China’s Territorial Dispute from the Perspective of International Law

China has in several territorial disputes, intentionally left its claims ambiguous. China has territorial disputes in water, air, and land. Chinese coast guard ships and Philippine ships have battled in the South China Sea seas. Chinese fighter planes have engaged Taiwanese jet fighters in combat over the Taiwan Strait. Chinese forces have also engaged Indian forces in combat in the Himalayan valleys.

  • What is a dispute?

The dispute has a wide range of interpretations and hence it becomes possible to give a precise definition of the same. In a rudimentary stage, it means a disagreement between two persons, on either a point of law or fact. The prerequisite of having a dispute is that the parties involved must show opposing views.

  • What are territorial disputes?

Territorial disputes, as per international law, refer to conflicts or disagreements between two or more states over the ownership, control, or sovereignty of a specific piece of land or territory. These disputes typically arise due to conflicting territorial claims, historical grievances, boundary ambiguities, colonial legacies, or strategic interests. Territorial disputes are a common source of tension in international relations and can have significant implications for regional stability, security, and sovereignty. Disagreements over territory can be related to the demarcation of land boundaries, often resulting from historical factors or conflicting interpretations of treaties and agreements, or Conflicts over the delimitation of maritime boundaries, particularly in areas rich in natural resources such as oil, gas, and fisheries, and sometimes in airspace also conflict between two countries arises, for example, China and Taiwan. Concerns have been expressed throughout the world over Beijing’s military posture, which includes regular air and naval incursions into Taiwan’s airspace and waterways. The Taiwan Strait separates Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), from China. Since 1949, it has been run separately from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the official name of the Chinese mainland. Beijing’s “One China” policy is the legitimate reason for all its territorial disputes.

International law recognizes the principle of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, which forms the basis of territorial disputes. States have the right to exercise exclusive authority over their territory and to defend their borders against external encroachments. The Charter of the United Nations, under Article 2(4) states that; “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

  • India and China

The oldest and most populous civilizations in the world, China and India have a relationship defined by a mix of collaboration, competitiveness, and occasional confrontation. A long-running territorial conflict that has eluded resolution for decades sits at the core of their complex relationship. This conflict, which has its roots in historical legacies and geopolitical ambitions, has significant ramifications for regional stability and global geopolitics in addition to the two countries. With thousands of years of cultural interactions, commercial routes, and intellectual cross-pollination, India and China have a long history together. The historic Silk Road promoted some degree of understanding and collaboration between the two civilizations by acting as a conduit for commerce, ideas, and religions. However, territorial tensions have also consistently been a part of their connection in addition to this cultural exchange. Since antiquity, the Himalayan region has been a disputed frontier due to its difficult topography and strategic importance, with numerous kingdoms and empires fighting for control over its passes and valleys. The Mauryan and Han empires, two of the most powerful entities in ancient India and China respectively, maintained sporadic contacts but also clashed over border territories. The legacy of these ancient conflicts and alliances echoes in contemporary perceptions and policies, contributing to the complexities of the modern territorial dispute.

What is amusing before 1950, India and China did not share a border, Tibet served as a barrier between India and China for thousands of years, preventing them from being too close to one another. The situation changed with the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China in 1950, which brought China’s territorial claims into direct conflict with those of India. This incorporation of Tibet into China’s territory altered the geopolitical landscape of the region and laid the groundwork for currently ongoing territorial disputes between India and China. The root cause of the dispute can be traced back to the colonial era, which has left behind a legacy of undefined borders and disputed territories. During the British colonial period, there was no clear demarcation of borders between British India and Tibet, which was considered a buffer state. The McMahon Line, drawn by British colonial administrator Henry McMahon in 1914, serves as the de facto border between India and Tibet (now under Chinese control). However, China never recognized this line, leading to disputes over its legitimacy.

  • Territorial Disputed between India and China

The Sino-Indian barrier is the world’s longest unresolved border, spanning the Himalayas. For the past 70 years, there has been tension between the two Asian superpowers. The Line of Actual Control, or LAC for short, is a de facto border that China originally proposed in 1959. India would not formally accept it until 1993 when it was seen as a temporary solution to handle the conflict. The two sides disagree on the precise location of this working boundary because it has not yet been drawn. Even its length is a point of contention between China and India, with the former claiming it is just 2,000 km long and the latter 3,488 km.

