China’s Neighbourhood Challenges
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Issue Book Excerpt: China: Threat or Challenge? | Date : 08 Jun , 2017

Map showing Nine-dash line (Courtesy Stratfor)

China’s rise as a great power raises concern about how it may use its growing military capabilities. Historically, major shifts in the balance of power have been linked with episodes of tension and conflict among the leading states in the international system. Although they are not necessarily violent, such power transitions are often not peaceful, either.1 Thus, China’s rise raises questions about the future of peace and stability in Asia, questions driven in part by uncertainty about how China will use its military power and how neighbouring states will respond.

The rise of a great power, by nature, changes the balance of power in the international system. Chinese military ambitions, the strength of its culture, and its market of over a billion people, have captivated the global imagination. Against this backdrop, any meaningful discussion of China’s role in its neighbourhood requires an understanding of its relations with them as a whole. Any projection of that role in the next decade necessitates an understanding of how the Chinese have been involved in their dealings in the past and how that relationship has evolved over the years. The thrust of any future analysis can thus be extrapolated. At present, an undercurrent of uneasiness exists between China and its neighbours as it continues its ascent up the global hierarchy. China has done little to assuage neighbourhood concerns regarding its intentions. A review of its neighbourhood challenges could help in putting issues in perspective.

The term “superpower” was coined in 1944 by William T. R. Fox, an American foreign policy professor, in his book The Superpowers: The United States, Britain and the Soviet Union—Their Responsibility for Peace. Fox identified superpowers as states that occupied the highest status in the world because they could challenge and fight each other on a global scale. In 2005, Alice Miller, a leading China expert, further defined superpower as “a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain the status of global hegemon.” According to Miller, the basic components of superpower stature may be measured along four axes: economic, military, political, and cultural (or “soft”).2 In consideration of these aforesaid definitions, China is not yet near superpower status. However, it has started flexing its military muscle in various ways.

While publications and commentaries proclaim China as the world’s emerging superpower, few analysts have elucidated the many limits to Beijing’s great power ambitions. There is a need to take account of the fact that China borders on 20 countries – more than any other state. China has perhaps the world’s most strategically complex geography. It has twelve land and six maritime neighbours, together with two neighbours – Korea and Vietnam – with which it shares both land and sea boundaries. This context provides China with a source of enormous leverage, but also equally monumental challenges.

An Overview

Over the decades since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was formed, Beijing has made significant progress in forging diplomatic and economic links with its neighbours, and in resolving many territorial disputes. Nevertheless, China and its neighbours disagree over a significant number of overlapping territorial and maritime claims, including disputes over what lies under the ground and under the sea. China has boundaries with Afghanistan, Bhutan, Brunei, Indonesia, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Taiwan, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. 3

The Chinese frequently claim their country is a victim and is merely processing overcoming legacies of unequal treaties of the past. In contrast, China’s neighbours see it throwing its weight in the region. China’s external behaviour, such as the efforts to extend its naval power far beyond its territorial waters (described as a move from “coastal defence” to “far sea defence”), can be interpreted as either aggressive or as a normal process of its export-led growth and insatiable demand for commodities, crops, and other resources, and a desire to ensure open sea lines. China obviously has an inherent difficulty in managing 20 different neighbours.

The rise of China’s military capability has received tremendous attention in recent years. Analysts extensively scrutinize the growth of China’s military budget, modernizations in the PLA’s hardware, and evolution in Chinese military doctrine.4 They also speculate on the implications of these military developments on China’s role in the world order5 where it is increasingly making efforts at creating an alternative pole to Western democracies in international organizations and global diplomacy.6

The ultimate test of a country’s influence is its ability to create friends around the world. While China’s military modernization has made significant strides, improvement of its capabilities are presently limited. They appear to be having selective priorities, viz:

  • Acquiring green water naval and air support capacities to defend China’s coastal provinces, the geographic backbone of its industrial economy
  • Establishing credible military capacities to win conflicts quickly and decisively on its long land borders, where it still has several unresolved boundary disputes
  • Defending China in what is arguably the most heavily militarized region in the world, which includes declared nuclear states (as well as South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, all of which could rapidly develop nuclear weapons)
  • Compelling resolution of the Taiwan question either politically or by outright military force—even in the event of American intervention on Taipei’s behalf—as well as Chinese claims in the South China Sea on terms acceptable to Beijing
  • Preserving the credibility of China’s second-strike nuclear deterrent against a strategic first strike. 7

Relations with neighbours support not only China’s regional position in East Asia but its global position. Knowing more about the territorial issues between China and its 20 neighbours is essential to a deeper understanding of the possibilities and limits of Chinese power.

