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China’s land borders law and its implications for Nepal and Bhutan

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    13th Dec, 2021

Context

China’s new land border law strengthens land border protection, and also firming up the military-civilian role in defending the country’s borders.

The law has serious implications on its neighbors especially Nepal and Bhutan. This brief attempts to analyze implication of China’s law on the two Himalayan countries.

Background

  • In October2021, China passed a new “Land Borders Law”.
  • The law intends to defend China’s territorial sovereignty and land borders with increased civil-military interactions and coordination.
  • Although China hasclarified that this law wouldn’t affect the existing border treaties and cooperation, it incorporates several provisions that could further intimidate small and less powerful neighbouring states like Nepal and Bhutan.
    • Primarily, the law attempts to set boundary markerson all its borders. It then urges the army and police to safeguard Chinese borders and authorizes patrol officers to use police instruments and weapons against intruders.
    • Secondly, the law calls the stateto construct border towns and support them with connectivity, public services, civilian, and defence infrastructure, thus, making them more hospitable to settle in.
    • It also urges civiliansto defend the territories and assist the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) when needed.
  • China shares a 22,117 kilometres-long boundary with 14 countries. 
  • The new law comes into force from January 1, 2022.
  • It deals with the country’s patrolling activities on its 22,100-km land border with its 14 neighbouring countries.

On the surface, the law appears to safeguard and secure Chinese territories. But it becomes more avaricious when intertwined with the Chinese strategy of salami-slicing and settling its civilian population in the neighbours’ territories.

India’s view on the law

 India has described China’s “unilateral” enactment of a land boundary legislation as a matter of “concern” and hoped that Beijing would not undertake any action at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) under the “pretext of this law”.

India-China border dispute

The India-China border dispute covers the 3,488-km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC) of which 1,126 km is located in Arunachal Pradesh. China claims Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet, which India has firmly rejected. The India-China border is divided into three sectors

  • Western: The boundary dispute in the Western Sector pertains to the Johnson Line proposed by the British in the 1860s that extended up to the Kunlun Mountains and put Aksai Chin in the then princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.
  • Middle: In the Middle Sector, the dispute is a minor one. It is the only one where India and China have exchanged maps on which they broadly agree.
  • Eastern: The disputed boundary in the Eastern Sector of the India-China border is over the MacMahon Line.

Analysis

Unsettled borders of Nepal and incursions by China

  • Nepal and China officially demarcated their borders in 1961by exchanging some territories on a give-and-take basis.
  • In 1963, both the states further erected over 99 pillarsto mark their boundaries.
  • But, being erected in remote areas, they were hardly inspectedor patrolled by the Nepali authorities. They were, thus, neglected to be damaged by weather or displaced by China.
  • Today, out of 15 Nepalese districts bordering China, over sevenof them face land incursions from the latter.
    • It includes the districts of Dolakha, Gorkha, Darchula, Humla, Sindhupalchowk, Sankhuwasa, and Rasuwa.
  • China has also occupied Nepali villagesin Darchula and Gorkha, with the Rui village being a recent example.
  • In September 2020, China had even built 11 buildingsin the remote borders of the Humla district. The pillars in this district were later found to be damaged or shifted by China.

Prevalent challenges for Nepal

  • Geopolitical compulsions: Nepal’s pusillanimity (lack of courage) to confront China because of its geopolitical compulsions
  • Instability: Political instability is prevalent in the country 
  • Overdependence on China: Nepal not only reaps economic benefits from China but also uses its proximity with the former to avoid over-dependence on India. 
  • Hesitation to question and scrutinize China

How Chinese border law is a threat to Nepal?

  • The Chinese border law in this context poses a new challenge to Nepal.
  • As Nepal attempts to pursue this delicate balance between the Asian giants, it will hesitate to question and scrutinize China, much to the latter’s advantage.
  • China will, thus, use this opportunity to increase connectivity, settlements, village constructions, and salami-slicing tactics across its borders with Nepal.
  • And much of the issue gets even more complicated to resolve once these Chinese villages and settlements are militarized and better connected.

Bhutan and its border issues with China

  • China has an ongoing boundary dispute with Bhutan, which has seen 24 rounds of talks since 1984.
  • The disputed areas are as follows:

Region

Contested areas/territories

Significance

Northern Bhutan

Beyul

Menchuma Valley

Cultural and identity significance for Bhutan

Western Bhutan

Doklam

Dramana and Shakhatoe

Yak Chu and Charithang Chu valleys

Sinchulungpa and the Langmarpo valley

Closer to India’s strategic Siliguri Corridor/ “chicken’s neck”

Eastern Bhutan

Sakteng

The region has no borders with China and the dispute was raised only in 2020; closer to Tawang, India

  • Bhutan and China in April 2021 announced that they had signed a new three-step roadmap for expediting talks to demarcate their 470 km-long disputed land boundary.
    • This agreement came after years of Chinese encroachment on Bhutan’s borders, which had raised concern in Thimpu.
  • China aims to establish diplomatic ties with Bhutan, settle the border dispute, and, most importantly, checkmate India in the Siliguri Corridor.

Challenges persistent in Bhutan

Severe infrastructure and material limitations to confront the Chinese intrusions, villages and settlements.

Socio-economic problems

Impact of China’s new law

  • China’s pressure on Bhutan will only increase with this new law.
  • China will exploit the law to make additional territorial gains through border villages and then supplement them with more militarization and connection.

Conclusion

The Chinese land borders law has unravelled a new set of challenges for the Himalayan countries of Nepal and Bhutan.  Located between India and China and compelled by their unique balance policies, these small states are vulnerable to China’s salami-slicing tactics and incursions.

Furthermore, both the countries are likely struggle to deter additional Chinese settlements and villages and their increasing connectivity and militarization, given their weak material capabilities and strategic infrastructure.

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