August 2020

Territorial chauvinism

In light of Beijing’s aggression across its neighbourhood, Yvonne Gill argues that it is time for India to bargain with China in language it understands

Ultra-nationalism has been the bedrock of Chinese foreign policy since the days of Mao Zedong. The dragon has progressively gnawed at the territories of neighbouring countries by deceit, aggression or negotiation. US President Donald Trump has rightly stated that Beijing’s recentactions in Ladakh fit with a larger pattern of aggression in other parts of the world. Inevitably, China uses the humiliation itsuffered at the hands of former colonial powers to hark back to imperial times and lay outlandish claims to neighbouring territories, andto extend Exclusive Economic and Air Defence Identification Zonesvis-à-vis its maritime boundaries.

The list of China’s territorial disputes with its neighbours runs to volumes.

Let’s start with Brunei, whichhas no land boundary with China. This small island nation rightly claims nearby areasof the South China Sea as part of its continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone. Yet the Chinese maintain the southern part of the Spratly Islands is theirs.

Then there is the Philippines, which took their dispute relating to the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, to the International Court of Justice, where they won the case. Yet the Chinese refuse to abide by the ICJorder and have been unsuccessfully trying to woo Manilainto ceding its rights by offering economic incentives.

Given China’s assertive attitude, India must adopt an equally aggressive policy in dealing with Beijing

Similarly, China’s so-called Nine-Dash Line – a vague demarcation line used by the country to assert its right to a major portion of the South China Sea – overlaps the Natuna Sea/Exclusive Economic Zone of Indonesia. China asserts fishing rights in waters near the islands, while Indonesia maintains that China’s claims are not recognised under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In July 2017, Indonesia renamed parts of the South China Sea the North Natuna Sea to reinforce its claim.

China also has a dispute with Malaysia over parts of the South China Sea, particularly the Spratly Islands. Malaysia claims the islands included in its Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 miles as defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It has a military presence on three of theislands, which, like Brunei, it considers part of the continental shelf.

While Singapore is not a claimant state in the South China Sea disputes, it is closely aligned to the United States and allows the presence of US naval forces in Singaporean waters. Although it does not openly take sides, it does advocate freedom of navigation and resolution of all disputes in line with the UN Convention of Law of the Seas.

China has a continuing dispute with North Korea over the Paektu Mountain

China also claims large areas of Laos, citingthe historical precedent of China’s Yuan Dynasty going back to 1271-1368 AD. Similarly, it has at times claimed part of Cambodia onthe basis of historical records (China’s Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644).

Thailand has long opposed China’s dredging ofthe Mekong River, which began in 2001 to facilitate ships carrying goods from its landlocked Yunnan province to ports in Thailand, Laos and Southeast Asia. China has also built hydropower dams upstreamof the Mekong River, altering the natural flood-drought cycle, and adversely affecting both the ecosystems and economies of countries on the lower Mekong River such as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Following protests and environmental concerns, the Thai Cabinet scrapped a Chinese-led dredging projectto blast rapids on the Mekong River in February 2020.

In the Far East, Japan’s dispute with China revolves around the South China Sea, particularly the Senkaku and Ryukyu Islands and the overlapping Air Defence Identification Zone and Exclusive Economic Zone in the East China Sea. Several incidents have resulted in strong statements from both sides.

Down south, Vietnam, which fought a bloody war with China in 1979 when Beijing tried to teach its former ally a lesson, has resolutely stood by its territorial claims over parts of the South China Sea, the Macclesfield Bank, the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.

On the South Western border, China occupies 38,000 sq km of Indian territory in the Aksai Chin region, as well as staking claimstoLadakh and Arunachal Pradesh. This year’s ongoing standoff between the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA escalated into a lethally violent clash in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley. Another 5,163 sq. km of the Shaksgam Valley was illegally ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963. Hence, the total Indian territory occupied by China is more than 43,000 sq. km.

Nepal and China,too, have pending issues over three boundary pillars in Dolakha and two in the vicinity of Mount Everest. There have also been reports of China illegally occupying strategic land at 12 different places across Nepal, and China cited the Sino-Nepalese war of 1788-1792 to argue that some parts of Nepal werein Tibet and henceChinese territory.

As per its OneChina policy, China claims all of Taiwan (the Republic of China), the East Asian island nation formerly known as Formosa, saying there cannot be two countries by the same name.And it has raised disputes with Taiwan over the Macclesfield Bank, Paracel Islands, part of the South China Sea and the Spratly Islands.

Even with its close ally North Korea,China has a continuing dispute over the Paektu Mountainand the Yalu and Tuman rivers. It has also claimed Baekhu Mountain and Jiandao.Laughable as it may sound, Beijing has, on occasions, cited records from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD)to lay claim to the entire Korean peninsula.

South Korea and China have an overlapping Air Defence Identification Zone, which has led to many unpleasant incidents. The two countries also have a continuing Exclusive Economic Zone dispute over Leodo (Socotra Rock) in the East China Sea.

China and Mongolia have settled their boundary dispute. Nevertheless,Chinadoesn’t shy away from maintaining that Mongolia was a part of the Yuan Dynasty Empire.

Thailand has long opposed China’s dredging of the Mekong River

Bhutanese enclaves in Tibet include Cherkip, Gompa, Tarchen and Zuthulphuk. Bhutan has lost substantial chunks of territory. including the Kula Kangri peak, to surreptitious encroachments by China, which also claims the mountainous areas to the west of this peak and the western Haa district of Bhutan. China’s border dispute with Bhutan was initially confined to the central and western sectors but Beijing is now expanding its territorial claims to include the eastern sector. The Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan, adjoining India’s Arunachal Pradesh, has been described by China as a disputed area; it objects to funding being provided by the US-based Global Environment Facility. In 2017, India and China clashed in Doklam over a road that China was building in Bhutanese territory close to the Indian border.

