Sino-Japanese Relations: In the Shadow of History

An Overview

There can be no doubt that China and Japan are the giants of East Asia, both in economic and political terms. The bilateral relationship is, therefore, of great importance to both the region and the wider world. Despite a mainly cordial relationship over two thousand years of known interaction, Sino-Japanese relations have been complex and difficult for over a century. After a brutal invasion and occupation of the Chinese mainland during its expansive war of the 1930s and 1940s, Japan was defeated and found itself firmly in the anti-Communist bloc during the Cold War. A thaw in the 1970s, driven by the Chinese split with the Soviets led to the normalization of diplomatic relations but the Chinese and Japanese never truly reconciled this history. As a result, the question of history remains one of the biggest thorns in the side of the Sino-Japanese relationship. Compounding this emotional problem is a series of territorial disputes in the East China Sea, most notably around the Diaoyu (in Chinese) or Senkaku (in Japanese) islands. There are also ground for optimism; China has been Japan’s largest trading partner since 2007 and the two countries have worked together to promote regional cooperation and low level institutionalization. Nevertheless, the difficult shared history casts a constant shadow over the relationship.

The Historical Relationship

China’s relationship with Japan has a long and complex history, with interaction between the two cultures stretching back over at least two millennia. There can be no doubt that much of Japanese culture has its roots in that which it borrowed from the Chinese. This is most notable in the written form of Japanese, which uses both Chinese characters and two other scripts that are derived from written Chinese (though the oral language is entirely distinct from Mandarin). The other major similarity lies in philosophy and religion; the adoption of Confucianism and Buddhism, both of which were learned through interaction with the Chinese over many centuries, is still clearly evident in modern Japan. This adoption of aspects of Chinese culture took place across several of China’s dynastic periods, during which interaction was predominantly cordial with the Japanese paying tribute to the Chinese emperors without ever really becoming a “vassal state” in the way that many other areas of East Asia did during this time.

The relatively cordial interaction was brought to an end during the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868) during which it effectively closed itself to dealings with other states. The end of this period coincided with several of China’s military defeats to Western powers, including the Opium Wars, which led to various parts of China becoming “concessions”, effectively miniature colonies within China. These defeats were part of the long decline of China’s final dynasty, the Qing, and Japan, like several Western powers, sought to take advantage of the chaos and confusion that ensued. After the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, which had initially been fought over control of Korea, China was forced to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki, under the terms of which Japan occupied Taiwan and the Penghu Islands. This defeat is considered by many Chinese to have been a huge psychological blow to the nation. After millennia of perceived Chinese superiority in the region, just a few short decades had seen China’s military humiliation at the hands of various “barbarians” from outside of East Asia and now at the hands of the Japanese, over whom the Chinese had always considered themselves to be both culturally and militarily superior.

However, by far the most significant conflict between the two powers, both in terms of the shutterstock_2646972 resizednumber of deaths and the continuing impact on the bilateral relationship, was the invasion of China by Japan that occurred in the 1930s. After first colonising Manchuria, in the Northeast of China, Japanese forces went on to occupy almost half of Chinese territory, committing widespread atrocities along the way. The most notorious of these atrocities was the Nanjing Massacre, a six-week orgy of violence and destruction during which as many as 300,000 Chinese, many of them civilians, were killed. Almost as notorious was the work of Unit 731, a Japanese research unit that conducted chemical testing on live Chinese prisoners of war. The occupation, including the colonisation of Manchuria, lasted a total of fourteen years, only coming to an end with Japan’s defeat in 1945.

With the dawning of the Cold War era, the PRC and Japan did not normalise relations until 1972, following Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing. During the negotiations to establish mutual diplomatic recognition the Chinese agreed to forgo any war reparations or compensation from Japan for its wartime atrocities. For the remainder of the 1970s the two enjoyed a warm relationship, culminating in the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978 and, following China’s decision to embark on market reform, the initiation of a series of low-interest loans (frequently referred to as “Yen loans”) from Japan to China to fund development of industry and infrastructure. While never explicitly acknowledged as such by either party, these were widely considered to be in lieu of war reparations.

The “History Issue”

Despite the apparent thaw in relations it is widely acknowledged that the reconciliation between China and Japan was only ever at a superficial level. This is evidenced by the CHEN WS / Shutterstock.comrecurrence of what has come to be termed “the history issue” in the relationship. Though the countries normalized relations in 1972, the history issue did not rear its head until the early 1980s. An apparent revision of Japan’s history textbooks in the early 1980s, which seemed to downplay Japan’s invasion of China, sparked an angry response from China at both the societal and political levels. Though it transpired that this was a misunderstanding caused by reporting errors in the Japanese media, the damage had been done and this issue recurs each time Japan’s Education Ministry approves a set of history textbooks, normally every four years. In 2001 and 2005, this issue caused widespread anger in China when a book was approved that apparently downplayed the Nanjing Massacre and referred to the invasion of China has merely an “advance”. What is rarely understood in China is that the textbooks in question are produced by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, a very narrowly focused right wing group that attracts little support in the wider Japanese society, and that they only appear on a list of books approved to be used, rather than being the set text. As a result, only a handful of Japanese schools have adopted these books with a reported 0.03% of Junior High School students actually studying them, a figure that would have been much lower were it not for the campaign group issuing free copies to schools for disabled students. Nevertheless, the approval sparked angry demonstrations across China with protest marches attracting in excess of ten thousand in several different cities and violent attacks on Japanese business interests and the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. Though some reports at the time suggested that the Chinese government played a role in organizing and inspiring these protests, later research showed this not to be the only driving force behind the outpouring.
shutterstock_87269803Another particularly sensitive matter is Yasukuni Shrine, a highly controversial Shinto shrine in Tokyo that honors all of Japan’s war dead. Under Shinto beliefs it is believed to be the resting place for the kami (loosely translated as souls) of all those who have died fighting for the Emperor of Japan since the shrine’s inception in the 1860s. This includes Class A war criminals that were convicted after Japan’s occupation of China of war crimes. Most notorious among these is Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister. After the Class A war criminals were enshrined in 1978 in a secret ceremony that was revealed a year later, the Emperor refused to visit the shrine again until his death a decade later. His successor has continued the policy of staying away in order not to offend Japan’s neighboring states. However, there have been several high profile visitors that have caused consternation in China (and other East Asian countries, most notable South Korea). In the early 1980s, it was commonplace for Prime Minister Nakasone to visit, until he did so on August 15th 1985, the fortieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender. In response to opposition in China, the General Secretary of the CCP, Hu Yaobang, personally requested that Nakasone stop these visits. Though two other prime ministers visited the shrine in the following 15 years, the issue was largely put to rest until Prime Minister Koizumi returned to the shrine in August 2001. He fulfilled his pledge to visit the shrine once a year while he was in office at great cost to the Sino-Japanese relationship at the highest political level and also at the societal level; bilateral summits were suspended and his actions created the impression among many Chinese that Japan had not fully repented for its previous wrongs and even a fear that it might return to its militaristic past. By the end of Koizumi’s tenure in 2006 the political relationship between the two powers had almost completely broken down and on several occasions popular Chinese anger spilled over into protest and even violence against Japanese in China. Subsequent prime ministers elected not to visit the shrine, allowing the political relationship to thaw once more, but this period serves to highlight that the issue of history is never far from the surface of Sino-Japanese relations. In fact, during the three years that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) led the country from 2009 to 2012, the issue took a back seat in the relationship. However, it has begun to rear its head once more since the LDP (Koizumi’s party, and the overwhelmingly dominant force in Japanese politics since the end of the US occupation) regained power. In December 2013 Shinzo Abe, now in his second stint as prime minister, visited the shrine on the first anniversary of his return to the post. The act was greeted with anger from across the region but most notable in China and South Korea (with whom Japan has also had a difficult relationship in recent years). Abe has since refrained from visiting the shrine, though he has repeatedly sent offerings under his own name. Objections from the US that have become public since his December 2013 visit might provide an incentive for him not to return in person but even if it is a one-off it has put the shrine issue firmly back on the agenda of Sino-Japanese tension. To mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, Abe made a significant and closely observed speech, repeating aspects of previous apologies but insisting that future generations should not be “condemned” to repeatedly apologize for actions in which they had no part. This was a clear indication that he wanted to move Japan away a position that he – and his supporters – consider to have been overly deferential to China in this area for too long. Such a shift does not go down well in China and this was underscored by Xi Jinping’s speech at its own commemorations of the 70th anniversary a few weeks later.

Slips of the tongue from Japanese politicians (that are not always unintentional) often cause anger and resentment in China as well. In his first period in office immediately succeeding Koizumi, Shinzo Abe managed to offend both China and South Korea by claiming that the issue of ‘comfort women’ – a euphemism for the thousands of women forced into sex slavery at the hands of the Japanese military during their occupation of East Asia – had been exaggerated, earning himself a telling off even from the US. More recently, the mayor of Nagoya declared that he did not believe that the Nanjing Massacre happened. This was particularly insensitive as he made the claim when welcoming a delegation from Nagoya’s sister city: Nanjing. It is this level of insensitivity – displayed by only a minority of Japanese but often by those who make themselves most well heard – that continues to cause frustration, bemusement and resentment among the Chinese. Even more recently, similar views have been expressed by one of the governors of NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster.

