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The History of Territorial Occupation by China and Its Relationship to COVID-19

The entire world is grappling with the COVID-19 catastrophe which according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine has affected the lives of at least 13.4 million people and the demise of more than 581,000 people across the globe. Due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous countries were forced to implement nationwide lockdowns resulting in severe economic losses.

In the last few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven fatal for China. The first case of COVID-19 was reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in November 2019 and is believed to have originated from the Wuhan Seafood market. According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as of July 5, the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases were 85,306 and 4,648 people had lost their lives in China (including Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan). The pandemic has disrupted the Chinese economy which will also impact the global markets in the upcoming future. China implemented a nationwide lockdown due to which for the very first time China has witnessed negative growth since the implementation of quarterly GDP in 1992. The GDP of China in the first quarter of 2020 has been depreciated to 20.65 trillion Yuan and there has been substantial declination in the GDP of primary, secondary, and tertiary industries. According to Zhongtai Securities Research Institute, China, the unemployment in China may have exceeded 70 million after the pandemic.

On the other hand, it has been reported that the majority of Chinese citizens are unhappy with the Communist regime in handling the catastrophe. As per various national and international news agencies, the Chinese government is hiding and obfuscating the COVID-19 data from the world. Many local groups have started raising their voices against the autocracy in not only Mainland China but also in Hong Kong. Recently, due to rising COVID-19 cases, Chinese authorities were again forced to implement lockdown in Beijing.

Amidst these turmoils, China is in the process of imposing national security laws in Hong Kong which would target any dissenting opinion against the regime. According to the New York Times:

China’s plans to impose sweeping new security powers over Hong Kong could inflict even more damage on already fraught relations between Washington and Beijing, and force President Trump into uncomfortable decisions about whether to maintain his self-described friendly ties with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

China has a depreciating GDP, a high level of unemployment, rising resentment towards the current government, and deteriorating relations with the US. This creates a strategic need to divert the minds of Chinese citizens from China’s issues and create a more nationalistic sentiment, which any tensions at the border can play an important role in creating.

Since last month, China has beefed up its forces near the Indo-Sino border with excavators, dump trucks, troop carriers, artillery and armoured vehicles and the Chinese soldiers have started intruding in three Indian territories of Pangong Lake, Galwan river valley in Ladakh and Hot Springs near Kongka pass. These intrusions especially in the Galwan river valley area triggered violence amongst the Indian and Chinese soldiers, which resulted in the unfortunate death of 20 Indian soldiers, including an army officer and the capturing of 10 Indian soldiers, including two officers, involved in the violent face-off in the Galwan valley. There were several reports about the death of Chinese soldiers, but they were not substantiated by the Chinese government. Satellite images show they have also undertaken some construction activities in the areas that are claimed by India. It was said to be the first time in decades that the fighting at 14,000 feet had led to casualties.

The origin of the territorial dispute between India and China stretches back to at least 1914, when the representatives from Britain, Republic of China and Tibet gathered in Simla to determine the status of Tibet and settle the borders between British India and China. China refused to sign the deal which gave autonomous status to Tibet and remain under Chinese control. But the representatives of Britain and Tibet signed the treaty establishing McMahon Line which was named after Henry McMahon, foreign secretary of British India and the Chief Negotiator of the convention at Simla. So, India still maintains that the McMahon Line is the official border between China and India, but China has never accepted it.

Later, in 1947, India got its independence from Britain and two years later, the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong proclaimed an end to the Communist Revolution and founded the People’s Republic of China. But soon both the countries found themselves at odds over the borders. The Chinese demanded that Tibet was rarely autonomous and couldn’t have signed a treaty creating an international border. There were several failed endeavours at tranquil negotiation. China tried to control critical roadways close to its western outskirts in Xinjiang, while India and its Western allies saw any attempts at Chinese incursion as part of a wider plot to export Maoist-style Communism across the region. By 1962, war had broken out. Chinese soldiers crossed the McMahon Line and occupied mountains, passes and towns deep inside Indian territory. The war kept going for one month which resulted in the death of at least 1000 Indian soldiers and over 3000 Indians were taken as prisoners of war. The Chinese military endured less than 800 deaths. By November, Premier Zhou Enlai of China declared a ceasefire, while no border has ever officially been negotiated along the forbidding stretch of land high in the Himalayas that divides the two nations, the truce established a 2,100-mile-long Line of Actual Control.

