China plays long game on border disputes
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE- A Sino-Tajik border agreement that was ratified recently by
Tajikistan's parliament flies in the face of images of China being a "bullying"
and "belligerent" power that "will go to any length to fulfill its territorial
The agreement, which resolves a 130-year-old territorial dispute, requires
Tajikistan to cede around 1,000 square kilometers of land in the Pamir
Mountains to China. It means that China will receive
roughly 3.5% of the 28,000 square kilometers of land it laid claim to.
China's territorial concession has been hailed by Tajik Foreign Minister
Hamrokhon Zarifi as a "victory for Tajik diplomacy".
This is not the first time that China has made concessions to settle its
territorial disputes. Under its border agreements with Kazakhstan and
Kyrgyzstan, for instance, China received just 22% and 32% respectively of the
land disputed with these countries.
China's boundaries with Central Asia were originally drawn up under what China
describes as "unequal treaties". It alleged that as a result of these treaties,
Czarist Russia gained territory at its expense. It therefore refused to
recognize these boundaries. Although the Soviet Union and China began
negotiating a mutually acceptable border, a settlement remained elusive. With
the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, the new Central Asian Republics -
Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan - inherited the disputes with China.
In the 1990s, China began negotiating settlements with these countries. Border
agreements with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were reached in 1996 and 1998
respectively. Border talks with Tajikistan were delayed by the civil war there.
However, talks gathered momentum in the late 1990s and an agreement was reached
in 2002. It was this agreement that was ratified recently.
Analysts have drawn attention to the territorial concessions that China
extended to resolve its many disputes. Of its 23 territorial disputes active
since 1949, China offered "substantial compromises" in 17, usually agreeing "to
accept less than half of the territory being disputed," M Taylor Fravel,
associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out
in the article "Regime Insecurity and International Cooperation: Explaining
China's Compromises in Territorial Disputes," published in the journal
However, there is more to it than meets the eye. The territorial concessions
that China is believed to have made are not quite as substantial as they appear
to be. Srikanth Kondapalli, a China expert at the Jawaharlal Nehru University
in New Delhi pointed out that China's strategy of stepping up territorial
claims and then settling for less has enabled it to appear to be making a major
territorial concession to reach a border resolution agreement. In several
disputes, "whether China actually gave up territory or made a substantial
concession is a debatable question," he told Asia Times Online.
Still, in the quest for regional stability China overall "has been liberal in
border dispute resolution", he said.
What has prompted Beijing to seek compromise and extend concessions with regard
to territorial disputes involving its land borders? Regime insecurity appears
to have been an important motivating factor. According to Fravel, "China's
leaders have compromised when faced with internal threats to regime security -
the revolt in Tibet, the instability following the Great Leap Forward, the
legitimacy crisis after the Tiananmen upheaval, and separatist violence in
The territorial concessions it made to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in
order to reach border agreements with them was prompted by a sharp surge in
separatist violence in Xinjiang province in the early 1990s.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as independent republics stoked long-smoldering
Uighur nationalism in Xinjiang and fueled Uighur aspirations for independence.
This triggered apprehension in Beijing that Xinjiang would break away. Coming
close on the heels of the Tiananmen uprising of 1989, which had undermined the
Chinese government's legitimacy, the separatist violence in Xinjiang compounded
Chinese regime insecurity, as it posed a threat to China's territorial
integrity. This made it imperative for Beijing to nip Uighur unrest in the bud.
China's strategy to deal with Uighur separatism has involved ruthless
suppression of separatists and economic development of the Xinjiang region.
However, the success of this strategy hinged on support from countries
bordering Xinjiang - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Their cooperation
was essential to get them to crack down on Uighur separatists taking sanctuary
on their soil as well as to build robust trade ties that were needed for
economic development in Xinjiang. Beijing thus traded territorial concessions
for support from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in its strategy to quell
With the exception of its territorial disputes with India and Bhutan, China has
settled all its other land-border disputes. In contrast, it has resolved none
of its maritime border disputes, although the dispute in the Gulf of Tonkin
with Vietnam is being discussed and those discussions are at an advanced stage
China's strategy for resolving its border disputes and the nature of its
border-resolution mechanism provide useful pointers to what lies ahead. In the
past, "it is when the contestant state is weak that China has moved quickly to
resolve the dispute," points out Kondapalli. The way it went about handling its
territorial disputes with the Soviet Union is indicative. Although China did
discuss them with the Soviet Union, it was only when the USSR disintegrated
that Beijing moved quickly to achieve resolution.
This has implications for the resolution of the Sino-Indian territorial
Kondapalli warns that as India's economy grows, China could drag its feet. A
rising India could stall China's pursuit of a negotiated settlement of the
What is more, "the increasing strength of the [Chinese] state in the frontier
regions [Tibet] suggests that regime insecurity may be less likely to create
incentives for compromise" with India, Fravel points out.
Kondapalli says there are lessons for India from the Sino-Tajik border
agreement. "China will claim more before settling for less," he said. "The
so-called territorial concessions that it will probably extend while settling
the dispute will not merit being regarded as concessions."
Explaining this point, Kondapalli said that in 1960, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai
had put forward a proposal under which China would recognize India's
sovereignty over territory south of the McMahon Line in the eastern sector in
return for India recognizing China's sovereignty over Aksai Chin in the western
sector. However, China has since extended its claims to include territory south
of the McMahon Line.
"It will possibly settle for parts of Tawang, dropping its larger claims on
Arunachal," Kondapalli said. "But this scaling down of its claims cannot be
regarded as a concession, as it will be getting territory south of the McMahon
A former Indian diplomat told Asia Times Online that unlike in the case of its
border agreements with the Central Asian states, where internal factors pushed
Beijing to make the concessions it did to settle borders, in the case of the
Sino-Indian border dispute, "domestic developments in China could constrain it
from diluting its territorial claims" to reach settlement. "Rising nationalism
in China could impede the capacity of future Chinese leaders to compromise on
territorial disputes," he said.
China has six unresolved territorial disputes left. It is likely to be far
tougher and much less generous in extending concessions to settle these
disputes than it has been hitherto. Negotiations led to resolution of
territorial disputes so far, although it has used significant force against
other states on the territorial issue. Will it use force to settle its
outstanding territorial disputes? Taiwan and the dispute with Japan over the
Senkaku Islands are perhaps the most volatile, with potential to erupt in
violent conflict. The US support for Taiwan and Japan and its military ties
with them could provoke such conflict.
The possibility of China using force to impose a settlement of its territorial
claims with India seems low. A dialogue process is on with India and while it
is moving at a glacial pace, the two countries have signed an agreement on the
guiding principles for settling their long-standing dispute. Besides, economic
ties are robust. However, these Chinese calculations could change should
India's growing relationship with the US evolve into one that is more
threatening to Beijing.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in