Quand la chine s’reveillera, le monde tremblera” (When China wakes, the world will tremble), Napoleon said while in exile at St. Helena.

Much of the trembling we see today in the West is exaggerated concern over the mere fact that China exists and is trying to win friends and grow its economy. As well, we have some deliberate distortions such as the alleged 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre thrown in to encourage more trembling.

Now China is being accused by the United States of cyber-theft for espionage purposes. Yet, for decades, the U.S. targeted its land, sea, air and Internet espionage at China.

One area where China seems to have decided it is time to act tough is in its long-standing frontier dispute with India. But first some background.

During their 19th century occupation of South Asia, the British constantly pushed northward into the Himalayan regions to ward off perceived Russian threats. One result in the western region is that strange sliver of Afghan territory running northeast along the border with Tajikistan all the way to the Chinese border at Sinkiang. It bears no relation to ethno-geographic realities. It was an arbitrary line drawn on a map to keep the Russians at bay. The same was true for the British land grab in the Tibetan region of Ladakh and across the Himalayas into the Aksai Chin region of Sinkiang.

In the eastern region we had the move northward from Assam into southern Tibet and its holy city of Tawang. The British said their claim to the so-called North East Frontier Area (NEFA) was justified by a negotiated frontier called the McMahon Line, even though the negotiations were rejected by China at the time and later by Tibet. (Last year the British foreign minister agreed that the McMahon Line had been “an anachronism and a colonial legacy.” He apologized to China for “not having renounced those actions earlier.”)

Considering the dubious legality of the various British land acquisitions, Beijing’s initial attempts at a border settlement with India in the 1960s were surprisingly generous. In effect it said India could keep the 90,000 sq. kilometers of inhabited NEFA land it held in the east and most of Ladakh, in exchange for China retaining 30,000 sq. kilometers of barren Aksai Chin land in the west. Some small differences in the central area could be settled by negotiation.

Partly perhaps because of Tibet events in 1959, New Delhi was in an uncompromisingly anti-China mood at the time. It wanted the Aksai Chin, too, using a very dubious version of the 1899 British claim line. Yet the Chinese had been able to build a vital road across the Aksai Chin, linking Tibet with Sinkiang, without the Indians even knowing. Someone had to be mistaken.

Even so, New Delhi persisted with its claims. Military clashes along the disputed borders culminated in a very foolish October 1962 Indian attack on some Chinese posts in the Thagla Ridge region, north of the McMahon Line it had previously claimed as the NEFA border (India had begun to talk about the Himalayan watershed much farther to the north as being the natural border).

The Chinese counterattacked in force, capturing Tawang and pushing deep into NEFA, but withdrew six weeks later thinking they had given the disorganized Indians a severe lesson in frontier realities. In fact, all they did was give New Delhi and its Western supporters cause to complain endlessly from thereon about Beijing’s “unprovoked aggression.”

For some time after 1962, China went back to its moderate negotiation position, hoping that New Delhi would eventually see the light and that agreement could be reached. But the continuing anti-China mood in India and New Delhi’s closer relations with the U.S. seem to have convinced Beijing to go back on its earlier apparent willingness to cede NEFA to India. It now makes a strong claim to Tawang and what it calls southern Tibet, and to what India calls Arunachal Pradesh.

The shift is significant. China has usually been quite consistent, and sometimes generous, in frontier deals and disputes with its neighbors. We have seen this over Taiwan where, despite U.S. shifts and changes, Beijing sticks to its original claim that this is Chinese territory to be reunited peacefully with the motherland provided Taiwan does not seek independence.

We have seen this in its other territorial disputes, including those with Japan. We saw it for a long time in its border negotiations with India, even as Beijing was bitterly condemned by the anticommunist Kuomintang government in Taiwan for what seemed like its willingness to sacrifice traditional Chinese territories (NEFA and Ladakh) to a foreign power.

Now, encouraged perhaps in part by that strange 2009 British Foreign Office statement, China seems to have lost patience with New Delhi. Let’s hope the patience does not run out elsewhere.

Gregory Clark, a former China desk officer in the Australian Department of External Affairs, is vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net

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