Core Interests: Tracing the roots of China’s assertive Foreign Policy

By Prashant Sahu

Image Courtesy: The New Yorker

The concept of “Core Interests” (hexin liyi 核心 利益) has become an indispensable component of contemporary Chinese foreign policy. This concept is frequently invoked in official and scholarly discussions and is present in many policy pronouncements (Zhou 2019).

Although this concept was present in Hu Jintao’s administration, its importance has increased since the Xi administration came into existence. The concept was invoked from the highest levels of China’s political hierarchy by President Xi Jinping:

We will stick to the road of peaceful development but will never give up our legitimate rights and will never sacrifice our national core interests. No country should presume that we will engage in trade involving our core interests or that we will swallow the ‘bitter fruit’ of harming our sovereignty, security and developmental interests. (Xi 2013, cited in Zeng et. al. 2015)

However, with its increasing usage and expanding contours, it is getting increasingly difficult to define the boundaries of the concept. In other words, what does it include and what it does not?

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Several Definitions

The most coherent and widely followed definition was given by State Councilor Dai Bingguo in 2009, during a US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue session. He explicitly mentioned three terms that comprise China’s core interests: a) Upholding China’s basic state system and national security (weihu jiben zhidu he guojia anquan维护基本制度和国家安全); b) sovereignty and territorial integrity (guojia zhuquan he lingtu wanzhengxing 国家主权和领土完整性); c) sustained economic and social development (jingji shehui de chixu ding fazhan经济社会的持续稳定发展). (Dai 2009, cited in Swaine (2010))

Given these broad concerns, which China identifies as “core interests”, there is disagreement over the specific issues covered by this concept. There are differences in specifics of the concept depending on whether the source consulted is an official document or an unofficial research study.

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The official sources have closely followed Dai Bingguo’s definition. Their additions such as “national unity”, “reunification”, “independence” is in line with the second component of the definition given above. Some official sources have also included “human rights” as China’s core interest, but this is again in line with the third component of the definition mentioned above (Swaine 2010). The 2011 white paper on “China’s peaceful development” also refers to core interests along similar lines as Dai Bingguo’s definition but also adds “national reunification” and “national security” which could be subsumed under this definition. (quoted in Zeng et al. 2015: 246)

In the unofficial sources, the concept is extensively defined. Michael Swaine argues, a large number of unofficial Chinese and foreign observers have identified a range of issues….. including Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, territories in the South China Sea, defense of the Yellow sea, Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands, bilateral trade, and the value of China’s currency as China’s core interests (Swaine 2010).

Zeng et al. (2015) also assert that although Beijing uses this concept to legitimize its diplomatic claims and actions, it remains vaguely defined. Their analysis of the nature of the debate on this concept within Chinese academic circles concludes that the boundary between core and non-core remains porous and movable. Their analysis found only a few articles referring to the South China Sea and Senkaku islands as core interests.

Why was the Concept Needed?

There are different opinions given on the reasons why such a narrowly defined concept was needed. Taiwan’s independence has been pointed to as a significant reason behind the Chinese aggressiveness to promote the “core interest” concept to protect its territorial integrity. However, efforts to reintegrate Taiwan had begun from 2005 onwards with the promulgation of the Anti-secession Law by the National People’s Congress, as Chen Shuibian was actively working for Taiwan’s de jure independence (Swaine 2010).

Zeng et al. (2015) have also pointed to the meetings between Nikolas Sarkozy and Dalai Lama in 2008 as one reason behind European Union being termed as a challenger to China’s core interests. On the other hand, while acknowledging the Taiwan factor, a US Congress (2013) report points to the Chinese leadership’s concern about inviting criticism from domestic audiences to give in to foreign pressure. The apparent readiness of the leaders to assert their core interests and defend them militarily, if needed, points to the rising nationalist tendencies in both the state and society.

Core interest Vs National interest

While concerns such as protection of national sovereignty and territorial integrity are the “national interest” of any nation-state, the concept of “Core interest” is set apart by the degree of political and diplomatic importance given to its constituent issues. Therefore, they represent a subset of the more extensive set of concerns under “National interest”, over which the state is willing to have no negotiations and is ready to use force to defend them. It implies a rigid negotiating stance and opens up the possibility of expanding the boundaries of areas where Beijing would remain uncompromising.

The attempt to differentiate between “National interest” and “Core interest” can also be the outcome of Chinese attempts to sincize the former concept comes from West European IR vocabulary. As Zeng et al. (2015: 255) quote one professor in Beijing’s Central Party School (CPS) as saying that all contemporary Chinese diplomatic theories, including core interests, are derived from Mao Zedong’s “Three Worlds Theory”.

Implications of the concept in foreign policy practice

With its increasing use as a foreign policy tool, the implication of China’s assertive behaviour to protect its core interests is an important question. It has alarmed several countries, especially the US, as China’s core interests threaten their national interests. Several Southeast Asian countries have already contested against China’s claims in the South China Sea, China’s relations with Japan as also worsening due to the East China Sea dispute, and border clashes with India have brought this important bilateral relationship to the bottom as well.

Zhou (2019) has argued that China’s foreign relations could worsen if it continues to overemphasize its core interests and has recommended that China should revisit the concept and modify it to suit the norms of the international liberal order. It remains to be seen whether China softens on its core interest diplomacy or continues with its aggressive foreign policy.

(The views & opinions expressed are those of the author)


Zeng, Jinghan et al. (2015). “Securing China’s core interests: the state of the debate in China”. International Affairs, Vol. 91:2, pp. 245-266

Swaine, Michael (2010). “China’s assertive behaviour, part one: on “core interests”. China Leadership Monitor. No. 34, pp. 1-25

US Congress (2013). “China’s “Core Interests” and the East China Sea”. US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. May 10 2013.

Zhou, Jinghao (2019). “China’s core interests and dilemma in foreign policy practice”. Pacific Focus. Vol. 34 (1), pp. 31-54

Author’s Profile

Prashant Sahu is a PhD candidate in the Chinese Studies division of Center for East Asian Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. His area of interests include Chinese Science, Technology and Innovation (STI), Chinese Foreign policy and Chinese Politics. He can be reached at

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