Territorial Disputes

The other major issue that threatens the stability of the bilateral relationship from time to time is the dispute over sovereignty of the Diaoyu Isalnds (known as Senkaku in Japanese). These uninhabited islands are currently administered by Japan, but are claimed by both countries (and also by Taiwan). It is widely believed that significant levels of resources, including oil and gas, may lie underneath the islands, as well as within the maritime EEZ that would accompany recognition of the sovereignty of the islands. Complicating the issue is China’s exploitation of the Chunxiao gas field; although there is no dispute over the sovereignty of the gas field itself, it is within four kilometres of what Japan considers to be its EEZ and it argues that China may siphon resources from its side. China disputes that this is likely and, in any case, does not accept Japan’s demarcation of its EEZ as it is based on Japanese sovereignty of the islands.

Attempts to resolve the dispute have been largely unsuccessful; during the negotiations for the Treaty of Peace and Friendship it was determined that the matter should be shelved and left for future generations to resolve. However, nationalist activists on both sides have sought to push forward their respective country’s claims to the islands, often leading to heightened diplomatic tensions between the two. One of the most serious incidents in recent times occurred in September 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japan Coast Guard ship that was patrolling the area. The captain and crew of the boat were all arrested and imprisoned in Japan, leading to a major diplomatic dispute between the two countries, with both governments accusing the other of violating sovereignty. The captain was eventually released without charge after Japanese prosecutors determined that action against him would harm Japan’s national interests, though a video was leaked to the media that showed the captain, apparently under the influence of alcohol, intentionally ramming his boat into the Japanese ship. The strength of China’s reaction shocked many in Japan as several Japanese businesspeople were arrested on fairly dubious grounds and exports of rare earths to Japan were apparently halted, though Beijing insisted that the issues were unconnected.

shutterstock_103396334In 2012 Shintaro Ishihara, then the mayor of Tokyo and a right wing firebrand who had long campaigned for a tougher policy towards China, launch a campaign to nationalize the islands. The three largest islands had been in private ownership since Japan integrated them into its territory at the end of the eighteenth century. The family that held the rights to them had been keen to sell them on but was not willing to do so if there could be any threat to Japan’s sovereignty claims. As a result, Ishihara launched a bid to raise enough funds to buy the islands and vowed to take them under the umbrella of the Tokyo government. His plans also included the building of a harbor on the largest island, a move that would unquestionably have inflamed tensions with China and possibly have provoked a military response. When Ishihara’s campaign achieved its goal of raising sufficient funds, the national government decided it had no option but to move on the issue. The then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that the national government would purchase the islands and quickly struck an agreement with the family that owned them. This move was, without doubt, driven by a desire to lessen the tension with China as Ishihara’s plan was deemed highly provocative. Under the national government’s ownership no development of the islands would occur and the status quo would effectively be maintained. Noda clearly hoped that this move would be recognized by the Chinese and the response would be proportionate.

However, the nationalization of the islands proved to be a particularly hot topic in China and the response from Chinese society was the most serious that has been seen in any international issue in living memory. A series of scathing diplomatic attacks from the government served as a backdrop to widespread anti-Japanese protests across China. In total, 85 cities on the mainland witnessed large protests with many of these becoming violent. Japanese businesses and citizens were harassed, with even the ambassador’s car coming under attack in Beijing. Calls for boycotts of Japanese produce – a common response from nationalistic Chinese whenever a dispute with Japan occurs – appeared to have a greater effect than ever; in one bizarre demonstration of support for this idea a man set fire to his own Honda car in the middle of a Shanghai street. The economic relationship was demonstrably affected, with Japanese firms temporarily closing factories in China and laying off tens of thousands of workers. Sino-Japanese trade had previously been thought to be almost immune to the repeated spats between the two countries, but annual trade dropped by 4% in 2012. Two-way tourism figures fared even worse, with Chinese visitors to Japan down 33% in October 2012 compared with the previous year while the numbers of Japanese visitors to China fell by two thirds in the second half of 2012.

Since the nationalization China has stepped up “surveillance” of the areas surrounding the islands. Where once an unwritten agreement not to enter Japan’s de facto contiguous zone around the islands had kept the prospect of conflict to a bare minimum, China has since regularly flouted this norm. Though the incursions are frequently “Marine Surveillance” vessels rather than military ships, the possibility of conflict has been raised to its highest level since the two countries normalized relations in 1972. This was brought into sharp focus in December 2012 when a Chinese “Maritime Surveillance” plane entered the airspace of the islands, leading to the Japanese scrambling jets in response. A further escalation of the dispute in January 2013 occurred when the Japanese claimed that a Chinese PLAN frigate (a navy warship) had locked its radar onto a Japanese ship in the waters, suggesting that the first shots were about to be fired. Though China subsequently denied the incident the fact that such ships are now in frequent and close contact has significantly raised the possibility of a miscalculation that might trigger actual armed conflict between the two powers. The seriousness of the situation was heightened by a declaration from Hilary Clinton in January 2013 that the US’ joint security treaty with Japan covers the islands, thus obliging it to defend Japan if attacked by China. This raises the possibility of direct conflict between China and the US for the first time since the Korean War and is a stark reminder to all involved of the gravity of the situation. This was again brought into sharp focus in April 2013 when Prime Minister Abe issued a warning that Japan would respond with force to any attempt by China to land on the islands. Though this is would clearly be a war that would benefit nobody, it remains an unpalatable possibility.

In October 2013 China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) above the East China Sea, including directly above the islands. This requires aircraft entering the zone – which is separate from China’s territorial airspace – to identify themselves to the Chinese authorities, log a flight path and retain open communications for the duration of the period of time in the zone. Although the zone is not unique – several of China’s neighbors have similar zones, including Japan – the sudden declaration and the more stringent requirements imposed by China have made this a controversial move that is clearly linked to the islands dispute. Aircraft from both Japan and the US have so far ignored the rules without serious consequence but the potential for miscalculation has clearly been raised even further by this development.

The islands issue has calmed somewhat in recent months but remains a potential flashpoint between the two countries. Certainly no resolution of the issue appears imminent and it has clearly played a role in Japan’s moves to reinterpret its Constitution in order to allow its military to play a role in collective self defense, a move that has caused a great deal of unease in a number of countries in the region, not least in China and South Korea.

The Taiwan Issue

When Japan defeated the Qing in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, one of its major prizes was the ceding of the island of TaiwanTaiwan has not been ruled by Beijing since then, despite its continued claims of sovereignty. Though the Japanese were expelled after their defeat in 1945, its role and position within the Taiwan issue remains a cause of consternation for the Chinese. In particular Japan’s continued hosting of US forces on Okinawa, an island that is of clear strategic importance should the US ever seek to defend Taiwan in a conflict with China, causes friction with Beijing, though it should be noted that it is even more controversial in Okinawa itself where local people have long campaigned for the complete withdrawal of US forces.

Though Japan is firmly committed to the ‘one China’ policy that all countries with which Beijing has diplomatic ties must affirm, it continues to have close ties with the island. These ties are particularly evident in the field of business and Japan is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner with bilateral trade topping $70 billion in 2011. Japan also continues to have a close cultural relationship with the island, with Japanese pop music and television programs particularly popular. This successful ‘soft power’ irks the Chinese who see a continued threat to their claims of sovereignty from a power that has not only demonstrated a willingness to colonize in the past, but which also has a motivation for preventing or delaying the process of the ‘reunification’ of Taiwan and the mainland.

Bilateral Trade

Bilateral trade is the biggest area for optimism in the relationship, and it has been argued that the main factor in preventing open conflict from erupting has been the level of trade between the two. Japan has consistently been one of China’s biggest trading partners since early in the reform era, and has also been a source of significant inward FDI. In 2007 China became Japan’s biggest trading partner and, though Japan’s significance to China has declined relative to other major partners, the two remain closely interlinked. In 2010, bilateral trade reached $300 billion. Such interdependence was forged from a high level of complementarity between the two economies – China was in a position to provide plenty of cheap labor in return for investment and technological transfer at a time that Japanese firms found the need to expand and outsource away from Japan – in combination with a geographic proximity that allows relatively quick transport of both people and goods. In June 2012 direct trading between the RMB and the Yen began, bypassing the US dollar for the first time and making bilateral trade even easier. The trading relationship has remained robust through some of the most heated political disputes, and the relationship during the early 2000s, characterized by political spats over the history issue and popular anti-Japanese protests in China, came to be referred to as “zhengleng jingre” (cold politics, hot economics), though it could also be argued that such problems do impact on bilateral trade that could have been even more spectacular against the backdrop of smoother political ties. Notably, when China chose the partners for its high speed rail network it felt compelled to shun Japanese firms in response to domestic pressure from nationalists angered at Japan’s perceived continued provocations over the history issue. As a result, China’s network of high speed train network was put together by a combination of firms from France, Germany, Canada and China, among others. This represented a negative outcome for both sides, with the Japanese unable to cash in on Chinese investment in its infrastructure that has totaled $300 billion by 2012 and is expected to continue to rise as the network is expanded, while the Chinese ended up with a system that fell short of its original expectations and may have contributed to the fatal train crash in Wenzhou in 2011.

