China’s definition of what constitutes its “core interest” appears to be spreading. Such interests used to be confined to a few areas, about which the Communist party would brook absolutely no dissenting view. These included its national security, national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Tibet, where there is a strong separatist element, quite obviously forms part of China’s definition of territorial integrity. So does the island of Taiwan, ceded to Japan in 1895, and now a self-governed democracy. Beijing has made clear that, if Taiwan were ever to declare formal independence, it would invade. More recently, the term has been applied to Xinjiang, the huge area of western China that has been the scene of clashes between local Muslims and Han Chinese.
That has been the picture up to now. But last May, Dai Bingguo, China’s senior foreign policy official, is said to have used the term in a meeting with Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, to refer to the South China Sea. The South China Sea borders on several countries, including China itself, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei. It has been the scene in recent years of numerous skirmishes between Chinese boats and fishing vessels from other nations.
But to call it a core interest, an area where China could not cede an inch in bilateral negotiations, would be a step up. So much so that, until recently, many China-watchers have denied Beijing has formally identified the South China Sea in such terms.
That may have been the case. But it seems to be changing. How else to explain this from a recent Xinhua news agency article ahead of the recent visit by “Noynoy” Benigno Aquino, president of the Philippines, to Beijing.
“China has always made itself loud and clear that it has indisputable sovereignty over the [South China] sea’s islands and surrounding waters, which is part of China’s core interests. That is based on unambiguous and undeniable historical facts.”
If the official news agency does not represent official Chinese policy, who does? Many of the reports about the South China Sea amusingly say that China’s claim is “undisputed”. Often, with no acknowledgement of contradiction, they go on to mention the various countries that inexplicably dispute them.
Territorial claims are one thing. But the Communist party appears to have taken the unusual step of enlarging the core-interest concept to something even more precious – itself. According to an editorial in the Global Times, an English-language tabloid founded by the People’s Daily:
“The Chinese government released the White Paper on China’s Peaceful Development Tuesday, redefining the scope of China’s core interests. For the first time, China’s political system and ensuring sustainable economic and social development have been officially declared as being among China’s core interests.”
The newspaper calls the development “timely” at a moment when “people hold different opinions on the influence of reform on China’s political system at home and abroad”. The editorial treads a fine line between calling for the “continued advance” of political reform and what it calls “blindly advocating change” no matter what the effect on social stability. Westerners, it warns, are trying to meddle in the process with the aim of “weakening China”. Presumably if they interfere too much – say by advocating free speech or a market-determined renminbi exchange rate – Beijing may bring out its core-interest guns.
In the end, it is just semantics. The Communist party is no stronger or weaker regardless of how it designates either itself or the political system in which it operates. But the “core interest” tag underlines one thing: its own position within that system is sacrosanct.