The Sino-Indian border at the LAC is divided into three sectors namely: western sector (Ladakh),  middle sector (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), and eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh).

The Western Sector: The Western Line of Actual Control (LAC) dispute between India and China pertains to the boundary between the Indian Union Territory of Ladakh and the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang. In this sector, India shares about 2152 km long border with China. The Western LAC spans the mountainous terrain of the Ladakh region, characterized by high-altitude deserts, snow-capped peaks, and inhospitable terrain. The region is strategically significant due to its proximity to the Karakoram Pass and its role in connecting China’s Xinjiang region with Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The Western LAC dispute has its roots in historical ambiguities and conflicting territorial claims. The region was historically part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which acceded to India in 1947. However, China has asserted claims over certain areas in Ladakh, including the Aksai Chin region, which it annexed in the 1950s and subsequently built the Aksai Chin Highway through. The unresolved status of the border in the Western sector led to tensions and sporadic clashes between Indian and Chinese troops. The situation escalated into full-scale conflict during the 1962 Sino-Indian War, in which China launched a military offensive and inflicted a decisive defeat on India. The war resulted in China consolidating control over Aksai Chin and establishing the Western LAC in its current form.

As the globe was struggling with the COVID-19 epidemic, Chinese and Indian troops engaged in skirmishes in multiple sites in Ladakh, in the western sector of the Ladakh Corridor (LAC), resulting in the first border dispute-related deaths in forty-five years. After a fight between the armies on May 5, 2020, over 5,000 Chinese troops marched into at least three areas—the Galwan Valley, the Gogra hot springs, and Pangong Lake, that China claimed but had not previously maintained a sizable military presence. Additionally, China strengthened its garrisons at Demchok and Depsang. This incident took 20 lives of Indian soldiers. The Galwan Valley’s proximity to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and its location near the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road make it significant for both India and China as control over the valley provides a vantage point for monitoring and potentially influencing military movements along the border.

Indian Perspective: As a crucial component of the Ladakh Union Territory, India claims sovereignty over the Galwan Valley. India sees the Galwan Valley incident as a transgression of existing agreements and norms meant to preserve harmony and peace along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). According to India, the conflict in the Galwan Valley started when Chinese soldiers entered Indian territory and tried to change the status quo. India is attempting to protect its territorial integrity and hold China accountable for the escalation.

China Perspective: Viewing the Galwan Valley as a part of its territory under the Tibet Autonomous Region, China asserts sovereignty over the area. The area has historically been under Chinese administration, and China views it as part of its territory. As far as China is concerned, Indian provocations and intruding into Chinese territory were the causes of the Galwan Valley crisis. China claims that in order to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity, its actions were defensive in character.

The Eastern Sector: Tawang Clash, a major border event that occurred in 2022 between China and India, brought attention to the long-standing territorial issues in the region. China claims sovereignty over Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh the integral northeastern territory of India, claiming it as “South Tibet.” Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty is based on historical ties to Tibet and the rejection of the McMahon Line, the border delineated by British colonial administrator Henry McMahon in 1914. India shares a 1,140 km long boundary with China in this sector extending from the eastern limit of Bhutan to a point near the Talu Pass at the trijunction of Tibet, India, and Myanmar. In 1914 a convention was held in Shimla to settle the boundary between Tibet, British India, and China by demarcating the boundary between Tibet and North East India, British India and Tibet agreed upon this but China rejected both the Shimla agreement and the McMahon line. India views the Tawang Clash as a transgression of existing agreements and conventions meant to preserve harmony and peace along the border. India wants to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty over Tawang and holds China accountable for starting the invasion. China’s act of renaming Arunachal Pradesh as Zangan, and its inclusion in the map released by The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs, has led to a sharp escalation of tensions between the two countries. India perceives this as a provocative act and a violation of its territorial sovereignty. This act of China has further strained the bilateral relations of the two countries.

