In recent years, after having successfully experimented with reclamation of islands in the South China Sea, China has followed a similar pattern by creating ‘border towns’ in the perceived territory to bolster its territorial claims.
On 23 October, the 31st meeting of the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress, passed a law entitled “Land Border Law of the People’s Republic of China” (中华人民共和国陆地国界法) for the “protection and exploitation of the country’s land border areas” that will come into effect from 1 January 2022. The 6,200-character long Land Border Law (LBL) has 5 chapters and 62 articles. The LBL is applicable to the entire 22,457-kilometre land boundary of China bordering 14 countries. China has resolved its land boundary with 12 of its bordering states and Article 14 of the new law states that China “abides by treaties concerning land border affairs concluded or jointly participated (遵守同外国缔结或者共同参加) in with foreign countries”. The only two countries with which China has not resolved its border are India and Bhutan, having 3,488 and 477 kilometres of disputed boundary respectively. What could be the implications of such a law to India’s disputed border with China?
At the outset, the passage of such a law in the backdrop of the prolonged border standoff in the western sector since the bloody clashes in Galwan in June 2020, demonstrates that China is adamant about not restoring the pre-Galwan status quo. This was reiterated by the spokesperson for the Western Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Long Shaohua blatantly when he pointed out after the conclusion of the 13th round of the India-China corps commander level talks that “the Indian side still insisted on unreasonable and unrealistic demands, which added difficulties to the negotiations”. Explaining it further, Lin Minwang, deputy director of the Centre for South Asian Studies of Fudan University wrote in an op-ed that “restoration of the status quo ante of April 2020 is obviously unreasonable for China”. The scholar maintains that the “confidence to make unreasonable demands” originates from India’s security cooperation with the US, aimed at containment of China. As regards India’s accusations of the PLA transgressing in Barahoti in Uttarakhand and near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, a PLA source has maintained that this was a “routine patrol” “unreasonably blocked by the Indian side”. In the view of this understanding from China, it demonstrates that China is unwilling to withdraw from the rest of the friction areas in the western sector, and wants India to accept the changed status quo, and that if it is not acceptable to India, China will create more friction points in all sectors of the border. In this context, Article 4 of the LBL could be exercised to the perceived boundary or LAC by China that stipulates that the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China are sacred and inviolable” (神圣不可侵犯), albeit the PRC has been reiterating it ever since its inception.
Two, Article 40, prohibits an organisation or individual to build permanent structures near land borders without the approval of relevant competent authorities, however, Article 43 delegates the construction (建设), function (功能), and capacity building (能力建设) of border towns to the state. In recent years, after having successfully experimented with reclamation of islands in the South China Sea, China has followed a similar pattern by creating “border towns” in the perceived territory to bolster its territorial claims. Earlier on 24 January, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post filed a story stating that China built a village in the “conflict zone” of India-China boundary. Quoting a Chinese government source, it revealed that “China intends to build 624 border villages” in the disputed Himalayan areas as part of the poverty alleviation drive. No wonder, China allocated 200 billion RMB (US$20.5 billion) for infrastructure development in Tibet during the “13th Five-Year Plan” (2016-2020). The same has been increased to US$29.3 billion for the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025). By the year 2020, 99% of the villages in Tibet were connected to highways; the network in the region reached to 90,000 kilometres according to a commentary by Xinhua. The highways are also being connected to rail networks in the region. For example, the Lhasa-Shigatse line that was opened to traffic in 2014, has further been extended as Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway and Shigatse-Yadong line, the former is situated opposite Arunachal and the latter in the Doklam area. Earlier in July 2021, Xi Jiping made a rare visit to Nyingchi, and travelled back to Lhasa in a train. The construction of Sichuan-Tibet Railway has been going on feverishly. China believes that the opening of this line will alter China’s disadvantageous position in Tibet, especially in the so called “Southern Tibet”. China claims that once the line passes through Linzhi and Nanshan, logistics constraints as regards the areas won’t be a concern in the event of “an incident”; China holds that areas such as Zayul察隅, Motuo墨脱, Cuona错那, and Longzi 隆子have been held by India. The establishment of the “border towns” perhaps could also be a response to Article 7 of the 2005 agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles for the settlement of India-China boundary, which stipulates that “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas”.
Three, the LBL could also be seen as China’s response to the abrogation of Article 370 by India. On 6 August 2019, when the President of India promulgated the abrogation, Hua Chunying, the spokeswomen of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said in a press briefing that “China has always opposed the Indian side’s transfer of Chinese territory in the western sector of the Sino-Indian border into the administrative jurisdiction of India”. “…Recently, the Indian side has continued to damage China’s territorial sovereignty by unilaterally modifying the domestic law. This practice is unacceptable and will not have any effect…” No wonder, the Ministry of External Affairs of India, has also reacted to China’s LBL in somewhat similar fashion. The statement read out that “China’s unilateral decision to bring about a legislation which can have implication on our existing bilateral arrangements on border management as well as on the boundary question is of concern to us… We also expect that China will avoid undertaking action under the pretext of this law which could unilaterally alter the situation in the India-China border areas.”
Four, in order to facilitate the connectivity goals of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has been building five major economic corridors along the BRI for a new type of regional development model. These corridors are being increasingly connected with China’s connectivity projects within the bordering provinces. Since China’s trade with the BRI countries accounts for more than 50% of China’s GDP, to secure the exit and entry points, establishment of dry ports and marts has been accorded high priority and will be regulated by the LBL. For example, Article 6 allocates responsibilities to manage various facets of border affairs to relevant departments such as MOFA, the Public Security Department of the State Council, the General Administration of Customs, the National Immigration Management Department etc. Article 7 entrusts relevant military agencies to organise, guide, and coordinate the defence control of land borders. The task to secure the border from armed aggression, terrorist activities, transgressions has been delegated to the PLA and People’s Armed Police Force. There are various other provisions such as promoting economy, tourism, culture, sports, disaster relief and ecological environment with bordering countries.
Finally, the LBL doesn’t change the status of the border on the ground, as has been the case with abrogation of the Article 370. We may recall that in 2013 various claimant nations in the disputed South China Sea (SCS) passed legislations claiming certain island in their perceived territorial waters. In February that year, Philippines Senate and House of Representatives passed Baseline Bill and declared its ownership over Scarborough (Huangyan in Chinese) island and some others in Spratly. In June, Vietnam also passed a Maritime Law declaring indisputable sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly islands, but none altered the prevailing status quo on the ground. As enshrined in the Article 15 of the LBL, it is hoped that China will adhere to the principles of equality, mutual trust, and friendly consultation, while resolving its land border with its neighbours through negotiations, therefore, actions, not words in the LBL will be watched for to understand the intentions of China.
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.