The nationalist-leaning state-controlled newspaper Global Times on its English-language website Sunday made what might be a significant statement in the ongoing Chinese dispute with Vietnam and the Philippines, among others, in the South China Sea. In an unsigned opinion piece, the paper states:
As to China, it is not interested in being involved in frequent wrangles with Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea, which is merely one of its core interests. As a great power, China has strategic concerns all over the Asia-Pacific region and even the world. But if Vietnam and the Philippines continue to provoke and go too far, they must be prepared to face strong countermeasures from China. (emphasis added)
The question of whether the South China Sea has been identified as one of China’s “core interests” is important to diplomats, because it puts the waters on the same level as Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Quoting the International Crisis Group‘s excellent recent report on the issue:
In early 2010, speculation arose that China had defined the South China Sea disputes as one of its “core interests”, a term traditionally reserved for matters of national sov- ereignty such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, where China is unwilling to compromise its position and would resort to force, if necessary. Reports first suggested that Chinese officials used this expression during a private meeting with U.S. officials in March 2010, and then cited U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as claiming that the sen- ior Chinese leader responsible for foreign policy repeated this declaration in May 2010. However, another senior U.S. official* has since asserted that the term “national priority” rather than “core interest” was used. Chinese researchers almost unanimously agree that the government has not made any conscious policy decision to rank the South China Sea as a core interest at the same level as an issue such as Taiwan.
What does something like this mean from the Global Times? First, it’s critical to note that this paper is not regarded as authoritative in the same way that observers take the People’s Daily as the vetted mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. It is not even as strong a source as the official Xinhua News Service, which is the source of dependably “correct” political news for the broader Chinese media sphere.
What does this mean? One way to discount this statement would be to speculate that there has been a mistranslation, but the Chinese version of the editorial also uses “core interest” (核心利益). It seems unlikely to me that the paper, in an unsigned piece, would use this term lightly. What it indicates is that the consensus view of more hawkish voices in China is that the government and national defense establishment should be more protective of the country’s claims than compromising.
The headline of the piece claims that China is “patient, not reckless, over [the] islands,” and this suggests that the threat of “strong countermeasures” is meant as an “or else.”
On the face of it, the argument that joint development should be pursued as a way out of this dispute might seem relatively fair, but various accounts from the region suggest that Vietnamese and Philippine analysts view Chinese proposals of “joint development” as giving them little autonomy. Moreover, recall that some of the islands in question unquestionably lie within a 200-nautical mile distance of Vietnam—an area generally regarded as one country’s exclusive economic zone.
This issue is not likely to be resolved any time soon, but watch carefully for other uses of the term “core interest” from the Chinese side. If they start emerging from more authoritative sources, this may signal a significantly harder line than the current mixture of patrols, protests, and accommodations.
*This refers to Jeffrey Bader, in his new tick-tock book on U.S. Asia policy during his time in the National Security Council during the early Obama administration: Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy