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Not just land disputes, China has been unilaterally changing maritime boundaries

Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury | ET Bureau | Updated: Jul 26, 2017, 09.04AM IST

There appears to be a pattern in Chinese behaviour when it is simultaneously challenging sovereignty of its neighbours – Japan, SE Asia, India abd Bhutan. China pushing the envelope on the territorial disputes comes amid uncertainty over US role in Asia-Pacific under the Trump administration.

NEW DELHI: Unilaterally changing disputed boundaries with neighbours has been hallmark of China’s external policy in recent years. In the context of the dispute at the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction, it will be interesting to note that Beijing is engaged in changing maritime boundaries with Japan in East China Sea and host of SE Asian nations in South China Sea (SCS).

There appears to be a pattern in Chinese behaviour when it is simultaneously challenging sovereignty of its neighbours – Japan, SE Asia and India & Bhutan. Beijing pushing the envelope on the territorial disputes comes amid uncertainty over US role in Asia-Pacific under the Trump administration.

The geopolitical flux has given Beijing an opportunity to go for a belligerent approach that could further strengthen President Xi Jinping’s position ahead of the Party Congress that begins in October. It is trying to bolster its narrative by painting India as the aggressor through unprecedented media blitzkrieg.

The fact is borders with India and Bhutan are not China’s only two unresolved boundaries. The maritime boundaries with Japan and parts of Southeast Asia still remain unresolved.

“What is happening in Doklam is not different from SCS or from East China Sea; it falls in a pattern either on land or on sea and a reflection of China’s encroachment policy,” said an official from SE Asia who has followed Chinese approach for decades.

According to another long-time watcher of Chinese foreign policy, Beijing is building up combat power and positional advantage in an attempt to assert de facto sovereignty over disputed maritime features and spaces in the South China Sea.

Going beyond military means, China has built a top-of-the-line cinema on a tiny disputed island in the South China Sea (SCS), the latest in a series of moves to press Beijing’s territorial claims in the region.

According to China’s official news agency Xinhua, the Sansha Yinlong Cinema, with more than 200 seats, is the country’s southernmost theatre, located on Woody Island -- which China calls Yongxing Island -- in the Paracel Islands chain in SCS. The 2.6 square km island located around 320 km from China’s province of Hainan is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. In 2012, China created the city of Sansha, based on Woody Island, to administer all its claimed territory in the region, including the Sprat ly Islands, Paracels, Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Shoal. Since then, Beijing has moved to encourage tourism and development in the South China Sea to help press its claim.

China has also heavily militarized some islands and expanded other territories with major land reclamation work, turning sandbars into islands and equipping them with airfields, ports and weapons systems.

The situation in East China Sea is no different and Japan has given ample indications that it will act firmly to maintain its territorial integrity against Chinese unilateralism. In the past one year, China has been expanding its military activities in both air and maritime domain in the East China Sea through Naval vessels and bombers. China, according to the Japanese government, is also undertaking resource developments unilaterally in the East China Sea gas fields.

It has similar plans in the SCS region, according to an official from one of the SE Asia countries who did not wish to be identified. India, which has been advocating Freedom of Navigation and Overflight in both SCS and East China Sea, may now move closer towards like-minded countries in Asia and Pacific


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