China reasserts its self-perceived territorial limits

Thursday, 6 December 2012 - 9:00am IST
Beijing decided to issue new bio-metric passports since May this year.

Beijing’s decision to issue new bio-metric passports since May this year, representing what it considers to be the genuine territorial boundaries of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is not a mere administrative measure. It is an important overt and escalatory step towards the fulfillment of intent.

China followed this up by adding muscle to intent. On October 10, this year the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece, ‘People’s Daily’, publicised Beijing’s plans to use unmanned aerial vehicles to “increase surveillance over its coastal waters, expand its marine surveillance scope, and enhance overall management and control over its territorial waters. A new muscular law, which becomes effective from the beginning of the New Year, now comes in its wake and designates large areas in the South China Sea as part of China’s southern Hainan County and authorises it to take punitive measures to safeguard the country’s sovereignty.

Significantly, Beijing has unveiled its ambitions at a time when its economic and military might is rapidly increasing and it is straining to become the pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific.
Neither is this latest move restricted to reassertion of rights over disputed maritime territories such as in the South China Sea or Sea of Japan and depiction of the South China Sea as the PRC’s “national” territory. Reports state that each page in the new passport has a different background, with pictures provided by the Chinese media showing one of the pages containing a map depicting Taiwan and another showing China’s claims along the land borders with India like in Arunachal Pradesh and the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and the Aksai Chin area of Jammu and Kashmir are shown as within China’s boundaries.

Predictably, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and India have protested China’s action but none has yet barred entry for holders of these passports. India began reacting from this September by affixing special visas, which show the country’s official territorial boundaries. By this action it has forced holders of PRC passports visiting India to implicitly accept India’s version of its borders!
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying confirmed at the regular press briefing in Beijing that these maps, or background motifs as they are called by the Chinese authorities, were carefully chosen by the Chinese government. Hinting that Beijing will not recant from its position and, in a thinly concealed attempt to shift blame for any turbulence in bilateral relations caused by China’s provocative action, he added “we hope that the relevant countries take a rational and sensible attitude ... to avoid causing interference with normal Sino-foreign personnel exchanges”.

The passport is actually a restatement of China’s perceived territorial limits and appears to mirror the extent of the Chinese nation as envisioned in the maps published by Beijing in 1954, and which continue to be taught in China till today. The map, which was part of a textbook titled “A Brief History of Modern China”,  claimed to show nineteen of “the Chinese territories taken by the Imperialists in the old Democratic Revolutionary Era (1840-1919)”. These included Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, India’s north-east comprising the former states of Assam, NEFA and Nagaland, the Andaman Islands and Burma.

In this context the remark in New Delhi on November 28, 2012, by Li Junru, former vice president of the Central Party School and presently a member of the Chinese Peoples’ Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), is revealing. He said: “For us Chinese, starting from primary school students, we all know that from history, from a long time that these are ours, these are our territory and other people say no, it is ours. So what can we do? We are trying to have negotiations and dialogue with relevant parties concerned, and we wish to have dialogues and negotiations in a one-on-one manner. And we don’t want to use force or to intimidate others by our economic or military pressure.”

He added “We want to resolve the issue in a better way … but that does not mean that if somebody flexes muscles, we will just idle and do nothing. China will not act recklessly, but that does not mean that we will give in”. 

China has been reviewing its “neighbourhood” policy since last year, with Chinese military strategists and political analysts asserting that the policy of “appeasing” neighbours and “setting aside disputes” is not working. They recommended it be replaced by one which combines cooperation with credible commitments to use of force. The principle of sovereignty and long-term national interests, they affirm, is China’s top priority. China’s new military leadership has already indicated it favours such a policy.

 The author is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.


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