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China’s Expanding Core

TOKYO – China is now engaged in bitter disputes with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, both located far beyond China’s 200-mile-wide territorial waters in the South China Sea. Indeed, so expansive are China’s claims nowadays that many Asians are wondering what will satisfy China’s desire to secure its “core interests.” Are there no limits, or does today’s China conceive of itself as a restored Middle Kingdom, to whom the entire world must kowtow?

So far, China has formally referred to Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang province as “core interests,” a phrase that connotes an assertion of national sovereignty and territorial integrity that will brook no compromise. Now China is attempting to apply the same term to the Senkaku Islands in its dispute with Japan, and is perilously close to making the same claim for the entire South China Sea; indeed, some Chinese military officers already have.

The Senkaku Islands, located to the west of Okinawa in the East China Sea and currently uninhabited, were incorporated into Japan by the Meiji government in 1895. At one time, there were regular residents working at a bonito-drying facility. In 1969, the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) completed a seabed survey of the East China Sea, and reported the possible presence of vast underground mineral resources, including abundant oil and natural gas reserves near the Senkakus. Two years passed before Taiwan and China claimed sovereignty over the islands, in 1971, but the Japanese government’s stance has always been that Japan’s sovereignty is not in question.

In April, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a famous and articulate patriot, announced that the metropolitan government that he leads plans to acquire four of the Senkaku Islands, which are currently privately owned by Japanese citizens. Donations for the purchase from the people of Japan now exceed ¥700 million ($8.4 million).

China reacted to Ishihara’s proposal with its usual sensitivity: it refused to receive the scheduled visit of Ishihara’s son, who is Secretary-General of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, the country’s main opposition party.

Moreover, at a meeting in Beijing earlier this month between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a trilateral summit with South Korea, Wen mentioned the independence movement in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Senkaku Islands in the same breath. “It is important to respect China's core interests and issues of major concern,” he emphasized.

Until that moment, the Chinese government had never applied the term “core interest” to the Senkaku Islands. Following Wen’s statement, the trilateral summit deteriorated. While South Korean President Lee Myung-bak held bilateral talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, talks between Noda and Hu, and a scheduled meeting between Keidanren Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, were also canceled. The joint declaration issued at the summit was delayed a day, and omitted all references to North Korea – a prime concern of both Japan and South Korea.

China’s brusque treatment of Japan’s leaders probably was intended as a rebuke not only over the Senkaku Islands issue, but also for hosting the Fourth General Meeting of the World Uyghur Congress in Tokyo in May. Previously, such meetings had been held in Germany and the United States, and this one, which stressed the importance of protecting human rights and preserving the traditions, culture, and language of the Uyghur people, received no official sanction or endorsement from the Japanese government.

If gruff diplomacy was the only manifestation of China’s expansive territorial claims, Asian leaders could sleep more peacefully. But the fact is that China’s navy is becoming increasingly active in the South China Sea, at the Senkaku Islands and Scarborough Shoal in particular, but also around the Spratly Islands claimed by Vietnam. Given China’s mushrooming military budget and secretiveness, that assertiveness has set off alarm bells among the other countries bordering the South China Sea.

Moreover, China’s bullying of the Philippines included not only the dispatch of warships to Scarborough Shoals, but also the sudden imposition of import restrictions on Filipino produce. And China’s reactions toward Japan are far more paranoid since a non-LDP government took power.

The struggles for power within China’s ruling Communist Party over the purge of Bo Xilai, and the blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s escape from detention during economic talks with the US, have made Chinese leaders’ nationalist assertions even more strident than usual. No official wants to appear soft where China’s supposed “core interests” are concerned.

So far, China has not unleashed the sort of mass demonstrations against Japan and others that it has used in the past to convey its displeasure. But that probably reflects the jittery state of China’s leaders in the wake of the Bo purge: they cannot guarantee that an anti-Japan demonstration would not turn into an anti-government protest.

China’s real core interests are not in territorial expansion and hegemony over its neighbors, but in upholding the human rights and improving the welfare of its own citizens, which is the world’s core interest in China. But until China accepts that its territorial claims in the South China Sea must be discussed multilaterally, so that smaller countries like the Philippines and Vietnam do not feel threatened, China’s ever expanding “core interests” will be the root of instability in East Asia.

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