Assertive China puts neighbours on guard

As China’s military and economic power grows rapidly, its neighbours, with whom it shares disputed and maritime boundaries, look on warily. China now appears more assertive and ready to use its military clout to enforce its territorial claims, which have little basis historically and scarcely conform to the provisions of international conventions, laws and practices, on the demarcation of land and maritime boundaries. Prime Ministers Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh inked an agreement in 2005 embodying ‘Guiding Principles’ to determine the Sino-Indian boundary. It was agreed that ‘the India-China boundary should be along well-defined and easily identifiable natural geographic features’. It was also stipulated that in determining the boundary, the presence of ‘settled populations’ will be taken into account. This made it clear that there would be no change in the status of populated areas.

Based on these principles, it was clear that the eastern boundaries of India and China would lie along the high mountain ranges separating Tibet and the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh, despite territorial claims made earlier by China on the Monastery town of Tawang, lying south of the watershed. Moreover, in the western sector in Ladakh, the ‘well defined and easily identifiable natural geographic features’ lie along the Karakoram Mountains up to the Indus River Watershed. Despite the agreement reached in 2005, China suddenly upped the ante and virtually disowned the agreement signed by its Prime Minister within a year, by laying claim to the entire State of Arunachal Pradesh. While there have been regular high level meetings between the two countries to demarcate the ‘Line of Control’, as a prelude to settling the border issue, China has made this process of demarcation along its borders with both Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh virtually impossible be refusing to exchange maps defining its version of the Line.

In the absence of maps defining the demarcation of the Line of Control on the eastern and western sections of its borders with India, China finds it expedient to transgress into areas well beyond what can be defined as its borders in accordance with the ‘Guiding Principles’ that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao agreed to in 2005. Tensions recently escalated along the Sino-Indian boundary, with Chinese troops intruding into areas like Depsang and Chumar, well beyond the ‘easily identifiable’ Karakoram Mountain Range. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been engaged in such intrusions, knowing well that its Indian counterparts have tenuous lines of communication to these areas. India has responded by establishing a series of airfields and helipads along it borders with China. But the advantages of terrain and firepower clearly lie with China, along vast tracts of the border. Militarily, this is likely to continue till India completes raising new strike formations, while enhancing firepower and mobility along its borders — a task that will take five to ten years.
Similar Chinese assertiveness in attempting to enforce ever expanding claims on its land and maritime frontiers has characterised the recent behaviour of the Middle Kingdom with most of its maritime neighbours, ranging from South Korea and Japan to Vietnam and the Philippines. In the period between 1895 and 1971, China recognised Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. Chinese maps printed up to 1969 show the Senkaku Islands as part of Japan. But, unlike other maritime neighbours, Japan has made it clear that it has the military power to retain territories it exercises sovereignty over. China unilaterally defined its maritime boundaries in the South China Sea, with then Prime Minister Chou en Lai proclaiming a so-called ‘Nine Dotted Line’ in 1949 — a ‘Line’ that has no basis in international law and does not conform to the UN Conventions on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Tensions have escalated after China deployed naval vessels around the Scarborough Shoal. The Philippine warship Gregorio del Pilar was involved in a standoff with two Chinese surveillance vessels near the Shoal in April 2012.

The Philippines has responded to Chinese assertiveness by seeking to hand over the dispute with China over maritime boundaries to the UN, thus challenging the legality of China’s ‘Nine Dotted Line’. Vietnam lost control of the Paracel Islands in 1974 and the Spratly Islands (Johnson South Reef and Fiery Cross Reef) in 1988. It has sought to get its concerns voiced in ASEAN and the East Asia Summit, but has often found China prepared to use its economic clout with countries like Cambodia to undermine unity within ASEAN on the issue. At the same time, Vietnam has agreed to bilateral mechanisms with China for Joint Fishing in the Tonkin Gulf. China has also not too subtly tried to deter the visits of Indian naval ships to the South China Sea and questioned India’s right to undertake offshore oil and gas exploration, in what are generally recognised as Vietnamese territorial waters.

Apart from territorial issues, China’s propensity as an upper riparian state, to divert and utilise river waters without any prior consultations with lower riparian states, is causing widespread concern. The waters of the Brahmaputra River are vital for the lives of hundreds of millions living in India and Bangladesh. There is now huge concern about the growing number of hydro-electric projects that China is constructing in Tibet, utilising the waters of the Brahmaputra, without any prior consultations with India or Bangladesh. China has behaved in a similar manner, while utilising the waters of the Mekong as an upper riparian, causing serious concern in lower riparian States — Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, while adversely affecting the livelihood of some 60 million people. China has refused to join the Mekong River Commission, set up to ensure equitable utilisation of the waters of the Mekong River, or regularly share data of upstream utilisation and flows with the six lower riparian States. While China has now agreed to share more data on upstream flows of the Brahmaputra River with India, it remains averse to any suggestion of having a tripartite mechanism involving Bangladesh and India, for joint monitoring of flows, or prior consultations on upstream utilisation of river waters.

Yet another strategic challenge India faces today is Chinese dominance of its power and electronics sectors. India’s annual imports of electronic equipment today amount to $32 billion. There is growing recognition that energy and cyber security cannot be guaranteed by facilitating Chinese imports, but by devising policies to enhance domestic manufacturing capabilities and giving Indian industry due tariff protection. Measures are now being initiated by New Delhi to lessen dependence on Chinese imports in these crucial areas. There is also recognition of the need to be more proactive on China’s growing assertiveness on its maritime frontiers, which threatens the freedom of navigation. Speaking at the East Asia Summit earlier this year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh welcomed the establishment of an expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum for ‘developing maritime norms that would reinforce existing international law relating to maritime security’. He thereafter pledged to enhance strategic cooperation with Indonesia.

China’s rise over the past quarter of a century has been remarkable. But many in India believe that its historic traits of chauvinism and the dynamics of socio-economic transformation are inevitably having an impact on China’s behaviour. The contradictions between an increasingly open economy in an era of expanding global communications, on the one hand, and corruption and venality that characterise the behaviour of dictatorial elites on the other, are producing social and economic tensions in China. These tensions can get out of hand if not addressed deftly. Like all other dictatorships facing such challenges, China’s leadership is increasingly resorting to jingoism to divert the attention of its people. The message to the people of China is that with its growing military might and economic power, China is set to share global pre-eminence with the US and will soon overtake the US in economic power. This has been coupled with coercion of its neighbours, in order to enforce claims for territorial expansion on China’s land and maritime boundaries. These developments pose serious challenges to efforts to build a truly multipolar and inclusive architecture for security and cooperation in Asia.
— G Parthasarathy