Does Promoting “Core Interests” Do China More Harm Than Good?

PART TWO of a ChinaFile Conversation

On April 30, as tensions around China’s claims to territories in the South- and East China Seas continued to simmer, we began what proved to be a popular ChinaFile Conversation, asking the question, What's Really at the Core of China’s ‘Core Interests’? The participants included Shai Oster of Bloomberg News, Andrew Nathan of Columbia University, Orville Schell of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, Susan Shirk, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Tai Ming Cheung of the University of California, and John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul. Today, we continue that discussion, beginning with a Letter to the Editor from Alastair Iain Johnston, Laine Professor of China in World Affairs in the Government Department at Harvard University:

The source of story that the Chinese have officially declared the Senkakus a core interest is a Kyodo report. The Kyodo report accurately reported that the PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated on April 26, “Of course, the Diaoyudao are part of China’s core interests.” Video clips of the press conference confirm this.

But Kyodo did not report that the official transcripts of the spokesperson’s remarks removed this sentence.

If one looks at the official transcripts, these state only that “….China resolutely upholds the nation’s core interests, including national sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity etc. The Diaoyudao issue touches on China’s territorial sovereignty”. So, for some reason the Foreign Ministry decided to cut what would have been the most direct official statement about the islands being a core interest.

It is possible that the P.R.C. spokesperson strayed a bit from the official position and that the official record reflects official policy, or it is possible that that retrospectively the government decided not to state the issue as baldly as it the spokesperson originally did. In any event,  this particular formulation—“touches on territorial sovereignty” (涉及中国领土主权)—Chinese is not as declarative as it could have been.  This editing, therefore, may reflect a dilemma the P.R.C. government faces. It cannot say the Diaoyudao/Senkaku are not a core interest. This would create domestic problems for the regime. But it cannot say as explicitly as it could that the islands are a core interest, because this could constrain any future space for negotiation. So, a critical piece of evidence will be whether or not the P.R.C. drops the demand for negotiations with Japan over the islands. If it does, then this would be consistent with an official declaration that the islands are a core interest. If it continues to demand negotiations, this would be consistent with the official position of not (yet) directly stating the islands are a core interest.

I would be interested in what the commentators [from Tuesday's dicussion] believe the significance (if any) is of the edited official transcript that drops the most direct statement about core interests.—Alastair Iain Johnston


Shai's take [ChinaFile's first, back on Tuesday] is both right and wrong. Yes, China is expanding its core interests. But it's not doing so by making a list. It’s doing so by redefining the concept, as was done initially by Dai Bingguo in 2009, and then enshrined in the White Paper on China’s Peaceful Development in September 2011. Initially confined to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, the definition of core interests was: 1) China’s political system under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party 2) sovereignty, security and territorial integrity 3) economic advancement. But these are not so much interests as goals or ambitions, and they were easily expanded beyond the specifics of Taiwan or Xinjiang.

With such a definition, any sovereignty claims—including the South China Sea and Senkaku/Diaoyu—are core interests under the second category. Given the emphasis on China becoming a “maritime power,” it was perhaps only a matter of time before the East and South China Seas would be explicitly mentioned as core interests.

As Shai said, the phrase has not necessarily gotten China any further in its aim of strengthening its sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas – mostly due to continued resistance from Asian countries which are also increasingly reaching out to the US to counter what they see as China’s more assertive stance. But at the same time, Beijing has succeeded in inserting the phrase into US-China relations and is trying to set it as a bottom line in that and other bilateral relationships.

 It is not by accident that China has informed U.S. officials that the South and East China Sea are part of its core interests. "Core interests" has become a key concept that it has consistently pushed in its relations with Washington. Beijing was emboldened in this effort when the U.S. agreed to the term’s inclusion in the November 2009 US-China Joint Statement ("the two sides agreed that respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in China-U.S. relations"). Since then, the Chinese have regularly invoked the term, more recently along with its corollary, the “new type of great power relations” (see below). Beijing was only too happy to see the previous U.S. guiding principle for the relationship, “responsible stakeholder,” replaced by its own phrase. Despite Beijing’s initial mistrust for the concept—as it sees such external calls to contribute to the global public good as an attempt to slow its rise – it ended up accepting it.  It was the U.S. that jettisoned it with the change of administration.

