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

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 17

An intriguing divergence of views has been exposed within China’s foreign-policy establishment on how to handle the country’s worsening ties with the United States that may highlight a growing dissonance between China’s civilian and military establishments. Sino-American relations have taken a confrontational turn since Washington indicated last month that the resolution of sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea was a key American “national interest.” This overture by Washington was widely seen as being made in response to Beijing’s assertion a few months earlier that the whole South China Sea was a “core [Chinese] national interest” that brooked no outside interference. At the same time, war games that began on August 16 by the American and South Korean navies in the Yellow Sea have inadvertently confirmed Beijing’s perception of Washington’s “anti-China containment policy.” Up until now, hard-line elements in the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—and particularly the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—have driven Beijing’s high-decibel response to the American challenge. Yet, perhaps indicative of the fact that the Hu Jintao leadership is still weighing different options, flexible and even conciliatory approaches to defusing the diplomatic crisis are being aired in the state media.

Given that a root cause of the Sino-American row was Beijing’s decision to expand its definition of “core national interests” beyond traditional areas such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, it is significant that the official press has held relatively moderate viewpoints on this sensitive issue. Han Xudong, a national security expert at the National Defense University (NDU), raised eyebrows when he indicated in late July that China should adopt a cautious attitude when staking out the country’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 be counter-productive. Moreover, the noted strategist contended, excessive stress on “core interests” could result in China’s diplomats and military personnel “putting emphasis only on core interests and neglecting non-core interests.” Professor Han recommended that Beijing release China’s list of hexin liyi in a phased, step-by-step fashion. “As China becomes stronger, we can publicize by installments those core interests that our country can effectively safeguard,” Han added (Outlook Weekly, July 25; Xinhua News Agency, July 25).

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

The views of Han and Da, of course, beg the question of what constitutes the full array of Beijing’s “core national interests.” For example, given the CCP leadership’s vehement objection to foreign countries conducting military maneuvers in international waters in the Yellow Sea that began on August 16, is this patch of water wedged between China and the Koreas also China’s hexin liyi? It is little wonder that the South Korean media has recently been blasting Beijing for putting the entire Korean Peninsula into its sphere of influence (Korea Times, August 7; Global Times, August 9). While it is unlikely that Chinese authorities will publicize a full run-down of their core interests, it is significant that quite a few hardliners have been pushing for the broadest possible—and ever-expanding—definition of hexin liyi. In either case, however, this essentially means that as China becomes stronger—and requires more resources to sustain its march toward superpower status—its list of core interests will grow accordingly.

In an article published last year on “the boundaries of national interests,” PLA Daily commentator Huang Kunlun noted that China’s national interests had gone beyond its land, sea and air territories to include areas such as the vast oceans traversed by Chinese oil freighters—as well as outer space. “Wherever our national interests have extended, so will the mission of our armed forces,” Huang wrote. “Given our new historical mission, the forces have to not only safeguard the country’s ‘territorial boundaries’ but also its ‘boundaries of national interests’.” “We need to safeguard not only national-security interests but also interests relating to [future] national development,” he added (PLA Daily, April 1, 2009; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], April 2, 2009). Caveats given by NDU’s Ha—and particularly CICIR’s Da—reflect fears on the part of moderate opinion-makers that theories such as Huang’s will stoke the flames of the “China threat” theory—and deal a blow to the country’s relations with its neighbors.

Of perhaps more practical relevance to tackling the South China Sea imbroglio is well-known academic Pang Zhongying’s suggestion that Beijing should actively consider a duobian, or multilateralist strategy. In an early August article in Global Times, Pang, a veteran international relations professor at Beijing’s Renmin University, argued that “there will be considerable difficulty for Beijing to maintain its ‘bilateral’ approach” to ironing out territorial rows with countries and regions including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Beijing has insisted for decades that sovereignty-related negotiations be conducted on a one-on-one basis between China on the one hand and individual claimants on the other. The CCP leadership has refused to consider options including China-ASEAN negotiations or “internationalized” talks involving third parties such as the United States. “In the past two decades, China has accumulated a lot of experience in multilateral [diplomatic] operations,” Pang wrote, adding that the South China Sea issue could be resolved on a multilateral platform that involves parties including ASEAN, the United States, Japan and the United Nations. “Ruling out multilateralism will be tantamount to giving [China’s] opponents pretexts to attack China,” he indicated (Global Times, August 5; Sina.com, August 6).

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

It seems evident that the hawkish views of PLA generals are having a dominant influence on Beijing’s foreign and security policies toward the United States, the Korean Peninsula, Japan and the South China Sea. Military officers are vociferous supporters of the maximalist extension of the parameters of China’s hexin liyi. The generals are also believed to be adamant supporters of the Kim Jong-Il regime. This is despite Pyongyang’s continuation of its nuclear weapons program as well as its alleged role in sinking the South Korean warship Cheonan in late March. Other examples of hard-line military thinking influencing national policy include the denial of an invitation to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to visit China while the latter was in Asia last June (New York Times, June 4; Time Asia Edition, July 22).   

Typical of the hardliners’ views are those of two PLA major-generals, who enjoy high exposure in the official media. Academy of Military Sciences scholar and strategist Luo Yuan was one of the first opinion-makers who spoke out against plans, first announced in June, that joint U.S.-South Korean exercises would be conducted in the Yellow Sea. The general gained national fame by using the earthy expression, “how can we let a stranger fall sound asleep just outside our bedroom?” to indicate Beijing’s indignation at the maneuvers. General Luo ratcheted up the rhetoric when reacting to news that the Yellow Sea drills have now been scheduled for late summer. He quoted Chairman Mao’s pugilistic dictum—“If people don’t offend me, I won’t offend them; if people run afoul of me, I will surely hit them back”—on the fact that Chinese military forces should take a strong stance against perceived manifestations of America’s “hegemonism, gunboat diplomacy and unilateralism” (PLA Daily, August 12; Ming Pao, August 13).

Real Admiral Yang Yi, another much-quoted military commentator, has gone one step further by accusing Washington of double-dealing in addition to exacerbating its time-honored containment policy against China. “On the one hand, it [Washington] wants China to play a role in regional security issues,” Yang wrote in the PLA Daily on August 13. “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-led military drills in the region were aimed at provoking “enmity and confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region—and that the Chinese must make a firm response. “Washington will inevitably pay a costly price for its muddled decision,” Yang noted in another article in the official China Daily (PLA Daily, August 13; Reuters, August 13; China Daily, August 13).

When asked about the preeminence of military voices in the debate over how to beat back the American challenge, Major-General Xu Guangyu, another noted hawk, indicated that “it’s natural for the PLA to speak out first on these issues.” Xu, a researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, added, “It’s the PLA’s sacred duty to defend China’s territory and interests.” It is also true, however, that the generals may have seized upon the downward spiral in Sino-U.S. ties—and the overall tension in the Asia-Pacific Region—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, President Hu needs the top brass’s backing for the elevation of numerous affiliates of his Communist Youth League faction, including Sixth-Generation rising stars such as Inner Mongolia Party Secretary Hu Chunhua (Reuters, August 12; South China Morning Post, August 4; Apple Daily, August 13).

That the CCP leadership has allowed moderate messages to be aired, however, seems to indicate that supremo Hu is willing to consider dovish as well as hawkish approaches to key issues such as the definition of China’s core interests—and how they may be best defended in the face of what Beijing perceives to be the toughest American onslaught since President Obama took office last year. In either case, however, this essentially means that as China becomes stronger—and requires more resources to sustain its march toward superpower status—its list of core interests will grow accordingly.