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Foreign Policy

What Are China’s Core Interests?

Oct 21, 2014
  • Feng Zhaokui

    Honorary Academician, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

According to the whitepaper “China’s Peaceful Development 2011”, China’s core interests include: 1) state sovereignty; 2) national security; 3) territorial integrity; 4) national reunification; 5) China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability; 6) basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.

Just as some scholars have pointed out, on one hand, the six core interests are interconnect with and facilitate one another; on the other hand, they may interfere with one another.

Currently, China’s disputes in the East and South China seas with countries such as Japan and the Philippines over claims to islands and maritime territory demarcation involve “state sovereignty”, “national security” and “territorial integrity” in the aforementioned core Chinese interests. Adhering to peaceful and diplomatic means in resolving such disputes may serve state sovereignty, national security and territorial integrity. On the contrary, coming into long-term tensions or even armed conflicts with related countries over such disputes may pit “state sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” against “China’s political system established by the constitution and overall social stability” and “basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development”. In order to fulfill the fundamental task of our country’s diplomacy, to serve the accomplishment of the country’s twin centennial goals, we should strive to create and preserve a scenario where “state sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” are in a mutually facilitating, instead of mutually containing, relationship with “China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability” and “basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development”.

China has one of the longest borders with its surrounding land-based neighbors. Land territories under actual Chinese jurisdiction border fourteen countries, including Russia and India. Meanwhile, China has disputes with Japan and the Republic of Korea over maritime territory demarcation in the East China Sea, territorial disputes with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, as well as disputes with such Southeast Asian countries as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei over maritime territory demarcation and territorial claims to islands in the South China Sea.

Altogether such problems directly constitute the core Chinese interests in “state sovereignty” and “territorial integrity”. Relative to the aggregation of the two core interests “state sovereignty” and “territorial integrity”, each of the above territorial disputes (such as the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu Islands) is a regional one. For a long time, China has made tremendous diplomatic efforts in handling territorial disputes with neighboring countries both on land and in the sea. The 1962 Chinese counterattack in self-defense at the China-India border was an example of two countries handling a territorial dispute by means of war. The signing of the 1999 Sino-Russian border treaty was one of peaceful resolution of territorial dispute.

At present, the Sino-Japanese dispute over territorial sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands has become an unprecedented and heated issue for our country both diplomatically and militarily. The Diaoyu dispute obviously falls into the category of “regional core interests” compared with our country’s overall interests in “integrity of state sovereignty and territories”, even more so compared with aggregation of the six core national interests. However, the regional nature of some core interests doesn’t necessarily mean they get less attention or rank lower in the sequence of strategic priorities among various core interests, especially since Japanese provocations have continuously worsened and escalated the regional contradiction, lifting it to the level of Sino-Japanese “strategic confrontation”.

In fact, the Sino-Japanese island dispute is at the forefront of our country’s struggle for safeguarding our core national interests for a certain period of time. The contradictions between China and Japan have thus turned from non-confrontational into confrontational. This is the inevitable outcome of Japanese provocations and interaction of bilateral ties. For a certain period of time, carrying out a determined and uncompromising struggle with Japan is completely necessary and justified.

However, from a long-term perspective, perpetual animosity between China and Japan may bring serious consequences. We should recognize that Sino-Japanese relations “are now in a long process of historic restructuring. China’s relations with neighboring countries should be appreciated in the context of such a long process of centennial restructuring, with a long field of vision, with strategic patience”. (quote from famous Chinese scholar Shen Dingli.) The contradiction in regional national interests between China and Japan doesn’t mean their overall national interests are completely against each other. Instead, we should advance the situation through key some key actions: keep abreast of changes; carefully deal with the relations between various core interests, overall interests and regional interests; make timely and rational adjustments in the forcefulness and priority of acts to safeguard different core, overall and regional interests; try hard to resolve hotspot issues with political wisdom and diplomatic endeavors; prevent “hotspots” from becoming “flashpoints”; promote our periphery security environment to stabilize; avoid the existence of long-term “enemy states” around us; and create a stable, benign international environment on our periphery to preserve our country’s most important core national interests. This would be the realization of China’s twin centennial goals and also promote sustainable socio-economic progress, both critical goals to China’s future.

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