Later in August 1967 irked by India’s decision to erect iron pickets along the border from Nathu La to Sebu La, the Chinese soldiers heckled and then attacked the Indian army which triggered a full-blown clash. But India prevailed, destroying Chinese fortifications in Nathu La and pushing them farther back into their territory near Cho La. In 1967, India regained its pride against China. According to the Indian Defence Ministry, 88 Indian Army personnel were killed and 163 wounded while China lost 340 soldiers and 450 were wounded during the two incidents. The change in positions, however, meant that China and India each had different and conflicting ideas about the location of the Line of Actual Control.

Later in 1987, 2013, and 2017 few incidents of clashes between the armies of both the countries were reported, but no casualty was reported from either side. There are 23 areas on the Line of Actual Control, the border between India and China, which are disputed on both sides. Traditionally, territorial disputes between India and China are sorted according to the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas signed between the two sides in November 1996. There are certain rules and protocols which both sides follow when territorial disputes arise. According to the agreement, both sides should not deploy more than one division (15,000 troops along the border), if any side deploys it, it should be done via prior intimation of at least 15 days conducted via flag meetings. The agreement also states that if there is a face-off, neither side is supposed to act, they have to act with restraint and report to their respective headquarters. To maintain peace along the border, the ministries of defence of both the countries organise culture and sports exchanges between personnel of both armies. In addition, both sides conduct border meetings at Spanggur gap, Nathu La and Bum La in celebration of National Day/ Army Day of either side. The incident of 1967 was the last time that troops on either side were killed — until the recent skirmishes in the Galwan Valley.

Historically, China has proved to be covetous about occupying foreign lands. Along with India, it has territorial and maritime disputes with Taiwan, Bhutan, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Nepal, Vietnam. The disputes include islands, reefs, banks and other features in the South China Sea including Spratly Islands (with Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan), Paracel Islands (Vietnam), Scarborough Shoal (Philippines), and Gulf of Tonkin (Vietnam). Moreover, China has Exclusive Economic Zone disputes with North Korea, South Korea and Japan in the Yellow Sea (North Korea/South Korea) and East China Sea (South Korea/Japan). In addition, China claims Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands of Japan. The only honourable border relation which China has is with North Korea, however, North Korea is susceptible to pressure from the US, thereby making China wary and cautious of their border relations.

Controversially, China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea, which was ruled out by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Hague as a claim having no legal basis. However, China did not resign fighting for the territory as it claimed that The Hague had no jurisdiction over the issue. In 2018, a Chinese warship tried to dive out a US Navy Vessel out of the South China Sea causing the two vessels to come close to collision, thereby creating unrest between China and the US. China also claims the islands of Diaoyus and Senkakus which are disputed between China and Japan, creating friction between the two countries. 200 million oil barrels are estimated to be present on the islands and an estimated amount of natural gas, thereby increasing the importance of the disputed islands to the countries. Any action breaching peace between both countries could involve the US as it has an interest in de-escalating tensions in the region.

Amidst the current turmoil prevalent in China and Hongkong, it becomes pertinent to raise a question about the intentions of China behind its increased territorial conflicts. According to some experts, China is inculcating nationalist sentiments within its own country in order to divert the attention of its citizens from the recent deaths and the state of the economy which has crashed due to COVID-19 pandemic. It is argued that between the year 1958 and 1962, China suffered the worst famine in its history. Yang Jisheng, a well-known veteran journalist and a Communist Party member in his book Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, has concluded that 36 million Chinese starved to death in the years between 1958 and 1962, while 40 million others failed to be born, which means that China’s total population loss during the Great Famine was around 76 million people. He further wrote that the famine occurred neither during a war nor in a period of natural calamity. So it is argued that the Indo-Sino war of 1962, was an attempt by the People’s Republic of China to divert the minds of the Chinese citizens from the calamity.