On China’s eastern frontiers, it eyes ports on the northern Pacific. Chinese-funded development projects in North Korea could potentially compensate for Russia’s seizure of the Amur Basin in the 19th century, and afford China better positioning on the Pacific than does the Liaodong peninsula alone. South Korea, for its part, looks warily upon the prospect of Chinese investment and infrastructure in North Korea. China’s border with the Korean peninsula remains highly unpredictable,

China’s western frontier does not border on an ocean. Thus, eight different countries – China, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – have been cooperating on a multi-billion dollar effort to upgrade the patchwork transit system in Central Asia with the unveiling of the ambitious One Belt – One Road project in 2013. Drawing on multi-country expertise, labour, and financing, it envisions up to eight rail and road corridors across the trails of the ancient Silk Route. The west-east land corridors would lead to Turkey, and possibly to southwestern Russia, from China’s far west. (In addition, the Central Asians have been eager to reinforce their north-south routes, down to South Asia and the Middle East.) But even though China has completed an internal rail link to Lhasa, China’s far west continues to suffer social and political unrest (in Xinjiang as well as Tibet), while China lacks an integrated domestic trucking system inland; visions of building dozens of airports in western regions – a “Silk Route in the sky”– have met with scepticism about overcapacity. With so many states in Central Asia, maintaining such cooperation is not a ‘given’. The upshot has been that China has been investing far more in infrastructure along the sea route to Europe.

The strategic trade routes from China to Europe run predominantly through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean via the Malacca Straits and Suez Canal. Alternative routes on land are by means of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, from Harbin, or across Central Asia, the Caspian, and the Black Sea. East Asian goods going through Suez into the Mediterranean reach European ports in approximately 45 days; rail across Russia could, in theory, deliver those same goods to Finland in a third of that time. But Russia’s ability to rebuild infrastructure across vast distances and inhospitable terrain have so far stymied any progress. Moscow and Vladivostok lie 9,259 kilometres apart; Moscow and Pyongyang, 10,267 kilometres.

The Chinese heartland is the territory between the Yellow River and the Yangtse Kiang with a 90% Han population. The contours of present day China emerged by 1279 CE, less four peripheral states, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet, which were annexed in the 18th and 19th centuries. China and India, Asia’s two great civilisational states, are also the world’s most populous, accounting between them for a third of humanity. Though both nations are nuclear-armed and developing blue water navies, fundamentally, China does not accept India as a member of the nuclear club. South Asia is China’s soft underbelly, as two of its troubled provinces, Xinjiang and Tibet lie in its proximity. South Asia provides the shortest sea route to China’s landlocked Western provinces and lies astride the vital sea lanes from oil-rich West Asia to China’s seaports. Peace in this region is therefore vital to China’s interests.

An Examination of China’s Borders

Land Boundaries

Afghanistan. The length of border is 76 kilometres. It abuts the ‘Wakhan Corridor” in Afghanistan with the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County (Kashgar District) of the province of Xinjian in China. The Sino-Afghan border has been delimited as part of a secret treaty in November 1963, whose terms have never been published. China is developing infrastructure on its side of the border, including a 75-kilometre road built less than 10-kilometre from the border funded by its Ministry of Defence.

Bhutan. The length of border is 470 kilometres. Despite cultural and religious ties to Tibet, Bhutan has maintained a close relationship with India, on whom it is dependent for external matters and defence. The border is unresolved, particularly the western and eastern tri-junctions where Bhutan, China and India meet. China also claims the Doklam plateau in Western Bhutan and has made numerous intrusions. Negotiations have been conducted between Bhutan and China over three decades to demarcate the border but are yet to be successfully concluded.

