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.
. . . [A]t 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 Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Senkaku Islands in the same breath. “It is important to respect China’s core interests and issues of major concern,” he emphasized.
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.
. . . If gruff diplomacy was the only manifestation of China’s expansive territorial claims, Asian leaders could sleep more peacefully. But the fact is that China’s navy is becoming increasingly active in the South China Sea, at the Senkaku Islands and Scarborough Shoal in particular, but also around the Spratly Islands claimed by Vietnam. Given China’s mushrooming military budget and secretiveness, that assertiveness has set off alarm bells among the other countries bordering the South China Sea.
Moreover, China’s bullying of the Philippines included not only the dispatch of warships to Scarborough Shoals, but also the sudden imposition of import restrictions on Filipino produce. And China’s reactions toward Japan are far more paranoid since a non-LDP government took power.
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 US, 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.