Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2012.06.13

What Are China's Real Core Interests? General Assembly of the World Uyghur Congress Held in Tokyo (Study of "China Inc." - No. 163)

English translated version of the article on "JB Press," May 18, 2012.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan traveled to Beijing to attend the Japan-China-South Korea Summit meeting on May 13. The fourth General Assembly meeting of the World Uyghur Congress held at the Constitution Hall in Tokyo on May 14 came at the perfect time during his visit to Beijing.

In the bilateral meeting with Noda, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reportedly mentioned that "it is important for Japan to respect China's core interests and major concerns."

Since Wen referred in the meeting to the issue of the Senkaku Islands as well as the World Uyghur Congress, it aroused much discussion in Japan whether China sees the Senkaku issue as touching on one of its "core interests."

The next day, on May 15, the spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a statement on another issue, claiming that it represented "serious interference with China's internal affairs, undermining China's core interests and hurting the feelings of the Chinese people."

This time China was protesting a meeting between British Prime Minister David Cameron and the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, which was held the previous day in London.

How in the world does the Chinese government decide what it is going to complain about? This essay may be a little longer than usual, but I would like to address some basic questions about the relationship between words that frequently appear in the Chinese government's complaints--"dissatisfaction," "indignation," "opposition," "core interests"--and issues related to Tibet or Xinjiang.

The World Uyghur Congress

Meetings of the General Assembly of the World Uyghur Congress have been held three times so far. The first and second ones were organized in Munich on April 16, 2004 and November 24-27, 2006. The third one was convened in Washington D.C. on May 21-25, 2009.

To the best of my knowledge, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs made no comments on the third General Assembly meeting hosted in Washington. Asked in a press conference on July 9, 2009 about the third meeting in Washington, a Chinese MOFA spokesperson gave the following answer while avoiding criticizing the US government:

"Terrorism is the common enemy of the international community. The Three Forces, namely religious extremism, national separatism and terrorism, is sabotage to countries in the region including China."

To the contrary, China strongly reacted against Lobsang Sangay's visit to Japan on March 31, 2012. Lobsang Sangay is the "Prime Minister" of the Tibetan government in exile. The next day, on April 1, a Chinese MOFA spokesperson remarked that "China expressed strong dissatisfaction with Japan allowing Sangay's visit in Tokyo" and that China demanded Japan "not to provide any support or favor to any terrorist and anti-China separatist forces" and "to safeguard the larger interests of China-Japan relations with concrete actions."

In addition, this time when the fourth General Assembly meeting of the World Uyghur Congress was held in Tokyo, MOFA spokesperson Hong Lei stated on May 14:
* "We express strong dissatisfaction with Japan's decision of allowing the World Uyghur Congress to convene a meeting and engage in anti-China separatist activities in Japan regardless of China's firm opposition."
* "The Xinjiang-related affairs are China's internal affairs and brook no foreign interference."
* "We demand Japan to respect China's major concerns in earnest, adopt measures to eliminate negative impact, and safeguard the larger interests of China-Japan relations with concrete actions."

The basic line of argument against the convocation of the General Assembly of the World Uyghur Congress is that China "expresses strong dissatisfaction" and demands that Japan "safeguards the larger interests" of bilateral relations with "concrete actions." China's reaction against the issue of the Dalai Lama is much "stronger" than this line of argument if you compare the expressions adopted by Chinese government in these two different events.

Activities of the Dalai Lama

The Tibet issue is as sensitive as the Xinjiang issue for China. Especially, the Dalai Lama is an albatross around China's neck.

I have listed below some incidents that have happened in just the last few years. The Dalai Lama met leading figures in major countries, such as the US, the UK, and Mexico, and each time China expressed its strong protest.

February 18, 2010: President Obama met the Dalai Lama unofficially in the White House.

The next day, China's Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai summoned US Ambassador Jon Huntsman to lodge a solemn representation, and Chinese MOFA spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu made his remarks that "the action of the US side seriously interfered with China's internal affairs, seriously hurt the national feelings of the Chinese people, and seriously undermined China-U.S. relations."

In addition, MOFA spokesperson Qin Gang made the following statements on February 23:
* "China urges the US side to take China's position seriously, correct its mistakes, undo the serious damage done and take concrete measures to uphold the healthy and sound development of China-US relations."
* "The US side should earnestly abide by the principles set in the three China-US communiqués and the China-US Joint Statement, respect China's core interests and major concerns, and prudently and properly handle relevant sensitive issues so as to create conditions for the improvement and development of China-US relations."

April 29, 2011: The Dalai Lama visited Japan.

He came to Japan on his way to the United States and held a special Buddhist memorial service for all victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake. I could not find any criticisms of the Japanese government over this issue on the Chinese MOFA website, although there must have been Chinese objection somewhere.

July 16, 2011: President Obama met the Dalai Lama unofficially in the White House.

On the next day, July 17, Chinese MOFA spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu made the following remarks:
* "On July 16, US Eastern Time, despite China's firm opposition, the US side arranged a meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama in the White House, which gravely interferes in China's internal affairs, offends the Chinese people and impairs bilateral relations."
* "Tibet-related issues are purely China's internal affairs, and Dalai, a political exile in nature, has long engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the disguise of religion."
* "China firmly opposes any foreign leader meeting Dalai in whatever form and any country or any person using Dalai as a pretext to interfere in China's internal affairs."
* "The Chinese side expresses strong indignation and firm opposition over" the US (actions)."
* "We urge the US to take China's solemn position seriously, take immediate measures to eliminate the bad impact, and stop interfering in China's internal affairs and condoning or supporting 'Tibet Independence' anti-China separatist forces."

