SINGAPORE — Not long before U.S. President Barack Obama held his low-key meeting in the White House with the exiled Tibetan leader last month, the Dalai Lama, a Chinese Embassy spokesman in Washington issued a statement on the talks and the U.S. decision to provide a new package of defensive arms to Taiwan.

“China’s positions on issues like arms sales to Taiwan, and Tibet, have been consistent and clear,” Wang Baodong said, “as these issues bear on sovereignty and territorial integrity, which are close to Chinese core national interests.”

He was echoing top Chinese leaders who refer to keeping Tibet, Xinjiang, Macau and Hong Kong as part of China, and the recovery of Taiwan, as “core” sovereignty interests. What Beijing means by this and similar phases asserting national integrity is that such interests are vital, cannot be compromised, and will be protected at all costs — by force if necessary.

As China strengthens economically and militarily and its cooperation is increasingly needed to solve pressing international problems, even leading powers like the United States must defer, to some extent, to China’s core interests if it wants collaboration on other matters.

A big question for some of China’s neighbors, including Japan, India and Southeast Asia, is if and when Beijing will extend its list of core sovereignty interests to include claims to land territory that India says belongs to it, and to sea and island territory that Japan and some Southeast Asian countries say belongs to them. This is a major issue and the scale of the claims can be exacerbated by emotive nationalism. China’s claims are linked to the maintenance or recovery of territory it says was taken by colonial powers when it was weak.

Beijing insists that around 90,000 square kilometers of territory in India’s mountainous northeast, covering virtually the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh, is part of China. Meanwhile, India rejects Chinese rule over 38,000 square km of Kashmir land ceded by Pakistan to China in 1964.

These disputes are dwarfed by China’s maritime claims, which cover about 3 million square km. Most of this is in two areas — the South China Sea, where Beijing’s claims overlap mainly with those of Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, and the East China Sea, where its claims are contested by Japan.

So far Beijing has described the territorial disputes with India, Japan and Southeast Asian countries as ones involving its “indisputable” or “inalienable” sovereignty. While not ready to compromise on the principle that the territory concerned rightfully belongs to China, it has remained open to talks and has not described the claims as “core” national interests.

However, Beijing has been reinforcing its presence, influence and strength in various ways in or close to these disputed zones. This has prompted some analysts to describe the strategy as “creeping assertiveness,” in which China gradually assembles the sinews of power that could eventually be used to enforce its claims.

At the recent Munich Security Conference, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was at pains to dispel concerns that China was an expansionist power, saying it was committed to peaceful development. He added that China’s military modernization has “a clear purpose, that is to maintain national security and unity, and ensure smooth economic and social development.”

The key point here is the definition of China’s national unity. So far, this has not included territory disputed with India, Japan and Southeast Asia.

The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence evidently thinks this may change over the next 10 to 15 years, as the power and reach of the Chinese Nvy, including its air and amphibious warfare arms, continues to grow. In a report posted briefly, apparently by mistake, in November, the ONI noted that the East Asia region included “numerous hot spots and potential conflicts that challenge China’s interests.”

While preparing for a Taiwan crisis remained the top priority for the Chinese Navy, “challenges to China’s sovereignty in the South and East China Seas, China’s need to secure access to vital sea lanes in the region, and the increased domestic and international pressure to play a larger role in international security efforts befitting China’s status as a rising power, require China to prepare for multiple future contingencies.”

How should China’s neighbors hedge against an expansionist China, while trying to foster conditions that might persuade Beijing that such a course would be counterproductive and unnecessary?

One part of the answer lies in keeping the U.S. engaged in Asia, its five Asia-Pacific alliances in good order, and broadening U.S.-India relations, including defense and security links. Another approach is to enmesh China not just in extensive trade, investment and other civilian ties with its Asian neighbors, but also in cooperative security arrangements.

The latter was broached openly for the first time recently by a high ranking Indian official in an interview with the Financial Times. Pallam Raju, India’s minister of state for defense, said the Indian navy was ready to work with China to help protect the shipping lanes from Africa and the Middle East. These carry extensive supplies of energy and other trade crucial to China and India and to Asia’s position as the mainspring of economic growth in world.

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

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