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China’s troubling core interests

by Michael Richardson

As China’s President Xi Jinping prepares to meet his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama later this week, he is offering what appears to be an alluring deal for closer cooperation between the world’s two biggest economies.

Xi, who looks forward to a decade of leading China as it grows stronger, told visiting U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon last week that he wanted to explore with Obama a new type of Sino-U.S. relationship. Donilon was on a three-day visit to Beijing to prepare for the first summit between the two leaders.

It will be an informal meeting Friday and Saturday at a private estate in Southern California. The aim is to encourage extensive and candid discussion about the challenges and opportunities for what has become the single-most important relationship in global geopolitics.

From the U.S. perspective, James Steinberg, who was the deputy U.S. secretary of state in the first Obama administration, says that in recent years China’s dramatic economic growth, military modernization and more forceful presence on the regional and global stage have raised doubts in both China and the U.S. whether the commitment to enhancing cooperation between the two countries and managing differences constructively can be sustained.

For his part, Xi said the China-U.S. relationship was “at a critical juncture” and that both sides must now “build on past successes and open up new dimensions for the future.” But what are the Chinese terms in this new give-and-take relationship with America and how could they affect the interests of Japan and other Asian nations?

Shi Yinhong, a specialist on U.S. studies at Renmin University in Beijing who advises the Chinese government, said that the most important message China wanted Donilon to take back to Obama was that Xi really hopes to build a new type of big-power relationship, and that both sides should respect each other’s core interests.

The linkage is important because the core interest concept is at the heart of China’s proposal for the new cooperative partnership with the U.S. China defines a “core interest” as one that is so crucial it would use military force to defend it.

In the past, when China was much weaker than today, it carefully restricted use of this red-line phrase to Taiwan, which Beijing views as a rebel province under its sovereignty. Five years ago, in the midst of violent unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang, China extended the “core interest” category to include both special autonomous regions.

None of this posed insuperable problems for China’s relations with the United States, Japan and most other countries because they recognized China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

The real trouble started to arise in March 2010 when Steinberg and another senior U.S. official visiting Beijing were given a presentation by a Chinese vice foreign minister on China’s rights in the South China Sea, highlighting them as a national priority for Beijing though not as a “core interest” as later reported in the media.

Since then, China’s increasingly assertive enforcement of its claims to sovereignty and other forms of jurisdiction over about 80 percent of the semi-enclosed South China Sea in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia — despite opposition from other claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines, a U.S. ally — strongly suggest that Beijing regards securing the area for China as another core interest.

Then late last month, top Chinese military officials informed U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was visiting China, that Beijing’s claim to the disputed Senkaku Islands and surrounding parts of the East China Sea was also a core interest, even though the area is claimed and administered by Japan, America’s key ally.

The following day, when questioned about this, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in a Chinese language briefing for the press, replied that the disputed zone, which Beijing calls the Diaoyu Islands, involved China’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest.”

However, the official transcript of the briefing, issued later in English, rephrased the reply to make it less explicit, suggesting that some Chinese military authorities take a harder nationalist line than some civilian officials. The transcript on China’s Foreign Ministry website said that “China firmly safeguards its core national interests, including national sovereignty, national security and territorial integrity. The Diaoyu Islands issue concerns China’s territorial sovereignty.”

Xi, who is close to the military, visited the U.S. in 2012 when he was vice president. He said then that the “vast Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States” but that the two nations must respect each other’s “core interests” while working to build trust and cooperation on other issues, including trade policies and diplomacy with North Korea and Iran.

Cui Tiankai, a former vice foreign minister who is now China’s ambassador to the U.S., describes the approach to fashioning a new Sino-U.S. relationship in benign terms. He recently explained in the past, when one big country developed very fast and gained international influence, it was seen as being in kind of zero-sum game vis-a-vis the existing powers. This often led to conflict or even war.

“Now there is a determination both in China and the U.S. to not allow history to repeat itself,” Cui said. “We’ll have to find a new way for a developing power and an existing power to work with each other, not against each other.”

Nonetheless, China under Xi will try to expand its Asia-Pacific power and influence in ways that limit and constrain the U.S., its allies and security partners in the region.

Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University in New York, says that China is advancing its core interests to articulate what it regards as a reasonable basis on which it can expect the U.S. to accommodate China in Asia.

Writing on the Asia Society’s ChinaFile on April 30, Nathan described the Chinese plan this way: “The logic goes that if we can figure out which interests are truly core to each side — in effect, which interests are “legitimate” — then we can agree to a new division of influence that serves both sides fairly and preserves the security of each.”

China’s move would greatly enlarge its sovereign territory and sphere of influence in the East and South China Seas. It would create an extensive security buffer off the Chinese coast and give Beijing control of valuable offshore fisheries and seabed energy and mineral resources.

