«China’s Assertive Behavior Part One: On “Core Interests” Michael D. Swaine (I am deeply indebted to Rachel Odell and Tan Weilu, Carnegie Junior ...»
meeting of the S&ED in Washington.41 Clinton herself repeated this during a recent press interview in Australia.42 However, a close examination of the official Chinese sources consulted for this study failed to unearth a single example of a PRC official or an official PRC document or media source that publicly and explicitly identifies the South China Sea as a PRC “core interest.” In fact, when given the opportunity to clarify the official record on this issue, Chinese officials have avoided doing so.43 During their October 11, 2010, meeting in Hanoi, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie apparently did not mention the issue of the South China Seas to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.44 And when President Hu Jintao traveled to Washington for his state visit in January 2011, he explicitly identified only Taiwan and Tibet as core interests.45 In addition, personal communications with very knowledgeable U.S. officials confirm that Chinese officials did not explicitly identify China’s territorial claims to the South China Sea as a “core interest” in the March 2010 meeting with Steinberg and Bader. In that meeting, the PRC officials listed the issue as one among several about which they were attempting to elicit U.S. understanding and deference for Beijing’s position.
In any event, the foregoing information strongly suggests three conclusions: first, at the very least, Beijing has not unambiguously identified the South China Sea issue as one of its core interests, as it has done with Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Second, even if Beijing did identify the issue as a core interest on one occasion (at the May 2010 S&ED), this was done in a decidedly unofficial manner. Third, although Beijing originally attempted in the March 2010 Steinberg/Bader meeting to raise the importance of the South China Sea issue as a Chinese interest in U.S. eyes, it has deliberately avoided
clarifying its stance on the matter since that time, thus creating the impression that it is backing away from the controversy.
Perhaps for some observers, the issue of whether or not Beijing has identified the South China Sea as a core interest is a purely semantic one, of little real significance, especially given China’s apparent attempt to raise its relevance in March 2010. However, as noted above, the Chinese application of the term “core interest” to an issue is intended to convey a very high level of commitment to managing or resolving that issue on Chinese terms, without much if any discussion or negotiation (at least regarding basic questions such as China’s ultimate sovereign authority, as in the case of Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang). In other words, it conveys a high level of resolve, and to some extent a warning of sorts to other powers. In this particular instance, labeling China’s claims to the South China Sea as a core interest would have signaled a significant, and alarming, shift in China’s historical stance toward the issue. That stance not only recognizes the multinational nature of the South China Sea issue as a sovereignty dispute among several countries (albeit one that Beijing wishes to handle on a bilateral basis, with each claimant), but also seeks to convey Beijing’s willingness to negotiate the ultimate nature and extent of Chinese sovereignty over the region. In contrast, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang are described as purely Chinese internal affairs not subject to dispute or negotiation.49 But if the term “core interests” has such significance, why has Beijing avoided clarifying whether or not it applies to the South China Sea issue? Although it is impossible to say with certainty, it is probably because confirming the association would signal a clear shift in position that would likely provoke an even stronger international reaction than has occurred thus far (as indicated above), while an official denial of the association might convey an impression of weakness and retreat from China’s basic stance on sovereignty and territorial issues, thus inviting domestic attack.50 Moreover, in reality, Beijing has not clearly confirmed the precise nature and extent of its sovereignty claims to the South China Sea; hence, clarifying its stance on whether the issue constitutes a core interest could generate confusion and thereby force China to make such a clarification.51 Some unofficial Chinese observers have also argued that Beijing should not officially confirm that the South China Sea is a core interest because to do so would not only sow confusion among other nations, but also “... be used by unfriendly forces in the international community in a bid to contain China.”52 Some Chinese academics even suggest that the United States was falsely accusing China of elevating the South China Sea to the level of a “core interest” in order to hype the China threat among China’s neighbors, culminating in Secretary Clinton’s orchestrated pushback against the Chinese at the ASEAN Regional Forum in late July 2010.53 Other Chinese observers more broadly argue that China should be extremely cautious in describing any specific issues (including the South China Sea) as a “core interest,” given the potentially provocative nature of the term to other nations.54 However, as suggested in endnote 32, many unofficial Chinese observers argue that the South China Sea issue is or should be declared a core Chinese interest.
