Category: territorial disputes

China and the Border Dispute with India After 1962

I have contributed a chapter to the Routledge Handbook of China–India Relations. Specifically, I review China’s approach to its disputed border with India after the war between the two countries in 1962.

China’s approach has emphasized maintaining stability on its southwestern frontier, defined as preventing the escalation of armed conflict on the border and maintaining a dominant position in the dispute it enjoyed after the war.

For China, its dispute with India has always been a strategic secondary direction and not the primary focus of its military strategy. Dominance on the border and deterring Indian challenges form the basis of stability from China’s standpoint.

Read a preprint here.

Why India did “Win” the Standoff with China

In response to the disengagement of Chinese and Indian forces announced on August 28th, I wrote a short essay for War on the Rocks.

Specifically, I argue that it is misguided to view the disengagement is a “win” for India and a “loss” for China. Moreover, due to unique factors, Doklam does not provide a model for countering China’s coercion elsewhere

Moreover, due to unique factors, Doklam does not provide a model for countering China’s coercion elsewhere.

Read the piece here.

Danger at Dolam

I wrote the following op-ed, “Danger at Dolam,” for the Indian Express, on July 18, 2017


The standoff between Indian and Chinese forces on the Dolam Plateau is entering its fourth week. India and China have both miscalculated, with potentially dire consequences. China clearly did not appreciate the sensitivity that India attaches to any Chinese presence on the Jampheri Ridge south of the plateau and the implications for the security of the Siliguri Corridor that connects eastern India with the rest of the country. A decade ago, for example, Indian soldiers training the Royal Bhutanese Army in Bhutan challenged a Chinese foot patrol that was discovered along the ridge.

China clearly did not appreciate the sensitivity that India attaches to any Chinese presence on the Jampheri Ridge south of the plateau and the implications for the security of the Siliguri Corridor that connects eastern India with the rest of the country. A decade ago, for example, Indian soldiers training the Royal Bhutanese Army in Bhutan challenged a Chinese foot patrol that was discovered along the ridge.

India, however, clearly did not appreciate the degree to which China believes it has already established a presence on the plateau, which forms part of China’s dispute with Bhutan in this area. In either the 1980s or early 2000s, China built a dirt road from the Chumbi Valley in Tibet to Shenche La that Bhutan views as the border with China, and then onto the Dolam Plateau. In fact, this road terminates perhaps just 100 metres from the Indian outpost at Doka La, near the site of the current standoff. Probably at the end of the 2000s, China enhanced or regraded the road and added the “turning point” where Chinese vehicles turn around to return to the Chumbi Valley. The road is likely used only in the summer months to facilitate patrols in the area (including surveying Indian presence at Doka La).

For India, any Chinese presence on the Dolam plateau is worrying. And any extension of the road toward the Jampheri Ridge would constitute a real change to the status quo. Yet for China, India’s actions are also unprecedented. As former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran wrote a few weeks ago, “This is the first time that Indian forces have engaged China from the soil of a third country.” Specifically, the Indian Army moved forces beyond the international border to pre-empt Chinese efforts to start extending the road toward the Jampheri Ridge.

Unfortunately, the 1890 convention delimiting the border between Tibet and Sikkim may worsen the situation. The convention contains a contradiction that allows each side to claim it supports its own position. Article 1 states that the border begins at Mount Gimpochi, roughly 3 km south of the Chinese road and the western point of the Jampheri Ridge. Article 1 also states that the boundary will follow the watershed. Unfortunately, however, Mount Gimpochi is not the start of the watershed, and the convention did not explain how to square this circle. Sometime between 1907 and 1913, Britain published a map of the area showing the border starting at Batang La, 6 km north of Mount Gimpochi, effectively changing the terms of the convention.

Unsurprisingly, India and China have chosen the starting point of their border in the region that maximises their interest. But this also creates a conflict between the black letter of 1890 convention, which Britain and China ratified, and the main principle of delimitation. Moreover, these divergent interpretations bear a disturbing resemblance to the dispute over the Thag La ridge and Dhola post in the eastern sector of the China-India border dispute, the proximate spark for the 1962 war.

In the eastern sector, India maintained that the China-India border was delimited by the McMahon Line from the 1914 Simla Convention. McMahon’s line generally followed the watershed between present-day India and China. Unfortunately, for the last 25 km or so, the line did not follow the watershed but was drawn south of the Thag La Ridge. The post at Dhola that the Indian Army established in June 1962 lies in the area between the watershed to the north and the McMahon Line to the south. China challenged the Indian post as being located in undisputed Chinese territory. The gradual of escalation of tensions over Dhola played a key role in Mao Zedong’s final decision to launch a wider war on October 22, 1962.

To be sure, the analogy to the present is imperfect. Overall, India-China relations are stable, including on the border. Neither side has deployed large numbers of forces nearby on Dolam. Unlike Dhola, where China dominated the high ground, the local geography favours India, which can easily deploy forces already in Sikkim. China must rely on the single road in the area that climbs more than 1,400 meters from the Chumbi Valley to the Dolam Plateau.

Despite the imperfections of the analogy, it highlights the danger of the present situation. China believes the black letter of the 1890 convention not only supports its presence on the Dolam Plateau but also its right to extend roads in the area south to Gimpochi. India believes the border lies to the north at Batang La, which justifies its challenge of China beyond its borders on the Dolam Plateau. But this is based on the principle contained in the convention and what appears to be Britain’s subsequent map.
The longer the standoff lasts, the more easily these positions will harden. For example, given the unprecedented Indian presence in territory disputed by China and Bhutan, China may conclude that it needs to strengthen its physical position on the Dolam Plateau. Beijing could build more permanent structures a kilometre or two behind the “turning point” at Doka La. That is, China may use the Indian challenge to justify further steps to consolidate its presence on Dolam. India would then be faced with accepting a larger, more permanent Chinese presence or escalating further to stop it. The most realistic outcome would be

The most realistic outcome would be restoration of the situation before June. This would mean the return of Indian troops to Indian territory and the withdrawal of Chinese construction crews from the area. India may demand or hope that China will vacate the Dolam Plateau, but China is unlikely to leave an area where it believes it had already maintained a presence for decades. The danger inherent in the current stand-off demands a quick resolution.

