A new, low-level conflict is threatening to brew between New Delhi and Beijing. China’s other neighbours, especially those embroiled in border disputes with the rulers of the Middle Kingdom, should pay close attention to how this incident unfolds.
Tensions over border issues between China and India arise from Beijing laying claim to about 90,000 sq. km of Indian territory. During a Sino-Indian conflict in 1962, Chinese troops flooded into and occupied a large tract of disputed territory. While Beijing withdrew forces from what is the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, it expanded its control over an additional swathe of the Tibetan plateau.
In a move to take a mile while appearing to give back an inch, China continues to lay claim to the territory of Arunachal Pradesh. And it has been making probing moves into Sikkim while improving infrastructure near disputed areas that have military as well as commercial uses. In 2006, China’s ambassador to India declared the “whole state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory...we are claiming all of that. That is our position”.
For its part, New Delhi recently announced the deployment of two additional army divisions and two air force squadrons to positions near its border with China. Despite its own actions, Beijing denounced India’s recent troop movements and insisted there will be no “compromises in its border disputes with India”.
China’s disagreements over borders are not limited to those with India. For its part, Beijing has made irredentist claims on all its borders and over all the waters that wash up onto its coasts. Indeed, it claims about 80% of the South China Sea, including the Spratlys and Paracels that are on a broad plateau up to 1,000 miles (1,609km) from China’s eastern coastline.
Since China is not an archipelago country, it cannot use its continental shelf to claim natural resources on the continental shelves of the Philippines and Vietnam. Even so, an assertion of sovereignty over the Spratlys would allow it to apply the 200-nautical-mile economic zone from there to extend its claims.
Another ruse to consolidate claims over border territory shared with the Koreas involves an egregious distortion of the past. Beijing published books and articles known as the “Northeastern Project”, asserting that much of Korea’s ancient history began in China.
The claim is that the geographic overlapping of two Korean kingdoms with north-eastern China implies that they belong to China’s ancient history. This prompted vigorous protests from South Korea’s political parties and many in its academic community.
It is likely that the incident is part of a well-orchestrated and purposeful attempt to increase its political influence in north-east Asia. This probably reflects concern over the large numbers of ethnic Koreans living in the north-eastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang that were granted considerable autonomy during the early 1950s.
Koreans confronted a historical affront relating to these kingdoms when China tried to rewrite the past in a similar matter in 2004. Then, officials in Seoul issued an objection when Korean learned societies demanded that Beijing put the kingdom of Koguryo in its proper historical perspective. In turn, the Chinese government issued a verbal agreement not to repeat such remarks.
On the face of it, fudging a historical moment might seem small potatoes. But territorial claims based on history have enormous strategic, political and diplomatic importance.
If Beijing successfully fakes history to extend its borders, it can then rigorously apply its doctrine of “absolute sovereign rights” that is a central tenet of its foreign policy. Under this dogma, it rejects outside criticisms about events or policies within its declared borders and refuses to compromise on this point regardless of the consequences.
As it is, Beijing insists that other countries exercise the highest standards of historical probity. For example, Chinese media and diplomatic channels have been used to criticize the content of Japanese history textbooks. Beijing is blatantly hypocritical in insisting that others engage in correct renderings of past deeds and misdeeds.
But hypocrisy, duplicity and deception are recognized skills, and among the most valuable tools, of international diplomacy. To ignore Chinese intent and ability to wield these dark arts to promote the interests of the Middle Kingdom would be to do so at one’s own peril.
To extend its reach in the region, China has developed a “string of pearls” along the southern coast of Asia consisting of naval bases, commercial ports and listening posts. These include port facilities in Bangladesh, radar and refuelling stations in Myanmar, a deep-water port in Gwadar, Pakistan, and access to the port of Hambontota in Sri Lanka.
Given these steps, it remains to be seen whether China’s insistence on being engaged in a “peaceful rise” will be contradicted by its future actions.
Christopher Lingle is a research scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and visiting professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org