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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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Therefore, the most common and authoritative formulation of the general concepts comprising China’s core interests appears to remain that of Dai Bingguo, presented in July 2009. That said, since Dai articulated his definition, Chinese officials have continued to place the most emphasis on “sovereignty and territorial integrity” as the most important characteristic of China’s core interests. The first and third elements of Dai’s definition—“basic state system and national security,” and “continued stable social and economic development”—are still only infrequently mentioned in the context of China’s “core interests.” Motivated by the Taiwan Issue?

It is not entirely clear what prompted official Chinese sources to begin employing the term “core interests” to such a degree and in this manner. Of course, the defense or protection of China’s national security, the PRC system or regime, and Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the protection and advancement of China’s economy and society, has been a staple of PRC foreign policy for decades. Indeed, they are basic to any nation’s definition of its national interests.

That said, it is quite likely that Beijing began to sharpen and promote vigorously the concept of “core interests” in response to growing concerns over the Taiwan issue. By 2004–2005, Beijing had become extremely worried about what it regarded as the efforts of former Taiwan president Chen Shuibian to achieve de jure Taiwan independence, possibly with U.S. backing. In response, during that time, the National People’s Congress promulgated the so-called Anti-Secession Law (ASL, in March 2005), and PRC officials began pressing (or warning) the United States and other countries to reject Chen’s efforts

Swaine, China Leadership Monitor, no. 34

and to recognize China’s vital interests on the issue.19 As indicated above, it is precisely at this time that Chinese officials began to emphasize China’s core interests, and to specify Taiwan as a primary example.20 Indeed, for some unofficial Chinese observers, Beijing’s “core interests” are primarily about sovereignty and territorial integrity.21 Used as a Warning and for Diplomatic Leverage As suggested above, China’s relatively recent and repeated invocation of the phrase “core interests” generates concern among both foreigners and some Chinese in large part because of: 1) Beijing’s efforts to pressure foreign governments (and especially the United States) to officially acknowledge acceptance of the general concept and the specific policy issues to which it applies (such as Taiwan—discussed below); and, more importantly, 2) its apparent association with a rigid, uncompromising diplomatic or military stance. In other words, the appearance of the term appears to signal a more vigorous attempt to lay down a marker, or type of warning, regarding the need for the United States and other countries to respect (indeed, accept with little if any negotiation) China’s position on certain issues.

Regarding the first point, beginning in the early 2000s, Chinese officials increasingly pressed the United States to issue formal statements indicating a willingness to respect one another’s core interests (as indicated above), and even, in recent years, to explicitly and formally recognize the category of “core interests and major concerns” in general, as a necessary basis for the advancement of the bilateral relationship.22 This pressure campaign culminated in the inclusion of the term in the November 2009 U.S.-China Joint Statement. This was the first time that it had been used in an official, high-level SinoAmerican statement or communiqué. In fact, even in past meetings where senior Chinese officials were pressing their U.S. counterparts to respect China’s “core interests,” U.S.

officials never repeated the phrase, but instead merely conveyed support for various longstanding U.S. policies, such as the “one China” principle and the three joint communiqués.23 The 1972 and 1982 Sino-U.S. joint communiqués do affirm “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states” and “respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” (respectively), which Beijing has since identified as one of its core interests.24 However, by November 2009 Beijing had significantly expanded its definition of core interests to include several other general categories, as indicated in the July 2009 statement by Dai Bingguo, discussed above. Therefore, such past U.S.

acknowledgments (of respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity) could not be viewed as a precedent for the U.S. acceptance of Beijing’s “core interests” in the HuObama joint statement.

Since the signing of the November 2009 Joint Statement, Beijing has repeatedly and emphatically cited the mutual commitment to respect one another’s “core interests” contained in that document as a basis for its demands that Washington alter its behavior in a variety of areas, from arms sales to Taiwan to presidential meetings with the Dalai Lama. Indeed, the Chinese have branded the joint statement as an “important consensus”

