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China's core interests

August 30, 2010

By Claude Arpi
The New Indian Express
August 28, 2010

Have you heard of ‘Core Interests’? No, it has
nothing to do with ‘organising’ the CWG, IPL
auctions, mining in tribal areas or OBC vote
banks, though it is true that in India ‘core’
issues often veer around these subjects. 'Core
interests’ is the subject of a serious debate
amongst the top leadership of the People’s
Republic of China, both civilian and military.
Traditionally, the ‘core interest’ of the
Communist regime has been the continuation of the party’s raj.

For the past 60 years, the Communist Party of
China has ruled supreme over the Middle Kingdom.
Chinese rulers are, however, anguished about the
future of the Communist dynasty. They are aware
that in the past, Heaven has withdrawn its
Mandate from many dynasties, bringing disasters,
famines, floods or earthquakes to different parts
of the empire (it is happening right now) leading
to the dethronement of the emperors. This is why,
in June 2006 the State Council ordered an
eight-episode TV research entitled Preparing For
Danger in Times of Safety — Historic Lessons
Learned from the Demise of Soviet Communism. The
project was given to no less than the Academy of
Social Sciences, the prime government think-tank.
Party members were requested to carefully study
and ‘discuss’ the conclusions offered by the
Chinese president himself: “There are multiple
factors contributing to the disintegration of the
Soviet Union, a very important one being
Khrushchev throwing away Stalin’s knife and
Gorbachev’s open betrayal of Marxism-Leninism.”
Apart from the survival of the party, the PCR has
a few core issues, namely Taiwan and Tibet and
Xinjiang (which symbolise the stability — or instability — of the empire).

During the last 60 years, China has grown bigger
and more powerful. In 2008, Beijing successfully
organised the Summer Olympics; in 2010, the
Universal Exhibition in Shanghai was another
show; Beijing has maintained its rate of growth
despite the economic crisis and has now become
the No 2 world economic power. Many in China
believe that the time of the Middle Kingdom has
come and Beijing should act accordingly. As Steve
Tsang, a fellow at St Antony’s College of Oxford
University put it in an excellent paper
Nationalism risks felling China’s peaceful rise:
'Chinese officials then saw that there was scope
to push the boundary'. Some in China believe that
the chance to grab the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea has now arrived.

Probably encouraged by President Obama’s
wishy-washy approach during his first visit to
Beijing in November last year and his vacillating
attitude vis-à-vis the Dalai Lama and the sale of
F-16 jets to Taiwan, the hawks in Beijing have awakened.

Tsang says: "By declaring the South China Sea a
‘core national interest’ and elevating it to the
same status as Tibet and Taiwan, Beijing has
marked another territorial claim. If this is not
challenged, it will gradually gain de facto
international acceptance, as its claims over
Tibet and Taiwan have in the last six decades."

The China Brief of the Jamestown Foundation cites
some PLA major-generals to explain Beijing’s new
aggressive attitude. General Luo of the Yuan
Academy of Military Sciences objected in June to
the joint US-South Korean exercises. The general
put it vividly: "How can we let a stranger fall
sound asleep just outside our bedroom?"

On July 3, an article debating the strategy
behind the US use of its aircraft carriers was
published in the China Review News. According to
the author there were four reasons for the US to
send its carriers: (1) pushing China to buy more
US bonds; (2) using war threats to hammer China’s
development; (3) reducing US debt pressure; (4)
confirming that China doesn’t dare to start a
war. The author believed that Americans
manipulated all of the issues troubling China
(Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, India, Vietnam, the
South China Sea, Mid-Asia, and Falun Gong). He
argued that the right way to handle the US
carrier situation was to sink the carriers having
a joint naval exercise with South Korea in the Yellow Sea.

Another Chinese analyst, Real Admiral Yang Yi
accused Washington of double-dealing exacerbating
its time-honoured containment policy against
China. On August 13, Yang wrote in The PLA Daily:
"On the one hand, (Washington) wants China to
play a role in regional security issues, 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 military drills
were a provocation aimed at creating "enmity and
confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region -- and
that the Chinese must make a firm response."

One could ask, why are the generals seemingly
speaking out of turn or at least in opposition to
the official policy promoted by Hu Jintao of a
peaceful rise of China. Major General Xu Guangyu,
a researcher at the China Arms Control and
Disarmament Association, explained that "it was
natural for the PLA to speak out first on these
issues. It’s the PLA’s sacred duty to defend China’s territory and interests."

Many analysts believe that it is probably an
occasion for hardliners among the PLA and PLAN
(Chinese Navy) ‘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.’

Undoubtedly, jockeying has started for the
elevation of several generals to a revamped
Central Military Commission in 2012. President Hu
probably needs some hawks to help him to keep his
chairman’s cap after he resigns from his two
other posts -- president of the republic and
party general secretary. However, several
think-tanks and influential commentators do not agree with the generals.

On August 1, in an article published in Xinhua,
Han Xudong, a professor at the Strategy
Department of the PLA National Defence University
said it was currently not appropriate for China
to explicitly state what its ‘Core National
Interests’ are. He gave reasons why: China’s
military capability is not as good as America’s
military capability in many respects. Publicly
identifying China’s core national interests will
place the armed forces in a passive position and
China does not have the power to protect all of
its core national interests yet.

The peaceful rise of China will probably continue
to be the official motto for some time, but many
other forces are at play. Let us not forget that
China is not a monolithic empire, but a puzzle of
many disparate forces. Only the future will tell
who will prevail. By the way, what are India’s Core Interests?
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