Last month, just one week after Barack Obama was reelected president in the U.S., the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wrapped up its 18th Party Congress and elected a new seven member group to its elite Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). The PBSC is the most important decision making body in China, and controls all essential elements of domestic and foreign policy. The new leadership in China faces a raft of challenges — both internal and external —which will help to determine its relationship with the U.S., Japan, Russia, India, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and others in the region.
On the foreign policy front, China continues to take a very assertive policy towards its neighbors on territorial disputes in the South China Sea (Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei) and the East China Sea (Japan). Moreover, China and India continue to take issue with each other over their contested claims to the Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh (administered by Beijing and New Delhi respectively). China has also failed to resolve a lingering dispute with the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan, and maintains another lesser known dispute with South Korea over the maritime rights over Socotra rock, a submerged rock in the Yellow Sea that both (as well as North Korea and Taiwan) claim falls under their exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Under international law, however, nations cannot claim submerged rocks as part of their territory.
Although China is often criticized for its intransigence on sovereignty disputes, it is far from the only stubborn party to them. For instance, in a little discussed row, China and North Korea have simmered over the jurisdiction surrounding Baekdu Mountain (referred to as Changbai Mountain in China). The site is a sacred area for many Koreans. Historical records point to Baekdu as the site where Korea’s first kingdom, Gojoseon, was established. The area is also important to modern North Korean history because the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has glorified the site as the birthplace of its former Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il (Soviet documents record his birth as having taken place in Russia). The mountain is also associated with Korea’s resistance movement against Japanese colonialism during World War II.
Baekdu, an active volcanic mountain, straddles the border between China and North Korea. Both sides agreed to split the land surrounding Baekdu in 1962 (some say 1963) and currently share administration over the mountain and the lake surrounding it.
Unfortunately, this agreement — which was signed during the Sino-Soviet dispute when Moscow and Beijing were both courting Pyongyang’s favor — has not put an end to the matter. In recent years Beijing has been rapidly developing the area including building an airport and ski resort, moves that some believe are aimed at bolstering its claims of sovereignty over the area. China stirred up further controversy in 2008 when it applied for the region to be considered a UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. Further inflaming the issue, there were reports around the same time that said Beijing was considering entering a bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics on the contested site.
This is where the row gets knotted. South Korea, as the self-described legitimate government of all of the Korean Peninsula, also claims the Baekdu region and continues to insist that China refrain from exploiting the area and building up infrastructure there. At the 6th Winter Asian Games in Changchun, China in 2007, five South Korean ice skaters held up a sign during their awards ceremony claiming “Mount Baekdu is our territory.” This nationalist sentiment seems to be a recurring theme for South Korean athletes; at the Summer Olympics in London this year, a South Korean football player held up a sign declaring “Dokdo is our land” shortly after his team defeated the Japanese football squad.
The 1962/3 agreement, however, is more of a framework and does not comprehensively demarcate border lines. Consequently, the parties continue to dispute where the border actually rests. This matter is complicated by the fact that China and North Korea remain at loggerheads over their far eastern border. Pyongyang maintains a strategic 17 km border with Russia along the Tumen River. DPRK’s sliver of land wedged alongside the Russia-China border effectively cuts off Beijing’s access to the Sea of Japan. Moscow and Pyongyang have resolved their border issues and agreed to a comprehensive border management treaty in July. This is especially crucial as both sides continue to explore potentially laying a natural gas pipeline from Siberia through the Korean Peninsula.
China has thus far been unwilling to negotiate on the sovereignty of the Changbai region, and will likely continue on this course. Beijing is happy to take advantage of the status quo on its border with North Korea because it understands that Pyongyang has little ability to thwart its advances. However, it will be increasingly difficult for China to pursue this policy in light of South Korea’s growing nationalism on its territorial dispute with Japan. Moreover, the global microscope has turned its attention to the East and South China Seas amid a year of protests, diplomatic barbs and low-level maritime clashes. Whether it’s fair or not, Beijing’s rivals will continue to point to its large collection of territorial disputes, and its defiant approach on handling them, as evidence that China is not a peaceful actor in the region.