A new trend in the foreign policy course of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), marked by a revision of strategic focus to include “core interests” (He Xin Li Yi), is being witnessed since middle 2009. What are the “core interests” as Beijing sees? What is the rationale provided by China for the new thrust? How it stands to an independent analysis? In what manner, the stress on “core interests” can impact on the country’s foreign relations? What are the likely implications of the trend for other nations? These questions undoubtedly assume importance world wide, keeping in view the fact that China is fast emerging as a global economic, political and military power capable of changing the existing international order.
What are the ‘core interests’?
Identifying China’s “core interests”, the Chinese leader Dai Bingguo, who plays a major role in foreign policy making, said in end July 2009 that “ the PRC’s first core interest is maintaining its fundamental system and state security, second is state sovereignty and territorial integrity and the third is the continued stable development of the economy and society.” A similar priority to protection of national sovereignty and security above the development imperative is being seen of late also in China’s defence policy formulations . In specific terms, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and South China Sea Islands as well as strategic resources and trade routes stand listed under the ‘core interest’ category; authoritative Chinese State media have averred that the PRC will make no compromises on them and never waive its right to protect them with military means. What immediately comes to one’s mind is that such recalibration of policy goals has followed the ethnic riots in Tibet (March 2008) and Xinjiang (July 2009), perceived by Beijing as serious internal security challenges.
Place for ‘Core interests’ in foreign policy
As expected, China lost no time in incorporating the new priorities into its foreign policy formulations. In his speeches made at important gatherings, the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi has declared that ‘China will seek a peaceful international environment in order to develop itself, sticking at the same time to principles on issues affecting its core interests and major concerns’.  He has asserted that ‘the mission of China’s diplomacy is to defend the nation’s sovereignty, security and development and promote world peace’  and that ‘China will make contributions to world peace and development, without going beyond its strength’.  Interestingly, according to Yang, the country’s diplomacy is being carried out under the leadership of the party central committee and the State Council. During diplomatic interactions with nations abroad particularly the US, the Chinese leaders are not missing any opportunity to emphasise the need for all the sides to ‘respect’ each other’s “core interests” and ‘properly handle’ the contentious issues.
Rationale behind ‘core interests’ principle
Now comes the question as to why the new focus in China on protecting “core interests”? For an answer, let us first look at what the Chinese themselves say. In the words of Chinese experts, the PRC is ‘going global and its international influence is becoming more visible and assertive and the nation’s diplomatic strategies accordingly need to comply with the changes in the international environment and domestic conditions’.  Evolving ‘multipolarity’ and ‘multilateralism’ as well as global challenges including climate change and energy security, mark the changes in the external conditions, according to Chinese foreign minister Yang.
One gains a wider perspective when the Chinese rationale is subjected to a deeper analysis. Notwithstanding the denials coming from the leadership at high levels , clear signals are emerging that China has started to implement an assertive foreign policy with ‘core interests’ as its main component. Evidences in this regard include China’s growing naval activism in the South and East China seas, consistent hard line stand on the Sino-Indian border and the Dalai Lama issues, uncompromising attitude to Yuan revaluation, action on Google, the stiff anti-US positions on issues like Tibet, Taiwan and climate change and efforts to expand influence abroad  through the use of military and nuclear assistance.
A variety of factors seem to be contributing to China’s assertiveness – (i) Beijing’s growing confidence internationally especially after its success in holding the Olympics and in maintaining high growth rates despite the global recession, (ii) China’s feeling that an opportunity has arisen for itself to increase its influence globally as the world balance of power shifts from the West to East and a multi-polar world gradually emerges, (iii) the PRC’s growing need to protect land and sea trade routes in the interest of the much needed import of resources from abroad and (iv) deepening Chinese fears concerning sovereignty over Tibet and Xinjiang as well as continuing suspicions on US strategy towards Taiwan. Overall, for right reasons, it can be adjudged that internal security dangers outweigh all other factors now as most crucial in shaping China’s present penchant with ‘core interests’.
