Guest Column

China’s New Border Law Could Further Complicate Boundary Disputes

By Jayanta Kalita 22 November 2021

Last month, China passed a law aimed at enhancing border protection. However, what stands out from this piece of legislation is that it allows the use of blockades and “police apparatus and weapons” against intruders.

The development comes amid an 18-month-long standoff between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian military along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

The two militaries had a bloody faceoff in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley in June last year, resulting in 24 casualties. Despite multiple rounds of military and diplomatic-level talks, a resolution to this impasse is unlikely anytime soon.

China shares a 3,488-km land border with India running from the latter’s Arunachal Pradesh state in the east to the Union Territory of Ladakh in the west.

This is the first time that China has enacted such a border law, which the communist country will enforce from January next year.

So, who is actually the architect of this piece of legislation? Well, it was proposed by the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s parliament. Although this is supposed to be a domestic land border law, the fact that the proposal came from the committee indicates the potential cross-border ramifications of this legal mechanism. And there is an India connection to it.

The law seems to be, at least partially, the brainchild of former PLA General Zhao Zongqi, who is now the deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Gen. Zhao was the PLA Western Theater Command chief, and he was the one who initiated the 2017 Doklam crisis and the Galwan skirmishes last year.

“So, there is a person who is in the Foreign Affairs Committee, who was dealing with the land related issues and obviously he may have substantial say in the law formulation,” said China expert Professor Srikanth Kondapalli.

“He [Gen. Zhao] mentioned some time ago that in the 1970s and ’80s he used to go on foot on the Line of Actual Control with India—of course, on their side of the border. So, as a practitioner and as a military officer, he was posted in those areas. He may have some views on the land border law, which may have been incorporated,” maintained Prof. Kondapalli from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Implications for India

It is pertinent to mention that on Oct. 14, China and Bhutan signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to end their border dispute. And Beijing announced the new border law on Oct. 23. In the past, India also signed several MoUs with China but the dispute is still not resolved. Nevertheless, the latest MoU does indicate some kind of agreement between China and Bhutan.

This means that out of its 14 land neighbors, it is only with India that China does not have a territorial dispute resolution mechanism. China shares a total of 22,000 km of land borders with these countries.

However, Beijing may not be looking solely at India when it comes to the border law. The fact that China shares land borders with 13 other countries needs to be kept in mind as well.

Prof. Kondapalli said each of these land borders has a unique set of problems. For instance, China’s northeast border with Russia is plagued by the smuggling menace. The Central Asia-China borders need to be watched for Uighur militants who could foment troubles in Xinjiang region. Similarly, the Myanmar-China border is notorious for the smuggling of drugs and small arms. And then, the India-China LAC faces the post-Galwan uncertainty.

Article 4 of the new law mentions China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as sacred and inviolable. This assertion is something new, especially when one looks at it from Indian perspectives. The LAC is a de facto border and the dispute over the border is still unresolved. Previously, Beijing had termed this as a disputed border, but now it is asserting sovereignty.

“You can claim sovereignty if you have a bilateral agreement. If you don’t have a bilateral agreement, it is a disputed territory. So, the transition from disputed territory to sovereignty narrative, in China, in this land border law as well suggests we have some company coming up in the future. Constant company for the near future,” Prof. Kondapalli said.

Article 10 of the law talks about border defense construction. It also mentions flood control. Needless to say, there has been a discord between India and China over the flow of the Brahmaputra river, which is known as Yarlung Tsangpo in China’s Tibet region.

China has been constructing some 26 dams at the Namcha Barwa in southeastern Tibet, known for the “great bend” of the Yarlung Tsangpo. India has genuine concerns over China’s damn-building spree, as it could impact the flow of the Brahmaputra in the country’s northeastern region.

The land border law aims to provide a legal basis for China’s construction activity in the Tibet region.

In line with China’s maritime law

Earlier this year, Beijing came out with a similar law to protect its maritime boundaries. Both pieces of legislation allow the country’s law enforcement agencies to shoot “intruders”—be it in the Himalayas or the South China Sea.

On Feb. 1, China’s new Coast Guard Law took effect even as Beijing continues to resort to what is called “gray zone tactics” to assert its claims over the South and East China seas.

This law allows Coast Guard fleets to use lethal force on foreign ships operating in China’s waters, including disputed waters claimed by the communist country.

This essentially means that what Chinese “maritime militias” have been doing all these years—to scare away fishermen, people or entities belonging to other claimants from these disputed waters—may soon be replaced with an aggressive push-back policy against other littoral states.

“Like the Coast Guard Law and Maritime Traffic Safety Law promulgated in 2021, the new legislation is passed amid rising tensions between China and its neighbors over territorial disputes. The People’s Liberation Army and the paramilitary People’s Armed Police will have major responsibility for safeguarding [the] land border, combating armed invasion. Both agencies report to the Central Military Commission, which [President] Xi Jinping heads,” said Kalpit A. Mankikar, a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai.

“The new law permits patrol officers to use weapons against intruders who resort to violence in resisting detention and threaten the safety of life and property of other people. Chinese state media also reported that the law upholds China’s ‘legitimate rights and interests’ over the Tibet-originating transboundary rivers like the Brahmaputra and Mekong,” he said.

“The law’s assertion of full sovereignty over cross-border waters means that China has a declared right to divert as much of the shared waters as it wishes, regardless of downstream impacts. The law, which will kick into effect from 2022, is another use of lawfare where domestic law can facilitate its expansionism,” Mankikar added.

Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi. He writes on issues relating to India’s northeast and its immediate neighborhood. The views expressed are his own.

You may also like these stories:

QUAD Regional Bloc May Hold Key to Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar Views New Chinese Border Wall With Growing Unease

India-Myanmar Military Ties Pay Dividends as Naga Rebels Return to Mainstream