Bearing Down on India With Aggressive Lawfare
The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) new Land Border Law laces its military threat to India with a legislative ultimatum.
The PRC’s first national law on “protection and exploitation” of its land boundaries decrees that its sovereignty and territorial integrity are “sacred and inviolable.” The law passed in October 2021 during the 13th National People’s Congress and became effective at the start of 2022. The law is another example of PRC lawfare, whereby the regime develops domestic laws to justify its aggressive foreign and military policies.
The law applies to China’s 22,457 kilometers of land borders with 14 countries, including Afghanistan, Bhutan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Vietnam, but it selectively affects India. This is because the PRC claims to have settled its frontiers with 12 of these states, and it is pursuing a resolution with the Buddhist Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan that shares a trijunction with India and China at the Doklam plateau.
The border law heightens the hostilities between the two nuclear-armed powers, with a menacing PRC steering the situation perilously toward a flashpoint as it bears down on India along their 3,488-kilometer Himalayan frontier, called the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
India has expressed concern over the law, which empowers the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to resort to armed reprisals against any perceived border transgressions and authorizes local administrations to increase border development projects. Responding to India’s concerns, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Beijing “hopes relevant countries will abide by norms of international relations and refrain from wanton speculations on China’s normal domestic legislation.”
Beijing disputes most demarcations with India, despite three border agreements in 1993, 1996 and 2013. In 2017, the PRC had a 73-day standoff with India at Doklam that was the most critical in decades until the PLA incursion and occupation in May 2020 of swaths of land in the eastern part of India’s Union Territory of Ladakh at the northwestern LAC. Also, the only full-fledged war between the two countries lasted a month in 1962, in which the PLA seized the 37,244-square-kilometer, high-altitude desert called Aksai Chin, which India claims as part of Ladakh. Following the 2017 skirmish in Doklam, the PLA constructed military infrastructure and permanently deployed troops there.
Days before enacting its Land Border Law, the PRC agreed to a “three-step roadmap” with Bhutan to expedite negotiations to resolve the festering dispute over their 477-kilometer boundary. The PRC claims parts of Bhutan and has never officially recognized, nor even demarcated, Bhutan’s border with Tibet, which China annexed in 1951.
In November 2020, the PRC built a village 2 kilometers inside Bhutan and just 9 kilometers from the site of the India-China standoff in Doklam. The confrontation was triggered by the PRC’s attempt to extend a road in an area claimed by Bhutan, which has had a Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship with India since 1949, a pact renewed in 2007. About 60,000 Indian nationals live in Bhutan, with an additional 8,000 to 10,000 visiting the country of about 780,000 daily from border towns to work.
India fears that the PRC’s intrusions are an indicator of what it views as “salami slicing,” whereby Beijing seeks to scythe through Indian and Bhutanese territory with the intent of redrawing the LAC.
Shades of the South China Sea
The Land Border Law uses a similar strategy to control territory as the PRC implemented under its so-called nine-dash line that demarcates its maritime claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines challenged the PRC’s claims in the region under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). A tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, Netherlands, ruled in 2016 that the PRC’s demarcation was without legal foundation and infringed on Manila’s sovereign rights. Several other similarly affected Southeast Asian nations that were not parties to the arbitration were heartened by the UNCLOS ruling. Although the arbitration was considered final and legally binding, the PRC spurned the ruling.
The United States and numerous states worldwide have rejected the PRC’s claims in favor of the rules-based international maritime order within the South China Sea and worldwide, as stated in a January 2022 U.S. State Department study titled “Limits in the Seas No. 150.” The report concluded that “the overall effect of these maritime claims is that the PRC unlawfully claims sovereignty or some form of exclusive jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea. These claims gravely undermine the rule of law in the oceans and numerous universally recognized provisions of international law reflected in the Convention.”
