When China describes something as a “core interest”, it’s time to sit up and pay attention. A core interest is exactly what it sounds like — something that China views as essential to China’s economy and security. Perhaps more importantly the core interest label tends to denote something that China believes is not open to negotiation.

Earlier this year what many wondered would happen became a reality: the Senkakus were labeled a core interest. This corresponded with a ratcheting up of rhetoric on the part of China that the Senkakus were Chinese territory, and increased action on the part of non-state actors such as Chinese activists and fishermen. Whether coordinated or not, the pressure on Japan was on.

From May of this year:

BEIJING — China has indicated that it views the disputed Senkaku Islands as one of its “core (territorial) interests,” according to a senior Diet lawmaker who met with a high-ranking Chinese official, though it remains unclear if he was expressing Beijing’s official stance.

China uses the diplomatic phrase to refer to key territory it plans to hold onto or ultimately regain, including the Tibet Autonomous Region, flash point islands in the South China Sea, the restive Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and even Taiwan.

According to Satsuki Eda, a senior adviser to the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, Wang Jiarui, head of the Communist Party’s International Department, described the Japanese-controlled islets as a core interest during face-to-face talks in Beijing on Tuesday.

“To China, both the Diaoyu and the Uighur area are core interests,” Eda, a former Upper House president, quoted Wang as saying during the meeting. Beijing refers to the uninhabited but potentially resource-rich islets in the East China Sea as the Diaoyu. (Link)

Now, five months later, the Senkakus have been magically de-listed:

WASHINGTON — Chinese leaders avoided referring to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands as a core national interest during talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in September in an apparent attempt to avoid a diplomatic clash with Washington, U.S. State Department sources said Sunday.

In discussing territorial issues with Clinton in China, Premier Wen Jiabao did not make remarks suggesting the disputed islands, which China calls the Diaoyu, are part of its “core national interests,” a term Beijing uses to refer to key territories it is determined to hold onto or ultimately take control of, the sources said.

The talks with Clinton followed a meeting in Beijing in May in which Wen told Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda that Japan should respect China’s core interests and major concerns — an apparent reference to the islets. They also took place after the United States made it clear that the islands fall within the scope of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, which would oblige Washington to support Japan if the islets came under attack. (Link)

At the same time, the U.S. and Japan appear to be de-escalating as well. Less than a month after joint U.S. – Japanese amphibious exercises designed to retake Japanese islands captured by a hostile force, both countries are canceling plans for a follow-up.

Things are looking up. One could make wild speculations and guesses about this entire affair, but let’s just leave it at that.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 121 post(s) on New Pacific Institute