Bored with Japan and the Philippines, China Intensifies a Third Border Dispute with India

by Julian Ku

Not content to push border disputes with only Japan and the Philippines, China apparently has decided that now is also a good time to create a border crisis with India.  Last week, Chinese troops apparently crossed over a disputed border to camp 20 km inside Indian-claimed territory in the remote region of the Himalayas (the Chinese deny the incursion has occurred and both sides appear to be climbing down a bit).

This rather hostile-to-China essay in the Japan Times provides a nice summary of how China has stepped up its activities on three different territorial fronts at the same time.  First, there is the ongoing dispute with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal/Huangyan Island in the South China Sea. Then, there is that dangerous dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkakus in the East China Sea.  Finally, China is provoking India.

Overall, China’s strategy appears to be to put its interlocutors on the defensive and to exhaust them with low-intensity incursions. This is working.  Japan is now repeatedly having to scramble its jets over the Senkakus at repeated Chinese incursions, and India is apparently rushing troops to the remote border region to confront the Chinese troops.  But, as the author of the essay notes, these are all reactive measures that allow China to keep the initiative.  China is not seeking a war, but it is seeking to push the envelope against its neighbors, with some success. India is trying to keep the dispute from escalating and Japan has been defensive about the Senkakus for the first time in decades.

Only the Philippines seems to be able to push back and force China to react, albeit through the soft pressure of an Annex VII UNCLOS arbitral proceeding.

It is impressive how China can keep three of its neighbors scrambling to respond while it slowly builds up its territorial claims.  In the long run, China v. India/Japan/Philippines/Vietnam/etc.  seems like bad odds, but so far it is working. Will international arbitration play any role in resolving these disputes?  I doubt it, but we will soon get some empirical evidence if the Philippines is able to win a judgment that affects or shifts China’s behavior.

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