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«China’s Assertive Behavior Part One: On “Core Interests” Michael D. Swaine (I am deeply indebted to Rachel Odell and Tan Weilu, Carnegie Junior ...»

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China’s Assertive Behavior

Part One: On “Core Interests”

Michael D. Swaine

(I am deeply indebted to Rachel Odell and Tan Weilu, Carnegie Junior Fellows, for their

invaluable research assistance in the preparation of this article.)

Among both casual observers and experts alike, the single most dominant

theme in Sino-U.S. relations of the past year or more has been the

emergence of a more “assertive China.” In CLM 32, we examined how

both Chinese and outside observers look at China’s growing assertiveness on the international stage, that is, the purely perceptual dimensions of the issue. In this and several subsequent CLMs, we intend to assess whether, to what extent, and in what manner, the Chinese government is becoming

more assertive in several major areas of relevance to the United States:

First, in defining and promoting the concept of “core interests”; second, with regard to U.S. political and military behavior along China’s maritime periphery; third, concerning a variety of economic, trade, and finance issues, from so-called indigenous innovation to global standards regarding reserve currencies; and fourth, with regard to several issues related to international security, from counter-proliferation to climate change.

In each of these four areas, we shall to varying degrees attempt to answer several basic questions regarding Chinese assertiveness that build on those addressed in CLM 32: In what ways are Chinese leaders becoming more assertive, employing what methods, and to what apparent ends? Is Chinese assertiveness a “new” and highly significant phenomenon for U.S. interests, and if so, in what manner? What misconceptions, if any, exist about China’s assertiveness? What internal and external forces are driving China’s assertive behavior? In particular, is Chinese assertiveness associated with particular interest groups or factions within Chinese state and society? How is China’s assertiveness evolving in response to both inside and outside pressures? And finally, what do the answers to the foregoing questions tell us about the likely future direction and strength of China’s assertiveness over the next several years?

What Kind of Assertive Behavior?

As indicated in CLM 32, China’s assertiveness means different things to different people.

As a result, the concept, in describing Chinese behavior, is somewhat vague and ambiguous, potentially encompassing everything from attempts to play a more active role Swaine, China Leadership Monitor, no. 34 in a wide variety of international regimes, to deliberate efforts to alter basic international norms and challenge the fundamental national interests or policies of the United States. In addition, there are many forms of assertiveness, from mere verbal statements or comments, to concerted official actions that appear designed to intimidate or even to force other nations or foreign entities to change their behavior. As this typology suggests, some forms of Chinese assertiveness are probably beneficial to the workings of the international system and U.S. interests while others are not. Indeed, U.S. officials welcome a more active, engaged China that seeks both to strengthen and to shape international institutions and norms in ways that advance prosperity, stability, and the peaceful resolution of problems. They presumably do not welcome a China that desires or appears to do otherwise.

In addition, not all indications of Chinese assertiveness (whether “good” or “bad” for the United States and other Western powers) are sanctioned or supported by the Chinese government. Indeed, as we have seen in CLM 32, many unofficial Chinese observers and pundits express or advocate various levels and types of assertiveness that are not reflected in official Chinese statements or documents.

Thus, any assessment of Chinese assertiveness must distinguish between official and unofficial actions or utterances, productive or creative assertiveness (what one might call “positive activism”) and confrontational, destabilizing, or threatening (from a Western or U.S. perspective) assertiveness. This essay, and those that follow, focuses primarily on identifying, measuring, and assessing official or governmental forms of negative or potentially threatening Chinese assertiveness, given its clear significance for future SinoAmerican relations and the obvious attention that it has received among outside observers.

Why “Core Interests”?

Since at least November of 2009, when it was inserted in the U.S.-China Joint Statement between Hu Jintao and Barack Obama during the latter’s state visit to China,1 the notion of China’s “core interests” ( ) has received enormous attention among both media pundits and experts alike. Many observers interpret the use of this concept by the PRC government as an indication of strong (and growing) Chinese assertiveness in the international arena, for three apparent reasons: first, because in recent years the concept has been more formally defined and included in official PRC (and at least one bilateral U.S.-PRC) statements and documents to a greater extent than in the past; second, because some Chinese officials and unofficial observers have apparently asserted that China’s “core interests” are essentially nonnegotiable in nature, thus conveying a level of rigidity and perhaps militancy toward whatever issue might be defined as a core interest; and third, because China is allegedly steadily defining more and more controversial international issues as affecting its “core interests,” including U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, meetings between foreign leaders and the Dalai Lama, and disputed territories in the South China Sea, thus by implication challenging an array of foreign activities relating to such issues. In the remainder of this essay, we shall examine these observations in turn.





