Ber­til Lint­ner

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

India Today - - INSIDE -

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”.


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


Illustrati­on by TANMOY CHAKRABORT­Y


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