  • Current Scenario

Since the 2020 conflicts, China has maintained 50,000–60,000 troops in the western portion of the border and built infrastructure to accommodate up to 120,000 soldiers to remain within 100 kilometers of the LAC. Along the border, Beijing has also kept up the construction of villages. According to satellite photos, work on more than 200 structures in six disputed areas near the China-Bhutan border started in 2020 and picked up speed in 2021. In response, India has also redeployed a large portion of its forces from its western border with Pakistan to its northern border with China, where it has stationed an additional 50,000 troops. India also accelerated its infrastructure development projects in border areas, including roads, bridges, and airstrips, to enhance connectivity and bolster its defense capabilities. India fortifies its alliances and strategic ties with like-minded nations, especially those having similar concerns about China’s ambition in the area. In a closer relationship with states like the US, Japan, Australia, and the QUAD, all four states found common ground to counterbalance China’s influence and advance regional stability.

  • Has India ever tried to resolve its territorial dispute with China?

After the 1962 Sino-Indian War, there was a heightened level of tension and sporadic border skirmishes along which the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the LAC was signed. While both nations might have understood the necessity preserving peace and stability along the Line of Actual Control keeping in view the agreements they signed, however; territorial disputes further escalated on the border. Panchsheel Agreement of 1954:  The Panchsheel Agreement arose out of newly independent states’ determination to establish their sovereignty and pursue non-alignment during the Cold War. The agreement was developed at a time when Sino-Indian relations were beginning to improve after years of tension brought on by border disputes and other problems.

The essence of the agreement lies in five principles outlined in the agreement, which become the cornerstone for the diplomatic relations between India and China. They are Mutual Respect for Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity; Mutual Non-aggression; Non-interference in internal affairs; Equality and Mutual Benefit; and Peaceful Coexistence. This agreement was initially accepted by both countries but after the war of 1962, the agreement lapsed. In 1993, the agreement on Maintenace of Peace and Tranquility laid the groundwork for stabilizing the border area, but changing geopolitical tensions rendered it ineffective. Later in year 1996, The Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC was signed, under which Article vi(4) stipulates that: “if the border personnel of the two sides comes in a face-to-face situation due to differences on the alignment of the line of actual control or for any other reason, they shall exercise self-restraint and take all necessary steps to avoid an escalation of the situation” and Article vi(1) further prohibits using firearms within two kilometers of the line of actual control. Border Defense Cooperation Agreement 2013 was also signed by both countries to improve military forces’ coordination and communication along the Line of Actual Confidence (LAC) between the States. Still, it did not address the underlying reasons for the disagreements, though it helped with confidence-building measures. These accords are a reflection of China’s and India’s continued efforts to resolve their border disputes and uphold regional peace and stability. But the resolution of the issues is still hampered by long-standing historical grudges, divergent interpretations of the Line of Actual Control, and strategic rivalry.

  • Other Territorial disputes in China

Territorial conflicts can also extend to sea boundaries in addition to land boundaries, especially in regions with abundant natural resources like fisheries, oil, and gas. Determining the boundaries of a state’s continental shelf, exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and territorial sea are issues that are related to maritime delimitation disputes. Several nations in the area, namely Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and Taiwan, have overlapping territorial claims to the South China Sea reason being the Sea has an abundance of natural resources, such as fisheries, gas, and oil. Because control over maritime features may grant exclusive rights to utilize these lucrative resources, access to these resources has increased competition among claimant governments.

The South China Sea’s Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines, the Scarborough Shoal is claimed by the Philippines, China, and Taiwan, and The Paracel Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The Philippines bases its claims on contemporary international law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China maintains its claim based on historical rights and antiquated maps and nautical records. The UNCLOS, an extensive legal framework that regulates maritime rights and borders, is a major influence on the legal discourse that surrounds the conflict. In 2013, the Philippines filed an application for arbitration under UNCLOS against China, contesting the legality of China’s broad “nine-dash line” claim, which covers much of the South China Sea. The Permanent Court of Arbitration invalidated China’s historical claims and upheld the Philippines’ rights to its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and territorial seas in an overwhelming decision made in favor of the Philippines in 2016.

