A Chinese soldier eyes a target during a shooting drill to enhance the anti-drug smuggling capacity of border police in Longjing city, in the southeast of Jilin province in a file photo. Photo: Xinhua

CHIANG MAI – Months after Indian and Chinese troops clashed along a disputed border in the western Himalayas, both sides have now dug in for a long cold snowy winter standoff.

New Delhi and Beijing may be working on what at least the Indians have referred to as “mutual troops disengagement” along what’s not actually a border but rather a line of control, but even that non-legal military demarcation is a matter of dispute.

China and India fought a bitter 1962 border war not only in the western but also eastern Himalayas, where overlapping territorial claims involve even larger areas than those that were the scene of this June’s hostilities, which cost the lives of at least 20 Indian and a still unknown number of Chinese soldiers.

But the question is whether China is really looking for a solution to that long-standing and often bitter border dispute, or if maintaining fuzzy borders is a deliberate tool in Beijing’s foreign policy to negotiate better terms on trade, security and other issues with its neighbors.

China has or recently had disputes over borders and border-related issues such as refugees and insurgencies with nearly all of the more than 20 countries with which it shares land or maritime boundaries.

From contested Himalayan peaks to disputed waters in the South China Sea, China’s borders have appeared to become more tumultuous coincident with its recent fast rise from a developing world backwater to a superpower competing for global influence with the United States.

But while China’s many contested border areas may appear to have become more inflamed coincident with its rising global ambitions, the reality is that Beijing has long stoked and sustained borderland disputes as a tactic to win concessions on wider issues with its neighbors.

Those issues are now arguably most acute with nuclear-armed India, as the two Asian giants take opposite sides in an emerging New Cold War.

A Chinese soldier and an Indian soldier stand guard at the Chinese side of the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and China. Photo: AFP / Diptendu Dutta

Apart from controlling a western Himalayan area known as Aksai Chin, which India considers its territory, China lays claims to most of the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. After China annexed Tibet in the early 1950s, it has also had border disputes with Bhutan, the only neighboring country with which Beijing does not maintain formal diplomatic relations.

A long and seemingly never-ending series of border talks with Bhutan has become a means for Beijing to maintain and develop relations with Thimphu, a close Indian ally that relies on New Delhi for its security. China continues to claim parts of northern and eastern Bhutan, including a wildlife sanctuary.

China also has border disputes with Nepal, a landlocked country that for years has been trying to lessen its traditional dependence on India and establishing a closer relationship with China.

Until now, China and Nepal had only one major boundary dispute, namely over the height of Mt Everest, which China says is 8,844 meters, while Nepal claims it is 8,848 meters. But, in September, the two countries became engaged in a boundary row after the Chinese erected 11 buildings inside what Nepal claims is its territory and part of the western district of Humla.

The fact that most of those buildings appear to be empty lends credence to the suggestion that China is literally creating a bargaining chip to be used in negotiating other issues such as trade privileges, road access and ensuring Tibetan refugees don’t resume political activities.  

China isn’t picking disputes with only small, less powerful neighbors. A border dispute in China’s north led to a brief war in 1969 with the then Soviet Union. Ostensibly, the conflict was over some islands on the Ussuri River, but it was really about China flexing its muscles against what was then its main adversary and rival within the communist camp.

The official line on Chinese Communist Party-affiliated websites is still that China was a victim of “Soviet aggression.” In July this year, Chinese diplomats, journalists and assorted nationalists took to the internet to remind people of the fact that the Russian city of Vladivostok once was Chinese, known as Haishenwai. It became Russian only after “an unequal treaty” — China’s name for old treaties which it believes were to its disadvantage —concluded in the 1860s.

That claim was made on Twitter by Shen Shiwei, a journalist working for the state-owned broadcaster China Global Television Network. Zhang Heqing, a diplomat at China’s embassy in Pakistan, commented on the internet that Vladivostok “in the past was our Haishenwai.”

It is uncertain why Chinese interests would want to stir up a border dispute with Russia, but it enables Beijing to take a moral high-ground and assert leverage in bilateral negotiations on the importation of gas from the Russian Far East and other trade issues.

China has border disputes with most of its many neighbors. Image: Twitter

China’s borders with the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan were also supposed to have been settled in deals concluded in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

But China remains wary of the possible presence of Muslim Uighur nationalists from Xinjiang in those two countries. China has extended loans, credits and technical assistance to both neighboring nations with the expectation that they won’t allow the exiles to become politically active.

In return, predominantly Muslim Tajikistan was among the countries which in July 2019 signed a joint letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council commending China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” Beijing is also reportedly operating a secret military base in Tajikistan near the borders of that country where China and Afghanistan intersect.

The base is seen by Western analysts as an attempt to project Chinese military power beyond the country’s borders — and, more precisely, to keep an eye on possible movements of Islamic militants in the region. Border talks with Tajikistan and related administered aid, they say, paved the way for this new arrangement.

