China’s Territorial Disputes: All You Need to Know

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China’s aggressive response to numerous territorial disputes comes at a time when the world is tackling the COVID-19 crisis. Against this backdrop, Indian and Chinese armies are locked in a bitter standoff in several locations in eastern Ladakh for the last few weeks. It is evident that the Chinese regime is making use of the crisis to prepare itself for the post-COVID-19 world in which China’s popularity has gone downhill both at the domestic and international levels because of its response to the initial outbreak of the virus. Among these efforts includes its aggressive and illegal takeover of disputed territories and integrating Hong Kong under the totalitarian regime. Efforts must be taken to ensure international cooperation for addressing common issues of concern regarding Chinese aggression.

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This topic of “China’s Territorial Disputes: All You Need to Know” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

Why is India having territorial disputes with China?

  • India’s territorial dispute with China goes back to at least 1914, when Britain, the Republic of China and Tibet came together to determine the status of Tibet and settle border differences between China and British India.
  • Due to differences, China refused to sign the Simla Agreement, though the other two parties concluded it amicably.
  • The treaty led to the establishment of McMahon Line, a 550-mile long frontier that extends along the Himalayas.
  • This border is considered by India as the official legal border between China and India.
  • However, China has never accepted it.
  • The border dispute remains an area of contention for independent India and the newly formed the People’s Republic of China since 1949.
  • Tensions escalated in the 1950s when PRC maintained that Tibet was never independent and could not have signed a treaty on an international border.
  • Negotiations failed and the Sino-Indian War of 1962 broke out.
  • Following the cease-fire, the border was redrawn for the constitution of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

  • Armed clashes broke out yet again in 1967 along two mountain passes – Nathu La and Cho La – that connected Sikkim (then a kingdom and protectorate of India) and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.
  • This deadly scuffle ended with India destroying Chinese fortifications in Nathu La and pushing Chinese forces back into their territory near Cho La.
  • This conflict is the last time that the troops on either side were killed (until the recent Galwan Valley skirmish).
  • The disputes about the location of LAC still remain despite a few other skirmishes between both sides.

Recent conflict:

  • The standoff between Indian and Chinese troops was initiated after troop build-up on the Chinese side in four locations in eastern Ladakh, three in the Galwan Valley and one near Pangong Tso Lake.
  • India responded by mobilising an equal number of troops in these locations.
  • The standoff turned violent in Galwan Valley, causing casualties for both sides.
  • Disengagement process is currently underway through negotiations.

Which other countries are involved in territorial dispute with China?


  • The 2017 standoff between Indian and Chinese troops was because China intended to build a road in the Doklam Plateau, a Himalayan region controlled by India’s close ally, Bhutan.
  • India considers Doklam plateau as a buffer zone that is close to other disputed areas with China.
  • This year, China has laid claim to Bhutan’s Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, a 650 sq km land located in the easternmost part of the Kingdom.
  • This is the first public instance of China making border claims in eastern Bhutan.
  • China claims that the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the China-Bhutan disputed areas.
  • This comes despite the sanctuary not being mentioned in 24 boundary talks that took place between China and Bhutan since 1984
  • Even Chinese maps as old as 1962 show this sanctuary and surrounding areas as part of Bhutan.
  • The basis for this recent claim is the historic precedent.
  • This sanctuary was once a part of Tibet and an agreement in 1715 between Tibetan local government and Bhutan affirmed Tibet’s sovereignty over it.
  • However, Bhutanese herders were still allowed to use these grasslands.
  • In 1949, it officially became a part of Bhutan.


  • China territorial disputes with Nepal dates back to the Sino-Nepal War in 1788-1792, with Beijing claiming that they were part of Tibet, therefore part of China.
  • Nepal has accused China of encroaching into its northern districts of Humla, Rasuwa, Sindhupalchowk and Sankhuwasabha.
  • Despite protests, Nepal’s communist party did not escalate its border tensions with China.
  • During this time, Beijing had increased its investments in Nepal and initiated an exercise to measure Mount Everest and install telecommunication equipment to provide 5G services to the country.
  • Early this year, China’s state-run China Global Television Network, in a tweet, claimed Mount Everest as a part of China and not Nepal.
  • This post was quickly taken down in response to massive outrage from Nepalis.

The Yellow Sea and the East China Sea

South China Sea

  • China is claiming almost the whole of the resource-rich South China Sea based on the “historic rights”.
  • It is currently taking efforts to militarise the region.
  • The South China Sea is one of the busiest maritime trade routes that serve as a passage for annual trade worth $3.5 trillion.
  • China has island and maritime boundary disputes with Taiwan, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea and its extension.
  • It also has disputes over Spratly Islands (with Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan), Paracel Islands (with Vietnam), Scarborough Shoal (Philippines) and Gulf of Tonkin (with Vietnam).
  • China aims to coerce these countries to abandon their claims and territorial rights under international law and impose the so-called nine-dash line, an unrecognised boundary it has drawn around 85% of the South China Sea, almost the entire international waters.
  • In addition, it also claims the whole of Taiwan and its controlled islands as its own.