India. While the length of the International Boundary is 4056 kilometres, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is 3,439 kilometres. It is one of the longest in the world, under dispute. The area of the land under dispute tops 135,000 square kilometres over which the two sides have even gone to war. The presence of the Dalai Lama and his status in exile is at the heart of the dispute ever since Tibet was annexed by China in the 1950s and ceased to be a political buffer between the two countries. India can expect no respite from Chinese pressure as the solution to the dispute appears intractable. China’s salami tactics – upping the ante in small, measured increments – makes the situation tense from time to time. While China is unwilling to accept the status quo, trade between to the two is increasing. The issue now goes beyond territory to environmental concerns and control of natural resources. How India and China manage their relations as both countries emerge as major powers would not only have an impact on their interests but also on Asia and the world as a whole.

Kazakhstan. The length of border is 1,700 kilometres which had 944 square kilometres in dispute. In agreements between 1994 and 1998, the border was changed by only 187 square kilometres, with China securing 43 % of the land under dispute while Kazakhstan got title over 57 %. This resolution appears to show Beijing’s willingness to compromise. However, relative to the total size of their territories China is arguably the winner. In 2009 Beijing requested Kazakhstan to lease almost one million hectares of land to Chinese farmers to grow soya beans and rapeseed, which has created new concerns throughout Central Asia over a policy of gradual Chinese encroachment.

Korea. The length of border is 1,415 kilometres, established by means of an as-yet secret Sino-DPRK treaty in 1963. While the border is formally undisputed, a number of issues regarding control of the waterways, ports, islands, and mountain territories in the border region have emerged since the 1950s and continue to be unresolved to this day. China fears being flooded by North Korean refugees in the event of collapse of the DRPK government. Should the two Koreas ever merge, the validity of the current Sino-Korean border might be challenged by a newly reunified Korea.

Kyrgyzstan. The length of border is 858 kilometres. In 1999 China and Kyrgyzstan settled their dispute along border, with Bishkek ceding almost 1,240 square kilometres of land to Beijing. In 2001, rumours surfaced claiming that Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev had reaped personal financial gains from the deal, provoking uproar in Kyrgyzstan and energized the opposition movement, forcing Akayev to flee the country in 2005. Nevertheless, Kyrgyzstan’s economic relations with Beijing have grown, and the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization appears to be pulling the country away from its traditional ties to Moscow. Russia has tried to limit China’s influence through regional organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization. In 2011, Russia tried to lure Kyrgyzstan back into its orbit by agreeing to expand the Moscow-led Customs Union to include Kyrgyzstan, which could weaken Bishkek’s commercial relations with Beijing.

Laos. The length of border is 423 kilometres. The Sino-French Border Agreement of 1895 between China and French possessions in South-east Asia delimited and demarcated the Sino-Lao boundary which is largely based on water-courses and watersheds, where possible. A Treaty and Supplementary Protocol, in 1991, established a Border Commission which completed its work in 1992. The border is undisputed. Laos is strategically well-placed to constitute one or more east-west land bridges linking northern Myanmar and Thailand to ports on the South China Sea, as well as allowing the development of north-south trade routes from Yunnan Province. The extent to which Laos can retain full sovereign control over its territory along the Sino-Laos border remains to be seen. There has been a growth of Chinese-owned and operated factories, plus a large Chinese casino located in the Laotian border town of Boten. It is reported that, Chinese owners have refused to allow Laotian officials to inspect these businesses, much less to regulate their activities. This is worrying for the Laotian government.

Mongolia. The length of border is 4,645 kilometres. It was clarified on 25 December 1962, when they signed an agreement officially delimiting the Sino-Mongolian border. In 1988, a second treaty settled the remaining disputes along the border. China’s enormous economic growth has given Beijing considerable economic leverage over Mongolia, making any Chinese attempt to take additional border territory or annex Mongolia outright highly unlikely. If Mongolia hopes to avert Chinese domination and guarantee its border and territorial integrity, it needs to adopt duties on foreign goods and regulate foreign, specifically Chinese, capital, to avoid becoming merely an economic satellite of China.