East Asian Regionalization

In recent years there has been some limited progress toward regional integration and institutionalization in East Asia. In some areas this has actually been a source of competition for influence between China and Japan such as in the development of ASEAN +1 and ASEAN +3, whereby the two countries have sought to engage with Southeast Asian countries in order to further their own interests rather than to develop frameworks for dealing directly with each other. However, the two countries’ involvement in the six-party talks over the North Korean nuclear issue that also included both of the Koreas, Russia, and the US, was a first step in the creation of a significant regional forum. Though not formally related to the six-party process which has now stalled, China and Japan, along with South Korea, now hold annual three-way summits, hosted on a rotational basis, that have begun to foster a much greater sense of understanding and cooperation between the three powers. While it is significant that South Korea is involved in this, it is the engagement of China and Japan that has the greatest potential for positive impact on the region going forward. However, the islands dispute between China and Japan (as well as another territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea) the erupted again in 2012 has stalled the process. The 2013 summit was indefinitely postponed and although never formally abandoned, there has not been a summit since 2012.

Future Trends

The Sino-Japanese relationship is, arguably, the most important bilateral relationship in shutterstock_3155944East Asia. Many tensions remain, particularly over the history issue and the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute. While the former of these problems has appeared to have been handled sensibly on both sides since the resignation of Koizumi, it remains a deeply-rooted issue that retains the potential to be the cause of significant mistrust and ill-feeling, something that was potently demonstrated by Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in 2013. That mistrust of Japan’s apparent moves towards normalization of its military forces is played out in the arena of this historical ill-feeling underlines how important the interpretation of history is in the bilateral relationship, even when considering contemporary issues. The territorial dispute appears equally unlikely to be wholly resolved any time soon, with the positions of both countries entrenched and apparently irreconcilable. The trawler incident in 2010 demonstrated how easily this issue can come to the fore and become a major stumbling block in improving Sino-Japanese relations. Furthermore, the nationalization and subsequent flare-up of tensions from 2012 onwards has shown how dangerous this issue is. However, both sides have ordinarily demonstrated the political resolve to prevent either of these two issues from spilling over into open conflict, and a return to military warfare seems highly unlikely, even if it is no longer entirely unthinkable. The strength of the economic relationship, while declining in relative importance to China, continues to grow and remains both a motivation for, as well as a method of, mitigating the undoubted tensions that do exist between the two powers.

China’s Island Disputes – A lot at Stake


Map of the South China Sea

Map of the South China Sea

Among the numerous causes of friction between China and its neighbors, the continued failure to resolve a series of territorial disputes regarding islands in the East and South China Seas remains one of the most pressing. Threatening to destabilize the entire region, the disputed islands bring China into potential conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and, most worryingly for regional security, Japan. Though virtually all the islands are uninhabited and largely uninhabitable, the islands carry with them issues of military strategic importance as well as access to a wealth of natural resources.

The East and South China Seas islands are not China’s only historical land disputes. China formerly had land-based territorial disputes with each of the fourteen countries with which it shares a border. However,  it has worked hard to resolve these in a peaceful and frequently generous manner, accepting less than 50% of the disputed area in most cases. The only exceptions to this were with Russia, in which each side settled for precisely half of the disputed territory, and India, with whom several disputes are outstanding, complicated by the Tibet issue.

A Chinese surveillance ship and a Japan Coast Guard vessel at close quarters

By contrast, almost no progress has been made towards resolution in any of the island disputes since the foundation of the PRC in 1949. Indeed, developments in recent years have seen a more assertive Chinese position causing serious friction and concern for regional stability. This seemingly belligerent stubbornness is rooted in a complex web of motivations that includes strategic considerations, access to natural resources and fish stocks, the psychological importance of national unification and territorial integrity, and a genuine sense of historical ownership.


Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands

Senkaku islands location map (senkaku) Author: jackopoid

Map showing the location of the disputed islands

One of China’s most talked about maritime dispute – certainly in recent times – is in the East China Sea, where it contends with Japan for the sovereignty of what it calls the Diaoyu islands, known to the Japanese as the Senkaku islands. The islands have occasionally been referred to in English as the Pinnacle Islands, but as this is a translation of the Japanese name it is normally not used unless expressing an opinion that the islands are Japanese territory. The rocky, uninhabited islands are located approximately 80 miles northeast of Taiwan and 250 miles west of Okinawa, an island over which there is no dispute and Japan’s most southerly prefecture.  The five islands in the group have a total combined area of just 2.7 square miles and have no official residency or significant infrastructure. Nevertheless, although uninhabited, the islands remain important strategically. Not only are the waters surrounding the islands important for sea land control purposes given the amount of maritime traffic that passes through the area, but they are also important from the point of view of their fish stocks and their untapped hydrocarbon energy reserves. Additionally, from an international and domestic perspective, as each country claims sovereignty over the territory, it is hard for either nation to relinquish sovereignty rights without losing face and risking domestic political backlash. The dispute is complicated somewhat by Taiwan’s involvement, as it also claims the islands. However, this is not a challenge to China’s position as it considers the islands to be a part of the province of Taiwan, which is internationally recognized to be a part of China.


The islands are known to have been used by Chinese fishermen during the Ming Dynasty as shelter during storms, but were never permanently inhabited and their use by the Chinese appears to have come to an end at some time during the Qing Dynasty. Japanese historians argue that the islands were historically a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, whose territory included a small chain of islands that Inc. Okinawa which operated as a relatively independent state until the late eighteenth century. However, there is evidence that shows the Ryukyu Kingdom itself acknowledged the islands to be a part of the Chinese realm, though this is disputed by some. By the time the Ryukyus were annexed by Japan in 1879 there was no mention of the Senkakus. The islands were re-discovered by a Japanese businessman named Koga in 1884, after which the Japanese surveyed the islands over a ten-year period, before fully incorporating them into Japanese administration in 1895.

Respective Positions

The Chinese position on the sovereignty of the islands has two bases: a historical claim; and a geographical claim. The historical claim refers to the first established use of the islands as outlined above. From this perspective, since the islands were first discovered and then used on a frequent basis by the Chinese as early as the 14th century, there can be no dispute as to the original sovereignty of the islands. Given their geographical location it is entirely logical that they would be a part of the province of Taiwan. However, this province was ceded to Japan in 1895 after the First Sino-Japanese War ended with the Treaty of Shimonoseki that awarded Taiwan to the Japanese “in perpetuity”. Taiwan remained a colony of Japan until its defeat in the Second World War in August 1945, at which point the Potsdam and Cairo Declarations – both accepted by Japan as conditions of its surrender – decreed that Japan should return Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty. As the Diaoyu Islands are considered to have historically been part of Taiwan, they should be included in this. The second basis of China’s claim is somewhat tenuous in international law and refers to the nature of the East Asian continental shelf. China claims that the shelf is part of Chinese territory and extends out into the East China Sea, incorporating the Diaoyu Islands. Though it is true that the continental shelf is exceptional in its extension, it is worth noting that such a claim has never been used by any other country in the world, and there is little to suggest that it has any basis in law.

The Japanese position on the islands is based on a claim of “continuous occupation or administration”. From the Japanese perspective the uninhabited and entirely undeveloped islands were rediscovered in 1884 by Koga, and an appropriate survey conducted over the following decade. They were then incorporated into Okinawa Prefecture as sovereign Japanese territory. After Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the islands remained under the administration of the occupying US forces, who maintained control of Okinawa until 1972, fully twenty years after handing back control of the Japanese mainland. For the Japanese, the Senkaku Islands were restored to Japanese sovereignty at this point and had not been separated from Okinawa Prefecture at any time since 1895.

Though China never acknowledged Japanese claims over the islands, it never challenged US administration of them during the almost three decades following the end of the war, though this is complicated by the presence on Taiwan of US allies the Kuomintang (Guomindang, KMT). However, it is notable that serious diplomatic noises surrounding the sovereignty issue only emerged after a UN report was released in 1968 suggesting that significant reserves of oil and gas may lie under the water surrounding the islands. Despite these noises, when the PRC and Japan normalized relations in 1972 the matter was shelved, as it was in 1978 during negotiations over the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, with Deng Xiaoping confidently declaring that “the next generation will be wiser”. Since then, no significant negotiation has taken place over the issue, with the Japanese exercising de facto control of the islands through regular patrols by the Japanese Coast Guard.

Modern Day Controversies

By Wuyouyuan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A Chinese poster showing the islands with superimposed Chinese flags signifying sovereignty

In response to Chinese claims over the islands, the Japan Youth Federation – a right wing group nationalist group with links to serious organized crime that seeks to promote a positive Japanese national identity and downplay Japan’s wartime atrocities – landed on the largest of the islands and erected a lighthouse, the first structure ever built on the islands. This was done without the consent of the Japanese government and China strongly objected to it as a provocation. The lighthouse has continued to be a source of controversy as members of the group have returned to the island periodically to conduct “maintenance”, frequently at times of increased tension over the issue. At the same time as building the lighthouse the group sought to address the problem of the islands being uninhabited, by leaving two (Japanese) goats behind. This symbolic gesture has had unintended but serious consequences for the island’s ecosystem; the single pair of goats, without any natural predators, has bred to a total in excess of 300, devastating the vegetation and bringing the Senkaku mole – an evolutionary distinct mammal found only on the island – to the brink of extinction.

