Decoding China’s Core Interests – Analysis


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The 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which completed its term at Beijing on November 4, 2012, did not throw much light on any changes in nuances in the Chinese foreign policy that can be expected from the new party leadership headed by Mr. Xi Jinping that will be taking over at the 18th Congress being held from November 8.

The first indications of any changes in nuances will be available only after the Party Congress is over and after Mr. Hu Jintao hands over as the State President to Mr. Xi after the session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the Parliament, in March next year. There will also be a new Prime Minister from March next when Mr. Wen Jiabao will be handing over to Mr. Le Kequiang. All one say with certainty is there is unlikely to be any major changes in foreign policy objectives at least till next March.

People's Republic of China

People’s Republic of China

Speculation from Beijing regarding the deliberations of the 17th Central Committee, which worked for a consensus on the composition of the new party organs under Mr. Xi, indicated that the new leadership under Mr. Xi may be more conservative and less political reform minded and more cautious in domestic matters. Will this domestic neo conservatism be reflected in external policy also and, if so, in what manner? Will the new leadership be more assertive in territorial sovereignty matters or more accommodating? Will it be more or less rigid in non-territorial matters having an impact on foreign policy such as charges of currency manipulation, action to reduce trade imbalances, charges of economic espionage emanating from US Congressional circles etc? Clear-cut answers to these questions should be available only after next March.

However, one can study important foreign policy statements made during the year to understand the thinking of the new leadership and analysts, who write on foreign policy matters in the Government and party-controlled media. The most important statement of the year came from Mr. Xi himself during a visit he made to the US in February last after it became clear that he would be taking over as the Party General Secretary and the State President from Mr.Hu.

While addressing a luncheon hosted by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and the U.S.-China Business Council at Washington DC on Feb. 15, 2012, Mr. Xi said that China and the US should increase strategic trust and respect the core interests and major concerns of each other. He added:

“Without trust, one can achieve nothing. China and the US have important interwoven interests. Strategic trust is the foundation for mutually beneficial cooperation, and greater trust will lead to broader cooperation. The two sides should increase mutual understanding and trust, and reduce misunderstanding and suspicion.

“We in China hope to work with the U.S. side to maintain close high-level exchanges. We hope to increase dialogue and exchange of views with the United States by making full use of our channels of communication, including the Strategic and Economic Dialogues, cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and military-to-military exchanges.

“By doing so, we can better appreciate each other’s strategic intentions and development goals, avoid misinterpretation and misjudgement, build up mutual understanding and strategic trust, and on that basis, fully tap our cooperation potential.

“History shows that when we properly handle each other’s core and major interests, China-U.S. relations will grow smoothly. Otherwise, they will be in trouble.

“China hopes the US will adhere to the three Sino-U.S. Joint Communiques and the one-China policy, oppose Taiwan independence and support the peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Straits with concrete actions.

“China also hopes that the United States will truly honour its commitment of recognizing Tibet as part of China and opposing Tibet independence, and handle Tibet-related issues in a prudent and proper manner.

“It is natural that some differences exist on human rights issues given the differences in national conditions as well as historical and cultural background between the two countries.

“China and the US should continue dialogue and exchanges to implement the consensus reached between Presidents of the two countries on respecting each other’s development paths chosen in light of their national conditions, and improve the cause of human rights in both countries.

“China-U.S. relations are now at a new historical starting point in the second decade of the 21st century.”

It was a conciliatory statement and tried to play down the tensions and suspicions that had arisen during the last two years following China’s reported characterization of its sovereignty claims over the islands of the South China Sea as of core interest in addition to Taiwan and Tibet. Such a characterization was not made in any official document or policy statement of Beijing, but during its diplomatic interactions with the US in May 2010.

In his speech in Washington DC, Mr. Xi remained silent on this characterization and reverted to the traditional Chinese position that Taiwan and Tibet are its core interests. It did not refer to Xinjiang as a core interest. Chinese leaders are generally more articulate in the expression of their concerns on the Tibetan issue during their visits to the US than during their visits to India because they are concerned over the support enjoyed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in US Congressional circles and by his access to the US President during his visits to Washington DC. They do worry that an attempt might be made by the US to promote the destabilization of Tibet after the death of His Holiness.

Though Mr. Xi’s formulations on the Tibet issue were made by him in Washington DC and with specific reference to the likely impact of Tibet on China’s bilateral relations with the US, they should be of interest to India too in view of the pending border dispute between India and China which has defied a resolution.

Since 1985, the Chinese have stopped expressing themselves in favor of a swap deal with India under which in return for an Indian acceptance of the status quo in the Western sector in the Ladakh area, Beijing will accept the status quo in the Eastern sector by recognizing Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territory. This package proposal was reportedly first made by the Chinese before the Sino-Indian war of 1962.It continued to be on the table even the war till 1985.

Since 1985, they have been challenging the status quo in the Arunachal Pradesh area, describing it as southern Tibet and as disputed territory over which they continue to have sovereignty claims which need to be accommodated in their border negotiations with India. Details of the border talks are not available, but the speculation is they want a status quo minus solution in the Eastern sector under which India will concede their sovereignty over at least the Tawang area in which one of the previous Dalai Lamas was born, in return for their giving up their sovereignty claims over the rest of Arunachal Pradesh.