‘Core interests’ and the People’s Liberation Army
Is China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) influencing the country’s foreign policy? Some, including the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates , appear to believe so. The bold views, but without official contradiction, being expressed by influential military and strategic experts in China on sensitive subjects like relations with the US and overseas naval bases as well as land and sea territorial claims against neighbouring nations, give credence to these apprehensions. Such interpretations however appear narrow, as in a broad sense the PLA voices seem to signal the ongoing readjustment in China’s defence policy also, aimed at accommodating the ‘core interests’ imperative, in parallel to what is being seen in the foreign policy front. China’s military writings confirm such readjustment..
While discussing the PLA’s role in policy making in China, it may not be out of place to mention that the political influence once enjoyed by the military constituency in the PRC has diminished substantially. The ‘Party commands the gun’ remains the key principle of the ruling Chinese communist Party (CCP) in dealing with the Army and the civilian supremacy over Chinese politics is growing day by day. A case in point is the present low-level representation of the Army in the top Party organs; there is no PLA representative in the Politburo standing committee, in the 25-member Politburo, 22 have no military background and the powerful Party Secretariat has no PLA presence. These give a feeling that a process is on to keep the Army apolitical and making it retreat to a narrow focus, i.e. on military affairs. Main reasons behind the PLA’s reduced status in politics would include the absence of a paramount leader, generational shifts in the civilian and military leaderships, increasing professionalism in the military and sustained progress in economic development. 
Likely Impact on foreign relations
Cases of Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan
Next key question would be as to how the ‘core interests’ principle can impact on China’s foreign relations? Taking Tibet first, China’s campaign to prevent internationalisation of the Tibet issue, while implementing its domestic strategy chalked out at a national conference linking Tibet’s stability with development  , may become sharper than before. This may inhibit China’s ties with the West including the US as well as India, home for the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. On Xinjiang also, Beijing’s similar approach adopted at a Central Conference may lead to a more pro-active counter-Uighur terrorism policy through consolidating collaboration with Pakistan, Afghanistan and the neighbouring Central Asian nations as well as using its role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. On Taiwan, the recently signed Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between Beijing and Taipei has brought the two sides closer, but the PRC’s relations with the US may continue to suffer on account of the latter’s arms supplies to Taiwan.
South China sea
Undeniably, as China applies ‘core interest’ principle to the South China Sea issue, added tension can be anticipated in the PRC’s relations with other stakeholders like the US, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. For the first time, the PRC has described South China Sea, rich in oil and natural gas and a transportation hub for its import of crude from the Middle East and Africa, as its ‘territorial water’ and ‘core national interest’.  It is intensifying patrolling activities around the disputed waters. A large scale live-ammunition training exercise has been carried out by China Navy’s South China Fleet in South China Sea on 26 July 2010, followed by an air exercise along the Yellow sea coast from 3 August 2010.These have come at a time when there is a renewed activism on the part of other parties involved in the dispute – transit through China’s Exclusive Economic zone by the US ‘Impeccable’ as well as the call given by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for creating an international mechanism to attend to the South China sea issue, Malaysia’s claim over Spratlys (called Nansha by Chinese) during the visit to the latter by Prime Minister Badawi, the Base Line Law passed by the Philippines claiming Spratlys and the continuing Vietnam’s toughness on its sea boundary with China.
East China Sea
On the East China Sea issue affecting China-Japan relations also, the likely repercussions from the PRC’s ‘core interest’ policy cannot be underestimated. Here also, a military dimension in the China’s policy implementation is becoming visible. Explaining the same are tensions arising from China’s latest military exercises in East China Sea in April and June 2010; the former extended up to Japan’s Okinawa, indicating Chinese Navy’s emerging capabilities to project its power into Western Pacific. The June 2010 exercise was apparently meant to counter the impending US-South Korea joint manoeuvres in the Yellow sea. China’s other measures include seeking a legal foundation to its territorial claims. A draft law on environmental protection of Sea Islands, which includes Senkakus (under dispute with Japan) and Spratlys (claimed by other littorals), has been introduced by China for discussion in its National People’s Congress.