A diplomatic spat between China and Japan was sparked in 1996 when the Japan Youth Federation returned to the islands to conduct maintenance on its lighthouse. However, what is notable about the controversy is that it was not publicized in China until it had been resolved. The People’s Daily – the most widely circulated newspaper in China that also functions as the CCP’s mouthpiece – did not report on the issue, even in pieces that criticized Japan over other issues. There was a clear desire in China not to provoke the public over the issue, and the matter was dealt with relatively swiftly at the diplomatic level.

The issue continued to be one of several sources of tension between China and Japan throughout the rest of the 1990s and into the 2000s, without sparking serious incident. It remained a matter of dispute that was brought up during virtually every bilateral meeting and no solution has ever appeared close but neither side had sought to change the status quo. There were minor sources of irritation, including the arrest of a Chinese fisherman near the islands in 2004, but he was swiftly released without charge by the Japanese who sought to play down the significance of the incident.

However, in 2010, the matter returned to centre stage in Sino-Japanese tension. In September of that year a Chinese fishing boat was spotted in what Japan considers to be its waters. A patrolling Japan Coast Guard (JCG) ship ordered it to leave the waters immediately, but the fishing boat instead changed course to head directly towards the Japanese ship. Though the Chinese side later disputed this version of events a video taken from the JCG vessel that was later leaked by a disgruntled employee clearly showed that the fishing boat intentionally rammed into the Japanese boat twice. At this point the entire crew was arrested, sparking a major diplomatic dispute between the two countries.

Japan Coast Guard vessel Yashima

Japan Coast Guard Vessel Yashima

Though the crew was released almost immediately, the captain of the boat was detained for a total of 17 days, on possible charges under Japanese law. The Chinese response was vociferous, both at the governmental and societal levels, with strongly worded diplomatic protests and apparently spontaneous street demonstrations against Japan. There were reports that China had suspended exports of rare earths to Japan in response, though academic analysis has later disputed this version of events. A group of Japanese businessmen were also arrested in the aftermath of the boat captain’s detention, on seemingly spurious charges that appeared to be a tit-for-tat retaliation. The diplomatic standoff finally came to an end when Japan apparently blinked first, with the Chief Prosecutor announcing the release of the captain without charge on the grounds of “Japan’s national interests”, something that caused a debate over the legality of the Chief Prosecutor’s actions within Japan. While this brought an end to this chapter of the dispute, it served to bring the islands to the forefront of Sino-Japanese tensions.

Japanese Nationalization

In 2012, Shintaro Ishihara, then the mayor of Tokyo and a right-wing firebrand who had long campaigned for a tougher policy towards China, launched a campaign to nationalize the islands. The three largest islands had been in private ownership since Japan integrated them into its territory at the end of the eighteenth century. The family that held the rights to them had been keen to sell them but was not willing to do so if there could be any threat to Japan’s sovereignty claims. As a result, Ishihara launched a bid to raise enough funds to buy the islands and vowed to take them under the umbrella of the Tokyo government. His plans also included the building of a harbor on the largest island, a move that would unquestionably have inflamed tensions with China and possibly have provoked a military response. When Ishihara’s campaign achieved its goal of raising sufficient funds, the national government decided it had no option but to move on the issue. The then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that the national government would purchase the islands and quickly struck an agreement with the family that owned them. This move was, without doubt, driven by a desire to lessen the tension with China as Ishihara’s plan was deemed highly provocative. Under the national government’s ownership, no development of the islands would occur and the status quo would effectively be maintained. Noda clearly hoped that this move would be recognized by the Chinese and the response would be proportionate.

By 中国海监总队/China Marine Surveillance (中国海监总队/China Marine Surveillance) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Anti-Japan protest in Beijing in 2012

However, the nationalization of the islands proved to be a particularly hot topic in China and the response from Chinese society was the most serious that has been seen in any international issue in living memory. A series of scathing diplomatic attacks from the government served as a backdrop to widespread anti-Japanese protests across China. In total, 85 cities on the mainland witnessed large protests with many of these becoming violent. Japanese businesses and citizens were harassed, with even the ambassador’s car coming under attack in Beijing. Calls for boycotts of Japanese produce – a common response from nationalistic Chinese whenever a dispute with Japan occurs – appeared to have a greater effect than ever; in one bizarre demonstration of support for this idea a man set fire to his own Honda car in the middle of a Shanghai street. The economic relationship was demonstrably affected, with Japanese firms temporarily closing factories in China and laying off tens of thousands of workers. Sino-Japanese trade had previously been thought to be almost immune to the repeated spats between the two countries, but annual trade dropped by 4% in 2012. Two-way tourism figures fared even worse, with Chinese visitors to Japan down 33% in October 2012 compared with the previous year while the numbers of Japanese visitors to China fell by two thirds in the second half of 2012.

Since the nationalization China has stepped up “surveillance” of the areas surrounding the islands. Where once an unwritten agreement not to enter Japan’s de facto contiguous zone around the islands had kept the prospect of conflict to a bare minimum, China has since regularly flouted this norm. Though the incursions are frequently “Marine Surveillance” vessels rather than military ships, the possibility of conflict has been raised to its highest level since the two countries normalized relations in 1972. This was brought into sharp focus in December 2012 when a Chinese “Maritime Surveillance” plane entered the airspace of the islands, leading to the Japanese scrambling jets in response. A further escalation of the dispute in January 2013 occurred when the Japanese claimed that a Chinese PLAN frigate (a navy warship) had locked its radar onto a Japanese ship in the waters, suggesting that the first shots were about to be fired. Though China subsequently denied the incident, the fact that such ships are now in frequent and close contact has significantly raised the possibility of a miscalculation that might trigger actual armed conflict between the two powers. The seriousness of the situation is heightened by a declaration from Hilary Clinton in January 2013 that the US’ joint security treaty with Japan covers the islands, thus obliging it to defend Japan if attacked by China. This raises the possibility of direct conflict between China and the US for the first time since the Korean War and is a stark reminder to all involved of the gravity of the situation.

In October 2013 China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) above the East China Sea, including directly above the islands. This requires aircraft entering the zone – which is separate from China’s territorial airspace – to identify themselves to the Chinese authorities, log a flight path and retain open communications for the duration of the period of time in the zone. Although the zone is not unique – several of China’s neighbors have similar zones, including Japan – the sudden declaration and the more stringent requirements imposed by China have made this a controversial move that is clearly linked to the islands dispute. Aircraft from both Japan and the US have so far ignored the rules without serious consequence but the potential for miscalculation has clearly been raised even further by this development. 

South China Sea Disputes

9 dotted line

In addition to China’s dispute with Japan in the East China Sea, it has competing claims with several countries of Southeast Asia for islands and maritime rights. China’s famous “nine dashed line” details its claim to virtually every single island and rock in the South China Sea, stretching to within 50 miles of the mainlands of Malaysia and the Philippines despite being more than a thousand miles from China’s mainland in several instances. There are two main groups of islands within this vast area of sea claimed by the PRC. The first is the Paracel Islands, which is disputed with Vietnam. The second is the Spratly Islands, which are wholly claimed by China, and which are partly claimed by each of Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam, with Indonesia also claiming maritime rights in the area without actually staking a claim to any territory. Additionally, there are disputes with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank. As with the East China Sea, each of the disputes is complicated by matching claims from Taiwan which are based on the same justifications as the PRC.

The Paracels

Paracel 88

Known as Xisha Qundao (West Sand Islands) in Chinese and Hoàng Sa (Yellow Sand) in Vietnamese, the Paracel Islands are located approximately 200 miles south of Hainan Island (China’s most southerly province) and a similar distance east of central Vietnam. The group is made up of more than 30 islands, islets, reefs and sandbanks. Their significance lies mostly in access to significant fishing stocks, though it is thought that oil and gas deposits may also be present.

From a Vietnamese perspective, the islands have been sovereign territory since the 15th century, when harvesting of sea produce was conducted on the islands. This claim is supported by some historical evidence in the form of records kept by several of the Vietnamese dynasties that detail continual use of the islands throughout the following centuries. The islands were claimed by France in the mid-19th century after the colonization of Indochina, and this claim met with no objection from China. However, it is important to note that China was challenged politically at this time as it was facing the prospect of colonization itself for the first time in its history. The French reasserted their claim to the islands in 1930, this time meeting with resistance from what was then the Republic of China. The islands were annexed by Japan in 1939 as its military rolled across East Asia. Following Japan’s defeat in 1945, the status of the islands was left ambiguous by the post-War treaties, until Japan itself completed an agreement with Vietnam for the return of sovereignty over the islands 1952. Though this was complicated further by the partition of Vietnam two years later, the present-day reunified Vietnam considers this treaty to be valid and still in force, demonstrating its continued sovereignty over the islands.