The next joint statement, issued following President Hu Jintao's January 2011 state visit, tried to shift the emphasis away from  “core interests” to focus more on the concept of "partnership based on mutual interests." This was the result of serious negotiation, with a deliberate effort by the U.S. to exclude any direct reference to “core interests” in the text this time. While this was achieved, the two presidents also “further reaffirmed their commitment to the November 2009 U.S.-China joint statement,” which essentially preserves the continuity of the Chinese focus on “core interests.”[1]

 There are at least three reasons that China insists on using this framework of discussion with the U.S. Beijing perceives some of Washington's actions, such as arms sales to Taiwan and involvement in the Tibet and Xinjiang issues, as a challenge to its core interests. It feels it needs to use every opportunity to remind Washington of its sensitivity to these issues in the hopes of preventing its positions on them from being undermined, lest Chinese elites and the public see its diplomacy with the U.S. as a failure.[2] China's emphasis on its core interests also reflects its growing confidence in interactions with the U.S. There is a belief that as China’s national strength grows, it has a more advantageous position and more resources to deal with Washington; therefore, Washington should be more cautious in handling China’s core interests.

The use of the concept has also been integral to China’s consistent efforts at explicit issue linkage. While one will not hear a US official use the term “core interests”, Beijing has defined US “core interests” for Washington. Beijing considers the prevention of nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea as “U.S. core interests”. There is a prevalent belief that if China helps out on these issues, then the U.S. should do the same with regard to interests China holds dear. This is rooted in the belief that when China assists the US on certain issues, it does Washington a favor. Pressure on China to reprimand North Korea for its recent round of threats is one example. I was posed the question in Beijing last week: If China were to “help out” the US on North Korea, what could the US do to “sweeten the deal”?  Specifically, would the US be more willing to be “flexible on the East China Sea and South China Sea issues”?  Could it ease up on joint military drills and support to Japan, so that “China will feel more encouraged”?

A similar thing happened when Hu Jintao attended the nuclear security summit in Washington in April 2010, at a time when the US was requesting Chinese cooperation on sanctions against Iran. Hu Jintao eventually gave in, stating: “China and the United States should respect each other’s core interests and major concerns. This is key to the healthy and stable development of bilateral ties.” Subsequent to the visit, policy circles in Beijing were abuzz with what China would get in return for having respected a “US core interest.”

 The core interest concept also lies at the heart of the Chinese notion of a “new type of great power relations” with the US (新型大国关系).  While many Western analysts continue to argue that the concept is unclear, the following defining elements have repeatedly come up in editorials, articles and speeches by Chinese analysts and policymakers:

The new type of great power relations should be different from the old type of relations—which are characterized as zero-sum and by the inevitability of conflicts -- between an incumbent and a rising power.

  1. The U.S. should respect Chinese "core interests": Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and other sovereignty-related issues.
  2. The U.S. should accept and respect the Chinese political system and not interfere in Chinese domestic affairs.
  3. Cooperation on international affairs should be based on common interests and undertaken on an equal footing.

In his meeting with President Obama on the sidelines of the seventh G20 Summit, then-President Hu Jintao more clearly laid out what this “new type of great power relations” would look like: The United States and China “should properly manage their differences and ward off interferences” and the U.S. should “adopt a positive and pragmatic China policy” that does not allow domestic politics to disturb China-U.S. ties” and supports “the peaceful development of the relations across the Taiwan Strait with concrete action…”

In July of 2012, Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai and Pang Hanzhao released an essay that clarified China’s goal in seeking improved U.S.-China relations.[3] They identify a number of areas in which the United States needs to change its policy in order to achieve closer bilateral relations, including with regard to arms sales to Taiwan; intervention in China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors; public criticism on “issues related to Tibet, Xinjiang, democracy;” failure to view China as an equal; and trade disputes as areas in which the United States is not acting as a “positive partner.” Regarding recognition and respect of core interests, Cui and Pang conclude: “China has never done anything to undermine the US core interests and major concerns, yet what the United States has done in matters concerning China’s core and important interests and major concerns is unsatisfactory.”

Beijing clearly sees the new type of great power relations as an opportunity for increased benefit without greater costs. The “new type of great power relations” concept seems squarely aimed at achieving concessions from the U.S. on so-far unspecified issues. China seems to be saying that a rising power and an established power are not destined for conflict only if the U.S. embraces China’s core interests.  (Or as Andy put it on Tuesday, “If only Washington would recognize this logic and yield its remote, peripheral, non-core interests in Asia in favor of China’s truly essential, ‘legitimate’ interests, then the two sides can enjoy peace.”)