Threading the Needle: The South China Sea Disputes and U.S.-China Relations

In a chapter in a recently published edited volume, Strategic Adjustment and the Rise of China, I examine how the United States and China have managed the South China Sea disputes in their relations with each other.

First, actions by the United States and China have often created incentives for the other state to push back, creating negative spirals.

Second, China and the United States have enhanced their positions in the South China Sea.

Third, actions taken by both sides have helped to shield the broader relationship from tensions and competition in the dispute.

Read the chapter here.

Territorial and Maritime Boundary Disputes in Asia

My contribution to newly published The Oxford Handbook of the International Relations of Asia is a chapter on territorial and maritime boundary disputes in the region.

The main findings from the chapter are:

  • Since 1945, Asia has been more prone to conflict over territory than other regions in the world.
  • Asia accounts for the greatest number of disputes over territory that have become militarized and that have escalated into interstate wars.
  • Disputes in Asia have been less likely to be settled, accounting for the lowest rate of settlement when compared with other regions.
  • Asia today has more territorial disputes than any other part of the world, accounting for 38 percent of all active disputes.
  • When combined with the rise of new powers, which are involved in multiple territorial disputes, territorial and maritime boundary disputes are poised to become an increasing source of tension and instability in Asia.

For those with access to the online series of Oxford handbooks, the chapter can be found here.  An earlier draft of the chapter is available here.

The Oxford Handbook of the International Relations of Asia

Oxford University Press has recently published The Oxford Handbook of the International Relations of Asia, edited by Saadia Pekkanen, John Ravenhill, and Rosemary Foot.  

The volume includes thirty-nine chapters, which cover all aspects of the international relations in the region.

For folks who have access to the online series of Oxford handbooks, this volume is available here.  Or skim excerpts on Google Books.

I have a chapter in this volume on territorial and maritime boundary disputes in East Asia, which I will discuss in a different post.

U.S. Policy in the South China Sea

I recently published a short policy brief for the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University that examines the evolution of U.S. policy toward the disputes in the South China Sea since 1995.

Here’s the executive summary:

U.S. policy toward the disputes in the South China Sea has four features. First, the United States has altered its policy in response to changes in the level of tensions in the dispute. Second, U.S. policy toward the South China Sea has been premised on the principle of maintaining neutrality regarding the conflicting claims to sovereignty. Third, as its involvement in managing tensions has increased, the United States has emphasised the process and principles by which claims should be pursued more than the final outcome or resolution of the underlying disputes, especially conflict management through the conclusion of a binding code of conduct between ASEAN and China. Fourth, U.S. policy in the South China Sea has sought to shape China’s behaviour in the South China Sea by highlighting the costs of coercion and the pursuit of claims that are inconsistent with customary international law. Looking forward, the involvement of the United States in seeking to manage tensions in the South China Sea is likely to continue so long as the territorial and maritime jurisdictional disputes remain unresolved and states take declaratory steps and operational actions to assert and defend their claims.

Read the full report here.


China, Japan, and the U.S.—Will Cooler Heads Prevail?

I joined the conversation over the Asia Society’s ChinaFile on tensions between the China, the United States and Japan.

Specifically, I addressed a question “will China attempt to take the Senkakus by force?”

Let me pick up on Isaac’s first question, “will China attempt to take the Senkakus by force?”

Iain Johnston and I recently analyzed data on the frequency of Chinese Coast Guard patrols within the twelve nautical mile territorial waters of the islands. Since September 2012, China has used these patrols to challenge Japan’s sovereignty and administration of these disputed rocks.

For the past six months, however, China has reduced significantly the frequency of patrols it conducts within the island’s territorial waters. Before October 2013, it conducted a patrol roughly once per week, on average. Since then, it has conducted a patrol once every two weeks. In sum, the rate of patrols has dropped by half—and is statistically significant.

The reduced frequency of these patrols is noteworthy for several reasons. First, as Iain and I suggested, China may be signaling limits on its willingness to escalate, at least for now. Second, by reducing the number of patrols, China is also reducing the opportunities for an accident or incident to occur between Chinese and Japanese ships. Such an event, especially if it involved fatalities, could spark a much more intense crisis and greater incentives to use force on both sides.

Turning to Isaac’s question, the reduction in the frequency of these patrols is inconsistent with an escalation of pressure that might culminate in a decision by China to use force. Instead, China appears to have adopted a long-term view of dispute that does not involve taking them by force. Last summer, for example, a meeting of prominent Chinese government analysts concluded that China should “avoid an incident that sparks a war” over the islands. They also assessed that the dispute would persist for a long time to come and that it was therefore urgent to reduce the possibility and risk of a collision at sea.

Finally, a broader point. If China seized islands by force, they would be nearly impossible to defend from a counter-attack, as Gen. John Wissler noted; Moreover, a counter-attack to retake the islands would risk a much wider war, which China as well as the United States and Japan want to avoid.China’s leaders have quite likely anticipated such a scenario, which explains the emphasis on a long-term effort to challenge Japan’s control of the islands and surrounding waters with its coast guard and not its naval forces.