Swaine, China Leadership Monitor, no. 34

Increasing Usage and an Official Definition An examination of the historical record indicates that the Chinese government has indeed in recent years invoked China’s “core interests” far more frequently, and presented publicly a more explicit definition of the term, than it has done in the past.2 In fact, official Chinese sources only began referring to China’s “core interests” on a fairly frequent basis in 2003–2004. The term was initially used in Chinese official media during the 1980s and ’90s only in reference to the interests of other nations.3 It was first used with reference to China in the mid-’90s and in the first years of the new century, but primarily in a domestic context. At that time, the term was closely associated with and seemed to emerge from the term “fundamental interests” ( ) as applied to China’s economic- and social-reform policies and the general maintenance of domestic order and stability.4 The term “core interests” has also been used in official PRC media alongside the ).5 The latter term was in fact employed earlier than term “major concerns” ( “core interests” in official PRC media and at times was used in joint statements between China and foreign governments, for example, in a report on a meeting between Jiang Zemin and President Chirac of France in 2000. It has also been used to refer to the Taiwan issue and the one-China principle.6 The term “core interests” was apparently first applied to China in a foreign context in PRC media in early 2002, but in an unofficial capacity, in an article written by a Chinese scholar.7 The first official foreign-oriented reference to the term “core interests” appeared in the report of a meeting between Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan and Secretary of State Colin Powell on January 19, 2003, in which Tang identified Taiwan as among China’s “core interests.” (See below for more on the link between Taiwan and the emergence of the official PRC use of “core interests”).8 The first apparent official identification of the oft-espoused concepts of “sovereignty and territorial integrity” ( ) as a Chinese “core interest” occurred in April 2004, again in the context of a discussion of Taiwan.9 During the remainder of 2004, both official and unofficial Chinese usage of the term “core interests” in reference to sovereignty and territorial interests (and Taiwan in particular) increased significantly.10 The related issue of “national security” ( ) was apparently first explicitly identified officially as a core interest in a speech given by then Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in September 2006 and reported in the People’s Daily.11 As one might surmise from the above references, major official and unofficial PRC media mentions of China’s core interests in a foreign-policy context increased notably beginning in the early 2000s, from a mention in one People’s Daily article in 2001 to 260 articles in 2009 and 325 articles in 2010.

Swaine, China Leadership Monitor, no. 34

Moreover, by 2004, Chinese officials had begun routinely mentioning the need for countries to respect and accommodate one another’s “core interests” in speeches with foreign officials and dignitaries, thus indicating that the term had not only entered the official lexicon but also become an important element of PRC diplomacy.12 It is therefore not surprising that the senior Chinese official responsible for PRC foreign policy (State Councilor Dai Bingguo) publicly defined the general elements of China’s core interests in July 2009, during a session of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). Dai stated in his closing remarks at the S&ED that the term includes three components: 1) preserving China’s basic state system and national security ( ); 2) national sovereignty and territorial integrity ( ); and 3) the continued stable development of China’s economy and society ( ).13 Variations of this multi-part definition have occurred officially since that time, and have been repeated by unofficial Chinese sources as well.14 In addition, Chinese officials have also at times identified “national unity” or “reunification” ( ) as a Chinese core interest, as well as / / “independence” ( ), in some instances alongside the three elements listed above.

However, the former references were almost invariably intended to buttress the Chinese position regarding issues associated with territorial integrity, such as Taiwan, and hence can be taken as largely duplicative of an element contained in Dai Bingguo’s list.15 In the case of “independence,” references have been very few in number and have always occurred in a bilateral or multilateral context (with regard to the “core interests” of both

Swaine, China Leadership Monitor, no. 34

countries or of countries in general); in some cases the word was inserted within the phrase “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” as in: “The defense of sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity is the core interest of every country.”16 Thus, the concept is, as with “national unity” or “reunification,” most closely associated with the general category of sovereignty and territorial integrity as a core interest.

Chinese officials have also identified “human rights” as a Chinese core interest.

However, this has only occurred nine times in official Foreign Ministry sources. Hu Jintao used it twice, in November 2006, during state visits to Laos and Pakistan. In both instances, he was expressing China’s appreciation for the support the two countries have extended to Beijing’s position on “... Taiwan, Tibet, human rights and other major questions involving China’s state sovereignty and core interests.”17 The seven other references include two from Yang Jiechi in 2008 and five from various ambassadors, including statements by Zhou Wenzhong, ambassador to the United States, in November 2009, and Song Zhe, ambassador to the EU, in December 2008.18 Moreover, overall, this context seems to suggest that human rights as a core interest refers primarily to Beijing’s right to determine how the lives of China’s citizenry will be promoted, especially in contested regions such as Taiwan and Tibet, for example, via the advancement of local economic and social conditions. In other words, the issue is again associated with domestic interests or other core interests involving sovereignty and territorial integrity.



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