In return, China would offer the U.S. greater cooperation on what it claims are vital matters for Washington such as North Korea; Iran; economic, financial and trade policy coordination, and other global issues.

But this airbrushes away America’s oft-stated vital Asia-Pacific interests, including sustaining alliances and security partnerships in the region, and preserving freedom of navigation and over-flight. It also takes no account of the interests and concerns other countries in the region. And it ignores the fact that no U.N. member state in the region recognizes China’s claims in the East and South China Seas.

This conflict with the interests of the U.S., and its Asian allies and friends, is doubtless why Donilon told Xi last week that Obama was “firmly committed to building a relationship (with China) defined by higher levels of practical cooperation and greater levels of trust, while managing whatever differences and disagreements that might arise between us.”

In other words, the Obama administration is ready to improve relations with China, but not on the “core interests” basis advanced by Beijing.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

  • zer0_0zor0

    There’s so much neo-con threat construction and divide-and-conquer strategizing and propagandizing it’s hard to pick a starting point to respond.

    First, the statement

    Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University in New York, says that China is advancing its core interests to articulate what it regards as a reasonable basis on which it can expect the U.S. to accommodate China in Asia.

    seems to fail to recognize that China is the geographical entity in East Asia, not the USA.

    After a couple of strawman arguments, the punch line

    But this airbrushes away America’s oft-stated vital Asia-Pacific interests, including sustaining alliances and security partnerships in the region, and preserving freedom of navigation and over-flight.

    If there were no threat, then the need for “security partnerships in the region”, so the exercise in threat-construction has as its goal the preservation of security partnerships, hen in fact, increased militarization of the region is the last thing it needs.

  • Ken5745

    Michael Richardson’s claim that ‘China under Xi will try to expand its Asia-Pacific power and influence in ways that limit and constrain the US, its allies and security partners in the region.’ is a logical fallacy, in which the conclusion is not supported by the premises. It is another vintage Richardson ‘China-threat’ chestnut that he dishes out ad nauseum.

    Firstly, you don’t need to be Albert Einstein to see that China has only one refurbished aircraft carrier vs 11 Carrier Groups operated by the US Navy and there is no way China can expand and project its Asia-Pacific power anytime in the near future. And paradoxically how is China able ‘influence in ways that limit and constrain the U.S., its allies and security partners in the region.’ when it is not even invited to join the TPP?

    Secondly, “Beijing’s claim to the disputed Senkaku Islands and surrounding parts of the East China Sea” is only a core interest” after Japan unilaterally nationalized the disputed islands in Sept 2012.

    Before that the two countries were happy to shelve the disputes on the islands for a wiser future generation to solve, when the two countries decided to normalize diplomatic relations in Sept 1972.

    Although Mr Abe and the his Ministers have denied any such ‘shelving’ of the island dispute, this was confirmed recently by former chief Cabinet Secretary Mr Hiromu Nonaka, who told reporters in Beijing that “Just after the normalization of relations, I was told clearly by then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka that a decision was made on the normalization by shelving the Senkaku issue. and as a living witness, I would like to make (it) clear.”.

    Thirdly, China’s claim to the Paracel island or Xisha by its Chinese name is not a new core interest. China’s claims goes back to the Song Dynasty.

    On September 14, 1958 , Premier Pham Van Dong of Nth Vietnam stated in his note to Premier Zhou Enlai that Viet Nam had no claim on the Paracel either historically or geographically.

    Additionally, when Vice Foreign Minister Dung Van Khiem received Mr. Li Zhimin, charge d’affaires ad interim of the Chinese Embassy in Viet Nam he told him that “according to Vietnamese data, the Xisha and Nansha Islands (The Spratlys) are historically part of Chinese territory.” Mr. Le Doc, Acting Director of the Asian Department of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, who was also present, added that “judging from history, these islands were already part of China at the time of the Song Dynasty.”

    Fourthly, China invented the compass and ship’s rudder for ocean sailing. she was the first nation to sail the high seas starting from 1421 when Admiral Zheng He set sailed with 200 ships and 22,000 sailors in 7 voyages.

    He explored the South China seas and sailed through the now-named Straits of Malacca to Ceylon, India, Oman and to the East Africa, not to invade and colonize which the British, Dutch and the Portuguese did a century later, but to trade.

    Admiral Zheng He did this 70 years before Columbus set sail to the new world.

    For the Philippines to claim to be the first nation to discover the disputed Scarborough shoals when a 1774 map of the Philippine Islands depicted the Scarborough Shoal as Panacot Shoal is ludicrous. Yet China is prepared to develop the shoals with the Philippines if the latter cools down the rhetoric.

    As a member of the Fourth Estate, Michael Richardson has the responsibility to report news accurately and sensitively. In this article he has failed on both counts.

  • Garo Ungaro

    You can never trust somebody with power…?just be aware…?