Updated: January 8, 2022 8:00:48 am
The Chinese have always been an expansionist civilisation. Couched in a language of culture and mutual coexistence, their designs on neighbouring territories have generally been tempered through dialogue, defence deals or concessions by neighbouring polities. Nothing exemplifies this fact more than the refusal of three successive Chinese governments in delineating or demarcating the boundary with either Tibet or India till the former was subsumed and the latter’s psyche scarred. The last residue of the Qing dynasty was wiped out in the 1911 revolution when China was established as a republic. The republic was again overthrown in 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party.
British archival records, many declassified, are awash with innumerable attempts made by Imperial Britain to formally formulate a boundary with China. Yet, all three regimes were united in their refusal to accept a formal limiting of China’s territorial expanse and kept their response ambiguous. Even during the Simla Convention of 1913-14, when the Republic was ascendant in China, there was a vehement refusal to recognise any demarcation of boundaries between Tibet and China, marking a continuation of expansive territoriality that was the hallmark of the Qing dynasty. Since then, a number of alleged ancient maps, ambiguous treaties and declarations have marked Communist China’s attempts to keep on increasing its territorial reach.
Having operated from a maximalist position to settle its borders with 12 of its 14 neighbours so far, China has attempted to use the same strong-arm tactics with both India and Bhutan, with the latter’s sovereignty dependent on India’s security umbrella. China has now changed its strategy of dealing with Bhutan. It has offered to forgo its claims in the larger parts of North Bhutan in lieu of gaining a relatively smaller area in West Bhutan. This seeming magnanimity is calculated to expand into the Chumbi Valley in the South, threatening the narrow and strategic Siliguri corridor in India. Not only this, in its latest move, China has made a new claim on Sakteng sanctuary in Bhutan which may form a launchpad for future operations against Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.
China has also strengthened its collusion with Pakistan. A number of officers from Pakistan’s ISI have been posted to the Central Military Commission in Beijing while China has posted Chinese intelligence personnel for tech surveillance and interception. A common grouse for the Iron Brothers is India’s alleged “militaristic policies” in Kashmir, which is one of the supposed causes for China’s attempted land grab in Eastern Ladakh in April 2020. What is the real cause? No one knows. Various theories abound such as the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s rapid development of communications in the border areas (roads, habitats and airfields) and modernisation of India’s Armed Forces have been put across as plausible factors. What is not spoken about much is a deliberate attempt by China to physically link with Pakistan in the Northern Areas by removing the Indian wedge of DBO, the doorway to the Karakoram Pass.
Another factor, a Training Mobilisation Order (TMO) issued by Xi Jinping in January 2020 called for “confrontational training” for its troops and officers to assess their preparedness, especially in light of the new reforms undertaken by the PLA. Both these factors seem to be the tactical beginnings of China’s grand strategy which also saw China flexing in the South China Sea and Taiwan, almost simultaneously. The latest in the series of aggressive Chinese actions is the use of lawfare through the passing of the “Land Boundary Law” on October 21 which became effective this week.
The law formalises and legalises China’s geographic creep towards Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh and parts of eastern Ladakh and creates conditions for using newly-constructed border villages close to the LAC for claiming sovereignty over disputed areas. The import of the law is most critical for India but will affect China’s disputes with other countries too. What China has done, therefore, is convert a territory dispute over borders into a sovereignty dispute which precludes any give or take of territory.
Once these villages crop up at selected places along the LAC, China will attempt to settle its Han population in the Tibetan regions, reversing established demographic patterns and at the same time, making any negotiation beyond the limits of these villages a hypothetical process. Future negotiations over territory, if they occur, will then refer to the Border Defence Cooperation Agreements of 2005 and 2012 which call for border settlements to be done keeping in mind the local population in the border regions.
What emerges clearly is that by adopting the Land Boundary Law, in conjunction with its physical actions on the LAC, China has consolidated its position in eastern Ladakh and kept possibilities open in Arunachal Pradesh. A deliberate thought process needs to be evolved to offset our disadvantages as purely military actions may not solve the situation in the long term.
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 8, 2022 under the title ‘Policy of trespass’. The writer, a Kargil War veteran is a Visiting Fellow, Centre For Land Welfare Studies and specialises in India’s neighbouring countries, especially China
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