A cryptic reference to a “100-home civilian village” constructed by China in Arunachal Pradesh “sometime in 2020” in the United States Department of Defense (DoD)’s annual report to Congress on ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’, brought the issue back into focus after nearly a year. The debate then and now centred on the peripheral issue of whether the village was constructed on Indian territory under Chinese occupation since 1959 or if it has happened under the watch of the Narendra Modi government in power since 2014.
The larger issue of China’s strategy to assert its sovereignty with respect to disputed territories through management/development of its borders areas has not got the attention it deserves. This ongoing process has recently been formalised into a “Land Border Law” enacted on 23 October 2021.
Land Border Law
The stated aim of the Land Border Law (roughly translated from Mandarin) is to “standardise and strengthen the security and stability of land borders” and “safeguard national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.” The law seeks to ensure better coordination between national, regional, and local authorities for the development and security of border areas. It applies “to the delineation/demarcation, defence, management and development of land borders.”
On the face of it, the law merely provides the framework for border management and development. However, Articles 3 and 4 have serious ramifications for India and Bhutan, which are the only two out of 14 neighbouring countries that still have unsettled border disputes with China. As per Article 3, “land borders refer to the boundaries that demarcate the territorial land and internal waters of the People’s Republic of China and its neighbouring countries.” Article 4 states: “The sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China are sacred and inviolable.”
Chinese maps show the entire Arunachal Pradesh, Barahoti Plains in Uttarakhand and areas up to the 1959 Claim Line in Ladakh as part of its territory. The implications for India are that all territory usurped, militarily seized or likely to be in future, will be considered to be Chinese sovereign territory, the integrity of which is sacred. In addition, China asserts absolute control over its internal rivers disregarding the interests of riparian states.
Expressing India’s apprehensions, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs said, “China’s unilateral decision to bring about legislation which can have an implication on our existing bilateral arrangements on border management as well as on the boundary question is of concern to us. Such unilateral moves will have no bearing on the arrangements that both sides have already reached earlier, whether it is on the boundary question or for maintaining peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in India-China Border areas. Furthermore, the passage of this new law does not, in our view, confer any legitimacy to the so-called China Pakistan ‘Boundary Agreement’ of 1963 which Government of India has consistently maintained is an illegal and invalid agreement.”
Responding to India’s objections, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, had said, “ It (Land Border Law) will not affect China’s compliance with existing treaties related to national land boundary affairs. China has already signed or changed China’s current model of boundary management and cooperation with countries sharing a land boundary with it. Nor will it alter China’s position and proposition on relevant boundary issues.”
It is pertinent to mention that with its multiple intrusions up to the 1959 Claim Line and massing of troops along the LAC since May 2020, China has already violated the 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 border management agreements/protocols with impunity. Thus, there is no guarantee that it will abide by them in the future.
Land Border Law prohibits the construction of permanent facilities near China’s borders without permission from Chinese authorities. The vague wording is likely to be interpreted to include both sides of the border, creating the potential for additional friction. More so, when Chinese maps show vast tracts of Indian territory as being part of it. China will endeavour to prevent India’s infrastructure development using military and diplomatic coercion under the umbrella of the new law. Let us not forget that India’s development of border infrastructure in Eastern Ladakh was the root cause of China’s actions.
In fact, Chinese actions are part of its ongoing policy of rural revitalisation all along its borders since 2017 with a budget of $4.6 billion. The project was completed in 2020. 624 model Xiaokang (which literally means ‘well-off’) villages have been constructed in Tibet on/near the borders. According to China scholar Claude Arpi, the number of villages is 965.
The Chinese aim is clear — to ensure effective control/consolidation of the borders while promoting economic development and tourism. The Xiaokang “border defence villages” with loyalists create a buffer along the border. President Xi Jinping is the architect of the theory for the defence of border areas: “Governing border areas is the key for governing a country and stabilising Tibet”.
Infrastructure development and the creation of model villages/townships legitimise the Chinese claims on disputed areas. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Need for a course correction by India
The Modi government’s policy of denial, obfuscation and secrecy with respect to the sinister happenings on the border with China must be jettisoned forthwith. To begin with, it must end all speculation and place before the Parliament and in the public domain, a White Paper giving details of the Indian territory under Chinese occupation complete with marked maps and satellite imagery.
The Modi government must pass a law similar to the Land Border Law, both with China and Pakistan. There are reports of the Chinese model being adopted by Pakistan along the Line of Control. Parliament resolutions are not laws. No matter the cost, India must replicate, if not improve upon, the Chinese model to manage and develop India’s border areas.
Land Border Law proves once again that territorial integrity is best safeguarded by infrastructure, settlements and footfall of tourists. Contrast the Rs 190 crore ($ 2.5 million) budget for 2020-21 for development of border villages/towns for the India-China border with the $4.6 billion i.e. $1.15 billion per year from 2017 to 2020 for 624 villages in Tibet. India’s Border Area Development Programme needs urgent revitalisation both in terms of budget and speed. Similar action is required for the development of other infrastructures like roads, railways, hydel projects and industry.
Open up the borders for tourism as there is no justifiable reason to hide India’s borders, other than the poor state of infrastructure getting exposed. Do away with all restrictions like Inner Line Permits. Look at the development that has taken place in the limited areas of Ladakh open for tourists.
Militarily, we must ensure Indian footfall by dotting the LAC with Indo-Tibetan Border Police posts backed by rapid response forces in the form of Integrated Battle Groups operating from well-developed military bases. A herculean effort needs to be put in to reduce the military capability differential with China. Take the nation into confidence and raise the necessary capital by imposing defence specific taxes.
The Land Border Law of China is a wake-up call for India. In my view, existing treaties/agreements/protocols notwithstanding, it will become the cornerstone of China’s future strategy to resolve the border disputes on its preferred terms. Today we may lack the military capability to seize our territory back, but we must not allow China to nibble it away using the facade of economic development.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)