On October 23, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s ceremonial but top legislative body, passed a new land law for the “protection and exploitation of the country’s land border areas” which will come into effect from January 1, state media Xinhua reported.
The law is not meant specifically for the border with India; however, the 3,488-km boundary remains disputed, and some experts feel it could create further hurdles in the resolution of the 17-month-long military standoff. Others think the law is just words — what has vexed ties is not domestic Chinese legislation, but their actions on the ground.
The Chinese law
According to Xinhua, it states that “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of…China are sacred and inviolable”, and asks the state to “take measures to safeguard territorial integrity and land boundaries and guard against and combat any act that undermines [these]”.
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The state can take measures “to strengthen border defence, support economic and social development as well as opening-up in border areas, improve public services and infrastructure in such areas, encourage and support people’s life and work there, and promote coordination between border defence and social, economic development in border areas”.
In effect, this suggests a push to settle civilians in the border areas. However, the law also asks the state to follow the principles of “equality, mutual trust, and friendly consultation, handle land border related-affairs with neighbouring countries through negotiations to properly resolve disputes and longstanding border issues”, Xinhua said.
China’s land borders
China shares its 22,457-km land boundary with 14 countries including India, the third longest after the borders with Mongolia and Russia. Unlike the Indian border, however, China’s borders with these two countries are not disputed. The only other country with which China has disputed land borders is Bhutan (477 km).
A signal to India…
The announcement of a law that makes China’s borders “sacred and inviolable” at a time of prolonged ongoing discussions to resolve the standoff in eastern Ladakh signals that Beijing is likely to dig in its heels at the current positions, observers said.
Lt Gen D S Hooda (retd), who has commanded the Northern Command, which is responsible for the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, said the new law gives the responsibility of the border clearly to the PLA — “as opposed to us”, with a lack of clarity on who among the Ministries of Home and Defence is responsible for border management. “There is a clear distinction, clear approach that PLA will do border management,” Lt Gen Hooda said.
“With this new law, I don’t see the PLA pulling back from any other area (in Ladakh),” Lt Gen Hooda said. The PLA is now “bound to protect the integrity, sovereignty of the border”, and saying “that we are going to pull out from A, B, C, D areas, will make this much more difficult”, he said.
Overall, “It will make negotiations a little more difficult, a pullout from balance areas less likely,” Lt Gen Hooda said.
“Why should you want to pass a law in the midst of an ongoing standoff? You are clearly sending a message… Now that they have made…a law, how does it reconcile with an agreement tomorrow?” Going forward, the negotiations will become more difficult, Lt Gen Hooda said. “They may demand more from us, [saying] these are our laws, if you want us to negotiate, this is our bottomline,” he said.
… Or stating the obvious?
Some experts feel it is not what the law says, but what China does on the ground that matters. Gautam Bambawale, who served as India’s ambassador to China in 2017-18 and has dealt with Beijing for much longer, said the law only “states the obvious”.
“Every country is in the business of protecting its territorial integrity, that’s the job of any government. The big question is what is your territory, and there we don’t agree with each other.”
Bambawale said the law has no implications for the question of settling the border dispute, which the two countries have been negotiating for several decades now, “except to say that the central government of China is responsible for it, and that is true even without the law”. It is only “a whole amount of language, words, verbiage, whatever you want to call it”.
The “real issue”, Bambawale said, is “what they are doing with their military, what they have done since May 2020, the way India has reacted… That is what impacts the ground situation. I don’t see it (the law) as having any great impact on negotiations, if there are any negotiations”.
According to Bambawale, by their actions in eastern Ladakh last year, “the Chinese are clearly indicating that they are tired of trying to resolve the boundary or the LAC through negotiations; they’re indicating they’ll do it through use of force.”
Model border villages
China has been building “well-off” border defence villages across the LAC in all sectors. President Xi Jinping visited a village in Tibet near the border with Arunachal Pradesh in July this year.
Even before the law was announced, Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen Manoj Pande, who is responsible for the 1,346-km LAC from Sikkim to Arunachal Pradesh, had said that the “dual civil and military use” of border villages is a concern for India.
“According to their own policy or strategy, model villages have come up near the border. In what quantity have people settled there, that’s a different question. But for us, it is a matter of concern, how they can make dual civil and military use of these facilities and villages. And we have taken note of it in our operational planning,” Lt Gen Pande said last week.
Lt Gen Hooda said China has “always been using the civil population to reinforce their claims”. He mentioned the situation in Demchok, where some “so called civilians” have pitched tents on the Indian side of the LAC, and the issue is yet to be resolved.
China is trying to change the facts on the ground “not only through military but also civilian presence”, Lt Gen Hooda said. “Which means you are going to see resettlement of civil population closer to the LAC.”
He added: “If you (China) start having settled population on the other side, creeping across what we (India) feel is our border, at some stage later, whenever, when you start discussing the border between the two sides, they will say we (China) have settled population in this area.”
Bambawale, however, said China has been doing this anyway — even without the new law. “The law is not a necessary condition to be able to do that… In certain parts of Arunachal Pradesh, we know that. Perhaps in other areas also,” he said.