Commentary / World

Beijing's bendable principles

by Brahma Chellaney

Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to publicly identify China on Chinese soil as an obstacle to the development of bilateral ties when he asked Beijing in mid-May to “reconsider its approach” on some key issues. In a similar vein, his national security adviser, Ajit Doval, said more recently that China’s border stance is in “complete contravention of accepted principles,” pointing out that Beijing has accepted the colonial-era McMahon Line with Myanmar but rejects the same line with India.

This should come as no surprise: In none of its disputes with neighboring countries has China staked a territorial claim on the basis of international law or norms. Rather, its claims flow from its revanchist view of the past — a shifting standpoint that distorts history to help legitimize claims to territories long held by other countries. Because China does not apply the rule of law at home, it does not recognize its value in international affairs.

For China, principles have always been bendable. And when it cannot bend a principle, it creates a new one.

Take its territorial disputes with India: Content with its Switzerland-size land grab (Aksai Chin) in India’s western sector, China pushes expansive claims in the eastern sector that highlight its ingenious principle to covet neighbors’ territories — “what is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable.”

With its just released defense white paper articulating regional-hegemony aspirations, China — an outside power — is seeking to carve out a major role for itself in the Indian Ocean, inviting India to collaborate on deep seabed mining there and join its Maritime Silk Road. Yet it opposes any Indian-Vietnamese collaboration in the South China Sea. “My sea is my sea but your sea is our sea” seems to be a new Chinese saying.

Since 2006, Beijing has claimed the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh, in northeastern India, as “South Tibet.” To draw attention to the state’s purported Tibetan identity, it has cooked up Tibetan names for subdivisions of Arunachal Pradesh (which includes the Tawang Valley, the gateway to the Dalai Lama’s 1959 escape from his homeland). In border negotiations, it has pressed India to cede at least Tawang.

China originally fashioned its claim to resource-rich Arunachal Pradesh — a territory almost three times larger than Taiwan — as a bargaining chip to compel India to recognize its occupation of the Aksai Chin plateau. For this reason, China withdrew from the Arunachal areas it had invaded in the 1962 war but retained its territorial gains in Aksai Chin, which provides the only passageway between its rebellious regions — Tibet and Xinjiang. But now, by ratcheting up the Arunachal issue with India, China is signaling that Arunachal (or at least Tawang) is the new Taiwan that must be “reunified” with the Chinese state.

The Dalai Lama, however, has said publicly that Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang, was traditionally not part of Tibet. Tawang is a Monpa tribal area. Its tribespeople were never citizens of Tibet, and the boundary separating their territory from the adjoining Tibetan region was a well-recognized customary line. Like some other Himalayan communities in India, the Monpas are Tibetan Buddhists, belonging to the Gelukpa sect.

Significantly, China made its specific claim to Tawang not before it waged war against India in 1962 but decades later as part of a maximalist stance on boundary issues that extends to several other neighbors. For example, China has not only escalated its challenge to Japan’s century-old control of the Senkaku Islands, but is also facing off against the Philippines since sneakily seizing the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

The India-China border negotiations have dragging on for 34 years — a world record. With no headway on reaching a frontier settlement, Modi has rightly emphasized the imperative to resume the process — derailed by China 13 years ago — to clarify the “line of actual control” that China unilaterally drew after defeating India in the 1962 Chinese-initiated war. This clarification can be done, as he pointed out, “without prejudice” to either side’s “position on the boundary question.”

The reason for the continued ambiguity on the line is that, in 2002, after more than two decades of negotiations, China reneged on a promise to exchange maps with India covering the two main disputed sectors — Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin, along with its adjacent areas — located at either end of the Himalayas.

Modi’s NSA has also done well to highlight China’s hypocrisy in accepting the watershed principle — and thus the McMahon Line — with Myanmar but not with India.

Watershed is the land area that drains into a watercourse like a river, lake or aquifer. The McMahon Line was drawn on the watershed principle — a well-established international norm for border demarcation. Many countries have settled their boundaries on the watershed principle.

In its Oct. 1, 1960, boundary pact with Myanmar, China settled essentially on the basis of the de facto border, thereby acquiescing in the McMahon Line, which delineated the customary border on the basis of the watershed principle. Any deviation from the McMahon Line in the accord was minor and largely necessitated by the task of producing maps — in contrast to the thickly-marked McMahon Line — at 1:50,000 scale of the entire 2,200-km border.

Make no mistake: While China settled with Myanmar with a few relatively minor rectifications, it is not seeking minor adjustments with India in the eastern sector. Rather, it covets major chunks of real estate — its largest territorial claims against any nation.

In contrast to India, Myanmar poses no threat to China. But the border settlement with Myanmar was also driven by Chinese foreign policy compulsions, underscored by an insurrection in Tibet since 1959, and border tensions and skirmishes with India.

In deference to Beijing, the border pact did not mention the McMahon Line but referred to it euphemistically as the “traditional customary line.” After all, if China acknowledged a line agreed to by the Tibet and British Indian governments in 1914, it would be admitting that Tibet was independent then — a historical reality Beijing remains loath to accept. According to the Australian academic Brendan Whyte, “While the McMahon Line was followed here, it was used not because it was the McMahon Line, but because it happened to be a sensible boundary.”

In fact, just six months after Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that China would never accept the McMahon Line, China signed the pact with Myanmar that lent implicit respectability to that line. The pact indeed came in record time — in just nine months after a joint committee was set up to frame a border treaty and identify locations for erecting boundary pillars. It settled the boundary in alignment with the watershed between the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers and the “traditional customary line” (the McMahon Line).

For China, the boundary question with India is not just a territorial issue but, more fundamentally, a means to keep it under pressure and on the defensive.

Although Modi’s China tour (unlike President Xi Jinping’s India visit last September) passed without any reported Chinese frontier intrusion, the danger remains — given China’s risk-taking muscularity — that a border face-off could plunge the Sino-Indian relationship into renewed antagonisms. India should do what it can to prevent the border disputes and tensions from escalating.

India, however, must factor in the likelihood that China, without a collapse of its communist system or a crash of its economy, will not settle the border with it. But just as China plays all its cards against India and rears even new ones, India must shed its reticence and do likewise. Without building countervailing leverage, India cannot hope to tame Chinese intransigence and belligerence.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).