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which became operative on November 16, 1994, is an international agreement that establishes a set of rules for the use of the seas and oceans around the world. Another name for it is the Law of the Sea. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the Territorial Sea, the High Seas, the Contiguous Zone, and the Internal Waters are the five primary zones into which maritime areas are divided. These rules aim to protect and preserve the sea’s living resources as well as to ensure the conservation and equitable use of resources and the marine environment. Other issues covered by UNCLOS include navigational rights, sovereignty, and usage rights in maritime zones. 166 States had ratified, acceded to, or succeeded to UNCLOS as of January 10, 2014. The United Nations Division for Oceans Affairs and the Law of the Sea has access to the complete text and status of UNCLOS.

  • China and its territorial dispute with Japan

The territorial dispute between China and Japan revolves around the sovereignty of the Senkaku or we can say Diaoyu Islands, a group of uninhabited islets located in the East China Sea. This dispute has historical roots dating back to ancient times as asserted by China. Currently, Japan has administrative control over the island.  Taiwan’s Tiaoyutai Islands, China’s Diaoyu Islands, and Japan’s Senkaku Islands are all connected. China and Japan both assert that these islands are theirs.

In the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, Japan relinquished its claims to several territories and islands, including Taiwan, following World War II.

However, the Nansei Shoto islands came under US trusteeship as a result of the treaty, and they were eventually returned to Japan in 1971. According to Japan, the Senkaku Islands are a part of the Nansei Shoto Islands, which means that Japan owns them as well. Recently, a bill to rename the region that contains the Senkaku Islands from Tonoshiro to Tonoshiro Senkaku was accepted by a local council in southern Japan.  Furthermore, China did not protest the San Francisco agreement. The Chinese and Taiwanese administrations have only started to pursue their claims since the 1970s when the topic of oil resources in the region came to light. These islands, which are significant fishing grounds under the jurisdiction of the province of Taiwan, have been a part of its territory since antiquity. China claimed that the islands should have been returned along with Taiwan when it was granted back as part of the Treaty of San Francisco.

  • Dispute resolution as per International Laws

The UN Charter stipulates in Article 2, paragraph 3, that all Members shall resolve their international issues amicably so as not to jeopardize international peace, security, or justice. The UN General Assembly stressed in its 1982 Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes that “the question of the peaceful settlement of disputes should represent one of the concerns for States and the United Nations” and that “all conflicts and disputes between States must be settled exclusively by peaceful means.” It is obvious how important the idea of peacefully resolving international issues is in the age of nuclear weapons. Chapter VI of the United Charter talks about the Pacific Settlement(peaceful resolution) of disputes between conflicting states through negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and other peaceful means. Article 33 of the Charter laid down that; “The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.” The article highlights that parties to a dispute are required to make sincere efforts to resolve the issue through peaceful means. This obligation reflects the fundamental principle of peaceful coexistence. The article also underscores the importance of preventing the escalation of disputes to a level where they pose a threat to international peace and security. Some stipulated methods of peaceful resolution are:

  • Negotiation-based conflict settlement is defined as the resolution of international disputes by the disputant governments themselves. Put another way, when a disagreement emerges between two or more states, they typically negotiate a resolution to the issue in order to reduce the likelihood of conflict or violence. The political representatives of the disputing nations must conduct the negotiations; no third party or unrelated nation may participate.
  • Good Offices and Fact-Finding: The UN Secretary-General or other international mediators may offer their good offices to facilitate negotiations or conduct fact-finding missions to gather information and assess the situation objectively. Good offices are the actions or arrangements made by a third party to bring disputing parties together for negotiation or to resolve a disagreement between them amicably. When it comes to good offices, the third party only provides services to mediate disagreements between disputing parties. In this case, the third party makes no proposals and doesn’t attend the sessions that the disputing parties arrange.
  • Mediation involves the method to settle a dispute where any third party actively takes part in the sessions of dialogues or negotiations held between the disputant party to resolve the dispute. In the case of mediation, the mediator should consider the matter of compromise between the parties rather than encourage the strict letter of the law. Regional organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), may facilitate the resolution of territorial disputes among their member states through dialogue, but chances of bias are always present.
  • The inquiry is the procedure by which a commission of imperial investigators gathers information to determine the facts surrounding conflicts.
    The goal of this means is to identify the legal issues and mixed legal and factual issues that are present in a dispute. The commission’s sole purpose is to investigate the legal question and any mixed legal and factual questions, as well as to shed light on those facts that constitute the fundamental source of the purported conflict.
  • Arbitration: Arbitration involves submitting the dispute to an impartial tribunal or panel of arbitrators, whose decision is binding on the parties. Arbitration can be voluntary or mandatory, and it offers a formal and legalistic approach to resolving disputes. The Permanent Court of Arbitration is a recognized arbitration court under international law.
  • Judicial Settlement: Parties can seek adjudication of territorial disputes through international courts or tribunals, such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or ad hoc arbitral tribunals. These judicial bodies interpret relevant treaties, laws, and principles to determine the legal status of the disputed territory.
  • The United Nations may deploy peacekeeping missions or observer missions to regions affected by territorial disputes to monitor ceasefires, build trust between parties, and prevent escalations of conflict.
  • International law, including the United Nations Charter, the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and customary international law, provides legal principles and norms governing territorial disputes and their peaceful resolution.