China’s claims actually predate those of Vietnam, with record from the Song Dynasty suggesting that some Chinese habitation of the islands occurred during this time. The islands were also included in maps produced during later dynasties, including the Yuan and the Ming. Though the use of the islands appears to have subsided during the Qing Dynasty, no Chinese government ever renounced the claims and the Republic of China formally objected to the French colonial government of Indochina building a weather station on the largest of the islands in 1932. Additional evidence of China’s claim, perversely, comes from the Japanese invasion during the Second Sino-Japanese War, during which the Japanese foreign ministry demanded that France desist from activities on the islands on the basis that they were part of the administrative prefecture of Hainan Island, then under Japanese occupation. After Japan’s defeat, China considers sovereignty to have been returned to it under the terms of Japan’s surrender.

In 1974, while North Vietnam and South Vietnam were still engaged in war with each other for control of the two countries, the south fought a battle with China for the Paracel Islands. The battle was sparked by attempts from the South Vietnamese navy to expel Chinese fishing vessels from the surrounding waters, leading China to take military action in support of its fishing rights. After a brief naval battle and aerial bombardment, the Chinese forces launched an amphibious assault on several of the islands that it had not previously occupied, securing a decisive victory that established a permanent military presence on the islands. The battle lasted only a couple of days and Vietnamese casualties were relatively small, with around 50 deaths and a similar number of injuries, but the result was highly significant in the dispute over the islands as it established Chinese de facto control of the archipelago. A recurrence of military activity in 1988 left a further 70 Vietnamese dead, though this incident is frequently dismissed as nothing more than a ‘skirmish’.

The dispute remains unresolved and has been at the root of sporadic incidences of diplomatic difficulties between the two countries, usually sparked by disagreements over fishing rights. These spats have become more commonplace since China established a symbolic administrative region that incorporated the Paracels in 2007. In 2010 China announced plans to develop tourism to the islands in a move that the Vietnamese condemned as a “serious violation” of its sovereignty. A potentially serious flashpoint occurred in June 2011 when a Vietnamese oil survey ship was apparently rammed by a Chinese patrol vessel in waters close to Vietnam, seemingly outside of what even China considers to be its waters. Chinese military vessels have also detained Vietnamese fishermen on numerous occasions in recent years. For example, in March 2012 a total of 21 fishermen were arrested by Chinese patrol boats, after a fleet of around 100 Vietnamese boats entered what China considers to be its waters surrounding the islands. Though they were released a few weeks later the reaction sparked angry and violent protest against China in Vietnam, notably in the capital, Hanoi. Though both governments have sought to develop friendlier ties in many other areas of their relationship in recent years, the dispute over the islands remains a constant thorn in bilateral ties and a conduit for ugly nationalist sentiment in both countries.

In May 2014, China moved an oil rig from a part of the sea that was undisputed into an area that Vietnam considers to be its territorial waters. This sparked an angry response from both state and society in Vietnam with violent anti-Chinese protests breaking out across the country, resulting in several serious injuries to Chinese workers and the evacuation of hundreds of foreign workers (including many non-Chinese caught up in the protests). Though no direct military confrontation has followed, the dispute has taken Sino-Vietnamese relations to their lowest point for decades.

The Spratlys

Map of Spratly Island

Map of Spratly Island

The Spratly Islands are a group of around 750 islands, islets, reefs, and sand banks, totaling a little over one square mile of land but are actually spread out across in excess of 100,000 square miles of the South China Sea. They are largely uninhabited, but several countries have succeeded in establishing military presences on some of the islands in their respective claims. Thus, 45 of the islands are home to military forces from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Brunei also claims one island but has not established a military presence on it. China refers to the islands as Nansha Qundao (South Sand Islands) and considers them to be part of the same symbolic administrative region as the Paracels. It is the only country (except for Taiwan, whose own claims overlap the PRC’s for historical reasons) to claim the entire archipelago, which includes islands that are within 50 miles of the mainlands of Malaysia and the Philippines but more than 1000 miles from China’s own mainland. The economic value of the island is questionable at best, with initial surveys suggesting that oil and gas may be present but in unknown quantities. However, from a strategic perspective, as well as for reasons of national pride and for access to fishing stocks, the islands retain a high level of importance to all parties in the dispute.

As with the Paracels, China’s claims rests on historical usage of the islands during dynastic times, stretching back to the Yuan Dynasty, while Vietnamese claims are also rooted in their own historical use and supported by the French colonization of the area that purported to include the archipelago in its empire. Claims from Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei are more geographical than historical, with each citing the proximity of uninhabited and undeveloped islands to their own undisputed sovereign territory as justification for their claims. The dispute is complicated by the lack of native populations and the previous colonization of several of the competing countries in the claims.

The dispute has remained unresolved and, particularly in recent years, has led to heightened tension with potential for military conflict in the region. Indeed, in May 2011 it was reported that vessels from the Chinese navy (PLAN) had fired upon several Vietnamese ships in the region, including two oil survey ships and at least one fishing boat. The incident contributed to a serious deterioration of ties between the two nations during that time and sparked further angry anti-China protests in major Vietnamese cities. Around the same time the Philippines government began to express concerns about China’s increased activity around the islands and openly warned the visiting Chinese Defense Minister, Liang Guanglie, that his country “risked sparking an arms race” in the region if China did not seek to ease tensions swiftly.

Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank

Macclesfield Bank: a tiny, uninhabitable ridge in the South China Sea

Outside of the Paracels and the Spratlys, the South China Sea is also home to Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank which are disputed between China and the Philippines. Both are significant for strategic reasons and for the implications that any acknowledged sovereignty claim might have on other disputes in the Spratly Islands.

Macclesfield Bank, known as Zhongsha Qundao (Central Sand Islands) is a completely submerged chain of reefs that does not qualify as territory under international law since it cannot be inhabited by human beings. Nevertheless, both the PRC and Taiwan claim it to be part of Chinese territory. The position of the Philippines government is less clear; in 2012 it objected to Chinese activity in the area but has never lodged a formal claim to sovereignty. In any case, since the atoll is entirely submerged it is not clear how such a claim would be made and what effect it could have.

Scarborough Shoal, known in Chinese as Nanyan Dao (South Cave Island) is actually a group of small islets or rocks, all uninhabited. Its sovereignty is disputed between China and the Philippines (as well as Taiwan) in the same way that the Spratly Islands are, though are considered geographically separate. Claims from all sides are somewhat patchy in their historical evidence, particularly as there is no evidence of inhabitation on any of the rocks at any point in history. Nevertheless, it remains a sore point in bilateral relations as both China and the Philippines seek access to fishing stocks and potentially other natural resources.

The dispute came to international attention in 2012 when eight Chinese fishing boats were apprehended by a Filipino naval vessel which accused the crews of illegally catching sharks and taking coral. China sent in two “Marine Surveillance” ships to block the Filipinos from taking further action and a standoff ensued, leading to heightened diplomatic tensions between the two countries and tit-for-tat protests in major cities. Strong winds ultimately led to the Philippines having to temporarily withdraw its presence, after which Chinese surveillance ships set up a naval blockade, preventing any further access to the shoal. Though no direct conflict occurred, the situation is ongoing with the blockade remaining in place to the chagrin of the Philippines.

China’s Construction of Artificial Islands in the South China Sea

Fiery Cross Reef 2015In 2014, China initiated dredging operations to build artificial islands around seven reefs near the Spratly Islands despite competing claims by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. China is also building and fortifying an island on the strategic Scarborough Shoal, located 140 miles west of the large Philippine island of Luzon, and on Woody Island in the Paracels, located close to the Vietnam shore. By mid-2015, China’s land reclamation project had constructed almost 2000 acres of new land. On one artificial island built on Fiery Cross Reef near the Spratly Islands, China has built military barracks, weapon delivery systems, radar installations, jamming technology, lookout towers, and runways that have been used for the deployment of Chinese fighter jets. This military buildup is allowing China to significantly strengthen China’s anti-access/area-denial capacity and to increase its projection of force throughout the region. This projection includes an increase in the deployment of surveillance aircraft and guided-missile destroyer patrols as well as the actuation of radar, satellite, and other military surveillance equipment. These efforts have markedly increased China’s military presence in the South China Sea and significantly upgraded its peace and wartime positions. These islands are also creating facts on the ground which enable China to strengthen its de facto control over the water and the territory within its nine-dash line.

From this new position of power, China has become increasingly vociferous against the US and other national military patrols within the South China Sea waters, claiming that such patrols are in breach of its sovereign rights. Washington and its allies take the point of view that the South China Sea is not China’s exclusive sovereign waters, and therefore their navigation through the South China Sea is consistent with the freedom of navigation principle through these waters is still applicable.

Were the US and its Southeast Asian allies to forfeit complete dominion of the South China Sea to Beijing, they would be relinquishing their ability to effectively protect and monitor over approximately $5.3 trillion worth of shipping trade that travels through the sea each year, an estimated $1.2 trillion of which belongs to the United States. (Burgers, 2019) Southeast Asian claimants would also be ceding control of fishing stocks representing 10-12% (Kaplan, 2014) of the annual global catch. Currently, China consumes approximately 18% of the global marine catch, but this is expected to grow to 38% of the global marine catch by 2030. Southeast Asian claimants would also lose access to oil reserves estimated to be at 11 billion barrels and gas reserves estimated to equal 190 million cubic feet.

