By Zikri Basir
China is going through a tricky and challenging period. Last year China was already in the midst of what observers regard as a trade war with the United States. As its relations further soured up with the United States, the Chinese government had to endure substantial diplomatic pressures from US allies in Asia. Meanwhile the US Navy and the Navy of the Peoples’ Liberation Army continued to rattle their sabers in the South China Sea.
In November 2019, China was already grappling with the outbreak of a virus in city of Wuhan. At that time, the outbreak was still a local health emergency. By the time China welcomed the Year of the Metal Rat on 25 January, the virus had spilled to other countries. On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic—with China getting blamed internationally for not containing the virus more effectively and with greater transparency.
When it seemed like it could not get any worse for China, it did. On the night of 15June, in a border area known as Galwan, a deadly clash took place between Chinese and Indian troops. No shots were fired because of a previous agreement between the two sides that their respective troops would not be armed when they patrolled that border area. Since then the two armies have walked back from the brink of a shooting war but tension remains.
To understand the situation, some history has to be recalled.
China and India share a long border that is divided into ambiguous three sectors: a west sector, a central sector, and an east sector. The west sector, which runs across the Himalayas, is the most complex of the three.
In the 1940s, like many other newly independent countries, China and India were left with territories that used to be under colonial control. From the very beginning both countries could not agree on how the border should be drawn, but for a long time neither had the resources to address the problem. It was only in the late 1950s when both governments began to discuss an issue that was already smoldering.
A Recipe for Disaster
A strong disagreement on border lines is indeed a recipe for disaster. In 1962, China and India went on month-long war in a disputed area called Aksai Chin. China came out victorious and gained control of the area. In the aftermath, China introduced the term Line of Actual Control (LAC) to mean that a line had been drawn based on which side had actual control of a territory. It is thus a de facto boundary, to which India never agreed.
The geopolitical implications of this situation are exceedingly complex. The Aksai Chin area, which is slightly bigger in size than Portugal, is claimed by India as part of the original state of Jammu and Kashmir. Further complicating the situation is the fact that Pakistan is also laying claim to the area. China, on the other hand, sees Aksai Chin as an important link between two of its provinces, Xinjiang and Tibet, where considerable parts of the local populations are opposed to Chinese rule.
There have been regular claims of border transgressions by both sides after the 1962 war but these did not lead to violent clashes. There have been two agreements reached by both parties in the 1990s and further diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation have been underway. So why did the brawl of last June take place? Two main reasons have been cited by international observers. First, India’s decision to end Jammu and Kashmir’s traditional autonomy, which would lead to a stronger Indian presence near the line of control, and China’s growing jitters about India drawing closer to the US and its allies in Asia.
Although India and China continue efforts to reduce tension through diplomatic and military channels, another clash in the future cannot be ruled out. China’s treatment of its neighbours has been inconsistent with the rhetoric of charm by Chinese leaders. This is what South East Asian countries have been experiencing since the beginning of the so-called peaceful rise of China.
But China cannot afford to overreach. It cannot afford to escalate tensions with rival claimants to the South China Sea while it wages a Cold War with the US, and gets into a conflict with India while combating the Covid-19 pandemic.
It would seem, therefore, that Southeast Asian countries and Taiwan has some kind of leverage against China in its encroachments in the South China Sea. Very recently the Chinese foreign minister called for a resumption of stalled negotiations with ASEAN on a Code of Conduct (COC) of Parties in the South China Sea. That well may be because it is facing tremendous pressure from all directions across its borders except its northern borders with Russia.
How to Leverage?
The Million Dollar Question for South East Asian countries is: how to use that leverage? How should they engage a China that is in deep trouble?
It does not hurt to show some hardware, as Indonesia did when it engaged in some highly visible naval drills recently. But at the end of the day the matter can only be resolved through diplomacy and other peaceful means.
Now is the time for ASEAN to strongly push for a meaningful and legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) of Parties in the South China Sea. And now is the time for ALL ASEAN member states, now just a few of them, to assert the International Tribunal decision on the South China Sea as indelible international law that must be respected by all powers.
As former Foreign Minister Marty M. Natalegawa once said, “China must be diplomatically challenged on the South Sea.” Now is the time to do that.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pinter Politik.