A war is unlikely, but Beijing is in no rush to settle boundary issues with India, because it does not follow established international norms and rules
THE DOKLAM STANDOFF last July and August brought back the spectre of an armed conflict in the Himalayas. The Indian and the Chinese troops were once again standing eyeball-to-eyeball in one of the potentially most volatile corners of the world after the Chinese decided to build a road through an area claimed by both China and Bhutan. In the end, violence was averted as both sides announced their respective decisions to pull back from the disputed plateau. But was it, for the Chinese, really about the border? Or a new road? Hardly, but the brief tug-of-war tells us a lot about the different ways in which China and India view treaties and obligations under the international law.
China referred to Jawaharlal Nehru’s 1959 endorsement of the 1890 Sikkim border agreement in which he said that it “defined the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet, and the boundary was later, in 1895, demarcated. There is, thus, no dispute regarding the boundary of Sikkim with the Tibet region”. What the Chinese stated sounded reasonable, but they did not mention what Nehru had said in the next sentence—that this referred to northern Sikkim and not the tri-junction that needed to be discussed with Bhutan and Sikkim and which today is a contentious area.
On October 28, the Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post—luckily there’s still some press freedom in the former British colony—published an article by author Peter Neville-Hadley titled, ‘Why China’s record in honouring historical agreements smacks of cherry-picking’. Neville-Hadley mentioned Doklam as one example and, even more startlingly, quoted Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang as describing the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 as “a historical document [that] no longer has any realistic meaning…it also does not have any binding power on how the Chinese central government administers Hong Kong”. Under that agreement, Hong Kong was to revert to Chinese rule in 1997 but be allowed to maintain its autonomous government and internal freedom for 50 years after that. Now, China says that agreement is null and void and Beijing can do what it pleases with and in Hong Kong.
Tibetans will, of course, remember a similar agreement their government signed with the Chinese in 1951, which stipulated that while “the Tibetan people shall return to the family of the Motherland of the People’s Republic of China…the central authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet”.
CHINA DOES NOT LOOK FOR PERMANENT SOLUTIONS. IT WANTS STRATEGIC STABILITY WHICH CAN BE USED TO ITS ADVANTAGE
As soon as the agreement was signed, the Chinese troops took over Tibet, crushed an uprising against their rule and, in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India.
The point is not that China does not honour any treaties and agreements it has signed; it honours those it wants to honour and discard the rest. Old treaties that China doesn’t like are branded “unequal treaties” and, therefore, there’s no reason to honour them. More recent international decisions that have not been in China’s favour are branded as an “interference in China’s internal affairs”, like when, in July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines in a dispute in the South China Sea. The court found that China has no credible ‘historical rights’ over the South China Sea in accordance with the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. Predictably, Beijing called the ruling a “farce”. A strongly worded editorial in the Renmin Ribao (“the People’s Daily”) asserted that the ruling had “ignored basic truths” and “trampled” on international laws and, therefore, “the Chinese government and the Chinese people firmly [oppose] the ruling and will neither acknowledge it nor accept it”.
Cherry-picking indeed—so it would not have mattered what Nehru had said in 1959 about the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet. Why then the fuss? Perhaps it was not about the border, or a road, at all. It is becoming increasingly clear that it was a political move, an attempt to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan. China never said why it had to build a road in an area it claims to have held “for centuries”—but the sensitive construction came at a time when China is courting Bhutan, the only neighbouring country with whom Beijing does not yet have diplomatic relations. Bhutan may be a small country, but that courtship, analysts suggest, could reset the prevailing
India-dominated balance of power in the Himalayas.
The Himalayan kingdom is tied to India through treaties signed with the British colonial power in 1910 and independent India in 1949 and 2007. The first two treaties gave Bhutan a high degree of internal autonomy while its foreign relations were still guided by India, in effect making it an Indian protectorate. The 2007 treaty granted Bhutan more independence over its foreign affairs.
In a bid to counter India’s influence in Bhutan, China has deployed its usual “soft diplomacy”. Chinese circus artistes, acrobats and footballers recently travelled to Bhutan, and a limited number of Bhutanese students received scholarships to study in China. Tourism has expanded as well. Nineteen Chinese tourists visited Bhutan a decade ago; now more than 9,000 a year, or 19 per cent of annual arrivals from countries whose nationals need visas. Although there is no Chinese embassy in Thimphu and no Bhutanese in Beijing, bilateral relations are maintained through a seemingly endless series of “border talks”.
The border standoff provoked India to intervene, which may not have been entirely welcome among the Bhutanese who are eager to show the rest of the world that theirs is an independent nation. China was quick to exploit this, and, on August 2, the foreign ministry in Beijing issued a statement saying that “the China-Bhutan boundary issue is one between China and Bhutan. It has nothing to do with India… India has no right to make territorial demands on Bhutan’s behalf ”. India, the Chinese foreign ministry went on to say, has not only “violated China’s sovereignty” but also “challenged Bhutan’s sovereignty and independence”.
Thus, old treaties and overlapping territorial claims are cards China plays when it seeks to enhance its geostrategic designs, and it would be a mistake to be bogged down in hair-splitting discussions about the interpretations of those. The so-called border dispute between India and China should be seen in the same light. China’s old stand—modified several times in recent years—is that the Line of Actual Control should be recognised as the border. China keeps Aksai Chin and India keeps Arunachal. In China, no one would protest against such a deal because no one could. But India is a democracy where politicians have to be re-elected. It would be political suicide for any Indian politician to agree to such a deal.
The Chinese are no doubt aware of that—and keeping the border issue alive suits more important purposes. It is a card that can be played when trade is discussed, or other bilateral problems crop up. China has also not forgiven India for giving sanctuary to the Dalai Lama. A degree of tension is in China’s interest because it does not, like most other nations, look for permanent solutions to problems. It wants strategic stability that can be used to its advantage. Given the vast volume of trade between India and China, another war, like that in 1962, is highly unlikely. But an unsettled border comes in handy whenever China wants, for instance, to gain influence in Bhutan. Or to show its disaffection with India’s refusal to join Beijing’s multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road infrastructure development initiative, which, if successfully implemented, could turn China into the world’s leading economic and perhaps also political and military power. And the contest will be primarily in the Indian Ocean, where China is rapidly expanding its influence. China is busy buying friends in the Maldives and the Seychelles and investing in Mauritius—all for the purpose of securing its “maritime silk road” that cuts right across the Indian Ocean, which India has long considered “its lake”. With China’s economic expansions come political clout and, eventually, military presence. Chinese submarines are being spotted on a regular basis in an ocean where no Chinese naval ships have been present since Zheng He sailed with his fleets to the Southeast and South Asia, the Arab peninsula and the coast of East Africa—and that was in the 15th century.
It seems far-fetched to say that a dispute on a barren plateau in the Himalayas fits into those grandiose schemes. But it was never about the border. Therefore, there will be no war in 2018 like the one in 1962 at the same time as China is in no rush to settle its boundary issue with India. China has its own way of managing its foreign relations—that does not follow any established patterns or internationally accepted norms and rules.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review. He has written 18 books on Asian politics, insurgencies and organised crime. His most recent book, China’s India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World, was published by the OUP in 2017
CHINA’S MARITIME SILK ROAD CUTS RIGHT ACROSS THE INDIAN OCEAN AND WITH ECONOMIC EXPANSIONS COME POLITICAL CLOUT AND MILITARY PRESENCE
By BERTIL LINTNER