The South China Sea Tribunal

South China Sea claims mapIn 2013, the Philippines commenced an arbitral proceeding against China under articles 286 and 287 of United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. In its claims against China, the Philippines declared: that China’s nine dash line was invalid; that certain maritime features were claimed by both China and the Philippines; that China was unlawfully utilizing the living and nonliving resources in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and in the Philippines’ continental shelf; that the Philippines was being prohibited from reaping the benefits of said resources; that China had broken its responsibilities to protect and conserve the marine environment through its gathering of endangered marine species and coral as well as through the erection of artificial land features; and finally that China was unsafely maneuvering government vessels in a manner that was marring the navigation of Philippine vessels.

In 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in the Philippines favor. Specifically, the tribunal stated that the rocky outcrops claimed by China, some of which could only be seen during low tide, could not be the basis for China’s territorial claims; that China’s extensive claim to sovereignty over South China Sea waters as expressed by its nine dash line had no legal basis; that some of the waters claimed by China were well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic and that China could not use its artificial islands as a basis to claim rights over the Philippines exclusive economic zone; that its construction of artificial islands was illegal; and that China had breached the Philippines sovereign rights in those waters by obstructing Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration.

While the decision is legally binding, there is no mechanism for enforcing it. For China’s part, Beijing not only refused to participate in the tribunal’s proceedings, but it also stated that it would not abide by ithe Tribune’s decision. Since then, using the promise of economic reward being offered through China’s Belt and Road Initiative- which acts as both a political and economic initiative – China is using geoeconomic instruments such as loans, investment, and infrastructure development to blunt any impact of the ruling. For instance, China has leveraged the election of Philippine President Duarte to undermine the ruling’s impact. Specifically, China is working to negotiate an agreement with the Philippines to share oil and natural gas resources in the disputed waters. This agreement would be both a significant economic and policy victory for Beijing both by allowing it to share resources that were ruled to be exclusively Philippine but also by enabling it to potentially lock Western oil companies out of oil and gas development contracts in the region. It also sets a precedent for China that may ease the negotiation of similar agreements with other Southeast Asian countries.

In 2018, Brunei and China also announced that they would be exploring oil and gas resource extraction together. Part of Brunei’s motivation in agreeing to partner with China might be that the oil and gas reserves that have been the bedrock of its economy are projected to be depleted within the next several decades. Brunei’s oil and gas sector has historically accounted for approximately 60% of the country’s GDP and 95% of its exports. In anticipation, Brunei’s ruler, Sultan Hassanal, is seeking to diversify its economy and improve its domestic infrastructure while also seeking to identify new revenue sources. China’s Belt and Road initiative is providing the country with the technical, engineering and investment resources to help the country achieve its diversification objectives. The two countries are also creating the Brunei-Guangxi Economic Corridor as a mechanism to increase trade between the two countries. In 2017, China became Brunei’s largest source of imports, overtaking both Malaysia and Singapore. In return for this investment and economic aid, Brunei it is not only agreeing to develop offshore oil and gas resources with China, but it is also remaining quiet Beijing’s South China Sea claims, while not specifically relinquished its own claims publicly. It is also demurring to negotiate with China regarding the South China Sea claims through ASEAN multilateral mechanisms. This significant strengthens China’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the other Southeast Asian claimants. Divisions within ASEAN not only create ruptures between countries that Beijing can exploit, but it also gives Beijing further time to improve its de facto dominion over contested waterways. For its part, Beijing hopes to showcase Brunei as an example of the mutual benefits that can come from the mutual cooperation and joint development that is at the heart of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.


It is quite clear that an expansion of China’s naval capabilities achieved through its rapid military modernization has allowed China to become more assertive in its various maritime disputes with its neighbors. China’s more aggressive stand in the South China Sea represents a significant departure from the policy that China pursued when settling the various land disputes. This change of stance over the maritime disputes has had several implications for the region as a whole as well as for China itself.

Firstly, it has led to a worsening in bilateral ties with several of China’s neighbors. The most serious of these is the ongoing dispute with Japan. This has inflamed nationalist tensions on both sides. These nationalist tensions have left little room for compromise on this issue. Similarly, its relationship with Vietnam has also particularly suffered.

Vietnam People's Navy fleetSecondly, many of China’s neighbors in the region are seeking individually and together to balance against China’s rise. This is evidenced first by the fact that defense spending in Asia is growing more rapidly than in any other region in the world. Specifically, it is estimated that between 2016 and 2020, the littoral states of South China Sea are expected to increase defense spending by 50%. There is also been an increase in joint military cooperation between many of the East and Southeast Asian countries including Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and Vietnam, and with East and Southeast Asian countries and the United States. This growing Asian military spending and this increase in inter-Asian alliances reflects a recognition of a decreasing ability and willingness on the part of the United States to project its power within Asia.

However, offsetting this greater military cooperation is the fact these countries have significantly increased their economic ties with China as their military cooperation has also risen. Additionally, Cambodia, Laos and Pakistan are not actively seeking to balance against China but are instead accepting the benefits that they are enjoying from a larger Chinese economic and military footprint. Going forward, increasing economic dependency on China means that East and South East Asian countries will be strongly motivated to maintain good relationships with Beijing even at the risk of some political and sovereign infringements. As China continues to roll out its Belt and Road Initiative, it can be expected that its economic ties to the region will continue to multiply over the next decades.

Strong economic ties between countries means that the cost of military confrontation is greater than it would be if countries share no economic bonds. Therefore, in addition to forming stronger alliances, many of these countries are seeking to maintain their sovereignty and autonomy by strengthening international norms and laws, promoting a rules-based order, and highlighting the importance of maintaining a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Examples of these norms include freedom of navigation, peaceful dispute settlement, and support for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

To the extent that this rule-based order undermines China’s political and economic objectives, China has indicated a willingness to ignore rulings or create divisions in multinational institutions. For instance, China has worked to create discord within ASEAN not because it fears a unified ASEAN’s economic and military strength, but because it does not want to appear as an outsider in the midst of regional consensus. Similarly, it is in China’s interest to undermine a coalition of smaller powers allied with the United States that might seek to contain China economically or strategically.

In the light of China’s more aggressive stance in the South China Sea, some of China’s Asian neighbors are also becoming more cautious regarding China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Some are wary to augment their economic vulnerability to China if they significantly increase the amount of money that they borrow from Beijing to implement infrastructure and other projects. Other Belt and Road Initiative concerns include losing sovereignty over parts of their territory due to extended leases granted to the Chinese as part of Belt and Road contracts. Concerns are also being raised regarding the secretive nature of many of these Belt and Road contracts and the lack of economic and environmental impact assessments that do not seem to accompany many of these projects. Finally, some expressed concerns about an increase of Chinese residents in their country that invariably seemed to accompany Belt and Road projects. It is expected that these concerns will become more vocal in the coming decade.

Thirdly, China’s hardline stance in the South China Sea is undermining its efforts to project an image of a responsible power in the region, where its rise can be counted on to be peaceful and not threatening. China counters this argument by stating that its claims to the South China Sea are indeed peaceful as the sea is and always has been Chinese territory; its greater military presence in the area reflects its desire to protect its territory from international encroachment. From China’s point of view, the South China Sea is China’s near abroad.

Aerial view of Woody IslandFinally, despite the costs to China’s international position and various bilateral relationships, its strategic and military position has been unquestionably strengthened in various parts of the South and East China Seas. It now controls, or has access to, several strategic positions that previously it did not. From a purely traditional military point of view, this can be viewed as a significant success and a gain in the balance of power in the region. China can be expected to consolidate these gains over the coming decade, all the while working to not antagonize the US or its Asian allies to the point of confrontation as it tightens its hold on the region. That said, China’s more aggressive stance increases the chance that confrontation could result from misstep or from misunderstanding.


History Articles

China and Southeast Asia: Waking up the Neighbors


shutterstock_15960148 resizedIf China is to be the world’s next superpower, then Southeast Asia is its ‘backyard’, just as Central Asia was to Russia during its superpower era, and Central America is to the US. It is a diverse region made up of countries of various sizes, political systems, and levels of development, with annual GDP per capita ranging from a little over $1,000 (Myanmar and Laos) to $50,000 (Singapore). China competes for influence in this area both with its main regional rivals – Japan and India – as well as its main global competitor – the US. China’s successes in gaining trust and deepening economic ties with Southeast Asia have been hampered by a complex shared history that both facilitates cultural commonality, and fosters mistrust of the intentions of a powerful, hegemonic China. The relationship is also challenged by historically-rooted territorial disputes that occasionally flare up, threatening peace in the region.