Myanmar. The length of border is 2,200 kilometres. Myanmar’s boundary with China is still not fully settled, since defining the tri-junction with India is contingent on the resolution of the Sino-Indian dispute. A Sino-Burmese boundary treaty delimiting the bulk of their mutual border was signed on 1 October 1960, and ratified a year later, where China secured approximately 114 square kilometres of disputed territory. Domestic rebellion in the Han Chinese-dominated Kokang region of Myanmar has led to border tensions, as approximately 50,000 ethnic Han Chinese have fled to China during the past ten years. During 2010, China was even forced to deploy additional troops to this tense border region to halt the further flow of refugees. Chinese-funded infrastructure projects across Myanmar could afford Beijing strategic access to the Bay of Bengal. The largest and most important projects have been an oil pipeline and a hydroelectric dam. The dam on the Irrawaddy River will deliver 90 percent of the power it generates to China, while leaving Myanmar with many of the side effects, such as forcibly resettled villagers. The oil pipeline, from a deep sea port on the Bay of Bengal, is going forward with more generous attention (schools, hospitals) to those affected.

Nepal. The length of border is 1,415 kilometres. Boundary delimitation and demarcation between Nepal and China began in October 1961. The as-yet unfinished boundary line between China and Nepal relates to seven Nepalese counties bordering Tibet. The two tri-junctions – where the Nepalese, Chinese, and Indian boundaries meet – have yet to be negotiated on both the western and eastern ends of Nepal as a consequence of the Sino-Indian dispute. There are also a number of bilateral disputes between the PRC and Nepal, including over the exact ownership of Mount Everest.

Pakistan. The length of border is 523 kilometres in PoK (not including the Shaksham Valley portion). Pakistan is one of China’s only firm allies along its southern border. Sino-Pakistani relations are dominated by the notion of “special relationship” or “entente cordiale.” Since settling their shared border through secret negotiations in 1963, they have avoided any boundary disputes. The relationship has proven remarkably durable during the past fifty years, including Beijing’s decision to provide Pakistan with nuclear technology, and Pakistan’s assistance to Beijing in furthering the PRC’s presence in the Indian Ocean via the deep-water port at Gwadar. The challenge of transnational terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism has posed a threat to Sino-Pakistani border diplomacy since the mid-1990s, but Beijing’s pipeline plans and anticipated linkage with the Karakoram Highway denote even greater cooperation, making the Sino-Pakistani border stable.

Russia. The length of border is 4,300 kilometres. The Sino-Russian border demarcation in 2008 represented a massive economic opportunity. However, despite being formally settled, Russia’s border with China is potentially dangerous. It is a dividing line between two equally imperial but very different cultures. Moscow’s relationship with Beijing remains both a foundation stone of Russia’s geopolitical architecture and also a vital economic partnership. It is tempered, however, by a deep unease about the sustainability of the border in the face of a rising China, which has in effect made Russia the front-line of Europe versus Asia. Beijing may reopen historical iniquities and the legitimacy of 19th century treaties, in which huge territories were seized by Russia. To many Russians living in the Russian Far East China represents a source of labour, investment, goods, and opportunities to develop eastern Siberia’s 65 % of Russia’s prospective petroleum reserves, 85 % of its natural gas reserves, almost all its diamonds, 70 % of its gold, and large reserves of coal, timber, and other natural resources.

Tajikistan. The length of border is 400 kilometres. Tajikistan, in January 2011, ratified an agreement with China concerning the border, bringing an end to more than a decade of negotiation and well over a century of dispute. The normalization of the Tajik-China border in 1999 specified that Tajikistan cede to China 200 square kilometre, and in 2002 a second agreement increased this to 1,122 square kilometres, mainly in the Pamir mountains. Tajikistan heralded it as a great success, explaining that it was far less territory (only about 5 %) than the 28,000 square kilometres that had previously been in dispute. The Tajikistan government’s political opponents saw it differently, since this equalled 0.78 % of Tajikistan’s entire territory of 143,100 square kilometres. If current economic trends continue, however, the resolution of the Tajik-China border issues will prove to be of comparatively small significance in comparison with the ever-growing importance of Chinese political and economic influence in Tajikistan.

Vietnam. The length of border is 1,350 kilometres. Vietnam’s border relations with China include both land and sea boundaries. Beijing and Hanoi started full normalization of bilateral relations in 1991. The major land dispute along the two countries’ mutual border is over 227 square kilometre. In 1999, the two countries agreed to split these areas, with Vietnam receiving just under 113 square kilometres and China just over 114 square kilometres. The sea disputes encompass both maritime areas in the Gulf of Tonkin and competing sovereignty claims over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos in the South China Sea. While agreement dividing the Gulf of Tonkin was reached in 2000, and a joint-fishing zone established, disputes on other maritime issues remain unresolved. Further, China’s claim within the so-called nine-dashed lines in the South China Sea overlap with Vietnam’s claims to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf areas immediately to the east of Vietnam’s coastline. Bilateral tensions have periodically increased due to actions in and relating to the South China Sea.

