China Needs to Solve Disputed Territorial Claims if OBOR is to be Effective

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CDE Op-Ed Commentary

China’s plans for a large scale inauguration of President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road dreams lie in tatters after India pulled out of next month’s “Belt Road Forum” to be held in Beijing. The first OBOR summit, presided over by Xi, and due to be attended by 20 foreign state leaders and ministers from over 100 nations, has been snubbed by Indian Prime Minister Modi due to concerns that attending it would give China India’s approval over the disputed territories of Kashmir promoted by China as part of its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

That scheme was to be promoted at the summit as an example of China’s regional benevolence and ability to help redevelop areas close to its borders. The problems for India is that parts of the territory included in the China-Pakistan corridor are disputed.

China’s naivety over this matter is unusual, especially as the conference involves President Xi. The China-India dispute has been rumbling on since 1962, when China began to assert that lands previously administered by the Tibetan government in Lhasa were now controlled from Beijing. China and India fought a brief border war over the region, which China won. Prior to this, the area had been part of the Kingdom of Ladakh, although upon the partition of India, Pakistan subsequently also made claims.

India and Pakistan have also fought three wars over the region, meaning China’s attempts to pass off the territory as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor are highly sensitive to Delhi, especially considering that the Indian Prime Minister was invited. Attendance could be interpreted both by China and Pakistan as an implicit acceptance of their territorial possession by Modi.

The region under question is not the only border dispute that China has with India. Large parts of the Indian state of Arundel Pradesh, which have never been administered from Beijing, are claimed by China as being part of “Southern Tibet”. Again, prior to 1950 and the Chinese takeover of administration from Lhasa, the area had been managed by direct contact between Delhi and Lhasa and Indian and Tibetan diplomats rather than by Beijing. The Tibetan government in exile is still centered in Dharamsala.

China, in its OBOR enthusiasm, has placed India and Prime Minister Modi in a position of some embarrassment. China needs India on board to assist with the OBOR development of territories including Myanmar and Bangladesh, both of which share long land borders with China’s Yunnan Province, Nepal, and on the maritime route to Sri Lanka. All of these share common interests with India just as much as they do China.

Meanwhile, the fallout from Modi’s cancellation has been that the Chinese have reverted to type in lambasting India over Modi’s decision not to attend, with various Chinese academics describing India in somewhat shrill, unflattering terms. That itself is telling – it is rare that India squeezes Beijing to an extent that it squeals.

The reality is that China has to come to terms with some of its historic and current border disputes in order to progress. Its current position of ‘maintaining the status quo’ and continuing to press new territorial claims is clearly annoying to regional partners like India. China’s response, widely reported in its state media, accused Delhi of holding “a biased view” on the OBOR by viewing it as “geopolitical competition”.

“The official reason why the Indian government rejected the offer to join the initiative is that it is designed to pass Kashmir, a disputed area between India and Pakistan. However, it is just an unfounded excuse as Beijing has been maintaining a consistent position on the Kashmir issue, which has never changed,” said the Global Times.

This argument, however, has been rejected by Delhi, which has pointed out China’s own sensitivities to its sovereignty being violated and repeated protests, for instance, on projects in the South China Sea. The upshot is that for the first time, a major nation has said “wait a moment” to Beijing, and is prepared to defy its wishes.

The implied criticism from China on India’s attempts to stymie OBOR projects is also somewhat misplaced. India is the second largest shareholder in China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, is a major shareholder in the New Development Bank (BRICS), and has recently joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – all China-led institutions.

If China really wants to make progress along the OBOR, it will need to do rather more than expect everyone to fall in line just because Xi Jinping had a Silk Road idea. That will mean coming to terms with actually addressing its border disputes rather than keeping them constantly smoldering away.

That policy may now start to become a thorn in China’s side. It currently has border disputes with every single one of its neighboring countries, and is generating others in what have previously been considered by all as international waters. While the Philippines may currently be pro-China and quiet about winning its United Nations tribunal over China’s development of reefs in the South China Sea, India is a different matter.

Delhi will not bend to China’s will, and if China really wants to exercise development options to open up the west Myanmar coast, further develop ports in Bangladesh, create highways into Nepal, and continue to develop Sri Lanka, it will need Delhi to cooperate. Delhi’s message is simple: solve outstanding territorial problems first, and we’ll talk regional development later.

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4 thoughts on “China Needs to Solve Disputed Territorial Claims if OBOR is to be Effective

    UPDATE: India has agreed to send a “Representative” to China’s OBOR conference in Beijing next month, but it will not be a politician. China will be toning down its presentation of the China-Pakistan Trade Corridor, which includes disputed territories, at the event.

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