with their approach to enforcing the ADIZ but did not get too specific. My guess is that if the Chinese had given sufficient advance notice and had made clear from the beginning that its ADIZ would be managed just like everybody else’s ADIZ, it would have been less of a problem. The one complication is that when China announced it, the reporting in the West was that China has an ADIZ that goes very far out and covers the disputed territories with Japan. If China had taken the time to explain why they were going to draw the line where they did, they could have argued that they were simply doing the mirror image of what Japan did. In fact the Chinese zone is drawn almost symmetrically to the Japanese. The distance between the edge of the Chinese zone and the Japanese national air space is the same as with the Japanese zone and the Chinese air space. They could also have explained that even though it covers the air space over the disputed islands it does not alter any sovereignty claims. For China to exclude that air space would have been tantamount to an admission that it was not China’s territory, which for China is an issue that should be resolved via negotiations. There were tons of ways in which China could have rolled out their ADIZ better but they did it very poorly. This shaped the way foreigners interpreted and characterized the new ADIZ. And It was a very strong negative reaction in the US and elsewhere, where it was routinely referred to as an Air Defense Zone as opposed to an Air Defense Identification Zone, which sounds much different. A colleague of mine analyzed a large number of the articles about the ADIZ that were being published in the West that it was mostly referred to as the Air Defense Zone, and was often criticized because China had unilaterally declared it, even though this is the only way to declare an ADIZ. Every country unilaterally declares its ADIZs.

You mentioned that there are different ways of communicating events between the U.S. and China. How do you interpret the way the Chinese media and officials reacted to the USS Cowpens incident?

There was some indignation on the Chinese side saying “you knew we were conducting this operation, you were getting too close to our aircraft carrier, we warned you but you insisted on staying there.” They argued it was the American’s fault for the dangerous situation that developed. So there was some of that. But I have to say the official statements from China’s Ministry of Defense and the American official statements were pretty low-key. Both sides wanted to play down the event. I think in part on the Chinese side this might reflect the need for the leadership to play tough with the Americans. Xi Jinping is clearly determined to show that he is tougher than Hu Jintao was. That may have to do more with appearing tough to the Chinese military than appearing tough to the Chinese public. But I think that was part of it. It was a pretty restrained reaction and not like the reaction to the Impeccable [11] incident back in 2009. Still, there is this piece by Oriana Mastro [12] on the Impeccable Incident and she points out some of the same dynamics. The Chinese apparently didn’t want it to become public but once it did become public they had to take this really hard line officially. But I think the Chinese government understands that this is the way the world works. Countries will try to spy on other countries and at some point the Chinese will be spying on American forces from offshore in Hawaii and one day off of San Diego. This kind of thing happened during the Cold War with Russia and after some time you learn how to deal with it.

When you look at the Persian Gulf region and given the growing stakes of China in the Middle East, do you think this is also an area of potential crisis in the maritime field or do you believe China will continue to focus on the First and Second Island Chain?

Given the state of China’s naval capability, it is too much too far away. Especially compared to American capabilities in the region. I do think you are right that China – unfortunately for the Chinese – within the next few decades will have more headaches in the Middle East than the Americans because American energy dependence from the Middle East declining. I think American interests will no longer be determined so much by energy concerns. The Chinese have tried to diversify their energy sources so they are not fully dependent on one part of the Middle East or Africa but it remains very important for them. The region also represents an opportunity for China, however, because now they have the incentive to prevent turmoil from damaging their energy supply. This provides reason for China to be more diplomatically active in the region and play a constructive role. China does not have a really strong track record on this, but it seems that they are now helping out with the Syrian situation in terms of chemical weapons removal. Whether they will play a constructive role in the negotiations with Iran is unclear and they probably want to stay out of the Peace Talks within Syria if they ever get off the ground, but it is possible they could also play a constructive role there. The Chinese have stakes with so many players in the region, it is hard, they cannot just pick sides. They cannot choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example. But in terms of military capabilities the short answer is: China is unlikely to be very active in the region for a long time. It is a steep enough challenge for them to do what they want to do within the First and Second Island Chains.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in U.S.-China relations in 2014?

I actually think that this year should go pretty smoothly – there is always the risk of exogenous shocks – China will be very narrowly focused on domestic challenges this year. With Xi Jinping running the new committee for the comprehensive deepening of economic reforms, he wants to get this thing moving quickly. That is going to involve a lot of focus on domestic affairs and he will want to minimize international problems for China. I do not think there is any interest in stirring up any troubles in the region that would damage U.S.-China relations. On the American side I do not think we have an interest in pushing hard against China at this point because the U.S. is trying to sort out a lot of alliance problems in the Western Pacific, specifically the problems with Japan and South Korea. The hope is they can do this without aggravating the Chinese but it is a really tough situation at this point. So I expect actually that this should be a pretty peaceful year in the region but in fact I do believe that however peaceful this year may be, both sides are continuing to kick the can down the road on their relationship. This is what I focused on in this article, it is about the question of near term risks of crisis instability. Down the road, what is unclear are long term intentions. The U.S. does not understand – maybe even the Chinese do not – what their intentions and goals are long term, and I think the Chinese do not know what the American intentions towards China are even though the Chinese claim that the U.S. is trying to contain China.

Assuming that China’s development continues, the only resolution in the long term is for the U.S. and China to figure out some satisfactory adjustment in their regional relationship. The American position is that they like the existing security architecture in the region. As China’s economic and military power grow, however, the US will have to adjust to China playing a larger regional role. Exactly what that role should be, is something that has to be worked out, and it is very tough to do when the two sides remain mutually suspicious.


Thank you very much for the interview.


[1] More about Prof. Goldstein, Director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, and Associate Director of the Christopher H. Browne Center for International Politics at:
[2] Prof. Goldstein’s article “First Things First: The Pressing Danger of Crisis Instability in U.S.-China Relations” was published in International Security (Spring 2013), Vol. 37, No. 4 and is accessible at:
[3] Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security (2005):
[4] Dai Bingguo made this speech in December 2010. More on his speech and on his opinion at:
[5] More on the U.S. prompt global strike capability:
[6] More detailed information on the Air Sea Battle doctrine at:
[8] Different views on the near-collision between the USS Cowpens and Chinese warships:
[10] The U.S. actually challenged the Chinese ADIZ with two B52 bombers flying through:
[11] More on the Impeccable incident:–The-USNS-Impeccable-Incid.aspx.
[12] Oriana Skylar Mastro, “Signaling and Military Provocation in Chinese National Security Strategy: A Closer Look at the Impeccable Incident, The Journal of Strategic Studies (April 2011), Vol. 34, No. 2:

Copyright © 2014. All Rights Reserved.