From an April 2009 US Embassy Beijing cable in the Wikileaks dump as reported by the Guardian:
The United States had its core interests, VFM He asserted, such as U.S. naval vessels that had operated near the Chinese coast.
Now, as anybody with a memory more than a nanosecond recollects, in 2010 the world’s press was filled with reports like this one from the April 23, 2010 New York Times:
China is also pressing the United States to heed its claims in the region. In March, Chinese officials told two visiting senior Obama administration officials, Jeffrey A. Bader and James B. Steinberg, that China would not tolerate any interference in the South China Sea, now part of China’s “core interest” of sovereignty, said an American official involved in China policy. It was the first time the Chinese labeled the South China Sea a core interest, on par with Taiwan and Tibet, the official said.
I should comment that I had previously thought the core interest claim had first surfaced in a July Kyodo News Service dispatch; but there it is.
China never publicly declared a “South China Sea = core interest” policy, raising questions about what it had actually said and meant, but the story acquired unstoppable legs through US government backgrounders to Washington journalists and served as the subtext for the whole “US defends freedom of navigation in the South China Sea” story.
The Wikileaks cable provides some interesting nuance to the core interest angle.
The US Navy continually sails through China’s Economic Exclusion Zone to map the ocean floor and track movements out of China’s submarine base at Hainan, thereby degrading China’s fighting capabilities in the event of a Taiwan scrape and also undercutting the undersea leg of China’s strategic nuclear deterrent.
Was the context of China’s remark, “The South China Sea is a core interest for the US Navy, goshdarnit it’s a core interest for us, too”? Or were the Chinese saying, “The South China Sea is our core interest, so butt out”?
Maybe an ensuing tranche of Wikileak documents will provide further data.
Since the Wikileak site is apparently hacked to pieces, I suppose we’ll have to rely on the good offices of the Guardian, NY Times, et al to extract further nuggets from the trove of Beijing Embassy cables (apparently some 8000).
The relevant passage from the April 2009 cable is reproduced at the end of this post. [I deleted the cable text; it's on the temporary site China Matters WL Special Edition].
Careful readers will note that the US declines to confirm Tibet as a Chinese “core interest” in other words an area in which it agrees to eschew activities (like providing an international platform for the Dalai Lama) that adversely affect China’s control of the region.
The US Charge d'Affaires, Dan Piccuta, acknowledges that “Tibet is part of China” but reserves the right to meet with the Dalai Lama and otherwise give aid and comfort to the increasingly militant Tibetan émigré community.
In March 2010 the U.S., after much nudging from the Chinese, Messrs. Steinberg and Bader visited Beijing and finally upgraded assurances on Tibet with a categorical statement (as reported by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs) that the US would not support Tibetan independence:
The US side reiterated that it considers Tibet to be a part of China and does not support independence for Tibet.
In return, China agreed to join the UN sanctions-writing process on Iran that the US was so keen about.
This, of course, was the same meeting that the Chinese purportedly made the South China Seas = core interest assertion.
I always was puzzled that the Chinese would screw up their hard-won reset in US-China relations—they even trotted out Henry Kissinger to emphasize they were simply looking for a reaffirmation of the traditional Tibet and Taiwan foundations of US-China relations—by introducing a new, ambiguous, and incendiary claim concerning the South China Sea.
It is also interesting that, in the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister’s formulation, a “core interest” is not a matter of right, but of necessity—a crucial bit of national interest that must be defended even if it isn’t particularly pleasant or logical.
Like US Navy vessels crisscrossing China’s EEZ.
But, if Wang’s report was accurate, by March 2010 the Chinese were contradicting their stance of 2009 by demanding that the US Navy sacrifice a US core interest by departing from the South China Sea.
Maybe Wikileaks will provide the answer.