The National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, which operates as the legislative body of Communist China, passed the new Land Border Law on the 23rd of October, 2021. The legislation which contains 62 articles and 7 chapters, came into effect on the 1st of January, 2022 can be heralded as a stratagem to convert border disputes into conflicts over sovereignty. The controversial law epitomizes the brinksmanship model adopted by Premier Xi Jinping to tackle border disputes.
The legislation is a provocative move by the Chinese to unilaterally delineate borders with its neighbouring states. The law has ruffled feathers in New Delhi as it was implemented by the Chinese amidst a border standoff with India. China as of today shares a 22,000-kilometre border with an astonishing fourteen countries; however, it only shares non-demarcated boundaries with India and Bhutan. Currently, the Chinese have illegally occupied 38,000 square kilometres of Ladakh, and claim sovereignty over 90,000 kilometres of Arunachal Pradesh. Moreover, the Chinese claim territory over 760 kilometres of Bhutanese territory. The Chinese modus operandi counteracts the various bilateral attempts to resolve the border issues leaving a militarised solution as the sole viable alternative for India and Bhutan.
Given the controversy the new Land Border Law has stirred, it is critical to analyse the aspects covered in the law which make it contentious. The legislation primarily asserts Chinese sovereignty over its territories as inviolable and sacred. It states how delimitation of boundaries would be fixed by the Chinese authorities along with the relevant neighbouring state to determine the physical extent of territorial sovereignty between the two nations.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) are the two bodies working in tandem to nullify security threats along disputed territories. The PLA is tasked to ensure that territory markers are not violated by any external actors whereas the Police Force prohibits any Chinese entity from partaking in activities that could jeopardise the status quo with a neighbouring state. The indigenous population residing along the borders is mandated to abide by the demarcation as per the new law and support the PLA and PAP to uphold Chinese sovereignty along the border areas. The legislation aims to establish buffer zones along border areas while using a hybrid civil-military model. The Chinese state aims to promote economic and social development through the establishment of infrastructure and public services in disputed territories as a reward for protecting Chinese interests.
Modus Operandi Behind the New Land Border Law
The new Land Border Law echoes territorial expansionism, a concept that has remained central across different Chinese regimes. The Chinese mechanism is viewed as a move to install ‘Xiaokang’ defence villages in disputed territories. Beijing is now prioritizing establishing villages and towns along its border areas as it utilizes civilians to expand into Indian territory under the garb of protecting its sovereignty. After the development of Chinese settlements in disputed areas, negotiations over these territories would become an even more complicated process. Therefore, the Chinese stratagem aims to incentivize settlements along border areas which would be extremely valuable since any border settlement in the future would be implemented as per the Sino-Indian Border Defence Cooperation Agreement which dissects territory according to the settled population in the particular area.
The legislation exhibits a dichotomy in the Chinese posture while handling border disputes with India and other neighbouring states. The Chinese response to the land border dispute with India and Bhutan is reflective of the intimidation tactic used by the Chinese to coerce its territorial claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. The Communist Party adopted the Maritime Police Law and Maritime Traffic Safety Law as it sought to combat all alien encroachments in its maritime domain. As China simultaneously indulges in land and maritime expansion, the common denominator between the new border laws pertaining to both theaters is to legitimize the use of all means necessary to uphold Chinese sovereignty in disputed territories.
China has claimed that large parts of Northern Bhutanese territory lie under Chinese sovereignty which has historically caused severe discord between the two states. However, in a surprising turn of events, China has backtracked on its assertions over Northern Bhutan in a bid to expand into Western Bhutan. The change in stance results from the geostrategic significance of West Bhutan since it could be utilized as a launch-pad to expand into Southern parts of Bhutan which lie in close proximity to the chicken’s neck, the Siliguri Corridor. Further, Beijing now also asserts sovereignty over the Sakteng sanctuary which could be used as a military base for operations in Arunachal Pradesh.