Surprisingly, the United States has been willing to engage China in both public and private on the concept. Instead the concept should be rejected as a non-starter. Accepting and discussing it will only lead to Chinese expectations of recognition and acceptance of "core interests" and of a trade-off on other issues. While there is a natural give-and-take in international diplomacy, to bring things down to a brute horse trade where each side must respect each other’s allegedly distinct core interests is a profoundly unhelpful paradigm for building cooperation and reducing mistrust in the U.S.-China relationship, let alone effectively managing global challenges. At the very least, it sets up unrealistic expectations that there might be major shifts in US policies in return for China taking certain actions.

Rather than trying to work out an abstract conceptual framework for the relationship, that effort should be spent on finding concrete areas in which cooperation is achievable. And instead of focusing on issues on which both sides are unlikely to agree in the foreseeable future, attention should be given to challenges that affect mutual interests but do not directly impact the core interests of either side. Nothing builds bilateral trust and cooperation better than the two countries working together on common problems, as they have on the Six-Party Talks, piracy in the Gulf of Aden or conflict in the Sudan. The world continues to deliver a myriad of challenges including: climate change, nonproliferation, counterterrorism, disease control, counter-piracy and armed conflict. Instead of each side re-emphasizing bottom lines and focusing on the most intractable issues, a stronger foundation for the overall U.S.-China relationship would result from a string of successful cooperation on challenges that affect our mutual interests. That is also the most viable route to a new type of great power relationship.

[1] Testimony of John Park before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, April 2011.

[2] Wu Xinbo, “China and the United States: Core Interests, Common Interests, and Partnership,” USIP Special Report, June 2011.

[3] Cui Tiankai and Pang Hanzhao, “China-U.S. Relations in China’s Overall Diplomacy Diplomacy in the New Era.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 2012.

Thanks to Iain’s careful reading of the P.R.C. Foreign Ministry website we now know that the spokesperson’s statement that the Diaoyu Islands are a “core interest” was changed in the written transcript to something much less definitive. As good China watchers, we wish we knew the backstory of why the spokesperson’s words were changed.       

Is there internal disagreement within the Foreign Ministry or between the Foreign Ministry and the P.L.A. (which reportedly told U.S. General Dempsey that the islands were “core interests”) or even with other government agencies? Might it indicate that the coordination problems that plagued Chinese foreign policy during the Hu Jintao era have not yet been remedied by Xi Jinping’s efforts to lead with greater decisiveness? 

By editing the spokesperson’s words, the Chinese government indicates that for the time being it isn’t prepared to extend the loaded term “core interest” to off-shore sovereignty claims beyond Taiwan. We should welcome the Chinese government’s caution. Let’s not play “gotcha” over Beijing’s confusing messages or get in the way of its climb-down.

Meanwhile it will be interesting to follow the Chinese media and Internet to see how the attentive public reacts and what the propaganda censors allow. Will nationalist Netizens criticize the government for backing down?   

The discussion about China’s national “core interests” has gone on for many years among China’s academics and diplomats. People’s passions for this kind of discussion were rare in the past, but now reflect Chinese people’s self-confidence and expectations, both rising with China’s national power and its growth.

On the official side, the newest expression is China’s top leader Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream.” Though Xi doesn’t give out criteria for the Chinese Dream, his meaning is that the Chinese people’s greatest dream in the modern era is the rejuvenation of their nation’s great position, the realization of its national wealth and power, and the improvement of its peoples’ lives. Following Xi’s logic we can say that anything—any pursuits, any interests, and any borders, as long as they are helpful to China’s rejuvenation—can be included in this conception of the national interest, including the core interests. Therefore, it is not hard to understand why, with the growth of power, the Chinese government is gradually extending the perimeter of its “core interests” from the issue of Taiwan, first to Tibet and Xinjiang, and now to the Diaoyu Islands, the South China Sea, and so on.

On the academic side, there is no consensus, but a few popular inclinations have arisen:

First, China should prioritize its different interests and try to realize them in more active ways. Previously, the categorization of national interests was too simple in China’s academic and diplomatic literatures. Now we need to refine it and add more detailed explanations, such as the difference between core interests and non-core interests, or the similarities and differences of the interests in development, security and international community.

Second, given the context of China’s rise, China should exercise more flexibility in defining its “core interests.” For example, traditionally, China has paid more attention to diverse interests on land. But now, with the aid of affluence and technology , and the promotion of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, China pays more attention to the "High Frontier," i.e.  the seas, the poles and space.

Third, China should insist on following Deng Xiaoping’s assessment of “Peace and Development,” and vigilantly avoid being hijacked by extreme or narrow ideas or demands. Now, it is Deng Xiaoping's philosophy, rather than Mao Zedong thought, that is dominant in China's policy. This point is the key to understanding Chinese decision makers' definition of national interests, including core interests.