Hawks vs. Doves: Beijing Debates “Core Interests” and Sino-U.S. Relations

An intriguing divergence of views has been exposed within China’s
foreign-policy establishment on how to handle the country’s worsening
ties with the United States that may highlight a growing dissonance
between China’s civilian and military establishments.

relations have taken a confrontational turn since Washington indicated
last month that the resolution of sovereignty disputes in the South
China Sea was a key American “national interest.” This overture by
Washington was widely seen as being made in response to Beijing’s
assertion a few months earlier that the whole South China Sea was a
“core [Chinese] national interest” that brooked no outside
interference. At the same time, war games that began on August 16 by
the American and South Korean navies in the Yellow Sea have
inadvertently confirmed Beijing’s perception of Washington’s
“anti-China containment policy.” Up until now, hard-line elements in
the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—and
particularly the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—have driven Beijing’s
high-decibel response to the American challenge. Yet, perhaps
indicative of the fact that the Hu Jintao leadership is still weighing
different options, flexible and even conciliatory approaches to
defusing the diplomatic crisis are being aired in the state media.

that a root cause of the Sino-American row was Beijing’s decision to
expand its definition of “core national interests” beyond traditional
areas such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, it is significant that the
official press has held relatively moderate viewpoints on this
sensitive issue. Han Xudong, a national security expert at the National
Defense University (NDU), raised eyebrows when he indicated in late
July that China should adopt a cautious attitude when staking out the
country’s hexin liyi or “core interests.” Han pointed out that “our
[China’s] comprehensive national strength, especially military power,
is not yet sufficient to safeguard all our core national interests.”
Thus, prematurely publicizing all of China’s core interests might be
counter-productive. Moreover, the noted strategist contended, excessive
stress on “core interests” could result in China’s diplomats and
military personnel “putting emphasis only on core interests and
neglecting non-core interests.” Professor Han recommended that Beijing
release China’s list of hexin liyi in a phased, step-by-step fashion.
“As China becomes stronger, we can publicize by installments those core
interests that our country can effectively safeguard,” Han added
(Outlook Weekly, July 25; Xinhua News Agency, July 25).

importantly, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations
(CICIR) senior researcher Da Wei has warned against the “arbitrary
expansion” of China’s core interests. Da advocated a “minimalist
definition” of hexin liyi, adding that “we must prevent the arbitrary
extension of the parameters of hexin liyi in the wake of the rise of
[China’s] national power.” The ranking expert on U.S. affairs indicated
that a country should adopt a “broad and rough” rather than “narrow”
interpretation of its core interests. He cited the issue of territorial
integrity, which is considered of core interest for most countries.
“When handling territorial disputes, many countries often adopt
compromises such as exchanging [disputed] territories or recognizing
the status quo,” he pointed out. “Often, big powers may ‘let go of’
some disputed areas. This doesn’t mean that such countries have
forsaken their core interests” (People’s Daily Net, July 27; Global
Times, July 27). 

The views of Han and Da, of course, beg the
question of what constitutes the full array of Beijing’s “core national
interests.” For example, given the CCP leadership’s vehement objection
to foreign countries conducting military maneuvers in international
waters in the Yellow Sea that began on August 16, is this patch of
water wedged between China and the Koreas also China’s hexin liyi? It
is little wonder that the South Korean media has recently been blasting
Beijing for putting the entire Korean Peninsula into its sphere of
influence (Korea Times, August 7; Global Times, August 9). While it is
unlikely that Chinese authorities will publicize a full run-down of
their core interests, it is significant that quite a few hardliners
have been pushing for the broadest possible—and
ever-expanding—definition of hexin liyi. In either case, however, this
essentially means that as China becomes stronger—and requires more
resources to sustain its march toward superpower status—its list of
core interests will grow accordingly.

In an article published
last year on “the boundaries of national interests,” PLA Daily
commentator Huang Kunlun noted that China’s national interests had gone
beyond its land, sea and air territories to include areas such as the
vast oceans traversed by Chinese oil freighters—as well as outer space.
“Wherever our national interests have extended, so will the mission of
our armed forces,” Huang wrote. “Given our new historical mission, the
forces have to not only safeguard the country’s ‘territorial
boundaries’ but also its ‘boundaries of national interests’.” “We need
to safeguard not only national-security interests but also interests
relating to [future] national development,” he added (PLA Daily, April
1, 2009; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], April 2, 2009). Caveats given by NDU’s
Ha—and particularly CICIR’s Da—reflect fears on the part of moderate
opinion-makers that theories such as Huang’s will stoke the flames of
the “China threat” theory—and deal a blow to the country’s relations
with its neighbors.

