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

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

Sino-Americanrelations have taken a confrontational turn since Washington indicatedlast month that the resolution of sovereignty disputes in the SouthChina Sea was a key American “national interest.” This overture byWashington was widely seen as being made in response to Beijing’sassertion a few months earlier that the whole South China Sea was a“core [Chinese] national interest” that brooked no outsideinterference. At the same time, war games that began on August 16 bythe American and South Korean navies in the Yellow Sea haveinadvertently confirmed Beijing’s perception of Washington’s“anti-China containment policy.” Up until now, hard-line elements inthe upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—andparticularly the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—have driven Beijing’shigh-decibel response to the American challenge. Yet, perhapsindicative of the fact that the Hu Jintao leadership is still weighingdifferent options, flexible and even conciliatory approaches todefusing the diplomatic crisis are being aired in the state media.

Giventhat a root cause of the Sino-American row was Beijing’s decision toexpand its definition of “core national interests” beyond traditionalareas such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, it is significant that theofficial press has held relatively moderate viewpoints on thissensitive issue. Han Xudong, a national security expert at the NationalDefense University (NDU), raised eyebrows when he indicated in lateJuly that China should adopt a cautious attitude when staking out thecountry’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 becounter-productive. Moreover, the noted strategist contended, excessivestress on “core interests” could result in China’s diplomats andmilitary personnel “putting emphasis only on core interests andneglecting non-core interests.” Professor Han recommended that Beijingrelease China’s list of hexin liyi in a phased, step-by-step fashion.“As China becomes stronger, we can publicize by installments those coreinterests that our country can effectively safeguard,” Han added(Outlook Weekly, July 25; Xinhua News Agency, July 25).

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

The views of Han and Da, of course, beg thequestion of what constitutes the full array of Beijing’s “core nationalinterests.” For example, given the CCP leadership’s vehement objectionto foreign countries conducting military maneuvers in internationalwaters in the Yellow Sea that began on August 16, is this patch ofwater wedged between China and the Koreas also China’s hexin liyi? Itis little wonder that the South Korean media has recently been blastingBeijing for putting the entire Korean Peninsula into its sphere ofinfluence (Korea Times, August 7; Global Times, August 9). While it isunlikely that Chinese authorities will publicize a full run-down oftheir core interests, it is significant that quite a few hardlinershave been pushing for the broadest possible—andever-expanding—definition of hexin liyi. In either case, however, thisessentially means that as China becomes stronger—and requires moreresources to sustain its march toward superpower status—its list ofcore interests will grow accordingly.

In an article publishedlast year on “the boundaries of national interests,” PLA Dailycommentator Huang Kunlun noted that China’s national interests had gonebeyond its land, sea and air territories to include areas such as thevast oceans traversed by Chinese oil freighters—as well as outer space.“Wherever our national interests have extended, so will the mission ofour armed forces,” Huang wrote. “Given our new historical mission, theforces have to not only safeguard the country’s ‘territorialboundaries’ but also its ‘boundaries of national interests’.” “We needto safeguard not only national-security interests but also interestsrelating to [future] national development,” he added (PLA Daily, April1, 2009; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], April 2, 2009). Caveats given by NDU’sHa—and particularly CICIR’s Da—reflect fears on the part of moderateopinion-makers that theories such as Huang’s will stoke the flames ofthe “China threat” theory—and deal a blow to the country’s relationswith its neighbors.

Of perhaps more practical relevance totackling the South China Sea imbroglio is well-known academic PangZhongying’s suggestion that Beijing should actively consider a duobian,or multilateralist strategy. In an early August article in GlobalTimes, Pang, a veteran international relations professor at Beijing’sRenmin University, argued that “there will be considerable difficultyfor Beijing to maintain its ‘bilateral’ approach” to ironing outterritorial rows with countries and regions including Vietnam, thePhilippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Beijing has insisted fordecades that sovereignty-related negotiations be conducted on aone-on-one basis between China on the one hand and individual claimantson the other. The CCP leadership has refused to consider optionsincluding China-ASEAN negotiations or “internationalized” talksinvolving third parties such as the United States. “In the past twodecades, China has accumulated a lot of experience in multilateral[diplomatic] operations,” Pang wrote, adding that the South China Seaissue could be resolved on a multilateral platform that involvesparties including ASEAN, the United States, Japan and the UnitedNations. “Ruling out multilateralism will be tantamount to giving[China’s] opponents pretexts to attack China,” he indicated (GlobalTimes, August 5; Sina.com, August 6).