Swaine, China Leadership Monitor, no. 34
The preceding unofficial differences in viewpoint, along with the likely dilemma involved in confirming whether the South China Sea is a core interest, together suggest the possibility of disagreement among the Chinese leadership on this matter. If such disagreement exists, it is probably not along civil-military lines, however, since some PLA officers (such as Han Xudong and Yin Zhuo) oppose declaring the South China Sea a core interest, while others (such as Luo Yuan) support such a move.55 Conclusion As the foregoing analysis shows, Beijing’s use of the term “core interest” with regard to issues involving the international community, and the United States in particular, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its usage probably derives from growing Chinese concerns over the Taiwan issue in the early 2000s. However, the term has since been unambiguously applied to two other sovereignty-related issues (Tibet and Xinjiang), and its general coverage has been expanded to include three other general sets of state interests: the Chinese political system, national security, and socioeconomic development. Despite much reporting to the contrary, Beijing’s territorial claims with regard to the South China Sea have not been clearly identified officially and publicly as a “core interest.” Moreover, the application of the term by senior PRC officials to other general issues such as “independence,” “human rights,” and “national unity” or “reunification” seem intended to reinforce the existing primary emphasis placed on sovereignty and territorial issues as core Chinese interests.
The term “core interests” has its precursors and draws on long-held stances toward sovereignty and territorial issues. However, its increasing use in official statements and diplomatic documents, and its explicit application to specific contentious policy issues (most notably Taiwan) arguably signals an attempt by a stronger, more assertive Chinese leadership to elicit greater respect and deference from other nations for China’s position on those issues. Equally important, as suggested in CLM 32, this effort is perhaps also motivated by a belief that the United States and other powers are increasingly challenging some of China’s core interests, thus requiring a more assertive PRC response. In addition, Beijing’s apparent refusal to “haggle” or compromise, and its stated willingness to employ extreme measures—including force—to defend its position with regard to China’s core interests, arguably constitute a warning to other nations that should not be ignored.
Of course, every nation has its national interests, many of which are described as “vital” or “core.”56 China is obviously no exception. Nonetheless, Beijing’s explicit and growing emphasis on the term, its adoption of a seemingly rigid negotiating stance on core interests, the application of the phrase to contentious issues such as Taiwan, and, perhaps most importantly, the possibility that a stronger China might expand the scope and sharpen the definition of its core interests further to include other issues of contention, together pose a significant challenge to U.S. (and Chinese) efforts to maintain a stable and mutually productive bilateral relationship.
Swaine, China Leadership Monitor, no. 34
Notes The Joint Statement included the following phrase: “The two sides agreed that respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in China-US relations.” See “U.S.-China Joint Statement,” White House, Office of the Press Secretary, November 17, 2009, Beijing, China, available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/us-china-joint-statement; and “China-US Joint Statement,” November 17, 2009, Beijing, China, available at http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjb/zzjg/bmdyzs/xwlb/t629497.htm. The language about core interests was absent from the January 2011 joint statement issued during President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington, as discussed further below. U.S.-China Joint Statement, January 19, 2011, Washington, D.C., available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/19/us-china-joint-statement.
The major primary sources employed in this study to chart the official use of the concept of “core interests” and related terms include: The official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China ( ), Chinese and English versions (http:www.fmprc.gov.cn and http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng, respectively); the archives of People’s Daily ( ), at PeopleData (http://data.people.com.cn, ); the archives of PLA Daily ( ) at East View Information Services (http://www.eastview.com); and the databases of the Chinese Government and the Communist Party of China (CPC), both at PeopleData. We are also grateful to Professor Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard University for providing his unpublished data on the PRC usage of the term “core interests.” For example, People’s Daily apparently first employed the term “core interests” ( ) in June 1980, in discussing how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Soviet support of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia threatened the “core interests” of the West ( ). See ;,“,” (Xiang Qian and Xiao Xi, “Critical Appeasement Undercurrent,” People’s Daily), June 21, 1980, http://data.people.com.cn.
The second reference to the phrase in the People’s Daily database discusses Vice President Al Gore’s five-part formulation of America’s national interests and describes how Gore explained that a technology policy would serve the U.S. “core interests.” See,“,,” (Xu Yong, “U.S. government declaration of scientific policy states the transfer of military technology to civilian use,” People’s Daily), August 6, 1994, 6th edition, http://data.people.com.cn.