Maritime Boundaries

Brunei. Differences over sovereignty claims which remain unclear, which could be as much as 43,272 square kilometres. Geographically, over 1,600 kilometres separate Hainan province of China and Brunei. Politically and economically, their relations are less extensive than other ASEAN nations. Due to absence of tensions the contested sovereignty claims have received scant attention

Indonesia. Geographically, 1,482 kilometres separate Hainan province of China and Indonesia’s Natuna islands. Overlaps exist between maritime claims of the two states over an area of about 98,000 square kilometres. Indonesia has rejected all Chinese overtures to engage in bilateral delimitation talks over the “invisible boundary”. However, there have been a number of incidents over illegal Chinese fishing activities in the South China Sea. The area of the South China Sea has rich recoverable reserves of natural gas, which are at the heart of the dispute. (Estimated to be 46 trillion cubic feet). At its core is the Spratly Islands.

Japan. The principal territorial and maritime disputes between China and Japan are the group of islands in the East China Sea, known to the Chinese as Diaoyu and to the Japanese as Senkaku, delimitation of the maritime boundary in the East China Sea and exploitation of the oil and gas resources, notably the fields called Chuiuiao in Chinese and Shirakaba in Japanese. Also, Okinotori, a tiny formation that Japan claims is an island capable of generating claims to EEZ and continental shelf rights. China, while not contesting Japan’s ownership of Okinotori, refuses to recognize it as an island for extended maritime claims. Both states are parties to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which states that a nation can claim an EEZ to a distance of 200 nm from coastal baselines, and also a continental shelf to the limits of its natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of its continental margin up to 350 nm or 100 nm seaward of the 2,500 metre depth contour. However, since the East China Sea is only 360 nm across at its widest point, this precludes any easy solution to the dispute. Control over the Senkaku islands might convey EEZ rights to 68,686 square kilometres and to Okinotori some 400,000 square kilometres. Repeated efforts at compromise have failed. A joint “consensus” reached in 2008 has stalled, and both sides have rejected the suggestion that their territorial and maritime disputes be submitted to international arbitration. The Japanese government maintains that the territorial issue has been settled, while China has little incentive to compromise. Acting as a mitigating factor on these disputes is the fact that China is Japan’s largest trading partner.

Malaysia. The dispute over maritime boundaries has arisen due to China’s apparent claim to all of the South China Sea, as shown on Chinese maps that depict the nine-dashed line, an area of approximately 2,225,420 square kilometres. The maritime boundary has yet to be delimited and the territorial dispute in the South China Sea has yet to be resolved. In particular, the sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, which include numerous small islands scattered over 240,000 square kilometres of water. China is reluctant to move quickly to settle the dispute over the Spratly islands. The Malaysian government is reluctant for joint development of them. Instead, it is actively exploiting marine resources in the disputed area, maintaining a military presence and commercial development. Malaysia’s 2009 decision for a joint submission with Vietnam to the UN Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf interferes with China’s claims.

Philippines. Un-delimited maritime boundaries and overlapping maritime claims are an enduring source of tension between the Philippines and China, despite rapidly expanding economic ties. The dispute over the South China Sea tends to dominate their interactions. China asserts territorial sovereignty over numerous islands in the South China Sea, especially the Spratly islands, on historic grounds. The Philippines claims sovereignty over several of the same islands, which it refers to as the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG).8 They also contest sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, in the South China Sea. The unanimous award issued on July 12, 2016, by the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in the arbitration constituted by the Philippines against China has muddied the water even more. Philippine relations with China, while increasingly strong, especially in economic terms, can in political and diplomatic terms be characterized largely as cautious at best, and even hostile at times.

South Korea. There are outstanding maritime disputes between China and South Korea, though the two states have sought to manage their competing claims and friction over access to marine resources by their fishing fleets through the establishment of a joint fishing zone in the Yellow Sea.