It is in this context that Mr. Xi’s reference to Tibet and “Tibet-related issues” as of core interest to China is significant. What did he mean by “Tibet-related” issues? Was he referring to China’s sovereignty claims over Arunachal Pradesh? It needs to be noted that in their interactions with India, the Chinese have not referred to their sovereignty claims over Arunachal Pradesh as a core interest for them. The Chinese definition of a core interest is one in which no concessions by them are possible.

Their border talks with India are based on the principle of mutual accommodation which means the possibility of some concessions by them. Not to exclude the possibility of such concessions, they have refrained from describing Arunachal Pradesh as a core issue in their interactions with India. Against this background, what did Mr.Xi mean by talking of “Tibet-related issues” as a core interest while speaking in the US? This needs to be examined by Indian analysts in order to look for possible signs of Beijing deviating from its present policy of searching for a solution on the Arunachal Pradesh issue based on mutual accommodation.

There were two important statements indicating an inflexible line on territorial sovereignty issues on September 20 and 21, 2012. In a dispatch from Brussels, the “People’s Daily” quoted Prime Minister Wen Jiabao as stating on the sideline of a China-EU summit that China would make no concession in affairs concerning the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The next day, when addressing the opening ceremony of the China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit and Forum in Nanning, capital city of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Mr.Xi said: “We are firm in safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity and are committed to resolving differences with neighbors concerning territorial land, territorial sea and maritime rights and interests peacefully through friendly negotiations.”

These two statements indicated that the non-confrontational line projected by Mr.Xi in the US did not apply to China’s sovereignty disputes with some ASEAN countries in the South China Sea and with Japan in the East China Sea. While the statements related to China’s territorial disputes with some ASEAN countries and Japan, the formulations clearly showed that the inflexible line applied to all territorial disputes with all neighbors. If China is not prepared to make any concessions in territorial disputes as stated by Mr.Wen, where is the question of mutual accommodation on the Arunachal Pradesh issue? This should be a matter for added concern to India.

This hard line was reflected in an article carried by the “People’s Daily” on November 2, 2012, a day after the final meeting of the 17th Central Committee started. The article was written by Mr. Wang Yusheng, Executive Director of the Strategic Research Centre of the China Institute of International Research Foundation. It said: “The parties concerned know clearly that China advocates building a harmonious neighborhood, but has inviolable “red lines.” If necessary, it will resort to force after trying peaceful means. The United States is just bluffing, and Japan and some other Asian countries are just taking advantage of U.S. influence to serve their own purposes. They may muddy the water in the Pacific, but cannot make big waves.”

Interestingly, news agency reports originating from Washington, on October 22, 2012, quoting US State Department sources, said:

“Chinese leaders did not refer to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands as a ‘core national interest’ during talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in September in an apparent attempt to avoid a diplomatic clash with Washington, State Department sources have said.

“While discussing territorial issues with Clinton in China, Premier Wen Jiabao did not make remarks suggesting that the disputed islands are part of its ‘core national interests’, a term Beijing uses to refer to key territories it is determined to hold onto or ultimately take control of, the sources said.

“The talks with Clinton followed a meeting in Beijing with Japan in May in which Jiabao told Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda that his country should respect China’s core interests and major concerns, the Japan Times reported.

“According to the report, the US had made it clear that the islands fall within the scope of the US-Japan security treaty, which would oblige Washington to support Japan if the islands came under attack.

“The uninhabited islands in the East China Sea also were not referred to as a core interest in Clinton’s separate meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, the sources said.

“While Beijing is not expected to soften its position on the row with Tokyo, it appears to be cautious about challenging Washington on security issues, the report said.”

Thus, on the eve of the 18th Party Congress, the over-all Chinese line seems to be as follows:

a. It looks upon its sovereignty claims over Taiwan, Tibet and “Tibet-related issues” as of core interest and major concern. It has made this clear in formal official statements and is prepared for a military conflict if its interests are threatened, but it has not clarified what it means by Tibet-related issues.

b. Since May, 2010, it has informally indicated to the US its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea as of core interest, thereby not ruling out the use of force if its interests are threatened. However, there has been no formal declaration on this subject.

c. While continuing to reiterate its sovereignty claims in the East China Sea, it has refrained from characterizing them as of core interest to avoid a military conflict with Japan which enjoys the protection of the US-Japan Security Treaty in the East China Sea.

This over-all core interest doctrine of China which evolved under the outgoing leadership of Mr. Hu is likely to continue after Mr. Xi takes over from Mr. Hu.

What impact this will have on the ongoing border talks between India and China? There are so far no indications to show that China might be contemplating to give up its adherence to the principle of mutual accommodation in finding a solution to its border dispute with India. The evolution of the Chinese thinking on this issue needs to be closely monitored.


About the author:

B. Raman

B. Raman was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: [email protected]

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