The New York Times
By EDWARD WONG
Published: March 30, 2011
BEIJING — When President Hu Jintao of China dropped in on Washington this winter, one hot-button topic was notably absent from the agenda: the South China Sea. Nor will Chinese officials be keen to discuss it during a summit meeting between the countries planned for May in Washington.
In the past year, it has been one of the most delicate diplomatic issues between China and the United States. Perhaps no other point of tension has been as revealing of the difficulties American officials have reading and responding to Chinese foreign policy. But in recent months, Chinese leaders have apparently been happy to let the issue quiet down, perhaps for the sake of smoothing over relations with the Obama administration.
China, Taiwan and four Southeast Asian nations have been wrangling for years over territorial claims to the South China Sea. Then last July, amid heightening tensions in the waters, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton rallied with Southeast Asian nations to speak out against China. She bluntly said in Hanoi that the United States had a “national interest” in the area, and that China and other countries should abide by a 2002 agreement guaranteeing a resolution of the sovereignty disputes by “peaceful means.”
Chinese officials were shocked that the United States was getting involved, analysts say. A public debate erupted in China over this question: Should China officially upgrade the South China Sea to a “core interest,” placing it on par with other sovereignty issues like Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang that could justify military intervention?
Some Chinese officials appeared to have floated that idea in early 2010 in private conversations with their American counterparts. Several American officials told reporters in Beijing and Washington last year that one or more Chinese officials had labeled the South China Sea a “core interest.” But despite those remarks and the public debate that came later, Chinese leaders have not explicitly come out with a policy statement describing the South China Sea as such — nor have they denied it.
“It’s not Chinese policy to declare the South China Sea as a core interest,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of politics and international relations at Peking University. “But the problem is that a public denial will be some sort of chicken action on the part of Chinese leaders. So the government also doesn’t want to inflame the Chinese people.”
The Foreign Ministry and the State Council, China’s cabinet, did not answer questions on the issue, despite repeated requests.
Michael Swaine, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, has published a paper with the China Leadership Monitor looking at China’s growing use of the term “core interest.” Since 2004, Chinese officials, scholars and news organizations have increasingly used the term to refer to sovereignty issues. Initial references were to Taiwan, but the term now also encompasses Tibet and Xinjiang, the restive western region. After examining numerous Chinese print sources, Mr. Swaine concluded that China had not officially identified the South China Sea as a “core interest.” Some “unofficial differences in viewpoint, along with the likely dilemma involved in confirming whether the South China Sea is a core interest, together suggest the possibility of disagreement among the Chinese leadership on this matter,” Mr. Swaine wrote.
That is not to say that China has refrained from asserting its sovereignty claims. On March 24, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said at a news conference that China held “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands.
By spring 2010, it seemed to some American officials that Chinese officials were pushing beyond the standard sovereignty claims, calling the South China Sea a “core interest.” In a November interview with The Australian, Mrs. Clinton said Dai Bingguo, the senior foreign policy official in the Chinese government, told her that at a summit meeting in May 2010.
“I immediately responded and said, ‘We don’t agree with that,’ ” Mrs. Clinton said, though some scholars in the United States and China question whether Mr. Dai made the remark. Then in July 2010, at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Hanoi, Mrs. Clinton made the statements that enraged the Chinese. M. Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies China’s territorial issues, said Mrs. Clinton’s move was in reaction to a long series of episodes in the South China Sea that American officials believed reflected greater assertiveness by China.
After Mrs. Clinton’s statements, the English-language edition of Global Times, a populist Chinese newspaper, published an angry editorial that linked the South China Sea to China’s core interests — “China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means,” it said. Senior military officers weighed in on both sides. Han Xudong, an army colonel and a professor at National Defense University, wrote in Outlook, a policy magazine, that “China’s comprehensive national strength, especially in military capabilities, is not yet enough to safeguard all of the core national interests. In this case, it’s not a good idea to reveal the core national interests.”
The Web site of People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, posted a survey asking readers whether it was now necessary to label the South China Sea a “core interest.” As of January, 97 percent of nearly 4,300 respondents had said yes.
Muddying the whole issue has been the parallel use of “core interests” advanced by Mr. Dai. In 2009, he broadened the definition of the term by saying China had three core interests: maintaining its political system, defending its sovereignty claims and promoting its economic development. Some Chinese officials might now see the South China Sea and all other sovereignty disputes as falling under “core interests.”
The debate in the Chinese news media seemed to reflect a divide among Chinese officials. Then in the fall, news organizations were ordered to stop writing about it.
“Now I think they are backing away and downplaying the question because of the trouble it is causing with the U.S. and the ASEANs,” said Joseph Nye Jr., a professor of international relations at Harvard and a former Pentagon official.
Monitoring China’s actions in the South China Sea is a more reliable way of gleaning its intentions, said Lyle Goldstein, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. His research shows that in August, Modern Ships, a publication linked to the Chinese Navy, detailed how two civilian surveillance ships planted a Chinese flag in the southern part of the sea; Mr. Goldstein said the fact that the ships were unarmed showed that China was taking a cautious approach.
But “there has been an increase in hawkish declarations by Chinese naval leaders since last summer, reflecting a dangerous escalation of tensions,” Mr. Goldstein said. In November, Modern Ships quoted Admiral Hu Yanlin as saying that “international anti-China forces led by America” had stirred up discord in the region.
“We are peace-loving,” Admiral Hu said, “but we also need to make the appropriate plans and preparations.”
Li Bibo contributed research.