China’s Approach towards Territorial Disputes: Lessons and Prospects
New Delhi, India:
2016. pp. 284
The rise of China in the past two decades has been one of the defining features of the Asian century. Impressive economic growth and rising military prowess have given a fillip to China’s claim to the status of the world’s second biggest power. However, alongside China’s economic rise, the international community has also been witnessing an increasingly assertive China, which has shown alarming aggressive postures on matters pertaining to land and maritime boundaries with its neighbours.
China has a land border of approximately 20,000 km and a coastline of about 18,000 km. It shares boundaries with 14 countries, namely: Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Vietnam and Tajikistan. It also shares maritime boundary with four countries, viz., Japan and South Korea in the East China Sea and the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea. With such a vast neighbourhood, it is likely for any country to have disagreements over adequate demarcation of its borders with its neighbouring countries. China has long-standing land borders and maritime disputes with many of its neighbours. However, barring India and Bhutan, China has resolved all its borderland disputes and is yet to settle all its maritime disputes. Intriguingly, China has had territorial disputes with almost all of these countries, and had also fought wars with some over the dispute.
China’s aggressive postures on the South China Sea dispute, particularly with the Philippines and Vietnam, led to considerable “strategic uncertainty” in the region. China has been equally hostile along the India-China border, putting pressure on India through repeated incursions and the claiming of Indian territory. As a matter of fact, China claims Arunachal Pradesh of India as “Southern Tibet”, has parts of Aksai Chin under its control, and also claims parts of Ladakh.
A comprehensive study of China’s boundary relations and territorial disputes with all its neighbours has been missing in the Indian strategic and foreign policy literature. Sana Hashmi’s book plugs that gap.
China’s Approach towards Territorial Disputes: Lessons and Prospects, the work under review, fills a critical gap in terms of finding a pattern in China’s territorial behaviour with its neighbours, and providing cues on dealing with China’s territorial policies. This is important in the light of the fact that boundary dispute resolution challenges are likely to be even more daunting, the symptoms of which are already showing up. What makes the study of territorial disputes even more fascinating is that the countries of the region have contiguous boundaries, historical as also cultural similarities.
While the book does not attempt to answer one central puzzle, it does run through one broad theme, i.e., what is it that has prompted China to resolve a particular boundary dispute, while leave the other, and what has been the core of Chinese understanding of boundary. Divided into nine succinct chapters, this work lays out a broad canvas comprising theoretical connotation of China’s territorial conception, its boundary dispute resolution with neighbours, and cases where China has been rather reluctant in solving its territorial disputes.
This study highlights that the biggest challenge lies in not only ensuring stability along the boundary with China, but also creating enough stakes for China so that it finds resolution of boundary dispute an interesting and exciting proposition for the latter’s own benefit. It is important to note that Indian and Chinese economies are yet to achieve synergy when compared to the China’s other neighbours such as the Central Asian Republics, Korea, Russia and Myanmar.
The book points out several security and infrastructural challenges facing India today which need to be addressed urgently. On the infrastructure side, strong supervision of projects for their timely completion is needed to cope with unforeseen situations along the boundary. Hashmi also pitches for a stronger presence and role of the Indian Air Force in safeguarding India’s territorial interests.
The book argues that the India and other countries that are in boundary dispute with China, must strengthen mechanisms and or new ones to involve China in dialogue process. China has used contradictory reasons to justify its claims with different neighbours. For instance, if the McMahon Line was acceptable to China with Myanmar, it does not make sense to question its sanctity in the India-China boundary dispute. It further pitches a case for stronger military facilities and infrastructure along the border, not just to deter the adversary, but also to develop strategic parity along the boundary. The book also presents nine critical case studies which could provide important lessons in making sense of China’s policies and practice on the boundary issue with its neighbours. A major attraction of the book is a series of detailed maps of China’s boundary with its neighbours. The publisher would have done more justice to it with high-resolution prints.
In summation, the book is an important contribution in highlighting China’s territorial behaviour and its modus operandi in negotiating and resolving boundary dispute with its neighbours. This will be of great interest to China-watchers, students of Chinese studies, international relations, as well as policy makers and opinion makers of the region. More importantly, this study endeavours to situate China-India boundary dispute in the wider context of China’s boundary disputes with its other neighbours.
Dr Rahul Mishra is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), New Delhi. Views are personal.