How India border stand-off gives China a chance to burnish its global image
Jerome A. Cohen and Peter A. Dutton call on Beijing and New Delhi to seek impartial arbitration to resolve their problem. After its heavy-handedness in the South China Sea, the latest row offers China a fresh chance to show respect for international law
What does China have to offer India in return for its important acquiescence? Perhaps Xi created serious border tensions in order to bring India to the negotiating table, where China could offer a settled land border on terms favourable – but not too favourable – to Indian security. There is precedence in China’s negotiating approach with Vietnam ahead of finalising their land border in 2009. Indeed, unlike its thousands of miles of disputed maritime borders with eight other states, Beijing has in fact successfully negotiated nearly all its land border disputes, sometimes explicitly invoking relevant international law. Stark exceptions are China’s still-disputed borders with India and Bhutan.
Yet, almost seven decades of experience suggests that prospects for successful Sino-Indian border negotiations are not bright, and the current military confrontation might lead to actual armed conflict between two nuclear powers.
As of now, Beijing is vulnerable to criticism that its heavy-handedness in the Himalayas is another example of Xi’s “peaceful” policies. On the one hand, he professes to favour peaceful settlement through negotiations; on the other, he says, “China will never compromise on matters of sovereignty” over what are, in fact, controversial territorial claims. Beijing’s bullying in the South China Sea has also led others to conclude it believes only in power-based approaches to international dispute resolution.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in September 2015, he was asked whether India and China might settle their land border disagreements through arbitration. Modi dismissed the possibility without stating any reasons. But since India recently settled its disputes with Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal through the UN convention arbitration, we are left to infer that the problem is China, not India. Apparently, Modi understandably has no hope that China would agree to such an approach.
Indeed, it is a fair question to ask, especially in view of Beijing’s recent flat-out rejection of the decision in the South China Sea case, why should India seek arbitration with Beijing? Even knowing Beijing will reject the arbitration proposal, India may want to strengthen the global esteem it already enjoys from its gracious acceptance of the adverse Bay of Bengal arbitration award. Seeking arbitration would also reflect India’s confidence in its legal position and its rejection of China’s current preference for bullying.
Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the Philippines gained much through its arbitration against China. It may take years or even decades for the fruit of its efforts to ripen, but even now it is apparent that quiet bilateral negotiations stimulated by the arbitration have gradually begun to emerge. And it is important to note that through arbitration, even “losers” can be winners.
When India was awarded the lesser portion of maritime rights in the Bay of Bengal, Modi’s enlightened acceptance emphasised that now the two sides could cooperate in regional resource development that had been previously stymied.
The present dispute with India offers Beijing a splendid chance to demonstrate respect for the institutions and processes of international law.
Jerome A. Cohen is an NYU law professor, faculty director of its US-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Peter A. Dutton is a professor and director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College and adjunct professor of law at NYU