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Coping with China’s ‘core interests’

High rise buildings are seen from the financial district of Shanghai on October 7, 2010. A looming currency war and the fate of the global recovery will dominate a meeting of economic powers when finance ministers and central bankers from the IMF's 187 member states will gather in Washington on October 8, with China's policies in the line of fire.

"China lost no time in shooing off the US from the Yellow Sea by protesting against the holding of war games by the American and South Korean navies and castigating it as part of Washington’s “anti-China containment policy”; it put to the test its claim of suzerainty over the South China Sea by provoking, as alleged by some quarters, an ugly confrontation with Japan over its impounding of the Chinese fishing trawler which had entered what Japan had always held to be its territorial waters in the South China Sea."

by B. S. Raghavan

“Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership” -- Deng Xiaoping

“Nothing in diplomacy is trivial” – Zhou Enlai

(October 08, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) “There are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests” – is an oft-quoted saying. In fact, national or permanent interest has formed part of the political and diplomatic vocabulary for centuries. A nation, by virtue of its location, evolution and political, ideological, social, cultural or economic complexion, is bound to regard certain sets of values, goals and relationships as being in its national or permanent interest contributing to its stability, security and standing in the world community. It might regard its permanent interests, so defined and delineated, as non-negotiable and beyond cavil.

In that sense, China too has a right to place before itself and the comity of nations its own conception of what constitutes its permanent interests. However, its preference for the term ‘core interests’ has left observers intrigued. It is but natural if the usage raises the question of its precise connotation and implication.

One answer can be that China has simply brought back into currency the ancient doctrine of hexin liyi which was central to the Confucian principles of statecraft. In fact, the literal meaning of the Chinese phrase itself is nothing but ‘core interests’. Knowing that China does nothing without deep thinking and it makes no move except to signal a message that it considers important, one has necessarily try to make sense of the iteration of the doctrine and its significance to China’s world-view.

Mixed bag

For instance, in what manner ‘core interests’ differ from national or permanent interests? Is it that some adjustments or negotiations are possible in regard to national/permanent interests, but ‘core interests’ are so vital and sacrosanct that any discussion of their merits by any other country and in any forum whatever is absolutely forbidden? If such is the case, one certainly has to be watchful about the issues that make it to the list and the likely new direction China’s policies and actions may take as an intended consequence.

The problem, in China’s case, arises on three counts. First, its core interests are a mixed bag: The criteria for their inclusion seem to cover a wide range from concerns about sovereignty, territorial integrity and security (Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiyang) to furtherance of its economic, commercial and maritime ambitions (South China Sea, Yellow Sea).

The second feature is the periodical additions China has been making, based apparently on political expediency. China’s core interests originally comprised only Tibet and Taiwan, but after the Uighur rebellion, Xinjiang got included, and from March this year South China Sea and Yellow Sea have been declared to be China’s preserve. One would normally expect core interests to be predictable and durable, and expanding the litany from time to time without any obviously compelling reason and creating suspense and uncertainty in the bargain, can even make the motives and intentions suspect.

New element of confusion
China lost no time in shooing off the US from the Yellow Sea by protesting against the holding of war games by the American and South Korean navies and castigating it as part of Washington’s “anti-China containment policy”; it put to the test its claim of suzerainty over the South China Sea by provoking, as alleged by some quarters, an ugly confrontation with Japan over its impounding of the Chinese fishing trawler which had entered what Japan had always held to be its territorial waters in the South China Sea.

China’s announcement of a second set of core interests while participating in the first round of the Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July this year, within two months of bringing in the South China and Yellow Seas, has introduced a new element of confusion. The three core interests enumerated on that occasion by China in the order of importance are: defending its fundamental systems and national security; preserving national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unification (the reference, presumably, is to Taiwan); and maintaining the steady and sustainable development of its economy and society.

Some analysts have interpreted the defence of fundamental systems to mean continuance of political status quo and the brusque rejection for all time of the demand for change from the existing one-party rule to a liberal, democratic dispensation. At this rate, nothing may stop China from extending the coverage of core interests to even the operation of exchange rate to suit China’s exports-imports and currency management regimes, right to exercise veto over other countries’ foreign and domestic policies, unilateral claim of ownership of other countries’ territories, and deciding when, where and how it would strike to enforce its diktats!

Myopic streak

In sum, over a period, China has been proclaiming more and more areas to be out of bounds for the rest of the world, and taking aggressive postures to enforce its own version of Monroe Doctrine. At one stroke, China has brought the entire Korean peninsula within its sphere of influence; it has enlarged the scope of maritime domination in strategic waters that connect northeast Asia and the Indian Ocean; and it has asserted its interventionist rights over whatever has a bearing on its ‘core interests’.

Even those who, like this writer, are in favour of friendly and harmonious relations with China, are slowly coming to the conclusion that there is a myopic streak of insensitivity in its make-up leading to its behaviour as the odd person out and that it only understands the language of tit-for-tat. It may have a sobering effect on China if India also draws up its own list of inviolable, immutable core interests and asks China to adhere to them.

An illustrative list: Acceptance of Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of India, no nuclear trucks with Pakistan, no recognition of Pakistan’s right to part of Jammu and Kashmir in its occupation, respect for borders, no dealings with Bhutan and Nepal without India too at the table, no tampering with established passport and visa procedures, no dumping.

(The writer, Mr B.S.Raghavan, is a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service, former Adviser to the UN and Chief Secretary to the Governments of West Bengal and Tripura. He is presently the Patron of the Chennai Centre for China studies. The views expressed are his own. mail:braghavan@hotmail.com) Tell a Friend

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