Taiwan. Separated by the 161 kilometre-wide Taiwan Strait, China and Taiwan’s border dispute is complex. For much of its post-1949 history the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan claimed all of-mainland China plus Mongolia as its sovereign territory. Taipei’s hopes of retaking the mainland have diminished, but it has territorial claims and actual control over a number of small islands off the coast of China, including Jinmen (formerly Quemoy) and Mazu, as well as the Pratas islands. It also retains control over the largest island in the Spratly, Itu Aba (Taiping Island). The PRC claims not only all of the offshore islands controlled by Taiwan, but all the islands of the ROC proper, such as the Penghu (formerly the Pescadores), Green (Lu Dao), and Orchid (Lan Yu) islands. The two governments agree with each other, however, on many South China Sea territorial and maritime claims against other Asian nations. Indeed Beijing and Taipei have cooperated in the past against other claimants in the South China Sea. Further, it was, in fact, the ROC that first published a map in 1947 including the infamous eleven-dashed line claiming the majority of the South China Sea, a claim that the PRC later adopted in its nine-dashed line map.


It has been averred that China has four strategic goals:

  • Maintain Internal Order. The first and most important aim pursued by China’s leaders since the founding of the modern Chinese state has been the preservation of internal order and the domination of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
  • Sustain High Economic Growth. The goal of ensuring continued and unchallenged Communist rule leads to the second operational aspiration: sustaining the high levels of economic growth necessary to preserve social order.
  • Pacify the Periphery. The external advantages arising from China’s high growth rates thus far have strengthened its capacity to achieve the third operational aim deriving from its quest for comprehensive national power: the pacification of its extended geographic periphery. Beijing has sought to accomplish this by deepening economic ties with its Asian neighbours to “reduce regional anxieties” about China’s rise; making common cause with some states, such as Russia, that have reasons to resist joining the larger balancing against China now under way in Asia; embarking on a concerted modernization of the PLA; and renewing older efforts to delegitimize the U.S. alliance system in Asia.
  • Cement International Status. The CCP’s desire to preserve domestic control is enhanced by the final element of the strategic goal of maximizing comprehensive national power: enhancing China’s status as a central actor in the international system. 9 

China is pursuing three main objectives in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia: regional integration, resource control, and enhanced security. The recent heightening of the competition between China and its neighbours over sovereignty, resources, and security in the South China Sea has drawn the attention of political and military leaders from many countries that seek to promote stability and security in these globally important waters. For states that ring the South China Sea, its waters represent a zone of rich hydrocarbon and protein resources that are increasingly dear on land as populations exhaust their territories’ ability to meet their increasing needs. This resource competition alone could be the basis of sharp-edged disputes between the claimants. The South China Sea also represents the projection of the cultural consciousness of the centuries-long relationship that each coastal nation has had with its adjoining seas. This fact fuels competing modern-day nationalist tendencies among claimant-state populations, tendencies that in turn magnify the importance of the disputes and, during times of crisis, narrow the options for negotiation or de-escalation.

In 1947 the Nationalist government of the Republic of China published maps with a U-shaped series of lines in the South China Sea delineating its maritime boundaries (see map). These maps were based on a 1935 internal government report prepared to define the limits of China, many parts of which were dominated by outside powers at the time.10 Though the exact nature of the claim was never specified by the Nationalist government, the cartographic feature persisted in maps published by the Communist Party after it came to power on the mainland in 1949, and today the U-shaped line’s nine dashes in the South China Sea remain on maps published both in China and on Taiwan.11 In 1992, further clarifying its claims of sovereignty over all the islands in the South China Sea, the PRC enacted its Law on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, which specifies that China claims sovereignty over all of the island groups that fall within the U-shaped line in the South China Sea: the Pratas Islands (Dongsha), the Paracel Islands (Xisha), Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha), and the Spratly Islands (Nansha). The Chinese government appears to maintain a studied policy of ambiguity about the line’s meaning.12 A second category of disputes involves the delimitation of jurisdictional boundaries between neighbouring sea zones, including EEZs and continental shelves. China complicates these disputes through its ambiguous claims of authority over the water space within the nine-dash line, but it is clear that the claim encompasses aspects of jurisdiction as well as aspects of sovereignty.”13

Disputes over sovereignty centre on questions of which coastal states have the right to exercise the full measure of state authority over the physical territory of the islands in the South China Sea. They involve Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei, as well as China and Taiwan.14 Vietnam claims “indisputable sovereignty” over all of the Spratly (Truong Sa) and Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands;15 one possible interpretation of some of its recent submissions to the United Nations (UN), however, is that it might be willing to relinquish its claims, at least as regards the Spratlys, in return for recognition of wider resource rights in the South China Sea.16

The PLA Navy operates up to 10 nuclear-powered submarines and as many as 60 diesel-electric vessels, more than any other Asian country. China’s second-generation, nuclear-powered Jin- and Shang-class submarines are considered just a notch below cutting-edge US and Russian crafts.

