China's Incoming Leader Pledges Not to Bargain on Disputed Territory

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HONG KONG -- China will never bargain over what it deems to be "core" territorial and security interests, the country's top leader, Xi Jinping, said in his first published speech setting out his foreign policy views since taking over as head of the Communist Party.

At a time of volatile tensions with Japan and other Asian neighbors over rival maritime claims, Mr. Xi laid out to the Communist Party's elite Politburo some of the principles likely to shape Chinese diplomacy, seeking to balance vows of commitment to peace with a warning that certain demands are sacrosanct to Beijing.

At the heart of that message was Mr. Xi's invocation of "core national interests," a sweeping and ill-defined term that he and other senior Chinese officials have used to refer to security and sovereignty interests that they say are not negotiable. These include quelling independence movements in Tibet and the far western region of Xinjiang and eventually bringing the island of Taiwan under Chinese sovereignty.

"No foreign country should ever nurse hopes that we will bargain over our core national interests," Mr. Xi said at the meeting on Monday, according to an account published on Tuesday by the state-run Xinhua news agency. "Nor should they nurse hopes that we will swallow the bitter fruit of harm to our country's sovereignty, security and development interests."

His published comments did not mention China's quarrel with Japan over an outcrop of rocky islands in the East China Sea, or any other specific foreign policy issues. But his words could reinforce nationalist expectations in China and anxieties abroad that he will press territorial claims more determinedly than did his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who remains state president until March, when the national parliament will install Mr. Xi in that post.

"Yes, it's a tougher policy, saying that we're not trading our core interests," said Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Mr. Xi's comments were in the bounds of established Chinese policy, but he appears more willing than his predecessors to show an assertive position on territorial issues, said Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

"These are the basic principles, just stated more clearly," Mr. Jin said. "Now China's strength is greater and domestic audiences are more focused on foreign policy, hence the talk of resolute protection."

During a visit to the United States a year ago, Mr. Xi also demanded respect for China's "core national interests." There has been controversy in Chinese policy circles in recent years over how to define core interests beyond the specific territorial issues involving Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. Starting in 2009, some senior officials began pressing a definition of those interests that covered broader territorial claims, while some policy advisers argued that expanding the concept could entangle Beijing in needless and costly disputes.

The months before and since Mr. Xi was appointed Communist Party leader in November have been overshadowed by the feud between China and Japan over the East China Sea islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. Starting in August and continuing for several weeks, torrid and sometimes violent protests spread across dozens of Chinese cities after activists from both sides tried to land on the islands and the Japanese government responded to the dispute by buying islands that were in private Japanese hands.

Japan has held the islands for more than a century. But China says it has legitimate title to them, and recently has sent government ships and planes to skirt the islands and assert its claim. This month, tensions spiked when both countries sent fighter jets over the East China Sea at the same time.

China is also locked in disputes with Southeast Asian countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, over Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea that span busy shipping lanes, fishing grounds and potentially valuable gas and oil reserves.

Mr. Xi, who is 59 and considered likely to lead China for the next decade, has urged Chinese military forces to focus on training for possible conflict and stamp out lax discipline and corruption.

On Friday, Mr. Xi and a visiting Japanese politician from the governing coalition signaled that their governments want to try to keep the islands dispute in check. But Mr. Xi also emphasized that he was not softening Beijing's territorial demands.

"China will take the path of peaceful development, and other countries must also take that path," Mr. Xi said in his speech to the Politburo.

Bree Feng contributed research from Beijing.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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