As part of its deception warfare at the LAC, the PRC has been constructing “dual-use” border villages and installations, where civilian settlements are being upgraded to military enclaves and civilian airfields converted into PLA Air Force bases. Satellite imagery has shown these developments, as well as PLA troop mobilizations along the LAC. The PRC is opening additional fronts along the border with India’s states of Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.
India also finds itself in a challenging situation, with 50,000 PLA troops still occupying parts of eastern Ladakh since their violent encounter with Indian Soldiers in the Pangong Tso area in May 2020. The brazenness with which the PLA troops have entrenched themselves at the spurs of Chang Chenmo on the northern lakeshore of the 135-kilometer-long Pangong Tso and staked claim to the whole of Galwan Valley contiguous to Aksai Chin exposes a tactical maneuver that has been devised with the intention of the troops remaining in the area.
Beijing chose summer 2020 for its border incursion as India was grappling with the economic and political challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The PRC may also have discerned a military vulnerability.
Tensions reescalated between the neighbors when their 13th round of corps commander-level talks collapsed in October 2021, failing to resolve the pending issues in eastern Ladakh. A statement by the PLA’s Western Theatre Command accused India of making “unreasonable and unrealistic” demands at the talks, which lasted less than nine hours. The Indian Army countered, “During the talks, the Indian side made positive suggestions to resolve the issues in other areas, but the Chinese side did not seem to agree with them and could not even make any proposal on the way forward.” It added that Beijing had made “unilateral attempts” to alter the status quo at the LAC and was thus obliged to take appropriate steps to restore peace in the region.
A day before the talks, Indian Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane expressed concern at the PLA’s continuing large-scale buildup in eastern Ladakh. “It means that they are there to stay,” he said. “We are keeping a close watch on all these developments, but if they are there to stay, we are there to stay, too.”
The standoff still simmered as of late 2021, with troops ranged against each other in the desolate but strategic Himalayan desert.
Even as the PLA continued to occupy two friction points — Patrolling Point (PP) 15 in Hot Springs and PP17A near Gogra Post in Ladakh along the LAC — China has amassed additional troops across the border, armed with artillery, air defenses, combat drones and heavy vehicles. Some of them reportedly crossed the LAC in July 2021 to reoccupy positions on the Kailash Range they had vacated following a February 2021 demilitarization agreement, and others moved to points near the Galwan river and Pangong Tso.
In all of the military-level talks and diplomatic engagements on the issue, India has taken the stand that de-escalation is possible only if complete disengagement takes place. The PRC has held its ground, accusing India of causing the border flare-ups by violating the LAC.
The PRC seems intent on drawing India out by upping the ante at various friction points along the LAC. India appears to be left with little option but to tread with caution, lest this feuding escalate into a war it can ill afford.
Beijing has, moreover, been emboldened by India’s response after the PLA killed 20 Indian Soldiers in eastern Ladakh on June 15, 2020, in the first deadly skirmish since the 1962 Sino-Indian war. The India government retaliated later in 2020 through a ban on 267 apps originating from China, prompting a trending refrain on India’s social media: “They changed our map, we banned their app.”
Though it is vigorously creating military infrastructure at the LAC, the PRC resents any requited activity by India, such as its recently inaugurated 50-meter bridge on the Leh-Loma Road that the Indian Defence Ministry says will ensure “unhindered movement of heavy weapon systems, including guns, tanks and other specialized equipment.”
The PRC’s adventurism may have its genesis in its contempt for India’s completion in 2019 of the 255-kilometer Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie Road, which runs at elevations between 4,000 and 5,000 meters and has improved connectivity along the 1,147 kilometers of the LAC in eastern Ladakh. The carriageway leads to the world’s highest airstrip and military base (of India) at Daulat Beg Oldie, which lies 12 kilometers south of the strategic 5,540-meter-high Karakoram Pass north of Aksai Chin on the boundary between Ladakh and China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Just 7 kilometers north is Shenxianwan, considered to be the toughest PLA posting in China.