In recent years, China has made many efforts to gain Southeast Asia’s trust, and to shutterstock_93345997 resizedprogress its economic and political ties with the region. A key form of engagement with the countries of Southeast Asia has been through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Founded in 1967, ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam (the geographical term ‘Southeast Asia’ is generally considered to include these countries as well as Timor L’Este, which has held tentative discussions about joining the group). ASEAN states its main purpose as being “to accelerate economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region” as well as “to promote regional peace and stability”. Although it has worked towards the development of a cultural Southeast Asian identity in recent years, most would agree that its greatest achievements have been in the field of economic cooperation and regional stability. While Indonesia is the giant of the group, it has been careful not to dominate the organization. ASEAN prides itself on conducting its business through the ‘ASEAN way’, which involves building consensus among all members and maintaining a commitment to mutual non-interference. ASEAN gives the less powerful countries the benefit of collective bargaining, which serves to balance to some extent the relationship of these countries with China. Settling issues of mutual interest within the ASEAN framework has eased many tensions between member countries and has promoted overall cooperation within the region. Despite real successes with China, ASEAN itself has not been a silver bullet and many difficult issues remain between China and the region. In addition to ASEAN, engagement between the countries of Southeast Asia and China has also been facilitated through the large Chinese emigrant populations in most of the Southeast Asia countries, many of whom maintain strong business and cultural ties with their ancestral home.

Historical Context


Throughout much of China’s dynastic history it maintained regional hegemony in East Asia (East Asia refers to the territory of what today is Southeast Asia, China, the two Koreas, and Japan) by instigating a ‘tributary system’. Regional East Asian rulers would seek the patronage of the Chinese emperor of the day in order both to legitimize their own rule and to ensure that peace was maintained with their powerful neighbor. This system had a profound effect on many parts of Southeast Asia, particularly the areas that are now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, where the cultural influence of China is palpable. This is evidenced, for example, by the presence of Chinese characters on many older buildings although they are no longer used in the writing systems in these countries and by the pervasion of Confucian values in the respective societies. Equally important as the political ties was the trade between China and many of the countries of Southeast Asia. Chinese merchants, following trade routes, gradually immigrated to various Southeast Asian countries, where they settled and assimilated. Thus, every single country in Southeast Asia now has significant Chinese communities, many of whom maintain strong cultural links to their ancestral home. This is especially noticeable in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia but can be observed across the region.

The legacies of this history are complex. The cultural links that have been created between many parts of Southeast Asia and China, both in terms of shared norms and values and because of the ethnic Chinese still living in these countries (referred to in Chinese as huaqiao, which literally means ‘Chinese bridges’), provide a huge opportunity for China to extend its influence throughout the region. In recent years, China has sought to exploit this both through economic integration and by the development of ‘soft power’. For example, China has promoted the study of Chinese language and culture by bestowing scholarships for poorer students to come to China to study. While this program to promote the teaching of Chinese culture and language is worldwide, China has concentrated its main focus on Southeast Asia. Specifically, a large proportion of the recipients are huaqiao. This awarding of scholarships to ethnic Chinese has been controversial, reminding some in the region of a Mao-era tendency to interfere in countries with large ethnic Chinese communities on the premise that these populations remained, in effect, part of the Chinese nation. Such interference was a source of serious friction with both Indonesia and Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s. Another legacy of this shared and complex history is the issue of territory. Although China has now resolved virtually all of its outstanding land border disputes (only those with India and Bhutan remain), it still has numerous disputes with several countries in Southeast Asia over sovereignty of islands in the South China Sea.

A particularly significant event in China’s relations with the region occurred in 1979 when Deng Xiaoping gave the order for the PLA to invade Vietnam. The invasion was in response to the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia after defeating the Khmer Rouge, a Chinese ally, as well as a reaction to internal Vietnamese policies that discriminated against ethnic Chinese and had resulted in a flood of refugees into China. Deng announced, during a trip to America, that China would “teach Vietnam a lesson”. The war was brief but bloody, lasting only three weeks but resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands. Some Western academics have put Chinese casualties as high as 20,000 though this figure is disputed by China, while Vietnam claims 10,000 civilians were killed (it gives no figures for military casualties but it is widely believed that these number in the region of 50,000). Chinese forces withdrew from all areas that had been briefly occupied, claiming success in their mission, but there is no question that they suffered much heavier losses than they had envisioned and that China’s reputation suffered tremendous harm as a result. The damage was both in terms of its perceived relative power, as well as to its image as a trustworthy and peaceful neighbor. Vietnamese perceptions of the war are of another successful repulsion of a foreign invasion, following soon on from the defeats of both the Americans and the French.

Territorial Disputes

The most serious political and security issue that exists between the nations of Southeast Asia and China is the continued failure to resolve to numerous territorial disputes. By far the most grave of the disputes is that of the Spratley Islands, which are situated in the South China Sea close to the Philippines and the northern coast of Malaysia. The PRC claims sovereignty over the entire archipelago of more than 30,000 largely uninhabited islands that constitute the Spratleys. However, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan all claim some of this area. To complicate matters further, some of these claims are overlapping and so there is no unified Southeast Asian position from which to argue with China. In order to protect their claims, military installations from all the claimants, except for Brunei, are stationed within the archipelago, making the area one that is fraught with multilateral tensions. Although all countries are rhetorically committed to resolving the dispute peacefully, the presence of so many different militaries means that low-level conflict from time to time is almost inevitable. This is particularly true with regard to the two largest presences, China and Vietnam. For example, several Vietnamese fishing boats were captured in 2007 in an area that is claimed by both countries. In May 2011, there were reports that Chinese patrol boats had escorted a Chinese fishing boat when it rammed a Vietnamese survey ship in the area. The other major dispute is over the Paracel Islands, a chain of around 30 islets roughly equidistant from China’s Hainan Island and the east coast of Viet Nam. This dispute is largely a bilateral one, between China and Viet Nam, although Taiwan also has a claim. The islands were occupied by both Chinese and Vietnamese forces until battle in 1974 which resulted in control over the entire archipelago being taken by the PRC. Viet Nam, however, has never renounced its claim to the islands and sporadic incidents involving fishing boats in the area have continued. Two other disputes, both with the Philippines, persist over two small groups of islets and this spilled over in early 2012 when Chinese patrol boats prevented Philippines police patrols from boarding Chinese fishing boats in the region. A stand-off between the two nations ensued that escalated tensions in the region, leading to anti-Chinese protests in Manila. Though the situation appeared to be resolved in June 2012, the withdrawal of all concerned may have had more to do with the coming typhoons than any diplomatic breakthrough. Certainly this issue has not yet gone away for good.

2014 brought another serious outbreak, but this time with Vietnam. In May 2014 China moved an oil rig from a part of the sea that was undisputed into an area that Vietnam considers to be its territorial waters. This sparked an angry response from both state and society in Vietnam with violent anti-Chinese protests breaking out across the country, resulting in several serious injuries to Chinese workers and the evacuation of hundreds of foreign workers (including many non-Chinese caught up in the protests). Though no direct military confrontation has followed, the dispute has taken Sino-Vietnamese relations to their lowest point for decades.

shutterstock_42598996The importance of the disputed islands is threefold. Firstly, the islands are of strategic importance militarily to China as its strives to increase its naval projection, especially given their ideal location close to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Secondly, it is widely believed (though not conclusively proven) that significant resources of gas and oil lie within the EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones) that would accompany recognized sovereignty over the islands. Finally, the issue of territorial integrity is of critical importance to Chinese national identity and the legitimacy of the government, meaning that nationalists in the country would not tolerate acquiescence on any of the disputes. A combination of all three of these reasons has seen China become increasingly active in the area over recent years. This has not gone unnoticed in those countries that also claim the islands and Southeast Asian states have responded by seeking the protection of other powers, most notably through closer ties with the US. In 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the South China Sea was of “national interest” to the US, sparking an angry response from China. In the same year, cities across Vietnam saw large scale anti-China demonstrations that evidenced the damage done to China’s soft power initiative in the region. China is now facing a choice of maintaining an inflexible stance about the islands, risking further harm to its hopes of regional leadership and even potential conflict with the US, or backing away, risking upsetting its domestic audience. It is a tough balancing act and is complicated by the competing policy-makers within China. A successful charm offensive launched by the Chinese around the turn of the millennium to woo its Southeast Asian neighbors and convince them of the benign intent behind China’s rise has been wholeheartedly undermined by what appears to a bullying and militaristic tendency with regard to the territorial disputes, the key issue in China’s relations with the friends it sought. A more coherent policy towards these countries would be beneficial for all concerned.


The ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has developed into one of the most successful regional organizations in the world, arguably second only to the EU in terms of its coherence, levels of cooperation and weight in the international arena. Formed in 1967, ironically as a foil against the spread of communism in Asia, its five founding members were Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Its success in terms of promoting economic cooperation and development among its members led to applications from other states to join. The end of the Cold War allowed for even those states against which the alliance had originally been aimed to become full members and the organization now incorporates the whole of Southeast Asia, with the exception of Timor L’Este. While China is not a member, it, uniquely in East Asia, recognized from an early stage both the importance of the institution and the need for its own engagement with it. Specifically, China spotted a double opportunity with regard to Southeast Asia, and ASEAN proved to be the vehicle through which it could exploit it. The two aspects of the opportunity that China seeks to exploit are: the development of economic growth and integration; and the promotion of its ‘soft power’ in a region it considers to be its own ‘backyard’.