The Manila Declaration, 1982 emphases on :

  • The principle of non-use of force in international relations,
  • The principles of non-intervention in the internal affairs or external affairs of states.
  • Principles of equal rights and self-determination of people.
  • Principles of the sovereign equality of states.
  • Principles of international law concerning the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of states.
  • Good faith in international relations.

This shows the links between the principle of the peaceful settlement of disputes and other specific principles of international law adopted by the United Nations through the way of conventions and treaties.

  • Role of the Security Council in the peace settlement of disputes:

Article 33(2) of the Charter, provides that; The Security Council shall, when it deems necessary, call upon the parties to settle their dispute by such means.

Article 34; The Security Council may investigate any dispute or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute, in order to determine whether the continuance of the dispute or situation is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.

Chapter VII of the Charter provides for action concerning Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression authorizing the Security Council to take measures to maintain or restore international peace and security. While it primarily focuses on enforcement actions in cases of threats to peace, breaches of peace, and acts of aggression, it indirectly supports peaceful settlement efforts by addressing underlying conflicts.

The Articles emphasized that The Security Council may authorize mediation efforts facilitating negotiations and dialogue between conflicting parties. It may appoint special envoys, mediators, or fact-finding missions to help parties find peaceful solutions to their disputes. The Security Council has the authority to impose sanctions, including economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and travel bans, against states or entities involved in disputes or threatening international peace and security. Sanctions are intended to exert pressure on parties to comply with Security Council resolutions and engage in peaceful conflict resolution. Therefore; The Security Council upholds and reinforces international law and norms related to conflict resolution, including the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the peaceful settlement of disputes as enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

  • Conclusion

China is one of the biggest economies in the world, its actions have an impact on the international community at large which cannot be ignored. Despite various disagreements and tensions, many countries maintain channels of trade with  China and maintain dialogues to address concerns about its actions concerning sovereignty.  Many of the disputed territories are strategically significant, either due to their proximity to vital shipping lanes, control over natural resources, or their geopolitical implications. China seeks to assert control or influence over these areas to enhance its strategic position and national security. China’s reluctance to submit to international arbitration or legal proceedings reflects its preference for bilateral negotiations and diplomatic solutions, where it can leverage its power and influence. China challenges the legitimacy of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and casts doubt on its adherence to international law by rejecting the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 decision invalidating its claims based on historical rights. To balance off China’s dominance in the region, India has strengthened its strategic alliances with like-minded nations like the US, Japan, Australia, and the QUAD alliance and to effectively deter and respond to any security threats from China, India has concentrated on modernizing its armed forces and strengthening its military capabilities. India’s readiness in the disputed border areas is strengthened by investments in defense procurement, joint military exercises, and border infrastructure development.

China’s territorial dispute policies could affect more general human rights issues such as indigenous rights, freedom of navigation, and the rights of impacted populations. Though the international disputes concerning the territories are escalating, however; States must adhere to established principles of international law, including the United Nations Charter, the principle of territorial integrity, the prohibition of the threat or use of force, and the peaceful settlement of disputes as respect for international law will provide a framework for resolving disputes peacefully and preserving stability worldwide. International Laws give states a peaceful means of resolving disputes by preserving concepts like negotiation, judicial adjudication, and arbitration. Building a secure, cooperative, and peaceful world continues to depend on the global community’s unwavering adherence to fundamental international legal norms as it navigates these issues.