Mike Pompeo criticized China for not respecting its neighbors’ territorial integrity. What’s the story?

Mike Pompeo criticized China for not respecting its neighbors’ territorial integrity. What’s the story?

Here’s how Beijing has resolved territorial disputes

Feb. 21, 2020 at 6:00 a.m. EST | The Washington Post
Soldiers march in formation past Tiananmen Square on Oct. 1 during the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. (Jason Lee/Reuters)
M Taylor Fravel
February 21, 2020
The Washington Post

At last week’s Munich Security Conference, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo observed that China has had border disputes with almost all its neighbors. Specifically, he said that “China has had a border or maritime dispute with nearly every nation bordering it.”

This statement is accurate; China has been involved in border and maritime disputes with all its neighbors. But Pompeo’s statement also suggests that China is still embroiled in territorial conflicts with nearly all its neighbors, posing a threat to the West and to the world. This part of his speech discussed nations that “don’t respect sovereignty” and who view territorial integrity with “contempt,” and his remarks focused on Russia and Iran in addition to China.

However, China’s approach to territorial disputes has been quite different from what Pompeo suggests. Here’s what you need to know.

China has resolved most of these disputes

Over the past 70 years, China has had territorial disputes with each of its neighbors — in some cases, especially with the former Soviet republics, multiple disputes. China has also contested the sovereignty of three island groups — the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — as well as an island in the Tonkin Gulf. And Beijing has claimed sovereignty over Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as part of the homeland territory of the People’s Republic of China.

Is China a strategic partner or rival power?

All told, as my book shows, China has been involved in 23 unique territorial disputes since 1949. Today, only six of these disputes remain: Taiwan, the border with India, the border with Bhutan and three island group disputes. China’s other territorial disputes have been resolved. These include all disputes with North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar and Laos as well as the land border dispute with Vietnam and White Dragon Tail Island in the Tonkin Gulf.

China settled the disputes over Hong Kong and Macao by negotiating the return of colonial territories from Britain and Portugal, respectively. However, the resolution of the other disputes involved compromise agreements in which China received only part of the contested territory. In some cases, China offered substantial compromises, in excess of 50 percent of the disputed land.

Compromising over territory was a strategic move

China could have demanded much more. But by compromising, China traded some of the contested territory for improved relations with its neighbors, especially on its continental frontier. China often wanted improved relations during periods of intense internal insecurity, such as rebellion in Tibetan areas in the late 1950s or the domestic political upheaval after the demonstrations and massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989. In return, China’s neighbors also received recognition of their sovereignty from Beijing.

Moreover, the settlement of these disputes has created stability. China has not reopened any of the compromises spelled out in these treaties or border agreements. Beijing has not reneged on the territorial delimitations contained in these agreements. Even though the Qing dynasty encompassed several million square kilometers more than the PRC today, China has not pursued new irredentist claims in adjacent states. Importantly, China has also not been involved in armed conflicts or crises with any neighbor after the settlement of their territorial disputes.

China’s remaining disputes present real challenges

Territorial disputes are volatile, prone to escalation to armed conflict. As scholars John Vasquez and Marie Henehan conclude, nations are more likely to fight over disputed territory than any other issue. The six disputes that remain, especially Taiwan, are contentious and could easily escalate.

China has used force in the majority of these outstanding disputes, including a 1962 war with India, multiple crises across the Taiwan Strait in the 1950s and 1990s, and the seizure of islets in the Paracel and Spratly Islands in 1974, 1988 and 1994.

The disputes that remain encompass territory that is most valuable for material, strategic or nationalist reasons. The Chinese leadership views achieving Taiwan’s unification as a sacred task, a goal enshrined in the PRC constitution. In a January 2019 speech, for example, Xi Jinping warned that unification should not be “dragged on generation after generation.” Furthermore, he underscored that China would not “renounce the use of force” and would “reserve the option of taking all necessary means.”

Claims to the offshore island groups matter for several reasons. They help China project power and a robust maritime presence within the littorals of East Asia. They also serve as one basis for claiming maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (though a 2016 arbitral tribunal ruled that none of the land features in the Spratly Islands can generate an EEZ).

More generally, as China’s power has grown in the past decade, its ability — and willingness — to assert and press its claims in these outstanding disputes has grown. Leader Xi Jinping has taken a much harder line, stating in 2018 that “any inch of territory passed down from ancestors cannot be lost.” In the East China Sea, China since 2012 has conducted regular patrols within the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands under Japanese administration and maintained an almost continuous presence nearby.

In the South China Sea, China has reclaimed land on the seven reefs it occupies, transforming three into well-fortified forward operating bases capable of hosting significant air and naval assets. More recently, China has spurned the arbitral tribunal’s ruling regarding historic rights by using its coast guard to pressure Vietnam over hydrocarbon development within Hanoi’s EEZ and to enforce its claims to historic rights within Indonesia’s EEZ.

Across the Taiwan Strait, Beijing has increased military pressure. Since 2016, China has conducted “island encirclement” exercises, using military aircraft to fly around Taiwan’s perimeter. Earlier this month, China held a joint air and naval exercise off Taiwan’s southeast coast, practicing air-to-ground strikes.

Are there more compromises ahead?

China has used force in some of these territorial disputes, while pursuing negotiated settlements through compromise agreements in others. The scope for compromise has narrowed in its remaining disputes and, of course, is unlikely over Taiwan. These conflicts will be a critical factor in shaping regional stability. But by settling the majority of its other territorial disputes, China and its neighbors have reduced numerous opportunities for armed conflict.

M Taylor Fravel (@fravel) is Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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