China's history of border disputes foretells a desperate outcome for India

Last Updated: Mon, Jul 31, 2017 12:16 hrs
Border row: China cancels Indian journalists' trip

The ongoing India-China stand-off has escalated in recent weeks which have raised concerns in both capitals of a military conflict. Recently, China maintained that it would safeguard its security interests at “any cost”; a sentiment echoed by an English language daily in China; Global Times editorial which said China should ‘teach India a second lesson’ in reference to the 1962 Indo-Sino war.

China is very territorial, not only when it comes to physical borers but also its maritime ones. At a recent Aspen Institutes’ 2017 Security Forum, Michael Collins, Deputy Assistant Director at the Central Intelligence Agency’s East Asian Mission Centre said in part, “They (Chinese) are increasingly resorting to coercive, assertive practices to achieve their ends…” A 2016 PEW Research Center poll stated that nearly 60% of the Chinese think that territorial disputes with its neighboring countries could lead to a military conflict as reported in the Financial Express.


Of its neighboring countries, China is yet to resolve land boundary disputes with Bhutan and India. Bhutan is seen as a buffer state between India and China. Bhutan is seen as a traditional ally with India. For The Wire, P Stobdan; a former Indian ambassador writes

Bhutan has steadfastly stood behind India as its most reliable ally. But the impression among the Bhutanese now is that India has been coming in the way of Bhutan reaffirming its status as an independent state, especially in the foreign policy arena.”

Bhutan shares a 470-km-long border with China; there is however disputed territory of 495 square-km. In 1998, the two countries signed an “Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in the Bhutan-China Border Areas” following which 24 rounds of discussions and negotiations have taken place with the last one in August 2016 at Beijing.

The disputed areas are Doklam, Jakarlung and the Pasamlung areas; a couple of them have been in the news recently with escalating tension between India and China. In the same column, Stobdan writes about what China might be thinking –

China has long desired an independent Bhutanese stand without Indian advocacy and interference on the boundary issue. Beijing finds itself in a strange position in not having diplomatic ties with neighboring Bhutan, which has lately widened its foreign relations with 53 countries, including Japan, another adversary of China.

Since Bhutan and China have no formal diplomatic ties with each other, the relationship between them has been frosty.


China and Burma share a 2,185 km border based on the border agreement of 1960. The economic relations between the countries have strong political connotations. For years, China has sheltered the Burmese military junta from UN sanctions and ensured its domestic stability.

However, in 2009, violence erupted between the Burmese government and a group of armed rebels in northern Burma called the Kokang. An escalation would threaten Chinese border security and economic interests in Burma and hence China called for a ceasefire. Foreign Policy magazine had a piece on how Chinese academics were calling for China to give up on partnering up with the country’s increasingly democratic-leaning government. It states –  

China should ‘diversify’ its approach, said a Chinese government analyst at a private gathering in November."The border ethnic groups are our card and China needs to play it well," said another influential Chinese analyst in Beijing.

North Korea

With North Korea, a trading partner and an ally, it shares a 1,416 km long border. The agreements between the two countries have had rough patches with the main reason being the North Korean regime. Once North Korea settled its border disputes with Russia (then USSR) in 1985-86, the dispute with China was never settled in earnest. Part of the reason is that Pyongyang has never made its territorial claims a defining or determining factor of its foreign policy.

The main issue was also the Yalu and Tumen rivers which have facilitated the drawing up of the borders. The most recent agreement was on June 20th 2003. This concerned the junction of the Chinese, Russian and North Korean borders on the river Tumen.


The second longest border China shares is with Russia; a distance of 4,300 km. The main disputed area is in the eastern border which concerns Zhenbao Island on the Usuri River and some islands on the Amur and Argun rivers situated in China’s northern tip. Arguing that unfair treaties were signed, China has claimed historical ownership of these islands.

On July 21st 2008, the two countries signed a deal to officially end all outstanding territorial disputes. Regarding other disputed islands; Yinlong Island and half of the Heixiazi Island was handed over by Russia. This deal is a follow up of an initial agreement signed in 2004 by former Russian President Vladimir Putin that proposed a 50-50 division of the disputed islands.


Four years after gaining independence in 1947, Pakistan established diplomatic relations with China. Currently China shares a 523 km long border with China. There were border disputes at the time with no side paying particular attention to it.

After the border agreement in 1963, China ceded 1,942 sq-km to Pakistan in exchange for Pakistan’s recognition of Chinese sovereignty over parts of North Kashimir and Ladakh. The agreement was beneficial economically for Pakistan. The agreement was beneficial economically for Pakistan. As a result of this, China and Pakistan have agreed on the issue of Kashmir.

Maritime borders

Apart from border land disputes, China is also fiercely protective of its maritime borders. It has cross-strait relations with Taiwan. China shares maritime borders with four countries; Japan and South Korea in the East China Sea and the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea. These borders are not agreed and are the subject of continuing disputes. The tensions, propelled by China's growing assertiveness, have fueled concerns over armed conflict in the region.

In the East China Sea China is in dispute with Japan over a group of Islands; the Senkaku Islands which are administered by Japan but are claimed by China. Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tokyo would boost its Coast Guard budget and add more patrol craft. He stated, “Since the fall of 2012, Chinese government vessels have sailed near the Senkakus almost daily, and have entered Japan’s territorial waters around the islands a few times a month.” As Foreign Policy magazine reported, Japan will increase the budget for the coast guard to add five new patrol ships and over 200 more personnel.

With regards to Taiwan, the two countries are not on friendly terms diplomatically as China has long maintained that it does not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. Taiwan’s preferred method for handling the disputes would be one where China, Japan and Taiwan work together on joint exploration and development while each reserving their separate territorial claims.

In the South China Sea, China has a land border of 1,300 km with Vietnam. The two countries signed a land border agreement in 1999, but it took 9 years for the countries to demarcate the border. However, last month, China cancelled a military meeting with Vietnam over maritime territory dispute. After a tense closed door meeting the Chinese delegation had cut short a trip to Vietnam. China is unhappy with Vietnam’s refusal to abandon oil and gas exploration in areas of the South China Sea that both it and Beijing claim.

There is also the issue of Exclusive Economic Zones. China in recent years has increased its efforts to reclaim land in the South China Sea by physically increasing the size of islands or creating altogether new islands. In addition to piling sand onto existing reefs, China has constructed ports, military installations, and airstrips.

In order to deter Chinese aggression, Japan sold military ships and equipment to the Philippines and Vietnam in order to improve their maritime security capacity.

With regards to other neighbors of China – Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Nepal etc; China has been relatively successful in handling border disputes with a win-win situation since the 1990’s. With respect to the current situation, though they have been wars fought between the two countries, China has often solved border disputes diplomatically; which could be a sign of things to come.

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