  • China is claiming the whole of the Korean peninsula on the historical grounds as it once part of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
  • Additionally, North Korea and China are having disputes over the Baekdu Mountain.


  • Multiple agreements have failed to prevent China unilaterally claiming 160,000 sq km territory of Russia.
  • China is currently encroaching sparsely populated Far East Russia, which is rich with natural resources.
  • Just recently, Russia faced a backlash from Chinese social media when Vladivostok, the main city in the Russian Far East, marked the 160th anniversary of its founding on July 2, 2020.
  • It was claimed that the territory of Primorsky Krai of which Vladivostok is the administrative capital, historically belonged to China.
  • Primorsky Krai was a small Manchu settlement under the control of the Qing Dynasty before it became a part of Russian territory in 1860.
  • Vladivostok was called Haishenwei or the Bay of Sea Slugs under the Qing Dynasty.


  • Qing Dynasty also ruled Tajikistan’s territory, leading to China claiming it.


  • China claims its sovereignty over the majority of Laos’ territory on historic precedents (Yuan Dynasty)


  • Based on the Historic precedent, China claims parts of Cambodia, which were under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).


  • China claims all of Mongolia as it was under the Yuan Dynasty.
  • It should be noted that Mongolia, under Genghis Khan, occupied China.


  • Tibet, which was an independent nation between 1913 and 1950, was invaded by Chinese troops.
  • China claimed it to be part of its sovereign territory since it was under the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century.
  • Tibet is currently divided under the Chinese regime.
  • When China refers to Tibet, it means only a part of historic Tibet, which has been named as Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Tibet’s 12.28 lakh sq km territory is under China’s direct control.

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How does China handle border disputes with its neighbours?

  • China’s numerous territorial claims ranging from tiny islands to the whole of provinces did not go well with its neighbours.
  • The basis for these claims is the historical precedent.
  • The Communist Party of China (CPC) has tailored and retrofitted Chinese history based on its expansionist ambitions.
  • Treaties and international rule of law do not prevent it from making claims of numerous territories.
  • While some of these disputes were resolved amicably, the others led to wars and continued territorial disputes.
  • In the past, it had violently annexed Inner Mongolia (1947), Xinjiang (1949) and Tibet (1950-51).
  • China even had an armed conflict with its traditional ally, Russia, in 1969 over a tiny river island of Zhenbao, situated between Russian Siberia and Chinese Manchuria.
  • The conflict lasted for several months with a total of 100 casualties before a ceasefire was called.
  • In 1991, both sides signed an agreement acknowledging China’s ownership of the island.
  • China’s economic growth and increased spending on defence have only strengthened its claim of these disputed territories.
  • Taiwan, the most volatile of all China’s territorial disputes, is faced with increasing intimidation and threats because of Chinese military jets conducting flights and testing missiles close to its territory.
  • As for its disputes in the South China Sea, Beijing has begun ensuring a military presence in the region. Other countries that are claiming maritime territories are also having a military presence there.
  • China is currently making use of the coronavirus crisis to inconspicuously take paramilitary and political-legal actions in the South China Sea that could be game-changing in global politics.
  • It is claiming Paracel and Spratly islands by artificially reclaiming and fortifying military bases.
  • The United States’ presence in the region does little to address this issue.
  • Belt and Road Initiative is also playing a role in Chinese expansionist policy. It is creating a debt trap for smaller and weaker countries, forcing them to abide by Chinese interests.

Why is China aggressively claiming territories now?

The exact reasons for China’s territorial disputes with numerous countries are unknown due to the lack of transparency in Chinese governance. Some of the possible reasons include:


  • The Communist Party of China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has made it increasingly unpopular among both the domestic population as well as the international community.
  • The international retaliation would only lead to an adverse impact on the Chinese economy and CPC’s plans at home and abroad.

A threat to Xi’s regime:

  • Xi Jinping wields total control of China and its institutions.
  • When Xi rose to power in 2013, he promised to make China a global power.
  • To achieve this objective, he made three promises:
  1. End poverty in 2020
  2. Make China a tech superpower
  3. Put China at the Centre of the World via the BRI.
  • The COVID-19 outbreak has caused a devastating blow to all three of these aspirations.
  • The virus has shrunk the Chinese economy by 6.8% and for the first time in decades, Beijing has not set a GDP target.
  • The target year to eradicate poverty (2020) is facing an economic crisis that is making more people poor.
  • According to an estimate, around 18 million people were laid off in China by the end of March.
  • The aspiration to become tech superpower is being challenged by countries banning Chinese tech companies.
  • While many countries are banning Huawei, India has opened a new front in this fight by banning 59 Chinese apps.
  • As for the third aspiration, the BRI projects are currently being reviewed or cancelled by countries.
  • Pakistan, China’s close ally, wants loans on $30 billion worth of power projects reworked.
  • Africa has become an issue for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing has given $145 billion worth loans to African nations.
  • Most of these countries want Beijing to forgive this debt.
  • Under Xi’s regime, China has become an exporter of a deadly virus, a country that aggressively claims territories, betrays allies and openly violates human rights and targets minorities.
  • In short, Xi’s influence in China is affected because of this crisis and aggressive posturing is one of the many ways to distract public from the cause of coronavirus outbreak.

