A new Land Border Law, which China adopted amid heightened tensions with its neighbors, has raised concerns over its implications for border disputes.
The law aims to “resolutely defend [China’s] territorial sovereignty and land border security” while encouraging the proactive resolution of disputes with its neighbors, presumably on Beijing’s terms. It also includes a domestic agenda centered on nation-building and economic development by involving more borderland communities in defending Chinese territory.
When the law was being drafted analysts speculated on what its implications might be. Developments since January 1, when it took effect, reveal its utility for Beijing in gaining leverage in disputes and changing facts on the ground. The law’s emphasis on mobilizing “mass defense groups” (群防), vague wording of text regarding permissions for “near border” structures, and the legal facilitation of settlement building threaten to further upset the status quo.
Though applicable to all of China’s vast borderlands, the Land Border Law is likely to cause the most friction with its Himalayan neighbors, particularly India, with whom border tensions have been escalating over the last couple of years.
On December 31, i.e. the eve of the Land Border Law taking effect, China released its own set of names for 15 locations in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state. The timing is a clear signal of intent by Beijing of how it plans to increase pressure on New Delhi for control over the Indian state. Although India countered the Chinese move by stating that it “does not alter” Indian sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh on the ground, the names are changing the facts on the map by standardizing the locations for all national maps in China.
Pressure on Google and other prominent international mapping sources to include the Chinese names in their listings can be expected to follow, bolstering the perceived legitimacy of Chinese claims.
Though several of these places are reportedly non-existent and merely denote uninhabited space, they could become future settlements as China increases its push to populate the area through new frontier settlements. The Pentagon has confirmed that one Chinese village built in Arunachal Pradesh already contains over 100 structures. There are at least 600 “model villages” planned along the length of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between India and China, some of which have been augmented into military-style camps, in a move reminiscent of China’s military-civil fusion strategy.
Just as Chinese state media claim Beijing has the sole right to name places in Arunachal Pradesh, the border law is similarly one-sided as it makes legal provisions for China to enforce its unilaterally-determined boundary without consultation or consideration for the neighboring state.
This reflects a further shift away from bilateral compromise and towards consolidation of China’s claimed space. As defense analysts point out, the law frames China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh as less of a boundary dispute (over where the line runs) than a sovereignty dispute (the enforcing of its domain), making the issue more intractable.
The law also provides new means for enforcement on the ground, via “mass defense teams,” for example, which involves mobilizing “citizens and organizations” to assist in defending the borders. It thus grants legal basis for recently-built settlements behind India’s line. Though mostly vacant for now, once populated with new settlers, these places will not only have official Chinese names, but citizens on the claimed ground and a law that can be invoked to call them to defend it.
Bhutan is having similar problems. Satellite images in January show a rapid buildup of settlements, with over 200 structures in six locations, all in either disputed areas or Bhutanese territory itself. Some are strategically positioned just 10 km from Doklam and the “chicken neck” trijunction of the Bhutanese, Chinese, and Indian borders, presenting a risk for New Delhi too.
Though Bhutan has remained silent on the issue, the fact that its border dispute with Beijing has not been settled even after almost four decades of negotiations shows what a delicate issue it is for the tiny, landlocked Himalayan kingdom. The timing of the buildup could not be better for Beijing, coming shortly after it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Bhutan on boundary talks in a bid to finalize a settlement of the border.
The Chinese settlements – expressly facilitated by the new law – could be used to push Bhutan to yield to China’s version of the border in the coming talks. Beijing’s expansion of new claims including Sakteng in eastern Bhutan will also strengthen its hand.
The unilateral implementation of China’s border law coupled with the lack of official bilateral ties between the two countries will complicate matters further and, if more settlements follow, likely put a resolution out of reach.
Recent reports have drawn attention to Chinese incursions in Nepal’s western Humla district, marking the first time Kathmandu has officially reported Chinese intrusions. Though border issues with China have historically been amicably managed, the new law still carries new risks for Nepal.
Last year, Nepali authorities discovered China had built a permanent canal about 150 meters inside Nepali territory with a road to link it to the Chinese side. In some places, China had also fenced off the pillars marking the border by erecting wires about 30 meters inside the Nepali side of the boundary.
Yet the law’s obscure Article 40 bans any construction near China’s land border without permission from Chinese authorities, which, as Brookings’ analysts note, could apply to both sides of the border. This could in practice result in Chinese authorities demolishing Nepali structures within the vicinity of the border if they deem them to be too “near” the border.
This is a particular risk for Nepal, since its mountain-top border is often marked by pillars that are spaced kilometers apart, leaving stretches of space in the middle open to grey-zone interpretations. This risk, coupled with possible further Chinese-built infrastructure inside Nepal’s border, will give Kathmandu cause for concern.
The Chinese side has also reportedly restricted cross-border flows, preventing pilgrims gathering on the Nepali side of the border at Lalungjong, which abuts the sacred Mount Kailash that lies just over the border in China, and blocking Nepali farmers’ traditional grazing patterns. This timely tightening, coinciding with pandemic travel restrictions and uncertainty on the Afghan border, reflects the law’s aim to reassert control over China’s borderlands during a period of perceived instability, yet is a concerning precedent for Kathmandu.
China’s actions on multiple fronts in the Himalayas signals the land border law is more than a mechanism for mere domestic stability on its borderlands but a new tool for Beijing to further expand its sovereignty into its neighbors’ domains. Given how contested China’s Himalayan boundaries are though, this, unfortunately, portends further erosion of its neighbors’ own sovereignty.