[Viewpoint] China’s expanding core

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[Viewpoint] China’s expanding core

China is now engaged in bitter disputes with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, both located far beyond China’s 200-mile-wide territorial waters in the South China Sea. Indeed, so expansive are China’s claims nowadays that many Asians are wondering what will satisfy China’s desire to secure its “core interests.” Are there no limits or does today’s China conceive of itself as a restored Middle Kingdom, to whom the entire world must kowtow?

So far, China has formally referred to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang Province as “core interests,” a phrase that connotes an assertion of national sovereignty and territorial integrity that will brook no compromise. Now China is attempting to apply the same term to the Senkaku Islands in its dispute with Japan, and is perilously close to making the same claim for the entire South China Sea; indeed, some Chinese military officers already have.

The Senkaku Islands, located to the west of Okinawa in the East China Sea and currently uninhabited, were incorporated into Japan by the Meiji government in 1895. At one time, there were regular residents working at a bonito-drying facility. In 1969, the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (Ecafe) completed a seabed survey of the East China Sea, and reported the possible presence of vast underground mineral resources, including abundant oil and natural gas reserves near the Senkaku Islands. Two years passed before Taiwan and China claimed sovereignty over the islands in 1971, but the Japanese government’s stance has always been that Japan’s sovereignty is not in question.

In April, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a famous and articulate patriot, announced that the metropolitan government that he leads plans to acquire four of the Senkaku Islands, which are currently privately owned by Japanese citizens. Donations for the purchase from the people of Japan now exceed ¥700 million ($8.4 million).

Moreover, at a meeting in Beijing earlier this month between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a trilateral summit with South Korea, Wen mentioned the independence movement in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the Senkaku Islands in the same breath.

Until that moment, the Chinese government had never applied the term “core interest” to the Senkaku Islands. Following Wen’s statement, the trilateral summit deteriorated. While South Korean President Lee Myung-bak held bilateral talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, talks between Noda and Hu, and a scheduled meeting between Keidanren Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, were also canceled.

The joint declaration issued at the summit was delayed a day, and omitted all references to North Korea - a prime concern of both Japan and South Korea.

China’s brusque treatment of Japan’s leaders probably was intended as a rebuke not only over the Senkaku Islands issue, but also for hosting the Fourth General Meeting of the World Uighur Congress in Tokyo in May. Previously, such meetings had been held in Germany and the United States, and this one, which stressed the importance of protecting human rights and preserving the traditions, culture and language of the Uighur people, received no official sanction or endorsement from the Japanese government.

The struggles for power within China’s ruling Communist Party over the purge of Bo Xilai and the blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s escape from detention during economic talks with the U.S. both have made Chinese leaders’ nationalist assertions even more strident than usual. No official wants to appear soft where China’s supposed “core interests” are concerned.

China’s real core interests are not in territorial expansion and hegemony over its neighbors, but in upholding the human rights and improving the welfare of its own citizens, which is the world’s core interest in China.

But until China accepts that its territorial claims in the South China Sea must be discussed multilaterally, so that smaller countries like the Philippines and Vietnam do not feel threatened, China’s ever expanding “core interests” will be the root of instability in East Asia.

Copyright: Project Syndicate 2012.

*The author, Japan’s former minister of defense, is an opposition leader in the Diet.
By Yuriko Koike
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