Swaine, China Leadership Monitor, no. 34

that is a major step in the development of a “new era” ( ) in U.S.-China relations. It is often mentioned in official Chinese sources alongside the three Sino-U.S. joint communiqués.25 However, the reference to “core interests” was not included in the joint statement issued after Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington in January 2011.26 The reason for this omission is not entirely clear, but most likely reflects, at least partly, a U.S. desire to avoid the controversy that followed the inclusion of the term in the 2009 joint statement. At that time, some observers argued that the Obama administration had shown undue weakness in allegedly acceding to a Chinese demand to include a phrase closely associated with Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, and other supposed territorial ambitions.27 Regarding the association of “core interests” with an uncompromising official PRC stance, the historical record suggests that, although Chinese officials have not to our knowledge used the phrase “non-negotiable” ( ) to describe China’s stance toward its “core interests,” they have certainly employed similar terms on many occasions. For example, officials have stated that China will “never waver, compromise, or yield” ( ), will not haggle or bargain ( ), and “must stand firm, be clear-cut, have courage to fight, and never trade away principles” ( ) when dealing with its core interests, and with issues involving sovereignty and territorial integrity in particular.28 Moreover, Chinese officials and official media sources have at times separately used the term “non-negotiable” to refer to issues that Beijing has described as a “core interest,” notably, sovereignty and territorial integrity, involving, for example, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet.29 And in some cases, Chinese officials have explicitly connected the defense of specific core interests (again, most notably sovereignty and territorial integrity) with the possible use of force. Such language has been used quite consistently for years.30 Of course, even official (and unofficial) statements of strong resolve and a refusal to compromise do not necessarily guarantee that Beijing would in reality in every instance employ such a rigid approach (including, perhaps the use of force) to defend what it has defined as its core interests. Yet, at least with regard to sovereignty and territorial issues, the historical record of China’s behavior suggests that such a possibility would be extremely high, and certainly cannot be dismissed.31 Hence, what China labels as its “core interest” is certainly significant. And so, perhaps the most important issue becomes, what specific policy areas does Beijing include among its core interests?





Territorial Issues (and Especially Taiwan) are at the Core A large number of unofficial Chinese and foreign observers have identified a range of issues as being among China’s “core interests.” These include Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang-related issues; territories in the South China Seas; the defense of the Yellow Sea; the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands; bilateral trade; and the value of China’s currency.

Some of these issues (such as Taiwan and access to international waters near China)

Swaine, China Leadership Monitor, no. 34

directly concern critical U.S. security interests.32 In truth, much of the unofficial commentary contains inaccuracies, distortions, and misconceptions. A close examination of the historical record, along with personal conversations with knowledgeable senior U.S. officials, confirms that thus far the Chinese government has officially, and repeatedly, identified only three closely related issues as specific core interests: the defense of China’s sovereignty claims regarding Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang.

As indicated above, the Taiwan issue probably originally triggered official use of the term “core interests” in the realm of foreign affairs and has clearly been most often associated with its official use.33 On the subject of Tibet, Chinese officials have of course for many years referred to Tibet’s status as part of China as an important or fundamental sovereignty issue. For example, the 1992 PRC white paper on Tibet stated that “there is no room for haggling” ( ) on the fundamental principle ( ) that “Tibet is an inalienable part of China.”34 However, perhaps the first (or at least an early) occurrence of an official, explicit reference to Tibet as a Chinese “core interest” occurred in April 2006, in a meeting between PRC Vice President Zeng Qinghong and the prime minister of Sri Lanka.35 Similarly, Chinese officials have often referred to Xinjiang’s sovereign status as an important Chinese interest. The earliest use of the term “core interest” in reference to that Chinese region apparently also dates from 2006. In November of that year, in a speech in Pakistan, Hu Jintao first identified “the fight against East Turkestan” terrorist forces as a Chinese “core interest,” alongside Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights. This clearly implies that the defense of China’s sovereignty over Xinjiang (which the East Turkestan terrorist forces violently contest) is a PRC core interest.36 On subsequent occasions (beginning largely in 2009, it seems), Chinese officials have referred simply to “Xinjiang” as being among China’s core interests.37 As far as we can surmise from the official PRC sources used in this study, references to the defense of the Yellow Sea, Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, bilateral trade, and the value of China’s currency as Chinese core interests are entirely unofficial. In other words, we can find no official source stating that such concepts are among China’s “core interests.”38 The reference to the South China Sea as a Chinese core interest is a more complex matter. The New York Times apparently first reported that Chinese officials had identified the defense of China’s territorial claims to the South China Sea as a “core interest” in a private meeting held in Beijing in March 2010 with two senior U.S. officials, NSC Asia Director Jeffrey Bader and Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.39 Many other media sources (and other New York Times reporters) subsequently repeated this initial New York Times story, often without citing it as the original source (or perhaps in some cases merely duplicating the story by interviewing the same U.S. official paraphrased in the New York Times story),40 thus creating the impression that the report came from multiple sources. At least one media source subsequently asserted that Dai Bingguo had also identified the South China Sea in this manner to Hillary Clinton, at the May 2010

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