September 9, 2011: Unofficial meeting with Mexican President Calderon

The next day, on September 10, Chinese MOFA spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu published his comments. I should skip the details of his comments since they are almost a reproduction of the statement made against the US in July 2011.

The only interesting point in his comments on this Mexican issue is that he spoke in more detail about "China's core interests" in the following way: "Tibet-related issues are China's internal affairs. They concern China's core interests and are dear to the hearts of the Chinese people."

November 7, 2011: The Dalai Lama held a press conference in Tokyo.

I could not find any comment from the Chinese on this event either. Maybe I missed it again. Or it could be that China did not have any reason to raise a protest since, unlike the British and American officials, Japan's top-level government officials did not meet with the Dalai Lama. It may be more natural in accordance with Western standards for the head of state to meet the Dalai Lama unofficially.

May 14, 2012: Prime Minister David Cameron had an unofficial meeting with the Dalai Lama.

This time the British prime minister met the Dalai Lama in St. Paul's Cathedral.  The next day, on May 15, China's Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao summoned the British ambassador in Beijing and lodged the following serious complaint: "Regardless of China's repeated protests, the UK still arranged for Prime Minister Cameron and other UK leaders to meet the Dalai Lama, ignoring the larger interests of China-U.K. relations..... The meeting seriously interfered with China's internal affairs, undermined China's core interests, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people."

On the same day, Chinese MOFA spokesperson Hong Lei made the following statements in a press conference:
* "Recently, in disregard of China's multiple representations, the UK insisted on arranging a meeting between UK leaders and Dalai."
* "This is grave interference in China's internal affairs and also an affront to the Chinese people, sending a wrong signal to 'Tibet-Independence' forces. China expresses strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to that."

The rest of his statement was almost the same as the Chinese MOFA spokesperson's statement against the US in July 2011. Interestingly enough, neither statement mentions China's "core interests" even in a generalized form. What does this mean?

What Are China's Core Interests?

I sincerely apologize for referring to these statements of opposition made by the Chinese government at such great length. I thought that I might be able to find a certain pattern in the language of the Chinese government's "protests." It seems to me that there is no clear rule determining which expressions of protest are adopted in specific circumstances.

If I had to draw a conclusion, the following observations can be made about China's protests:
* China's "dissatisfaction" is always "strong." They may not protest if they do not feel "strong" dissatisfaction.
* For the meetings with the Dalai Lama held by the US and the UK, China expressed "strong indignation" against the US and "strong dissatisfaction" against the UK. Is there any substantial difference between these two expressions?
* Against the meeting of the World Uyghur Congress, China uses the words "strong dissatisfaction." Against the meeting with the Dalai Lama, China uses the phrase "strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition."
* In recent Chinese statements of opposition, the words "core interests" were clearly mentioned only in the statement against Mexico. In other cases, the words "core interests" were used only in oral statements.
* At least in the last few years, there is no official protest clearly stating that China has "core interests" in Xinjiang. Neither could I find an official Chinese statement that the issue of the Senkaku Islands concerns China's "core interests."
* On the other hand, in recent government documents (e.g. the record of the press conference of Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on March 7, 2012 and the minutes of the meeting between Wu Bangguo, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan), there are many references, such as "Taiwan and Tibet-related issues that concern China's core interests," and "Taiwan, Xinjiang, and other issues concerning China's core interests." So, it seems apparent that Tibet and Xinjiang constitute a part of China's "core interests."
* The set phrase "core interests and major concerns" has often been used in the past, so the statement of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao I cited at the beginning of this report is not necessarily new.

Hanging on China's Words Is a Waste of Time

Some people say that the tone of China's protest against Japan concerning the World Uyghur Congress was stronger than its perfunctory expression of "strong dissatisfaction" over the meeting between British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Dalai Lama. But it goes without saying that this view does not reflect reality.

The truth about China always remains in the dark, and this also applies to its "core interests," which do not appear to be precisely defined. It may be the case that the more "indignation" Chinese government officials have over a certain incident, the more that incident concerns China's "core interests."

"Core interests" essentially mean life-or-death interests that should be protected, even (presumably) if that means taking military measures.

If the Senkaku Islands were one of China's "core interests," the Chinese would have to use military means to retake the islands, which are not even under their effective control. I do not believe that such small islands could be a matter of "life-or-death" for China.

Taiwan and Tibet are "life-or-death" issues for China. In addition, Xinjiang will increasingly be referred to as one of China's "core interests" if Rabiye Qadir, a Uyghur human-rights activist and president of the World Uyghur Congress, becomes more active.

But on the other hand, that is all we are talking about when it comes to China's "core interests." We should not pay any more attention to the issue than necessary. I would think it prudent to stop fussing about China's "core interests," the definition of which may not be clearly understood even by Chinese government officials themselves.


(The article first appeared in Japanese on "JB Press" on May 18, 2012.)