The law also highlights the growing fears within the Communist party as the region confronts the establishment of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Given the erratic nature of the Taliban entity, the region faces a new threat that has the potential to infect the South Asia region with instability. Moreover, the law lies in alignment with the formation of a common Chinese identity which forms the focal point of the Xi Jinping regime. Education is utilized as a mechanism to promote loyalty to the Chinese state and build a common Chinese ethos that vibrates across the homeland. The legislation is an attempt to endow ethnic assimilation as Beijing attempts to coerce shared Chinese ‘consciousness’ among the masses.
The new law has been at the receiving end of stern criticism by Indian hawks as the legislation poses the risk of derailing the Indo-Chinese dialogue to solve border conflicts, leaving a militarised solution as the sole alternative. The Indian External Affairs Ministry condemned the law since it is a unilateral attempt by the Chinese to resolve border disputes on its terms. The Indian government stated that the legislation could hamper the various bilateral treaties, dialogues, and agreements to maintain peace in the non-demarcated border shared between the countries. Further, the Chinese efforts were vehemently denounced as through the law they sought to legitimize the 1963 Sino-Pak border agreement which New Delhi regards as illegal.
Consensual delimitation of borders with India has historically been a stance that China has avoided. The Chinese blueprint behind territorial encroachment involves disclosing ambiguous historical treaties and maps to claim sovereignty over foreign territory. Having arm-twisted 12 of its land neighbours into establishing borders based on Chinese terms, the strategic course taken by Beijing concerning the border dispute with India also reflects the same. However, adopting a maximalist approach with India on border issues could be rued by the Chinese in the future given the growing economic and military might of the Indian nation. The Modi government has been clear in its stance towards foreign incursions: Under no circumstance would India forego its legitimate territory. The Chinese are aware that provoking India could lead to dire consequences in the South China Sea and the East China Sea since India is a central figure in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) Bloc which is emerging as an important security mechanism in the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, as a reminder to highlight the importance of the Indian market for Chinese goods, New Delhi imposed anti-dumping duty on Chinese goods for a minimum period of five years on products related to industries such as thermal power plants, refrigeration, and dye.
Importantly, the law comes at a time when border tensions are unresolved post the border clashes of June 2020 in Galwan Valley. Border areas across Demchok, Depsnag, and Pangong Lake have witnessed a recent surge in border infrastructure development and military deployment as the two sides have sought to deter territorial incursions. The doves of Chinese foreign policy have termed the move inconsequential to India. They argue that the legislation endeavours to deter any future threat posed by the newly established Taliban regime in Afghanistan as well as to curb the increasing rate of illegal immigration from Myanmar and Vietnam into Chinese territories.
Repercussions on the Status Quo
Given the hostile borders relations shared between India and China, the new Land Border Law has the potential to further complicate bilateral relations between the two countries. The latest map unveiled by the Chinese state incorporates the complete state of Arunachal Pradesh, and territories of Uttarakhand and Ladakh, all of which lie under Indian sovereignty. The first tipping point could be the handling of Indian citizens in disputed areas that Beijing insists to be Chinese sovereign territory, since the present-day Chinese map includes a major chunk of Indian territory. Another possible bone of contention could be the mandatory Chinese consent required to build border infrastructure in disputed territories. Given the contrasting nature of claims between India and China over the demarcation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the PLA would resist the formation of permanent defence structures by the Indian army. This could further spread hostility along the borders, given the flare-up of the Chinese and Indian armed forces in recent times which has led to the two states indulging in an infrastructure arms race along various sectors of the border areas. Lastly, the Chinese tactic resonates with the salami-slicing technique the dragon is infamously renowned for. However, given the fact that the Indian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi is unlikely to budge on its territorial sovereignty as demonstrated in Galwan and Dokhlam, the Chinese need to reassess their options as it is too far-fetched to assume that a country of India’s stature could be bullied by unilateral declarations.
Teg Prataap Singh Sandhu is a master’s student pursing Diplomacy, Law and Business from OP Jindal Global University. I have previously interned at think-tanks such as National Maritime Foundation and Global Peace Foundation. My research interests include Chinese Foreign Policy; Peace and Conflict Studies in West Asia and South Asia. I have published articles related to the spread of political Islam across the Middle East; The failure of democracy in Pakistan, and the Chinese debt trap diplomacy. I am presently working on the project ‘Management of the Indo-Bangladesh border’ with UNESCO, Guwahati.