China’s latest policy announcement reflects its determination to protect its core interests regarding maritime boundary. In the words of Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, the PRC will ‘oppose any foreign ships or planes entering Yellow Sea or adjacent waters, impacting on its security interests’.  The remarks appear correlated to the introduction of China’s new naval strategy aimed at building a blue water navy, with emphasis shifting from coastal defence to far sea defence.  Calls are being made in China for creating a coastguard organisation, following the US model, to reinforce supervision and administration of island territories in South and East China seas.  Such developments are bound to accelerate tensions in the region.
Resources & Trade
With strategic resources and trade routes also getting labelled as ‘core interests’, China’s naval diplomacy is expected to become more pro-active abroad than before. The PRC may give further push to the momentum set by the participation of its Navy in the anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and by its assistance to build port facilities in the Indian Ocean region as well as economic and military help to resource rich countries like Myanmar and nations in Africa with an eye on energy imports.
New Institutions under the Foreign Ministry
Formation of new institutions in the Chinese Foreign Ministry assumes significance in the context of China’s focus on ‘core interests’. They are – 31-member Foreign Policy Advisory Group (Wai Jiao Zheng Ci Wei Yuan Hui) under the Foreign Ministry Party Committee, formed on 14 October 2008 and led by Wang Guangya; Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs (DBOA), set up on 5 May 2009, a week before fixing of outer limits of continental shelf by the UN Convention on Law of the Sea; Centre for Consular Assistance and Protection, and Public Diplomacy Office. Regarding first, it is to be noted that there is already a Leading Group on Foreign Affairs under the Party Central Committee; presumably, supplementing its work is the role assigned to the new group within the foreign ministry. The establishment of the DBOA, staffed by personnel from the Foreign Ministry’s Department of Treaties and Law, is noteworthy, as its job seems to include conducting study of the role of international law in China’s management of maritime boundary and territorial issues and rendering necessary policy advice in that regard to the Foreign Ministry.
The “core interests” principle, has given China a theoretical justification for adopting a position of ‘no compromise’ on issues concerning territorial sovereignty. At ground levels, the position is already manifesting in demonstration of force by Beijing, especially in the South China Sea. The developing situation would therefore mean more strategic pressure from China than before in the coming days on those countries which have conflicting views on the PRC’s perceived ‘core interests’; in specific, China’s relations with the US, Japan and South China sea littorals can come under a severe test.
China has conveyed to India that Beijing will take care of each other’s “core interests and major concerns” during the visit to the PRC made by the special envoy of the Indian Prime Minister in July 2010. The PRC has not so far applied the ‘core interest’ principle to the Sino-Indian border dispute. It may not do so, based on its feeling that the ‘no compromise’ stand under the principle may go against the PRC’s stated willingness to adopt a ‘mutual accommodation’ approach towards the border issue. This being so, New Delhi needs to carefully watch for any future movement of Beijing on this account.
Another focus for India should be on the developing China’s strategy in the Indian Ocean, on which its energy imports are dependent; mention in its official media about “waters of China’s interests”  may be intended to cover Indian Ocean also. As signs that New Delhi is taking the situation seriously, the country’s top leadership has begun to pay attention to the reasons for “certain amount of assertiveness” towards India on the part of the Chinese side.  An influential opinion in India has cited the US offer to China of a ‘co-leadership role’ after the global financial crisis, as one of such reasons.. Also, Indian officials have warned their Chinese counterparts that the PRC’s position on Kashmir, a ‘core interest’ for India, could be a source of tension.
In a nutshell, it can be said that at a time when doubts on China’s motives behind its meshing of foreign policy with ‘core interests’ are on the rise, it would be the responsibility of the PRC to unambiguously convince the outside world about its peaceful intentions in the international arena.
(The writer, Mr D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.Email:email@example.com)
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