China’s recognition of the importance of the seas stems from the historic reality that its ‘century of humiliation’ was caused by western nations that came via the sea. Its quest for great nationhood passes through the waters of the Indian Ocean. Thus, China’s major maritime worry is India, which occupies a central position astride the Indian Ocean. Decades have passed since the 1962 border war, but its shadow still influences Sino-India relations and the scars of that conflict are yet to heal. The long-standing boundary issue between the two countries has defied a satisfactory solution and is a constraint in collaboration on larger global issues. Negotiations have failed to resolve the dispute and border incidents have intensified recently.

While China’s international water disputes are numerous, it is also the source of cross-border river flows into Russia, Kazakhstan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, North Korea, Indochina, i.e. the largest number of countries in the world. (Tibetan sources alone supply water to 11 countries.) China’s construction of dams within its borders ipso facto affects hundreds of millions of people outside China. Sharing so many critically important rivers with so many neighbours is a source of power for China, but it is also a burden, arousing suspicion and anger, especially when China makes decisions it regards as vital for its own internal development and national interests that can fundamentally alter daily life and development patterns in the lower riparian countries. Thus, China’s neighbourhood and border disputes remain absolutely fundamental.

An element of Chinese strategic thought and behaviour is a stress on limited wars, constrained by well-defined spatial and temporal restrictions on violence. China has been relatively successful in using limited amounts of force, in coordination with diplomatic tools, to pursue clearly defined, limited political aims. Its grand strategic behaviour has been characterized by defence at or only slightly beyond “the gates,” a relative rather than zero-sum concept of victory, pacification and deterrence, a non-zero sum concept of conflict which reduces pressures to escalate, and an ability to preserve a strict hierarchy of political goals in the midst of conflict, among other traits.17

China’s rise might seem to deter external threats to its territorial integrity. Its relative power might also imply that future conflicts at or near its borders are unlikely to erupt, as its boundaries are secured by the PLA’s size and strength. Nevertheless, the lack of focus on China’s doctrine for maintaining its territorial integrity, which Chinese sources describe as ‘frontier defence’ (bianfang), is striking for two reasons:

  • Many of China’s armed conflicts have emphasized the goal of maintaining territorial integrity. These include battles with the Nationalists over coastal islands in the early 1950s, operations against Nationalist irregulars in Burma in 1960–61, the 1962 border war with India, the 1969 clash over Zhenbao Island with the Soviet Union, aspects of the 1979 invasion of Vietnam, intense border clashes with Vietnam in the 1980s as well as conflicts with the US in Korea and Vietnam, and crises in the Taiwan Strait.
  • Though China is strengthening its air and naval power projection capabilities, it can today still most readily employ military force over land with its army and land-based air power. To date, China has yet to develop expeditionary forces to project power over water far from its shores.18

The future remains uncertain, but China’s approach to frontier defence provides a clear baseline for assessing its power projection capabilities on the Asian continent. The growth in Chinese power capabilities does not necessarily portend a more aggressive use of Chinese power, or more dispute involvement. Indeed, it may be less, as long as China’s territorial integrity is not challenged and as long as it is accorded sufficient international status (such as involvement in all major international institutions and full partnership in major global order issues).

Buy Now: This book is sequel to “Threat from China”.

The emphasis on Taiwan overshadows China’s armed forces preparing for their core mission, defending territorial integrity. The unification of Taiwan is but one of China’s declared national strategic goals.19 Other goals for China’s armed forces are to ‘guard against and resist aggression . . . ensure that the nation’s territorial waters, airspace and borders are not violated . . . be on guard against and strike all forms of terrorism, separatism and extremism.’20 How China plans to achieve this and the implications of its approach for the region merit greater analysis.

