China’s new land border law purportedly comes into effect on January 1, amid a protracted military standoff with India along their disputed boundary in eastern Ladakh.
And just two days back, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs announced that it has granted “standardized” names for 15 locations in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which will be featured on official Chinese maps from now on.
The latest move lays bare Beijing’s motives of expanding its territory beyond the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border. It also indicates that the ongoing border standoff is unlikely to be over anytime soon.
India reacts to China renaming places of Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Says, "Assigning invented names to places in Arunachal Pradesh does not alter this fact" pic.twitter.com/JWqfE3S37q
— Sidhant Sibal (@sidhant) December 30, 2021
This is not the first time China has coined names for places in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state. A similar attempt was made in April 2017, in the backdrop of the Doklam crisis that erupted at the tri-junction between China, India, and Bhutan.
“We have seen similar reports,” said Arindam Bagchi, the spokesperson for India’s External Affairs Ministry, referring to China’s move to rename places in Arunachal Pradesh. “Arunachal Pradesh has always been and will always be a vital part of India,” Bagchi asserted, calling the Chinese names as “invented”.
Among the 15 locations renamed by China are eight residential areas, four mountains, two rivers and a mountain pass. On Chinese maps, Arunachal Pradesh is labeled “Zangnan” or “South Tibet”, and in 2017, Beijing gave six official names for locations in the state, which was considered as a retaliatory measure when the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, visited the state.
China has traditionally asserted its claim over the whole of Arunachal, a state that it considers the extension of its Tibetan region. This is essentially the reason behind China raising a hue and cry every time India asserts its sovereignty over Arunachal or when dignitaries from New Delhi visit this northeastern state.
China’s New Land Border Law
Interestingly, Beijing chose to assert its territorial ambitions on December 29, 48 hours before its controversial border law comes into force.
India had strongly reacted, when reports about China’s new land border law appeared in October 2021. New Delhi said, “China’s unilateral move to bring out a legislation that can have ramifications on our existing bilateral arrangements on border control… is of concern to us.”
The law was presented in March; almost a year after the LAC crisis began and was considered as an attempt to legitimize the Chinese military’s actions in eastern Ladakh. It calls on various Chinese civilian and military institutions to “safeguard” Chinese territory.
Media reports had earlier revealed how China has been trying to build human settlements, enclaves and villages inside Arunachal Pradesh. It has also constructed settlements inside the Bhutanese territory, considered strategic to India’s own security.
Beijing passed a similar rule to protect its maritime borders earlier this year. Both pieces of legislation provide law enforcement officials the authority to shoot “intruders” anywhere in the country, including the Himalayas and the South China Sea, Jayanta Kalita, Editor, The EurAsian Times wrote in an article.
Another concerning issue related to China’s increasing assertion over Indian territories and aggressive claims of sovereignty includes its nuclear policy.
In his article for The EurAsian Times, veteran journalist Prakash Nanda explains that “China has previously stated that the Nuclear ‘No first use’ (NFU) would not apply to countries that possessed Chinese territory. As China lays claims to Indian territories in Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, and Arunachal Pradesh, the NFU does not apply to India.”
Even though a war between India and China is too far-fetched, let alone a nuclear attack, the unilateral enforcement of its new border might complicate the existing issues between the two neighbors. It might even force India to rethink its own nuclear policy and present an official doctrine.
According to Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor in Chinese Studies, Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, “Chinese attempt at changing names does not make a difference because for China to get Indian territory that it claims, it will have to fight a war with India and it is aware that India has strong defenses now.
“These are pin-prick policies at best. With both sides mobilized at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), they technically remain marred in conflict. So it does not change much but it’s true that if the law is implemented, it would mean that these areas will remain volatile and vulnerable to conflict in the longer run. It would entail increased costs for India but would give no tangible benefit for the Chinese.”
“China shares land borders with 13 countries besides India. It has carried out the construction of settlements in Bhutan and unilaterally removed border markers in Nepal. So, if the law was implemented, there would be frictions with both these states as well. Additionally, the construction carried into the Bhutanese territory is close to Tawang, causing strategic concerns in India,” Prof. Kondapalli told The EurAsian Times.
Jabin T Jacob, Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, said, “The Chinese have for some years now seriously engaged in what is known as ‘lawfare’ – the use of legal and administrative measures at home to create a veneer of legitimacy to illegal actions on the ground. China’s new land border law and the latest instance of renaming of places in Arunachal Pradesh (first happened in April 2017) are cases in point. Together with the transgressions in eastern Ladakh, these form part of the shift the Chinese have made from viewing problems with India on the boundary from a ‘dispute’ to a question of ‘sovereignty’, indicating a hardening of its positions.
“While this does not materially affect the current military situation on the ground, it also means that India needs to be prepared not just for military provocations but be able to respond more robustly to China across a range of issues and using a variety of means.”
The Chinese policy of expansion and assertion would thus entail more friction with India. The conflict at LAC has entered its second winter and these policies challenging India’s sovereignty over its territory signals that no solution is forthcoming in the near future.
Chinese Claims Over Arunachal
The Chinese claim over Arunachal dates back to the Shimla Convention of 1914 which led to an agreement regarding the border between British India and Tibet.
Even though the McMahon line agreed as the boundary by both sides was not recognized by China, it led to significant loss of territory for Tibet including Tawang, according to another article written by Jayanta Kalita for EurAsian Times.
Visited the forward areas in Bumla near Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh. Also, had a wonderful interaction with the brave jawans and officers of the Indian Army.
The Army is securing India’s frontiers even in the most challenging environment.
भारत के इन वीर सपूतों पर हमें नाज़ है। pic.twitter.com/Fhqm5CoCpK
— Rajnath Singh (@rajnathsingh) November 15, 2019
China has long claimed the strategically significant town, which is only 30 kilometers from the Line of Actual Control (LAC), as its own. Beijing claims the entire state of Arunachal and refers to it as “southern Tibet.”
Dai Bingguo, a former Chinese border negotiator with India, said in 2017 that the border conflict between the two nations can be resolved if New Delhi recognizes Beijing’s claim to Tawang. India, of course, wasted no time in refuting such assertions, Kalita wrote in his article. However, this indicated the strategic importance that China places on Tawang. It also explains the reason behind the Chinese construction of settlements in Arunachal.
Tawang has a long history with Tibet. The Gaden Namgyal Lhatse (Tawang Monastery) is a three-century-old monastery on the Bhutan-China border. According to legend, the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, wanted a monastery erected in Tawang, and it was built.
The Chinese have used the argument that “The 5th Dalai Lama belonged to Tawang and that means Tawang was historically a part of Tibet, which in turn means that it belongs to China,” said Kondapalli.
While these new Chinese assertions do not cause a major change on the ground, they hint at a permanent militarization of the LAC. As of now, all eyes would be on China to see if takes any unilateral action citing its new border law, and creates further troubles for India.