The Japanese news wire Kyodo News last week reported that the Chinese government called the Senkaku/Diaoyu island issue a ‘core interest.’
“The Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press conference, using China’s name for the Japanese-administered isles in the East China Sea. …
Hua made the comment after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NHK in Tokyo that Chinese officials repeatedly told him during his visit to Beijing earlier in the week that the Senkakus are “one of China’s core interests.”
This report has gained a fair amount of attention. My attempt to follow up on Dempsey’s remarks to NHK is currently coming up dry. Though Google returns a search result on the story, the link is broken, Google’s cache provides nothing, and a search for the full sentence reveals no copies.
[UPDATE May 2 11:08 in Beijing—This Japanese-language NHK story includes video of Dempsey saying, “They did use the word “core interests” several times, and I know that’s really their phraseology for issues of sovereign importance.” It is left to the announcer and the written report to make the connection between “core interests” and the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue. My translation of the relevant passage of the print version: “During the interview, Chairman Dempsey said of his meetings with Chinese government officials on his recent trip to China, ‘In the meetings, the Chinese side, on the topic of the Senkaku Islands, used the word “core interests” many times.’ On the topic of Okinawa Prefecture’s Senkaku Islands, China repeatedly clarified that the islands are an non-negotiable ‘core interest.'” What did Dempsey really say in full? I can’t tell.]
Another Japanese source, Asahi Shimbun, has a different phrasing from the Foreign Ministry:
“It is an issue about China’s territory and sovereignty, and therefore a matter of ‘core interest,’ ” said Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, at a regular news conference.
Meanwhile, the situation from the official Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website brings Hua’s quote into question. The MoFA reports [en] [zh]:
Q: In a recent interview with the Japanese media, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey said that during his visit to China, the Chinese side repeatedly stressed that territorial sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands is part of China’s core interests. Is this China’s official position?
A: China’s Peaceful Development, the white paper released by China’s State Council Information Office in September 2011, made it clear that China firmly safeguards its core national interests, including national sovereignty, national security and territorial integrity.
The Diaoyu Islands issue concerns China’s territorial sovereignty.
A comment signed Iain Johnston (I’ve e-mailed to confirm it’s really him [UPDATE: confirmed.]) on the Japan Times version of the Kyodo story says in part:
… It is possible that the PRC spokesperson strayed a bit from the official position. The official record reflects official policy. This particular formulation — “touches on territorial sovereignty” – probably reflects a dilemma the PRC government faces. It cannot say the Diaoyudao/Senkaku are not a core interest. This would create domestic problems for the regime. But it cannot say explicitly that the islands are a core interest, because this could constrain any future space for negotiation. A critical piece of evidence will be whether or not the PRC drops the demand for negotiations with Japan over the islands. If it does, then this would be consistent with an official declaration that the islands are a core interest. If it continues to demand negotiations, this would be consistent with the official position of not (yet) directly stating the islands are a core interest.
[UPDATE: In comments below, Johnston provides a link to the relevant video of Hua Chunying’s statement, in which she says what the Japanese reports say she said.]
Chinese press seem relatively quiet on this statement, with the links I’m seeing in Weibo conversations leading to articles sourced from Japanese publications. For instance see this Sina News story (in Chinese).
Meanwhile at ChinaFile, Susan Shirk takes the statement as a strong, overt move by the Chinese government.
Last week the Chinese government and military officially declared that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands constitute a “core interest” of the country. …
To make sure the message came through loud and clear, top military officials first informed General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff who was visiting China. On the next day, it was announced from the podium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest,” said Hua Chunying, the ministry spokesperson.
You can be sure that the decision to call the Diaoyu Islands a “core interest” was thoroughly vetted by the key civilian decision-makers—Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and the other five leaders in the CCP Politburo, as well as the People’s Liberation Army leaders. It’s a considered act by a highly insecure CCP leadership willing to engage in international brinksmanship to maintain domestic support.
Shirk argues that this is in contrast to the 2010 incident in which some Chinese representatives reportedly started referring to South China Sea claims as representing a “core interest.” Though top U.S. officials later said the most provocative supposed mention of the South China Sea as a “core interest” had never happened, Shirk views that event as a clear roll-back.
The South China Sea [in 2010] had not been the focus of much attention from the Chinese public; it wasn’t a hot button issue of nationalism like Taiwan or Japan. The impetus for China’s increasingly assertive actions in the region came from the bureaucratic interest groups operating with little effective restraint from the top and using the media to arouse popular excitement. Because the Chinese government had never made a public and authoritative declaration that the South China Sea was a “core interest,” it was able to climb back from the brink without paying any domestic price for formally saying that this claim wasn’t a “core interest.”
Shirk’s comment points above to probably the most useful piece on the “core interests” issue in recent years, from Michael Swaine at the China Leadership Monitor in 2011.
So, what’s going on here?
The official version of the Foreign Ministry statement, following Dempsey’s public statement that he had heard this language, would seem to either represent a careful escalation of rhetoric or, just as likely, an awkward negotiated middle ground after conflicting messages had already been sent. If indeed the messages were coordinated in talks with Dempsey and in the Foreign Ministry press conference, then it would seem reasonable to suspect this represents a well-coordinated, high-level decision. On the other hand, it’s always an open question just how well signals are coordinated between the Foreign Ministry and the military.
Even if it was clear how fully approved the statement is, it is unclear what this means. For now, there we are.