Of perhaps more practical relevance to
tackling the South China Sea imbroglio is well-known academic Pang
Zhongying’s suggestion that Beijing should actively consider a duobian,
or multilateralist strategy. In an early August article in Global
Times, Pang, a veteran international relations professor at Beijing’s
Renmin University, argued that “there will be considerable difficulty
for Beijing to maintain its ‘bilateral’ approach” to ironing out
territorial rows with countries and regions including Vietnam, the
Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Beijing has insisted for
decades that sovereignty-related negotiations be conducted on a
one-on-one basis between China on the one hand and individual claimants
on the other. The CCP leadership has refused to consider options
including China-ASEAN negotiations or “internationalized” talks
involving third parties such as the United States. “In the past two
decades, China has accumulated a lot of experience in multilateral
[diplomatic] operations,” Pang wrote, adding that the South China Sea
issue could be resolved on a multilateral platform that involves
parties including ASEAN, the United States, Japan and the United
Nations. “Ruling out multilateralism will be tantamount to giving
[China’s] opponents pretexts to attack China,” he indicated (Global
Times, August 5; Sina.com, August 6).

Moreover, individual
diplomats and scholars have in private cited the formula of “joint
development while setting aside sovereignty” for solving the South
China Sea imbroglio. This modus operandi was used during the
theoretical accord reached between President Hu Jintao and
then-Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in 2008 for settling
sovereignty disputes over the East China Sea. Yet, Beijing and Tokyo
have since failed to go one step further by formalizing the Hu-Fukuda
agreement into a full-fledged treaty. One possible reason is opposition
to the “joint development” formula expressed by Chinese nationalists as
well as PLA generals (China Daily, August 4; Stratfor.com, February 22).

seems evident that the hawkish views of PLA generals are having a
dominant influence on Beijing’s foreign and security policies toward
the United States, the Korean Peninsula, Japan and the South China Sea.
Military officers are vociferous supporters of the maximalist extension
of the parameters of China’s hexin liyi. The generals are also believed
to be adamant supporters of the Kim Jong-Il regime. This is despite
Pyongyang’s continuation of its nuclear weapons program as well as its
alleged role in sinking the South Korean warship Cheonan in late March.
Other examples of hard-line military thinking influencing national
policy include the denial of an invitation to Secretary of Defense
Robert Gates to visit China while the latter was in Asia last June (New
York Times, June 4; Time Asia Edition, July 22). 

Typical of
the hardliners’ views are those of two PLA major-generals, who enjoy
high exposure in the official media. Academy of Military Sciences
scholar and strategist Luo Yuan was one of the first opinion-makers who
spoke out against plans, first announced in June, that joint U.S.-South
Korean exercises would be conducted in the Yellow Sea. The general
gained national fame by using the earthy expression, “how can we let a
stranger fall sound asleep just outside our bedroom?” to indicate
Beijing’s indignation at the maneuvers. General Luo ratcheted up the
rhetoric when reacting to news that the Yellow Sea drills have now been
scheduled for late summer. He quoted Chairman Mao’s pugilistic
dictum—“If people don’t offend me, I won’t offend them; if people run
afoul of me, I will surely hit them back”—on the fact that Chinese
military forces should take a strong stance against perceived
manifestations of America’s “hegemonism, gunboat diplomacy and
unilateralism” (PLA Daily, August 12; Ming Pao, August 13).

Admiral Yang Yi, another much-quoted military commentator, has gone one
step further by accusing Washington of double-dealing in addition to
exacerbating its time-honored containment policy against China. “On the
one hand, it [Washington] wants China to play a role in regional
security issues,” Yang wrote in the PLA Daily on August 13. “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-led military drills in the region were aimed at
provoking “enmity and confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region—and that
the Chinese must make a firm response. “Washington will inevitably pay
a costly price for its muddled decision,” Yang noted in another article
in the official China Daily (PLA Daily, August 13; Reuters, August 13;
China Daily, August 13).

When asked about the preeminence of
military voices in the debate over how to beat back the American
challenge, Major-General Xu Guangyu, another noted hawk, indicated that
“it’s natural for the PLA to speak out first on these issues.” Xu, a
researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association,
added, “It’s the PLA’s sacred duty to defend China’s territory and
interests.” It is also true, however, that the generals may have seized
upon the downward spiral in Sino-U.S. ties—and the overall tension in
the Asia-Pacific Region—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,
President Hu needs the top brass’s backing for the elevation of
numerous affiliates of his Communist Youth League faction, including
Sixth-Generation rising stars such as Inner Mongolia Party Secretary Hu
Chunhua (Reuters, August 12; South China Morning Post, August 4; Apple
Daily, August 13).

That the CCP leadership has allowed
moderate messages to be aired, however, seems to indicate that supremo
Hu is willing to consider dovish as well as hawkish approaches to key
issues such as the definition of China’s core interests—and how they
may be best defended in the face of what Beijing perceives to be the
toughest American onslaught since President Obama took office last
year. In either case, however, this essentially means that as China
becomes stronger—and requires more resources to sustain its march
toward superpower status—its list of core interests will grow
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