The Indian Ministry of Defence’s Border Roads Organisation is reportedly building 70 roads of operational significance along the border with China, as well as widening and strengthening existing roads and building advance landing grounds, tunnels and bridges.
China, in turn, has built a 36-kilometer road in the 5,163-square-kilometer Shaksgam Valley, which was illegally ceded to it by Pakistan in 1963, while the territory was disputed by India.
China was outraged enough by India’s abrogation in 2019 of its Articles 370 and 35A, which resulted in the reorganization of the frontier state of Jammu and Kashmir, of which Ladakh was then a part, to take the matter to the U.N. Security Council. It was particularly incensed over the change in Ladakh’s political status because China considers the region to be of strategic importance. India rebuffed China, terming Ladakh’s new status an “internal matter” that had “no implication for India’s external boundaries or the LAC with China.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry, however, issued a statement asserting, “The recent unilateral revision of domestic laws by the Indian side continues to undermine China’s territorial sovereignty, which is unacceptable and will not have any effect.”
Beijing also took offense at Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s assertion in the Indian Parliament that: “Kashmir is an integral part of India. I want to make it absolutely clear that every single time we say Jammu and Kashmir, it includes PoK [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir], including Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as Aksai Chin. Let there be no doubt over it. Entire Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the Union of India.”
Gilgit-Baltistan connects to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) being funded with U.S. $60 billion in Chinese investment and is the flagship of China’s One Belt, One Road scheme. From Beijing’s perspective, any Indian attempt to take over PoK or Gilgit-Baltistan would undermine the CPEC, in which Xi has staked his personal prestige because it provides China access to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan’s Gwadar port. India contends that the CPEC violates its territorial sovereignty by passing through Gilgit-Baltistan.
In mid-October 2021, Shah also sounded a stern warning to India’s adversaries against “flirting” with the nation’s borders, affirming that every such act would be met with “befitting retaliatory moves by India.”
Beijing has been evidently provoked by such utterances. Overall, its military offensive against India is not merely tactical but has a strategic intent aimed at realizing long-term objectives. The PLA’s moves are, after all, being directed by its top leadership, the CCP’s Central Military Commission chaired by Xi.
Veteran U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns noted in October 2021 that the alignment of U.S. and Indian interests in the Indo-Pacific “makes a great difference” in terms of the challenges posed by the PRC. “As you know, and I think every administration since President [Bill] Clinton has been working on this, we have a newfound security partner in India,” Burns said during his confirmation hearings as U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the nation’s ambassador to China. “That makes a great difference to have Indian and American interests aligned as they clearly are, strategically, in the Indo-Pacific.”
While the U.S.-India military relationship continues to reach new heights, the mistrust between China and India is mounting, Adm. John C. Aquilino, now U.S. Indo-Pacific Command commander, said during his confirmation hearing in March 2021 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He commended India’s efforts to protect its northern border during its standoff with China in his testimony, CNBC reported.
“The mistrust between China and India is at an all-time high. In addition to the rupture of bilateral relations as a result of the LAC (Line of Actual Control) skirmish, India is deeply suspicious of Chinese activities as part of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative,” Aquilino said.
“China’s posture initiatives in both Gwadar, Pakistan, and Hambantota, Sri Lanka, also cause India concern. As is the case across the Indo-Pacific, [the] PRC’s lack of transparency and duplicitous actions in the Indian Ocean region threaten stability and security in the region,” he wrote in a prepared response to questions from Senators for the confirmation hearing.
Recent activities by the PRC have underscored the threat it poses to all nations and the need for greater cooperation between India and the U.S., he said. “The conclusion of enabling agreements over the past several years has allowed us to operate more closely, and we are able to work together more than ever before to secure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” he said, citing the continuing growth of bilateral and multilateral engagements, high-profile joint operations and an increased number of senior-level engagements with India, according to CNBC.
The military threat from the PRC has become a defining moment for India. How the nation emerges from it will ultimately determine its standing in the global community and its stature in the international alliance on security.