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A Signal to India?

China has, for the first time, enacted a national law on the “protection and exploitation” of the country’s land border areas with the timing of the move significant given that it continues to be at loggerheads with India over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates the two countries. Per the Chinese media, the new law that was passed on October 23 and will take effect on January 1, 2022, “aims to better maintain national security and manage border-related matters at the legal level amid regional tensions,” and is an endeavour to strengthen its border control and protection. Like the Coast Guard Law and Maritime Traffic Safety Law, enacted earlier this year, the new law is passed amid heightened tensions between China and its neighbours over border disputes. While the new law has galvanized speculations as to whether it would be used to justify a more assertive Chinese posture, it clearly goes beyond that specific dispute and speaks to a host of problems as Beijing strives to secure its land borders, which it shares with 14 countries – North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam and India – amid growing uncertainty in its neighbourhood.
What does the law say?
Through the enactment of this new law, Beijing appears to be signalling determination to resolve the border disputes on its preferred terms. The law sets an overall tone of resolve upfront, stating that China will “resolutely defend territorial sovereignty and land border security” while continuing to seek to settle disputes through negotiations. According to the text of the law, China’s People’s Liberation Army will be allowed to counter any “invasion, encroachment, infiltration, [or] provocation” that occurs on any of the country’s borders and provides a legal framework for hard border closures, if Beijing sees fit.
This is the first time that the People’s Republic of China, founded 72 years ago, has a dedicated law specifying how it governs and guards its 22,000-km (14,000-mile) land borders. Chinese military and military police — the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police Force — are responsible for guarding the border against any “invasion, encroachment, infiltration, provocation”.
The Chinese Communist Party-controlled newspaper China Daily said the law requires the Chinese government to take measures to “strengthen border defence, support economic and social development as well as opening-up in border areas”. Towards that end, it calls for improvements in public services and infrastructure in such areas to “encourage and support people’s life and work there”. This can be read in the context of China looking to settle disputed frontier areas through heavy investment in infrastructure. Recent reports have pointed to how “dual use” border villages have cropped up to facilitate the peopling and patrolling of such areas. The new law, reports said, will “promote coordination between border defence and social, economic development in border areas”.
Here are some features of the law:
· The law 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].”
· The state shall take measures to resolutely safeguard territorial integrity and land border security, and guard against and combat any acts that undermine territorial sovereignty and land boundaries, the law emphasizes.
· The law clarifies the leadership system, government responsibilities and military tasks in territorial border work, the delineation and surveying of land borders, the defence and management of land borders and frontiers, and the international cooperation on land border affairs.
· Citizens and organizations shall support border patrol and control activities, the law says. It specifies that neither organizations nor individuals can fly drones or build permanent structures near land borders without approval of Chinese authority.
· It stipulates that weapons can be used against those who illegally cross borders to commit physical assault, resist arrest or engage in other violent activities.
· The law also regulates that national and regional governments are obligated to take measures to protect the stability of cross-border rivers and lakes, and rationally use the water [resources] there.
· Vessels and personnel shall receive inspection and get approval from relevant authorities before entering the rivers and lakes.
· The law underlines that China shall, following the principle 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.
· Cross-border cooperation zones on economy, tourism and ecological protection can be established with neighbouring countries.
Why this law, and why now?
Several factors seem to have motivated the adoption of the law now. First, this law reflects Beijing’s renewed concerns over the security of its land border while it confronts a slew of unsettled disputes on its maritime front. Unlike the coast guard law, long pushed for by China’s maritime security agencies, calls for legislation governing land border defence seem more sporadic, probably because China settled most of its land border by the early 2000s and has since faced a relatively stable frontier. But the confrontations on the Sino-Indian borders in recent years may have reminded Beijing that as a classic land-sea power, China must always ready itself to cope with threats in both the continental and maritime domains.
Second, the Covid-19 pandemic also underscores the imperative for Beijing to exert greater control over its somewhat porous land border. In April 2020, when the virus had been contained inside China but was rapidly spreading worldwide, the Chinese State Council warned of a growing risk of cross-border transmission and prioritized prevention in frontier areas. The latest wave of breakouts in border towns in Yunnan, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia only reinforce that assessment.
Moreover, this law reflects Beijing’s thinly-veiled worries about the stability of its hinterland bordering Central Asia. The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and Taliban takeover there aggravated Beijing’s concerns that an Afghanistan bogged down in protracted turmoil and humanitarian disasters may become a hotbed for terrorism and extremism that could spread to Xinjiang.
Domestic politics may also be at play. The law enshrines President Xi Jinping’s signature ethnic minority policy line, “forging a consciousness of the common identity of the Chinese nation” through strengthened propaganda and indoctrination. Criticized by some observers as a euphemism for coercive ethnic assimilation, this policy was proposed by Xi at the 2014 central conference on Xinjiang, endorsed in his 19th Party Congress report in 2017, and reiterated at central conferences on Tibet and Xinjiang in 2020. It is noteworthy that the earlier draft of the law contains only one sentence referring to the need to reinforce Chinese citizens’ “homeland security consciousness” without mentioning Xi’s formula. The final text expands this sentence into a separate clause and adds Xi’s phrase, a move probably intended to further bolster his standing in the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress next year when he would secure a third term.
What it means for India?
Although China claims that the law is not targeted at the China-India border dispute and is in line with international law, it must be kept in mind that it was passed just two weeks after the latest round of talks between Chinese and Indian military commanders broke down. Each side blamed the other, with China accusing its neighbour of making unreasonable demands, while the Indians complained that the Chinese had failed to provide “forward-looking proposals”. While Beijing and New Delhi have both pledged to resolve the situation peacefully, progress has been stalled after earlier rounds of talks led to an agreement on disengagement in some areas, including thousands of troops from the Pangong Tso area in the Himalayan region of Ladakh.
While the onset of winter is likely to see the border troops digging in, media reports from both countries indicate that the two sides have been building up their facilities and increasing the number of drills near the 3,488km (2,167-mile) undemarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates the two countries.
While China might see a legitimate need for a legal framework to manage a more than 22,000-kilometre land border with 14 neighbouring countries, it can maintain some wiggle room in implementation and control the risk of unexpected incidents especially along the unsettled border. India is likely to stand its ground, but it will try to communicate to Beijing that additional incidents would be in neither side’s interest and would only reinforce the current diplomatic impasse in negotiating for disengagement. As for the United States, it should raise its concerns to Beijing about the potential implications of the law, but should do so through diplomatic channels to avoid putting Beijing in a position where it feels it must defy Washington by aggressively enforcing the law.

The writer is a Lahore-based freelance columnist having special interest in global affairs.

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