As the world witnesses the growing threat of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, China, which many hope can influence North Korea, is engaged elsewhere in an escalating crisis. China has been embroiled in a border standoff since June 16 in the Doklam area of Bhutan. The conflict started when People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engineers crossed into Bhutan on June 16, and began construction of a motorable road from Dokola to Jampheri, which houses a Bhutan army camp. In a press release issued by the Bhutan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the country asserted that such Chinese activities amounted to “a direct violation of the agreements and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between our two countries. Bhutan hopes that the status quo in the Doklam area will be maintained as before 16 June 2017.”
Significantly, China and Bhutan have no official diplomatic relations; yet both have held several rounds of talks on boundary demarcation and have pledged to resolve their border differences peacefully. In 1988, China and Bhutan signed an agreement on the “Guiding Principles” and in 1998 they signed an agreement on “Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in the Bhutan-China Border Areas.” As per these agreements, both countries committed to resolve the border dispute peacefully through dialogue and consultation, and restrain from any activity that would threaten the peace. Both committed to uphold the status quo and not change either their borders or establish physical presence. In essence, both agreed to uphold their respective border positions established prior to March 1959.
China now asserts that the pledge for peaceful resolution of the boundary dispute with Bhutan is not valid for the Doklam area, as it has historically belonged to China. China’s foreign Ministry spokesperson, Lu Kang asserted in a press conference in Beijing on June 28 that
Doklam has been a part of China since ancient times. It does not belong to Bhutan, still less India. That is an indisputable fact supported by historical and jurisprudential evidence, and the ground situation. It is utterly unjustifiable if the Indian side wants to make an issue of it. China’s construction of road in Doklam is an act of sovereignty on its own territory. It is completely justified and lawful, and others have no right to interfere. I would like to stress once again that Bhutan is a world-recognized, independent sovereign state. We hope that all countries can respect Bhutan’s sovereignty. Although the boundary between China and Bhutan is yet to be demarcated, the two sides have been working on that through peaceful negotiation. Any third party must not and does not have the right to interfere, still less make irresponsible moves or remarks that violate the fact.
While most appear surprised at this sudden Chinese move into Bhutanese territory, an analysis of China’s past behavior regarding negotiations on disputed territory reveals a clear systematic pattern of engagement.
In its active border and territorial disputes, be it with India over Arunachal Pradesh, or the South China Sea (SCS), or Bhutan, China has favored the signing of “guiding principles” or “agreements to maintain peace and tranquility” with the state it is in dispute with. Such a framework, by establishing clear guidelines constrains the negotiating power of the fellow signatory state, blindsiding it to China’s future plans of sudden aggressive broadcasting of territorial claims.
For example, China and India signed a 2005 agreement on “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question.” The agreement’s Article IX stated that “[p]ending an ultimate settlement of the boundary question, the two sides should strictly respect and observe the line of actual control and work together to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas.”
Yet, despite this agreement ,which establishes both China and India’s commitment to maintain the status quo and peace at the border, in 2006, the Chinese ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi stated categorically,”In our position, the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory. And Tawang is only one of the places in it. We are claiming all of that. That is our position.”
This was followed by frequent PLA incursions into the Indian side of the LAC on several occasions, as well as an attempt to set up permanent camps and settlements. These intrusions have been augmented by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs publishing maps in Chinese passports depicting Arunachal Pradesh and other disputed areas like the South China Sea as Chinese sovereign territory.
A similar pattern of PLA incursions is registered in the China-Bhutan border despite the 1988 and 1998 agreement that commits each side to maintain the status quo pending final resolution. PLA soldiers came up to a Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) outpost at Lharigang in the Charithang valley in 2004 and 2009. Usually the pattern that is followed by China is to construct a version of territorial claim plausibly based on ancient Chinese history, followed by incursions and road building activities. These developments occur despite agreements signed by China to maintain status quo and its commitment to peaceful negotiations.
A similar pattern of Chinese behavior emerges with regard to the South China Sea (SCS) as well. Significantly, China and ASEAN agreed to a framework on a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the SCS in May. The draft CoC commits the parties to resolve the crisis peacefully and avoid placing offensive weapons in the sea’s islands. In 2002, a “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” was adopted by China and ASEAN. Interestingly, part of the declaration states:
The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.
Yet, China is using early presence and facts on the ground to alter territorial claims despite its adoption of the 2002 declaration and establish exclusion zones and zones of military coercion in the SCS. In January 2014, it was discovered that Chinese vessels were dredging white sand onto corals at seven points in the disputed Spratlys, namely; Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, Gaven Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Subi Reef, South Johnson Reef, and Hughes Reef. Once the artificial islands were built, China followed up with erecting buildings, harbors and airstrips, deploying radar and surveillance, as well as stationing its troops: all activities geared towards establishing ownership and sovereign control over disputed territory.
The Chinese claims SCS on the ground that Chinese ancient mariners discovered the Nansha Islands (now the South China Sea Islands) in the 2nd century B.C., renamed Changsha islands during the Tang and Song dynasties (618 A.D to 1279 A.D.). Quoting sources such as the Guangzhou Records by the Jin-dynasty’s Pei Yuan, China asserts that Chinese fishermen continuously traversed the South China Sea during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368A.D-1911A.D).
China has strategically preferred to act in ways that go contrary to its signed commitments in the framework agreements. Its act of sending in PLA soldiers and engineers to build roads inside disputed territory in Bhutan, its intrusions across the LAC in India, its building of artificial islands in the SCS, registers a direct violation of its signed commitments in the framework agreements or in its adoption of the 2002 SCS declaration that records its commitment to maintain status quo.
The critical question that emerges is: why does China sign “guiding principles” and “framework agreements” with countries with which it has territorial disputes and then violates the commitment to the status quo enshrined therein? It may be an attempt to constrain the behavior of other states, while Beijing nevertheless intends to act contrary to the agreements signed, trotting out ancient history to blindside their counterparts across the undefined borders. The jury may still be out, but the pattern in these three cases reflects China’s inability to meet its ‘framework agreement’ commitments, thereby throwing in doubt its seriousness as a reliable negotiator.