The phrase "core interests" has hit media headlines recently. Chinese government officials have been declaring on different occasions that Taiwan, Tibet, South China Sea and Yellow Sea are China's national core interests. In July last year during the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, State Councilor Dai Bingguo said the core national interests of China composed of defending its fundamental systems and national security, preserving national sovereignty and unification, and maintaining the steady and sustainable development of its economy and society.
In fact, Dai's definitions of China's core national interests can be used by many other countries. Academically, Dai's definition reflects a defensive realist's attitude toward national interests in international relations, which means core national interests lie in countries' survival and national security.
It is not big news then that China has recently clearly articulated its core national interests. But it is news that Chinese officials have clearly and frequently specify its core interests - not only Taiwan, Tibet, but also the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea. Usually, countries state their core national interest in a relatively general way. For example, China declares one of its core national interests as territory integrity. However, quite a few countries have territorial disputes with China, while the Chinese government will not necessarily specify each dispute as a core national interest of China. For example, China rarely declares its claim on a territorial dispute with Bhutan or some other neighboring countries as a core national interest.
By declaring a specific issue as a core national interest, country sends a clear signal to other countries that there is no possibility and tendency to compromise the issue, which is of great importance for the country. Such a declaration, on some occasions, is a sign of defense without a route of retreat; it also can be a sign of a strategic offensive. For instance, if a country's identity changes as its power grows, it may cease to accept another party's policies and behavior, although the country may have swallowed the bitter fruit in the past
The recent declaration of China's core national interests is a gesture, which combines defensive and offensive strategies. On one hand, the soaring of China's national power is worrying to some countries, which are taking more precautions against China. From China's perspective, those countries have adopted a kind of offensive strategy on certain issues like territorial land and waters, yuan exchange rate and human rights. Thus, the ordinary Chinese people and government would feel threatened by these countries, so China needs to specify this issue as its core national interests to prevent its interests from being hurt.
On the other hand, with the growth of China's power and Chinese people's growing attention to foreign affairs, China cannot accept some behaviors such as arms sale to Taiwan, which has been done for decades. However, it should be pointed out that the offensive taken by China is not a move of expansion. In fact, Beijing's offensive strategy on arms sale to Taiwan is a small step of counterattack after its core national interest has been infringed repeatedly and for decades.
Positively speaking, China's declaration of its national interests is helpful to other countries to understand the bottom line of its security interests. Other countries can better recognize China's national interests, which could also reduce misunderstanding by other countries and prevent conflicts from happening.
The discussion by China and the US on their core national interests and concerns in bilateral strategic talks reflects the position of the two countries during this sensitive period, when China's power is growing rapidly and the global economic and political structures are changing greatly. Both are trying to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts.
Meanwhile, China must avoid the possible misunderstanding on the concept of "core national interests". First of all, with its surging national power, China should cautiously define its core interests as security, just as defensive realism argues. It will not be in China's interest to define interest as power, like those classic realists did.
Second, there are different layers in core national interests. Issue "related to" core interest are sensitive and important, but they are not core interest or "red line". For instance, the yuan exchange rate regime involves China's core interests, but it doesn't mean China will lose its core interests if the currency appreciates against the US dollar.
Third, there are many ways to handle issues involving national core interests, not just military means. For instance, although land sovereignty is a core national interest of all countries, it is quite common that such countries will use land exchange and acceptance of the status quo as a compromise to handle territorial disputes. Sometimes, a bigger country may give up some disputed claim to smaller country, but this does not mean it loses its core interests.
The author is a senior research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing.
For China Daily