China's declaration of key interests misinterpreted

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At a study session with members of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee on July 30, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, stressed in a speech that China is preparing to cope with complexities, enhance the nation's capacity in safeguarding maritime rights and interests, and resolutely safeguard the nation's maritime rights and interests. 

Fishing boats and patrol ships dock in the waters of Sansha City on the South China Sea [Zha Chunming/Beijing Review] 

It was not the first time Xi publicly stressed the importance of safeguarding China's core national interests after the leadership transition. While giving a speech at a similar group study session on January 28, Xi said, "We will stick to the road of peaceful development, but will never give up our legitimate rights and will never sacrifice our national core interests. No country should presume that we will trade our core interests or that we will allow harm to be done to our sovereignty, security or development interests."

So what are China's core national interests?

On September 6, 2011, the State Council released a white paper named China's Peaceful Development, which defined China's core national interests as state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and national reunification, China's political system established by the Constitution, overall social stability, and the basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.

Historical roots

The concept of core national interests was first adopted in China's foreign policy around 2005. First articulated by mid-level foreign affairs officials, the set of core interests was initially raised in response to the Taiwan question in order to express China's firm stance on upholding the country's national unity and territorial integrity.

China's official documents and foreign affairs activities have incorporated the language since 2007 due to the volatile international situation. At the end of the George W. Bush administration and the beginning of the first term of Barack Obama's administration, the United States announced big arms sales plans to Taiwan. Meanwhile, some Western leaders successively met with the Dalai Lama in their offices. These actions did serious harm to China's national security as well as bilateral relations with related countries. Chinese officials have repeatedly asserted that the Taiwan and Tibet questions concern China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that these provocations have "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people."

At the same time, the Chinese Government also began working to define and classify China's core national interests. During the first round of the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in July 2009, the then Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, co-chair of the S&ED, for the first time summarized China's core national interests: safeguarding its political and economic systems and national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as sustainable economic and social development.

On December 6, 2010, Dai published an article entitled "We Must Stick to the Path of Peaceful Development" on the official website of China's Foreign Ministry. He wrote, "In my view, no development path should be chosen at the expense of major national interests, core interests in particular. What are China's core interests? My personal understanding is: First, China's form of government and political system and stability, namely the CPC leadership, the socialist system and socialism with Chinese characteristics; second, China's sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity; third, the basic guarantee for sustainable economic and social development of China. No violation of these interests will be allowed."

For any country, core national interests concern security and survival. Declaring core national interests shows a country's defensive and realist view, which aims to prevent misjudgments and reduce the possibility of conflicts.

Generally speaking, China's declaration of its core national interests is based on two considerations. On the one hand, some countries are becoming more anxious about China's rising economic status and have spurred territorial disputes with China, causing concern to both Chinese people and policymakers. Therefore, China needs to declare explicitly her core national interests in order to avoid further erosion of those interests. On the other hand, the Chinese public has become increasingly conscious of the territorial disputes, urging the government to better safeguard their national interests.

In an interview with Beijing-based newspaper International Herald Leader, Professor Zhu Feng at Peking University's School of International Studies said the issues included in the core national interests are those that China cannot compromise on. While the use of force is one of many possible options in protecting itself, such an outcome is not an inevitability.

Foreign misreading

China's declaration of core national interests has aroused concern of the international community, particularly the United States. The U.S. Government tried to learn about the specific content of the concept through S&EDs and military exchanges with China. From the positive point of view, listening to the legitimate concerns of one another is a productive step in preventing miscalculations that could lead to conflict.

However, some media, think tanks and military officers have misinterpreted China's announcement of its core interests as a regional policy shift and an external show of strength. Their inaccurate portrayals have undoubtedly influenced Washington's China policy.

In July 2010, the Japanese and U.S. media quoted an anonymous American expert as

saying that China has included the South China Sea in the country's core national interests, adding that the United States, Japan and India should join hands to contend against China on the issue.

However, no internal or public Chinese document or declaration at the time made claim to the entirety of the South China Sea—it has merely asserted its sovereignty over certain islands and islets in South China Sea, and stated that it will engage in negotiations and dialogues when disputes arise. China is committed to the Declaration on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea and respects and will maintain the freedom of navigation on the sea.

Any discussion of China's core interests, without exception, falls under the framework of peaceful development. Concerning these core national interests, resolution through dialogue is always the primary option while the military approach is the last resort that has to be avoided by all means.

In his speech on July 30, Xi also promoted the building of its maritime power through mutually beneficial cooperation with other countries, and ensure that China will use nonviolent means and negotiations to settle disputes and strive to safeguard peace and stability.

The false rumors have spread from the United States, Japan and some Southeast Asian countries that China has laid claim to the entirety of the South China Sea and will commit to an area denial strategy in the region. It is believed that these inaccuracies aim to escalate maritime disputes between China and its neighboring countries around the South China Sea, creating tensions that intend to justify the U.S. "pivot to Asia."

Currently, Sino-Japanese relations have been mired in continuous tension due to Japan's so-called "nationalization" of the Diaoyu Islands last September. To protect its sovereignty, the Chinese Government strengthened patrolling and law enforcement in the waters around the islands. An article on The New York Times on May 11 said that China's inclusion of the Diaoyu Islands in its core interests suggested an implicit threat and challenge to the United States and its regional allies.

On March 7, 2010, during a news conference, the then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, "We stick to our principles, but that does not imply aggression by any means. It has always been China's diplomatic policy to defend its sovereignty, security and development interests, while promoting world peace and development. It is unfair to misrepresent actions taken to safeguard one's own core interests as an aggressive stance."

Those countries that feel ambivalent about China's declaration of its core interests should take Yang's remarks into account. The one-sided interpretation and demonizing of China's foreign policy is unwise, as these actions do not help with the proper resolution of the sensitive security issues afoot in the Asia-Pacific.

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