Achieving a lasting situation of regional stability will require new approaches. The current pursuits of sovereignty, jurisdiction, and control are by nature win-lose. Power alone may produce settlements, but they may not be final, because they do not account for the long-standing mutual interests of others. New forms of problem solving are needed today, marked by shared rather than exclusive authority and mutual rather than nationalistic interests. Only such approaches will ensure that the twenty-first century does not mirror the rivalry and conflict that dominated the twentieth.


1. See, for example, Nazli Choucri and Robert Carver North, Nations in Conflict: National Growth and International Violence (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman 1975); Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (New York: Cambridge UP 1981); A.F.K. Organski, World Politics (New York: Knopf 1958).

2. Alice L. Miller, Hoover Digest: Research and Opinion on Public Policy, 2005, (accessed 21 May 2011).

3. See Bruce A Elleman, Stephen Kotkin and Clive Schofield (eds.); Beijing’s Power & China’s Borders: Twenty Neighbours in Asia (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2013).

4. For an overview of the latest military developments in PLA capabilities and strategies, see Office of the Secretary of Defence, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” Annual Report to Congress; Dennis J. Blasko, “Observations on Military Modernization and International Influence–An Alternate View,” A Paper Prepared for the National Defense University Conference on China’s Global Activism: Implications for U.S. Security Interests (National Defense University, 20 June 2006)

5. For discussions on China’s role in the international order, see Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt and Andrew Small, “China’s New Dictatorship Democracy: Is Beijing Parting with Pariahs?,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2008).

6. Joshua Kurlantzick, Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World (Yale University Press, 2007), 146.

7. Ibid.

8. Philippine Mission to the United Nations, letter ser. 11-00494, no. 000228, to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, 5 April 2011, available at

9. Robert D. Blackwill , China’s Strategy for Asia: Maximize Power, Replace America, The National Interest; 26 May 2016

10. Li Jinming and Li Dexia, “The Dotted Line on the Chinese Map of the South China Sea: A Note,” Ocean Development and International Law 34 (2003), pp. 287–95.

11. It should be noted that on Chinese maps there is a tenth dash outside the South China Sea, to the southeast of Taiwan that clearly indicates China’s claim over that island.

12. For a recent version of China’s nine-dashed-line claim, see Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations, letter ser. CML/18/2009 to H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon, 7 May 2009, available (in English) at

13. Valencia, Van Dyke, and Ludwig, Sharing the Resources of the South China Sea, p. 77. The authors note that “China seems to have developed a three noes policy to deal with the Spratlys issue—no specification of claims, no multilateral negotiations, and no internationalization of the issue, including no involvement of outside powers.” China’s policy seems to have remained unchanged over the past eleven years.

14. Joshua P. Rowan, “The U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, ASEAN, and the South China Sea Dispute,” Asian Security 45, no. 3 (May/June 2005), pp. 414, 419–29.

15. See, e.g., Permanent Mission of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam to the United Nations, letter ser. 86/HC-2009 to H.E. Mr. Ban Kimoon, 8 May 2009, available at

16. Joint Submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf Pursuant to Article 76, Paragraph 8 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 in Respect of the Southern Part of the South China Sea, Part I: Executive Summary (n.p.: Government of Malaysia/Government of Socialist Republic of Vietnam, May 2009) [hereafter Malaysia-Vietnam Joint Submission], available at

17. See Alastair lain Johnston, China’s Militarized Interstate Dispute Behaviour 1949-1992: A First Cut at the Data; The China Quarterly, 1998

18. Paul H.B. Godwin, ‘China as a Major Asian Power: The Implications of Its Military Modernization’, in Andrew Scobell and Larry M. Wortzel (eds.), Shaping China’s Security Environment: The Role of the People’s Liberation Army (Carlisle, PA: US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute 2006), 107–35.

19. China does not publish a document similar to the National Security Strategy in the US, but its strategic goals for the development of military power can be identified through a range of Chinese sources and statements. See David M. Finkelstein, ‘China’s National Military Strategy Revisited’, paper presented at the conference ‘Exploring the ‘‘Right Size’’ for China’s Military’, Carlisle Barracks, PA, 6–8 Oct. 2006.

20. 2006 nian Zhongguo de guofang [China’s National Defence in 2006] (Beijing: Guowuyuan xinwen bangongshi, 2006),

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Col Harjeet Singh

Col Harjeet Singh

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