China held this week a BRICS summit in Xiamen with participating members Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa. A great deal of the attention was directed at how China and India would approach this meeting considering the military standoff the two countries had this summer.
The incident surprisingly didn’t seem to attract the attention of international media even though the possibility of a full-scale military confrontation was evoked by China’s state media and by some Indian news organization at the height of the crisis. The origin of the contention can be traced back to June 16th when the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) transported construction vehicles and road-building equipment to the Doklam Plateau, a tri-junction border area between China, India and Bhutan. The issue is that the region where China was attempting to build a road is a disputed territory claimed by both China and Bhutan. Having no diplomatic ties with China, Bhutan requested the assistance of India, with whom they have a treaty that allows them to guide Bhutan’s foreign and defense affairs. For this reason, India decided to send 270 troops to the area on June 18th, thus interrupting the Chinese road project.
So on the Indian side, they claim having moved troops to the disputed territory on behalf on Bhutan to protest against the Chinese initiative. On the Chinese side, they suggested that the Indian army illegally invaded their sovereign territory and exhorted them to remove their troops through threats of an all-out war.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this whole debacle was to see in action the inflexible and aggressive tone used on Chinese media outlets such as Global times, CGTN and the People’s Daily throughout the two months of the conflict.
On the news network CGTN, various debates were organized with Chinese government officials, university scholars and foreign analysts. Foreign participants typically stated that the Doklam plateau was a contested territory and urged both sides to return to the status quo. However, on numerous times the Chinese analysts and even the hosts were seen losing patience and repeating that India had illegally invaded Chinese territory and therefore should unilaterally withdraw their troops.
Yang Rui, the host of one of the most popular English-language current affairs TV program, suggested that India was trying to seek revenge for the 1962 war defeat against China. Zhou Bo, a senior colonel in China’s Ministry of National Defense, threatened India on the air of a war if the Indian side refused to send back their troops home.
On a Xinhua TV show, a Chinese actor impersonating an Indian by wearing a turban, sun-glasses, fake beard and speaking in an exaggerated Indian accent implied that India was trampling international law, inventing various excuses to whitewash its illegal moves and bully their neighbor Bhutan. The video was criticized for its racist tone by some international media and caused a lot of backlash on social media.
On July 12th, the People’s Daily posted in an article a photograph of an editorial dating back from September 22nd 1962, a few days before the 1962 Indo-Chinese war. The article was seen in Indian media as an open military threat from the Chinese side.
The Global Times also published an article titled ‘India’s provocation will trigger an all-out confrontation on the Line of Actual Control’. In another article, the agency writes: “the Indian military can choose to return to its territory with dignity, or be kicked out of the area by Chinese soldiers.”
But after two months of escalation, the two sides finally came to an agreement and decided to go back to the status quo. The Indian side withdrew their troops and China suspended the road construction. The Chinese media stopped using language implying military actions against India but still reiterated the same talking points.
In the grand scheme of things, the Doklam standoff was yet another territorial dispute involving China with one of its neighbor in the last few years. Last year, the Middle Kingdom was involved in a dispute with the Philippines that was brought to to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and ended up with the international arbitration tribunal ruling against the PRC’s maritime claim. China however doesn’t recognize the results and maintains its sovereignty over the area.
In total, China is currently involved in territorial disputes with 18 of its neighbors. There are disagreements in the East and South China Sea with Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines, Japan and Taiwan. There are also land disputes in the North and the West with Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and North Korea. In many cases, the claims are backed with old historical documents with some dating back to as far as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
Dr. Arthur Waldron, a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and member of the Tilelli Commission1, sees in the recent multiplication of conflicts with its neighbors as the result of a foreign policy shift that has happened around the year 2008. “China’s foreign policy is now aggressive and expansionist. If it doesn’t change, it’s going to lead to war”, he said in a interview with the Federalist.
The People’s Republic of China and the Chinese media are often stressing out the fact that the rise of China will be a peaceful one. But the recent border incident suggests otherwise. It suggests that peace is ensured only as long as neighbors do not oppose China’s expansionist ambitions.