China’s relations with bigger and stronger Kazakhstan are cordial on the official level, but in recent years the persecution and imprisonment of ethnic Muslim Kazakhs in China in so-called “re-education camps” in Xinjiang has sparked popular anti-Chinese sentiment.

About 1.5 million Kazakhs live in China. Radio Free Asia reported a year ago about the arrest of “dozens of ethnic minority Kazakhs for sharing the national anthem of neighboring Kazakhstan.” As a result of this repression, a large but unknown number of ethnic Kazakhs from China have taken refuge in Kazakhstan, the report said.

China does not share a direct border dispute with Pakistan but their 592-kilometer-long border runs through areas claimed by India, first as part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and, since October 2019 of the newly created territory Ladakh.

Pakistan’s border with China was agreed upon in 1963 and resulted in Pakistan ceding areas to China which the Indians claim are theirs as well as recognizing Chinese sovereignty over Aksai Chin. In more recent years, that recognition has paved the way for China’s multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investment plans for Pakistan.

The 2,129-kilometer border between China and Myanmar was after many disputes finally demarcated in 1960. Before and since, however, most of the border areas have not been controlled by Myanmar’s central authorities.

In the far north, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was active and, during the decade spanning 1968-78, China gave massive support to the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which later morphed into the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

UWSA soldiers parade what is believed to be a Chinese-made armed drone, Panghsang, Wa State, Myanmar, 2018. Photo: Twitter/Network Media Group

Today, the UWSA’s 20,000-plus soldiers are equipped with modern Chinese weapons including armored vehicles and heavy artillery while inside the 20,000 or so square kilometers of territory that the UWSA controls, the Chinese currency is used along with Chinese mobile phones and internet connections.

China’s support for the UWSA, which has a ceasefire with the government but is known to supply arms to other ethnic armed groups, gives it leverage in all kinds of negotiations with Myanmar authorities.

The Myanmar military has long been concerned about indirect Chinese support for the rebels via the UWSA.

China has never openly tied its support for the rebels to winning BRI concessions, including a planned deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu and a wider corridor connecting the two neighbors. But Aung Min, then a minister in the Myanmar president’s office, openly admitted that interconnection when he visited Monywa, a town northwest of Mandalay, in November 2012 to meet local people protesting against a controversial Chinese-backed copper mining project in the area. 

“We are afraid of China … we don’t dare to have a row with [them]. If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume their support to the communists, the economy in the border areas would backslide. So you’d better think seriously.” By “the communists”, he clearly meant the UWSA and its allies.

While China has not intervened militarily in Myanmar, it has in Vietnam. A brief but bloody border war in 1979 later shifted to skirmishes in the South China Sea, where China also is involved in territorial disputes not only with Vietnam but also the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, the latter of which Beijing considers a renegade province that must be united with the mainland.

China does not even have friction-free relations with North Korea, one of its closest allies. Although China sent more than two million “army volunteers” to fight alongside the North Koreans against US-led forces — and many of them remained in North Korea until the late 1950s — Pyongyang refused to side with Beijing during the Sino-Soviet dispute.

More recently, the North Korean-orchestrated assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the elder half-brother of the current leader Kim Jong-un, in February 2017 was not something the Chinese took lightly. Although Kim Jong-nam was killed in Kuala Lumpur, he was under Chinese protection and living in Macau, a former Portuguese possession which in 1999 became a Special Administrative Region of China.

The 1,416 kilometer-long border was also disputed until a treaty was signed in 1962. At the center of the conflict was Paektu Mountain, which the North Koreans consider the birthplace of their revolution — and former dictator Kim Jong-il (although he was actually born in the village of Vyatskoye in Russia’s Far East.) That was also where his father Kim Il-sung also resided throughout most of World War II, not at Paektu, as official propaganda would have it.

The state of a CPVA soldier salutes toward North Korea in a poignant memorial on the banks of the Yalu River, the border between China and North Korea. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

But for the North Koreans, Paektu has a special place in their revolutionary mythology, and they could not forgive the Chinese for once having included it on their maps and calling it Changbai.

According to the 1962 treaty, China received 40% of the mountain’s crater lake and North Korea kept the remaining land. While no one in North Korea would dare oppose official treaties, a group of South Korean athletes at the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, held up signs during the award ceremony which stated that “Mount Paektu is our territory.”

As winter winds start to blow over the Himalayas, New Delhi is busy trying to defuse its latest border conflict with China. The Chinese may not be interested in escalating the situation, but nor are they clearly looking for a final and permanent solution to the dispute.

In reality, border disputes are how China flexes its regional hegemony and wins diplomatic leverage in wider negotiations with its various neighbors. And while tensions may flare up from time to time, the disputes are seldom actually about territory but rather an expression of power in a worldview where China sees itself as the Middle Kingdom.