Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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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.

Read more from our "Asia's Tipping Point" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    Jay, the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands constituted no part of the concessions that China made to Japan in the Sino-Japanese Shimonoseki, Japan, Treaty.

    In 1920 shipwrecked Chinese fishermen were stranded to one of the islands and rescued by the Japanese. The Chinese consular stationed in Nagasaki, Japan, sent letters of gratitude to the islanders, in which he referred to the islands as belonging to Japan.

    Neither Taiwan nor China made protests to the United States when the U.S. put the islands under US administration and when it returned them to Japan.

    In 1953, on January 8, the People's Daily introduced the islands as part of Okinawa, Japan.

    In 1972 Premier Zhou En-lay said to the chairman of a Japanese party(the Komei Party) in Beijing that it came to the knowledge of some Chinese historians that there was oil undersea around the Senkaku and that they began to stir up the dust.

    For a little bit more details, read my comment to www.yaleglobal.yale.edu/Can China Afford To Confront the World?-Part One.

    Michi Moriyama sent three comments, dated October 14 and 15 to www.nytimes.com./Look Out For the Diaoyu Islands by Nicholas Kristof. You will see the predicament Japan was in before it made war with China. Japan, facing Wester imperialism, seriously wanted cooperation from China to fend off the danger. But China treated the Japanese proposal with its traditional disdain. It proudly thought that the Western Devils would ultimately be made to be subjugated and kow-tow before the greatness of the Middle Kingdom.

  2. CommentedKim Kim

    Regarding the Scarborough Shoal dispute, even the USA itself does not recognise Phillipines claim of soverignty over the islands.

  3. CommentedKim Kim

    Author gives a nationalistic account of issue: "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"

    The islands were wrestled from China after she lost the Sino-Japanese war in 1895. After WWII, it was agreed by Allied powers (Cairo and Potsdam declarations) that Japan return all land she had taken from China in the earlier wars. This include Taiwan, and the "Senkaku Islands" which had been administered by one of Taiwan's county. But the islands was administered by US army stationed in Okinawa, and "returned" to Japan after the American withdrawl there in 1972.

    The current flare up is due to Japanese right wing politicians' attempt to use the island dispute to discredit the ruling party. Even the current Japanese ambassador to China opposed the govt for trying to nationalise the islands. Japanese politicians are playing with fire by dragging the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands into their domestic power struggle.

  4. CommentedPre AkoNi Pre Ako Ni

    The China-Philippines dispute

    It is really very complicated. In this situation, Philippines must act as a decision maker not just for Philippines itself but for the future of the world however there are only two choices, peace or war? In this case, both are evil!

    1. For Philippines to decide for peace-

    Philippines must surrender everything to China then it will make China more powerful so China can control and play the world so the world must bow to China- almighty! It’s time for India to obey China otherwise China will support Pakistan to punish India and probably the worst scenario, China will not accept dollar and euro currencies anymore in the future. Therefore, I see China’s rise a lot of uncertainties and darkness. For Philippines to decide for peace is just actually to prolong the possibility of nr. 2 – War!

    2. For Philippines to decide for war-

    Philippines alone can not match China. It will just be bloody but the after all Philippines will go back to Nr. 1- surrender everything to China. But the world is watching! The Philippines will never be alone so that means WW3. If there is still to win in the WW3 against China then Philippines will be world hero but unfortunately it’s the end of the world.

    3. The third alternative is to ask if there will be possibilities for China to give up for peace and China to continue a peaceful rise.

    Here are some alternatives to comply Nr.3 - boycott Made in China but how? GOD made the world but the rests are made in China. Germany and Europe must stop supporting and making china fat. How can the world didn’t understand or am I, who do not understand, now i will give up, i want to hear opinions.

  5. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    I posted three comments, dated October 16, 2010, to www.nytimes.com/Nicholas Kristof/Look Out For the Diaoyu Islands and another to www.yaleglobal.yale.edu/Can China Afford To Confront the World-Part One. I think they may give a little more detailed account and history.

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