It can also be perceived that China is threatened by the construction of the Darbuk–Shyok–Daulat Beg Oldi road by India, and by creating such turbulence China aims to deny the strategic advantage that India would otherwise get. China no longer thinks that it can afford to take lightly the steady Indian build-up of military infrastructure in the Sub Sector North region which lies just to the east of Siachen glacier and is the only area that provides direct access to Aksai Chin from India.

Before the 1962 war, China was under the impression that they had secured all the territories which were required for the security of the Tibet-Xinjiang NH 249 highway. Therefore, after declaring the ceasefire after the 1962 war, it vacated all additional captured territory including the tactically important areas in Ladakh that could give access to Aksai Chin and NH 219. China seems to think that India has reoccupied those vacant spaces and are building infrastructure that can enable India to disrupt the movement on NH 219. Arguably, China doubts that in the long term, India’s strategic aim is to restore the status quo ante 1950 by recovering Aksai Chin and other areas secured by China prior to the 1962 war.

Similarly, China would also be abhorring some provocative moves by the Indian government like refusing to endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative, presence of the Tibetan government-in-exile in India, claims on POK and Gilgit Baltistan, abandoning the “One China” policy etc. Moreover, since India changed the status of Kashmir on 5th August 2019, and changed the status of Ladakh into a Union Territory and also said that Aksai Chin (territory occupied by China) is also a part of it. This might have made China feel that India is unilaterally changing the status of the entire area and now they want to show that if India can change the status unilaterally, they too can change it.

In this way, China is showing the world that they are global power and it can pursue Chinese interests on multiple fronts simultaneously.

Recently, PM Modi made a startling remark while addressing the all-party meeting convened to hold discussions with the opposition parties over India-China border tensions, that, “Neither has anyone entered our territory nor is anyone in control of our border posts. Twenty of our soldiers were martyred, but they taught a lesson to those who dared to look Bharat Mata in the eye.” But his statement is contrary to the earlier statements made by the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Minister of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishanker.

Moreover, the Former Congress President Rahul Gandhi recently tweeted that “PM has surrendered Indian territory to Chinese aggression. IF the land was Chinese: 1) Why were our soldiers killed? 2) Where were they killed”. He has also tweeted that the satellite photos clearly show that China has occupied the Indian territory near the Pangong Lake.

The Indian government took a sigh of relief when the Indian Army on June 23 informed the nation that the Corps Commander level talks between India and China on June 22 were held in a “cordial, positive and constructive manner”. The Army also informed that there was a “mutual consensus to disengage” along the LAC.

But this relief was short-lived as the Chinese People Liberation Army troops defied the agreed mutual consensus to disengage and returned to Patrolling Post 14 on the LAC in the Galwan valley where the unprecedented violence of June 15 occurred. According to the recent reports, the Chinese army has crossed the border in another strategic area to the north, the Depsang plains. The Chinese army has started consolidating its positions in the Pangong Tso area by constructing a helipad. This intrusion is seen as another attempt by the Chinese to shift the LAC further west on the disputed boundary. Recently, the Indian government retaliated by banning the use of 59 Chinese mobile applications, including top social media platforms such as TikTok, Helo and WeChat, to counter the threat posed by these applications to the country’s “sovereignty and security”. In a recent visit to Ladakh, PM Modi took a dig at China by saying that the era of expansionism is over.

Therefore, now both the countries are required to settle the disputes amicably because presently both the nations are already fighting a war against the Covid-19 pandemic which has already created havoc in the life and economy of both the nations.

 

Utkarsh Dixit is an Advocate in the Supreme Court of India.

Vidhi Bubna is a journalist from Mumbai, India who writes for several newspapers and web portals.

 

Suggested citation: Utkarsh Dixit and Vidhi Bubna, The History of Territorial Occupation by China and Its Relationship to COVID-19, JURIST – Professional Commentary, July 15, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/dixit-bubna-china-india-clash-covid/.


This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org


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