China's core interests
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 30 Aug , 2010

Have you heard of ‘Core Interests’? No, it has nothing to do with ‘organising’ the CWG, IPL auctions, mining in tribal areas or OBC vote banks, though it is true that in India ‘core’ issues often veer around these subjects. ‘Core interests’ is the subject of a serious debate amongst the top leadership of the People’s Republic of China, both civilian and military.

Traditionally, the ‘core interest’ of the Communist regime has been the continuation of the party’s raj.

For the past 60 years, the Communist Party of China has ruled supreme over the Middle Kingdom. Chinese rulers are, however, anguished about the future of the Communist dynasty. They are aware that in the past, Heaven has withdrawn its Mandate from many dynasties, bringing disasters, famines, floods or earthquakes to different parts of the empire (it is happening right now) leading to the dethronement of the emperors. This is why, in June 2006 the State Council ordered an eight-episode TV research entitled Preparing For Danger in Times of Safety — Historic Lessons Learned from the Demise of Soviet Communism.

Some in China believe that the chance to grab the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea has now arrived.

The project was given to no less than the Academy of Social Sciences, the prime government think-tank. Party members were requested to carefully study and ‘discuss’ the conclusions offered by the Chinese president himself: “There are multiple factors contributing to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a very important one being Khrushchev throwing away Stalin’s knife and Gorbachev’s open betrayal of Marxism-Leninism.”

Apart from the survival of the party, the PCR has a few core issues, namely Taiwan and Tibet and Xinjiang (which symbolise the stability — or instability — of the empire).

During the last 60 years, China has grown bigger and more powerful. In 2008, Beijing successfully organised the Summer Olympics; in 2010, the Universal Exhibition in Shanghai was another show; Beijing has maintained its rate of growth despite the economic crisis and has now become the No 2 world economic power. Many in China believe that the time of the Middle Kingdom has come and Beijing should act accordingly.

As Steve Tsang, a fellow at St Antony’s College of Oxford University put it in an excellent paper Nationalism risks felling China’s peaceful rise: ‘Chinese officials then saw that there was scope to push the boundary’. Some in China believe that the chance to grab the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea has now arrived.

Probably encouraged by President Obama’s wishy-washy approach during his first visit to Beijing in November last year and his vacillating attitude vis-à-vis the Dalai Lama and the sale of F-16 jets to Taiwan, the hawks in Beijing have awakened.

Tsang says: “By declaring the South China Sea a ‘core national interest’ and elevating it to the same status as Tibet and Taiwan, Beijing has marked another territorial claim. If this is not challenged, it will gradually gain de facto international acceptance, as its claims over Tibet and Taiwan have in the last six decades.”

The China Brief of the Jamestown Foundation cites some PLA major-generals to explain Beijing’s new aggressive attitude. General Luo of the Yuan Academy of Military Sciences objected in June to the joint US-South Korean exercises. The general put it vividly: “How can we let a stranger fall sound asleep just outside our bedroom?”

“¦rise of China will probably continue to be the official motto for some time, but many other forces are at play. Let us not forget that China is not a monolithic empire, but a puzzle of many disparate forces.

On July 3, an article debating the strategy behind the US use of its aircraft carriers was published in the China Review News. According to the author there were four reasons for the US to send its carriers: (1) pushing China to buy more US bonds; (2) using war threats to hammer China’s development; (3) reducing US debt pressure; (4) confirming that China doesn’t dare to start a war. The author believed that Americans manipulated all of the issues troubling China (Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, India, Vietnam, the South China Sea, Mid-Asia, and Falun Gong). He argued that the right way to handle the US carrier situation was to sink the carriers having a joint naval exercise with South Korea in the Yellow Sea.

Another Chinese analyst, Real Admiral Yang Yi accused Washington of double-dealing exacerbating its time-honoured containment policy against China. On August 13, Yang wrote in The PLA Daily: “On the one hand, (Washington) wants China to play a role in regional security issues, on the other hand, it is engaging in an increasingly tight encirclement of China and constantly challenging China’s core interests.”

General Yang added that American military drills were a provocation aimed at creating “enmity and confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region — and that the Chinese must make a firm response”.

One could ask, why are the generals seemingly speaking out of turn or at least in opposition to the official policy promoted by Hu Jintao of a peaceful rise of China. Major General Xu Guangyu, a researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, explained that “it was natural for the PLA to speak out first on these issues. It’s the PLA’s sacred duty to defend China’s territory and interests.”

Many analysts believe that it is probably an occasion for hardliners among the PLA and PLAN (Chinese Navy) ‘to lobby for more economic and political resources to upgrade their arsenal. Particularly in view of large-scale personnel changes scheduled for the upcoming 18th CCP Congress.’

Undoubtedly, jockeying has started for the elevation of several generals to a revamped Central Military Commission in 2012. President Hu probably needs some hawks to help him to keep his chairman’s cap after he resigns from his two other posts — president of the republic and party general secretary. However, several think-tanks and influential commentators do not agree with the generals.

On August 1, in an article published in Xinhua, Han Xudong, a professor at the Strategy Department of the PLA National Defence University said it was currently not appropriate for China to explicitly state what its ‘Core National Interests’ are. He gave reasons why: China’s military capability is not as good as America’s military capability in many respects. Publicly identifying China’s core national interests will place the armed forces in a passive position and China does not have the power to protect all of its core national interests yet.

The peaceful rise of China will probably continue to be the official motto for some time, but many other forces are at play. Let us not forget that China is not a monolithic empire, but a puzzle of many disparate forces. Only the future will tell who will prevail. By the way, what are India’s Core Interests?

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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