China, India Clash At Nathu La Pass, Highlighting Potential China OBOR Border Disputes

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In signs that China will have a great deal of diplomatic work to do in remote border areas of its OBOR initiative, clashes and disputes between China and India have flared up at the Nathu La border crossing between Sikkim and Tibet. The Pass was reopened in 2008 after being closed following the Sino-Indian border war in 1962

The incident is unusual in that the area is not disputed territory. The Chinese are building a road from Tibet to Bhutan, with India claiming that Chinese soldiers apparently ventured into Indian territory and destroyed Indian built military structures. The Chinese claim that Indian soldiers crossed into Chinese territory to “interfere” with the construction works.  The situation is currently being monitored by representatives of India’s Interior Ministry, the Indian Army, and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

China, meanwhile, has been turning back Indian Buddhist Pilgrims intending to make their way to Mount Kailash in Tibet. That capability had been instigated directly between Indian Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang has stated, in reference to the incident that the suspension of the pilgrimage route was “an emergency response to the situation there”. “I want to stress that Indian pilgrims’ trip to Xizang [the Tibet Autonomous Region] requires necessary atmosphere and conditions. The Indian side is to blame for the trip not being able to take place as scheduled. As for when the pilgrimage route will reopen, it totally depends on whether the Indian side can correct its mistake in time.” At present the border remains effectively closed.

The incident demonstrates that China will have a lot of work on its hands to get construction and infrastructure built and operational in areas close to borders, along the OBOR Routes. It is not just India that China has historical border disputes with; Beijing has kept open disputes with all of its land neighbors, another six over the South China Sea, as well as with Japan in the East China Sea. While some are in a state of limbo with “agreement to disagree” in place and maintain the status quo, all have the potential to become problematic.

Chinese Territorial Disputes

Country Area
Afghanistan Bahdakhshan
Bhutan Kula Kangri, Tarchen
Brunei South China Sea
India Aksai Chin, Arunachel Pradesh, Kashmir
Indonesia South China Sea
Japan Islands in East China Sea
Kazakhstan Zhalanashkol
Kyrgyzstan Tash-Komur
Laos Shiceng Dashan
Malaysia South China Sea
Mongolia Outer Mongolia
Myanmar Kachin State
Nepal Thapathali
North Korea Baekdu Mountain, Jiandao, Rason, Yalu River
Philippines South China Sea
Russia Bolshoy Ussuriysky & Kutuzov Islands, Tuva
Taiwan South China Sea
Tajikistan Pamir Mountains
Vietnam South China Sea

Although China has reached agreement with several land based border areas with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Russia, and Tajikistan, these have not proved locally popular, and are subject to regional pressures as China is often accused of migrating large numbers of Han Chinese into such areas. They tend to dominate the immediate local communities and can leave indigenous locals disadvantaged. China’s insistence over claiming islands and shoals in the East and South China Seas has already been well documented.

The on-going Nathu La incident brings home just how fragile such agreements can be. China’s OBOR ambitions naturally extend to building infrastructure to and into numerous nations, including to all of the nations mentioned and beyond. Local populations may find themselves marginalized in their own country, while exploration for mineral wealth, such as that envisioned by the Silk Road Gold Fund exploited by the Chinese, will require diplomatic skills to negotiate if Beijing is not to be considered asset stripping.

India is a case study; the two countries have multiple disputes along almost the entire length of the Tibetan border with northern India. The Tibet issue rumbles on, and still worries countries concerned about the maritime disputes as I explained in the article “China’s Tibet Price – The South China Sea”.

These disputes are not just being swept under the carpet, as much as China would like to see them disappear – on its terms. But this may not work. China often promotes the OBOR initiative to other countries as a “win-win” situation. Beijing needs to reassure OBOR nations that this is not eventually perceived along both belt and road routes as China winning twice.


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