In Central Asia, Tajikistan and China had a bilateral dispute dating back to 1884 when an agreement between the Qing Dynasty and Tsarist Russia left large segments of the frontier in the sparsely-populated eastern Pamirs vaguely defined.The Chinese claims were based on historical records (Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912 AD).In 1991, Tajikistan inherited from the Soviet Union three disputed border segments making up about 28,000 sq. km, which China and the USSRwere unable to resolve.In 1999, Tajikistan and China signed an agreement demarcating the border in two of the three segments. Tajikistan ceded about 200 sq. km of land to China. Again in 2002, Tajikistan agreed to cede 1,122 sq. km or about four percent of the territory that Beijing had claimed while China gave up 3.5 per cent of the disputed territory.

China laid claim to 34,000 sq. km of Kazakhstan’s territory stretching from Semirechie to Lake Balkhash, saying that these historically belonged to China. Despite a claim by Kazakh state media that the Kazakhstan government had succeeded in retaining 56.9 per cent of the disputed territory, as per the border demarcation treaty of 1994, it is believed that the remaining 43.1 per cent of land also belonged to Kazakhstan but was given away in the deal.

While making outlandish claims that the whole of Kyrgyz territory was part of mainland China under the Han Dynasty before the Russian empire captured it, China has managed to settle for 32 percent of its claim over Kyrgyz territory under the 1999 agreement. Kyrgyzstan handed over 1,250 sq. km to China.

Russia and China have had serious border clashes in the past. Bilateral agreements in 1991 and 1994 to delimit the eastern and western section of the Russia-China border were signed but some sectors remained unresolved. In October 2004, the 4,300 sq. km border was finally demarcated in its entirety, thus resolving a 300-year-old territorial dispute.In 2005, the Russian Parliament ratified the agreement. In 2008, a part of the Abagaitu Islet, the entire Tarabarov Bolshoi Ussuriysk Island and some adjacent river islets were handed over to China.

Given China’s assertive attitude toward its neighbours, India, now in the midst of a serious faceoff, has to adopt an equally aggressive policy in dealing with Beijing. While India is not a pushover like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with which China fixed boundary settlements in its favour though a blend of ‘incentives with coercion’ tactics, India will have to respond to China in the language it understands, say strategic experts.

Just as the Chinese demographic foray continues in Kazakhstan and Russia’s Far East, so it is with Pakistan, which had to cede 2,050 sq. miles (5,180 sq. km) of its occupied part of the Baltistan/ Ladakh region to China in 1963, in exchange for 750 sq. miles of territory comprising the mineral rich Oprang Valley and the Darband-Darwaza. This was shown by the Chinese leadership as a ‘gesture of friendship’. But the fact is that now China’s border extends from the Kunlun Mountain range to the Karakoram Range to the vast tract of the Gilgit-Baltistan region covering Shaksgam, Raskam and Aghil valleys.

But, so far, such tactics haven’t worked with India. Having failed to clinch a substantive concession from Delhi through the 2005 draft agreement, Beijing has resorted to violent military tactics. In 2013, the People’s Liberation Army intruded 19 km into Depsang to press Indiainto ‘urgency’in‘redoubling’ efforts to settle the boundary issue.China’s recent aggressive posture in Ladakh is either to alter the status quo of Aksai Chin or to force India into a framework agreement to formally settle the border along the LAC in Ladakh, where China has nothing to lose. China thus wants India to forego its claim over the 38,000 sq. km Aksai-Chin territory, de-linking Ladakh from the overall Sino-India boundary dispute. If this happens, the dragon will shift the focus to emphatically claim 90,000 sq. km of Arunachal Pradesh from India. Already a PLA build-up is happening and constructions are taking place across the LOC.

The current situation in Ladakh remains extremely dangerous, and the status quo ante needs to be restored. Holding a meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on Border Affairs would be a good move. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi should pick up from wherethenPrime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee left off in 2003. The 2005 draft guiding principles still provide a definitive guide to realising an actual territorial adjustment. The Prime Minister gave a subtle message at an All-Party meeting and it is he alone who can find a lasting solution to the boundary issue.

India’s claim over the Aksai Chin plateau has a history dating from the early-19th century Dogra and British period. The Ladakh Kingdom’s traditional border ran east along the Indus River to cover the areas of Rudok, Guge, Kailash, Burang, Gartok, up to the Nepal junction. Eastern Ladakh was taken militarily by the Tibetan-Mongol forces during the Ladakh-Tibet war of 1679-1684. Timely military intervention by Aurangzeb and diplomatic intercession by Bhutan saved the situation or else all of Ladakh would have been a part of Tibet-China today.

The 1684 Temisgang Treaty defined the Ladakh-Tibet border, and also entitled the ruler of Ladakh to govern Menser Enclave, located at the foot of Mount Kailash. The Sikh, Dogra and British rulers respected the treaty.In fact, the Menser issue is not a closed one:India needs to bring it to the table again. The area is roughly the same size as the 38,000 sq. km Aksai Chin, plus the 5,047 sq. km of Skyasgam Valley. The Menser enclave is currently in Chinese possession. Of course, the Chinese would never accede the area which is strategically vital,connecting Tibet and Xinjiang through the China National Highway (G219) with Gargunsa airbase located there and Mount Kailash, an important tourist destination.

To India, the area covering Kailash-Manasarovar is vital for its own civilisational identity. The country’s great rivers – the Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus – originate there. Besides, getting the chicken-neck area of Parakarkyog, at the Ladakh-Himachal-Tibet junction, is criticaltolaying an all-weather road to Ladakh. All negotiations should be done with these in mind and only a tough bargaining stance by India will soften the Chinese.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London