Preparation for the post-COVID-19 world:

  • For the first time since 1990, Beijing has not set the annual GDP target.
  • Instead, it is focusing on job creation and tackling food inflation.
  • It is possible that the Chinese government is preparing to have lesser dependence on the globalised economy and increase its dependence on the Chinese market.
  • This is because of the possibility of the disruption of the global supply chain, geostrategic alignments and geopolitical alliances.
  • The aspiration for self-reliance can be achieved through increased access to resources and strategic empowerment.

The Chinese version of Monroe Doctrine:

  • China may be making its own version of the Monroe Doctrine.
  • Monroe Doctrine is the US’ 19th-century policy wherein, the US claimed the whole of North and South Americas as its rightful area of control after the exclusion of the European Powers.
  • Beijing is making use of the COVID-19 crisis to establish regional dominion.

Salami tactics:

  • Salami tactics are used by a dominant power to establish its hegemony piece by piece.
  • Its territorial dispute with India is one slice in this salami slice strategy.
  • China views India as an ally-in-progress of the US.
  • India is viewed by the West as the counterweight to China’s hegemony.
  • China’s recent Ladakh move can be viewed as a counter to this claim.
  • India is currently facing economic decline and political upheaval because of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 and the National Register of Citizens.
  • It is also having a tense relationship with its neighbours – Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh (because of CAA).
  • Sri Lanka is currently diversifying its foreign policy and Beijing is taking efforts to make use of the situation in the region.
  • As for Bhutan, China is creating a new border dispute with the kingdom to counter India.
  • China is currently making use of this situation for claiming parts of Indian Territory.

India’s border roads:

  • Within its territory, India is building roads, highways and bridges near China.
  • China fears that these infrastructure projects would make the Indian military more dominant in the region.
  • India’s spending on infrastructure projects along the LAC has tripled over the last 4 years.
  • The standoff with China has failed to make India stop these projects.
  • India’s border road strategy involves Darbuk-Shyok-DBO Road (DSDBO), which will be completed by October this year.
  • The top priority project is located in the eastern Ladakh sector, connecting Leh.
  • This project is objected by China as the road gives India easy access to a section Tibet-Xinjiang Highway that passes through Aksai Chin.
  • India has been building feeder roads along DSDBO road. One of these branches of towards Galwan Valley.
  • This highway also connects Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), a military base that has the world’s highest airstrip.
  • This DSDBO, in short, is vital for empowering the armed forces involved in defending the LAC.

What can be the way forward?

  • Apart from being militarily prepared, India must create a coalition of democratic countries that are willing to counter Chinese aggression and subscribe to rules-based world order.
  • The Quad or Quad Plus can be used by India while pursuing a leadership role in this arrangement.
  • The post-COVID-19 world would witness a major shift of global supply chains as many countries like Australia, the US and others are preparing to delink their economies from China. India should make use of the situation.
  • India should also address the issue of “Chinese proxies” like Pakistan and Nepal by keeping them out of the leadership positions in global organisations.
  • India can increase the naval operations east of the Malacca Strait and follow up with rapid tri-service expeditionary capabilities in the Indian Ocean Region. This can be made into an expeditionary command.
  • It can also enhance its defence relations with Southeast Asian countries to counter China’s presence in the region.
  • India must take all possible steps to reduce dependence on the Chinese economy.
  • This can be done taking the following measures:
  1. Increasing the spending on research and development
  2. Incentivising innovation over imitation, especially in the pharmaceutical sector
  3. Increasing manufacturing sector’s contribution to the Indian GDP
  • India is currently becoming closer to the US despite its unreliability.
  • It should be noted that when Pakistan embraced the US’ alliance during the Cold War, the US was a superpower. Later, it also betrayed Pakistan for its own interests
  • India should reduce its dependence on all of the major powers by ensuring self-reliance in the defence sector.
  • It should also create a national security strategy that is not biased by the compulsions of domestic politics and is based on neighbourhood realism.


International cooperation is vital for countering Chinese aggression and reducing the dependence on the Chinese economy. For this, India can make use of the situation where the countries like the US are pursuing protectionist policies to lead the world politics with an assertive leadership role while also taking measures to ensure self-reliance and strategic autonomy.

Practice question for mains:

China’s aggressive territorial claims signify a change in the global order in the post-COVID-19 world. Elucidate. (250 words)

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