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China’s troubling core interests

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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.

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