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

Itseems evident that the hawkish views of PLA generals are having adominant influence on Beijing’s foreign and security policies towardthe United States, the Korean Peninsula, Japan and the South China Sea.Military officers are vociferous supporters of the maximalist extensionof the parameters of China’s hexin liyi. The generals are also believedto be adamant supporters of the Kim Jong-Il regime. This is despitePyongyang’s continuation of its nuclear weapons program as well as itsalleged role in sinking the South Korean warship Cheonan in late March.Other examples of hard-line military thinking influencing nationalpolicy include the denial of an invitation to Secretary of DefenseRobert Gates to visit China while the latter was in Asia last June (NewYork Times, June 4; Time Asia Edition, July 22). 

Typical ofthe hardliners’ views are those of two PLA major-generals, who enjoyhigh exposure in the official media. Academy of Military Sciencesscholar and strategist Luo Yuan was one of the first opinion-makers whospoke out against plans, first announced in June, that joint U.S.-SouthKorean exercises would be conducted in the Yellow Sea. The generalgained national fame by using the earthy expression, “how can we let astranger fall sound asleep just outside our bedroom?” to indicateBeijing’s indignation at the maneuvers. General Luo ratcheted up therhetoric when reacting to news that the Yellow Sea drills have now beenscheduled for late summer. He quoted Chairman Mao’s pugilisticdictum—“If people don’t offend me, I won’t offend them; if people runafoul of me, I will surely hit them back”—on the fact that Chinesemilitary forces should take a strong stance against perceivedmanifestations of America’s “hegemonism, gunboat diplomacy andunilateralism” (PLA Daily, August 12; Ming Pao, August 13).

RealAdmiral Yang Yi, another much-quoted military commentator, has gone onestep further by accusing Washington of double-dealing in addition toexacerbating its time-honored containment policy against China. “On theone hand, it [Washington] wants China to play a role in regionalsecurity issues,” Yang wrote in the PLA Daily on August 13. “On theother hand, it is engaging in an increasingly tight encirclement ofChina and constantly challenging China's core interests.” General Yangadded that American-led military drills in the region were aimed atprovoking “enmity and confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region—and thatthe Chinese must make a firm response. “Washington will inevitably paya costly price for its muddled decision,” Yang noted in another articlein the official China Daily (PLA Daily, August 13; Reuters, August 13;China Daily, August 13).

When asked about the preeminence ofmilitary voices in the debate over how to beat back the Americanchallenge, Major-General Xu Guangyu, another noted hawk, indicated that“it’s natural for the PLA to speak out first on these issues.” Xu, aresearcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association,added, “It’s the PLA’s sacred duty to defend China’s territory andinterests.” It is also true, however, that the generals may have seizedupon the downward spiral in Sino-U.S. ties—and the overall tension inthe Asia-Pacific Region—to lobby for more economic and politicalresources to upgrade their arsenal. Particularly in view of large-scalepersonnel changes scheduled for the upcoming 18th CCP Congress,President Hu needs the top brass’s backing for the elevation ofnumerous affiliates of his Communist Youth League faction, includingSixth-Generation rising stars such as Inner Mongolia Party Secretary HuChunhua (Reuters, August 12; South China Morning Post, August 4; AppleDaily, August 13).

That the CCP leadership has allowedmoderate messages to be aired, however, seems to indicate that supremoHu is willing to consider dovish as well as hawkish approaches to keyissues such as the definition of China’s core interests—and how theymay be best defended in the face of what Beijing perceives to be thetoughest American onslaught since President Obama took office lastyear. In either case, however, this essentially means that as Chinabecomes stronger—and requires more resources to sustain its marchtoward superpower status—its list of core interests will growaccordingly.
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