The creation of ASEAN+1 (which includes China) and ASEAN+3 (which includes China, South Korea and Japan) shows how China has stolen a march on its East Asian rivals in shutterstock_112693318 resizedgaining leverage with the Southeast Asian states. That there is a forum which is basically dedicated to China-ASEAN relations, in which other states have no part, as well as a forum dedicated to ASEAN-East Asia relations, in which China still has a key role, shows how it has positioned itself as a key player in this process of ASEAN-centered regionalization. Despite interest from both Japan and South Korea in increasing trade ties with Southeast Asia, it was China that managed to secure a Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN, which came into force on January 1st 2010. Theoretically, this created the largest free trade area in the world by population (1.9 billion people), though it ranks third in terms of actual volumes of trade. There are also many more exemptions than one might ordinarily expect in such an agreement. Each country lists dozens of areas where tariffs may continue, and four ASEAN countries (Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar) are completely exempt until 2015. It should also be noted that a similar, though less extensive, agreement between ASEAN and India came into force on the same day. Nevertheless, the establishment of the agreement represents a public relations coup for China and the economic benefits for all involved should not be underestimated. By December 2010, China-ASEAN trade reportedly increased by almost 40% and two-way FDI topped $10 billion, with two thirds of that figure flowing into China. The slated 2015 opening of high-speed rail links between mainland Southeast Asia and China, linking the southwest of China with Laos and part of China’s enormous and ambitious high speed rail network project, should increase integration even further.

China has also involved itself in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) that is designed to promote security dialogues and confidence building between states around the Asia Pacific region. The forum involves 27 members, including all ASEAN members, China, Japanthe USthe EU and every other major actor in the region – excluding, at China’s behest, Taiwan. It is through this forum that China has sought to ease the fears of its smaller neighbors over its own rise and expansion of power, particularly with regard to its military expansion and the previously mentioned maritime territorial disputes. Generally, China balks at being pinned down by any broad-spectrum ASEAN-China negotiations, preferring instead to deal bilaterally to solve issues between countries. Nevertheless, it has agreed in principle to a ‘Declaration on the Conduct of Parties’ which would commit all signatories to peaceful resolution of these disputes. While this is not yet signed and sealed, China’s agreement has helped ease some tensions with its Southeast Asian neighbors.


shutterstock_11779609 resizedThe Mekong, a major river that runs through Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, has its source in China, making relations with it of potentially critical importance to these nations. China considers developing large-scale hydropower to be critical to meeting its future energy needs and thus its national security. The Chinese government has thus worked to keep these resources under its control, and has been unwilling to sign any comprehensive water sharing agreement with downstream riparian nations or to join any river basin associations such as the Mekong River Commission, which was established in 1995 “to promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being.” It is also one of only three countries that voted against the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Water Courses which lays down rules on the shared resources of international watercourses. Additionally, China has been reticent to share information on water levels and flows with its downstream neighbors once its dams are operational. China is now impounding water for the large reservoir behind the Xiaowan dam on the upper Mekong, for instance, which some believe exacerbated 2010 drought conditions downstream. Only after the drought became severe, and China came under significant pressure from the Mekong River Commission, did it start to provide information on daily water flows from its dam cascade.

China has tried to offset complaints and the potential creation of anti-Chinese alliances by its downstream neighbors by using trade and development incentives – developing the Southeast Asian electricity grid and building sewage and road infrastructure in Cambodia for example – to weaken their ability to challenge China’s dam-building activities. It also engages in a public discourse that not only advocates the importance of hydro-power to its national security, but emphasizes exclusively the benefits of the dams without considering how they will disrupt downstream ecosystems and water access. Specifically, it talks about flood control, reduction of Chinese CO2 emissions, and the benefits of improved navigation and water flow during the dry season. In many cases, it is also helping to fund and construct dams downriver in places such as Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Their own independent construction of dams with Chinese financing has weakened downstream riparian neighbors’ ability to protest the ecological destruction that China’s upstream dams are causing.

Future Trends

China’s relationship with Southeast Asia is one of its key foreign policy priorities. If it is to establish itself as a global power then it must first be a genuine regional leader. It can only achieve this through engagement with the ASEAN countries at both the economic and political levels. It has shown a clear understanding of the importance of this through its engagement with the ASEAN institutions in which it was ahead of the competition, specifically Japan and South Korea. It can be expected that China will continue to increase its ties with ASEAN in the future.

The increased economic integration with the region has been facilitated both by this willingness to become involved in ASEAN’s structures and also by the myriad cultural ties that bind China to Southeast Asia. It seems likely that both of these factors will continue to contribute a close relationship and this, on the face of it, appears to be a positive development in China’s quest for acceptance as a regional leader and, therefore, a global power.

However, the continuing territorial disputes represent a major threat to China’s goal of shutterstock_78574054 resizedattaining regional leadership. China’s national interests will likely dictate that its claims over the islands continue to be non-negotiable; driven by both strategic concerns and the demands of domestic nationalists it would be virtually unthinkable for China to acquiesce on any of its claims now. One unwelcome side-effect of this from China’s perspective is that the developments have driven several Southeast Asian countries to renew and strengthen their ties with the US. Notable among these have been Vietnam and the Philippines. Such close ties are clearly not in the interests of China’s own national security, nor its ambition to be the regional hegemon. While the recent moves within the ASEAN framework to establish formalized dialogue on the issue are welcome and positive, the prospect of a compromised resolution seems remote and, particularly in the case of the islands, China continues to insist that each individual dispute be resolved bilaterally. With China continuing to expand its naval projection-capabilities in the area, the prospect of increased hostility is very real. Indeed, China’s increased tendency to flex its muscles in this area over the last few years has undone much of the good work it had done in promoting a positive image of itself in the Southeast Asian countries. This schizophrenic policy toward the region may do further harm in the long run as smaller countries seek the protection of a larger and more predictable ally in the form of the United States, a result that would be counter to all of China’s perceived interests. This risk of hostility will continue to cast a shadow over relations between China and the Southeast Asian region.

Sino-Indian Relations: Realists and Rivals


Imagemaker /

The two most populous nations in the world, China and India share a disputed border, are both on the rise economically and politically, and both possess fearsome nuclear arsenals. Their rapidly changing economic and diplomatic positions have put not only their relationships in the wider world in flux, but they have also created a shifting engagement with each other. While China and India’s ever-closer economic ties have created a degree of optimism that their developing relationship will be harmonious and productive, territorial disputes, competition for spheres of influence within South Asia, and increasing friction over water rights will continue to significantly challenge their relationship.

Historical Ties

JeremyRichards /

Throughout ancient times, the link between India and China has been limited; theHimalaya formed a formidable natural barrier between the two civilizations. The most significant Indian contribution to Chinese culture was the transmission of Buddhism into China during China’s Age of Division 220-618 CE. Although the exact time and manner of Buddhism’s spread to China is still debated, it is likely that it made its way to China over the Silk Road, following merchants engaging in trade between the empires. Chinese scholars and monks also travelled to India to study Buddhism and to translate its scriptures. The most famous of these monks was Xuanzang, whose travels to and seventeen year stay in India were fictionally immortalized in the Chinese story, “Journey to the West”, considered one of the four great classics of Chinese literature.

In the modern era, with India colonized by the British, exports of opium to the Chinese mainland eventually led to the two Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860 between Britain and the Qing Dynasty of the time, though the involvement of what we now think of as India was incredibly limited, as it was a colony of Britain at the time. The post-Second World War period was a time of dramatic change for both countries. India was granted its independence from Britain in August 1947. The process of India’s independence was complicated by its separation from Pakistan which the British enacted immediately before granting independence to both nations as separate entities. Violence followed between the two new countries. Indeed, more than six decades after their separation, India and Pakistan remain at odds on many issues. Similarly, in China, violence ensued until the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 as Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, and Mao Zedong’s Communists fought for control of the country. This meant that two giant new nations, both with extensive territories and massive populations, both recovering from differing forms of colonialism and struggling to find their place in the new world order, were created within a very short space of time. Despite their very long histories as civilizations, China and India are thus relatively new nation states. Their early dealings with each other have reflected their struggles to adjust to their relatively new country status and their efforts to find their place in the post WWII international order.

One early contribution that the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship made to wider international relations was the 1954 agreement in which was stated the “five principles of peaceful coexistence”. These principles were agreed as part of a treaty relating to Indian trade with Tibet, over which China had regained suzerainty. The five principles became both the founding principles of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – a grouping of countries that sought to distance themselves from the Cold War by refusing to align with either superpower – and the cornerstone of China’s foreign policy, at least rhetorically. The five principles were: mutual respect for territorial integrity and national sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in the other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence. At the heart of these principles is the agreement not to infringe the sovereignty of another country. Yet, despite their mutual commitment to these principles, within just a few years China and India were at war with each other.

The 1962 Border War

Following the 1959 Tibetan uprising – which was repressed by the Chinese military and resulted in the Dalai Lama’s fleeing into exile in India – there were several skirmishes between Chinese and Indian troops along the border. The border had never been successfully demarcated between the nations of China and India. An agreement reached in 1913 over the border between British India and Tibet – at the time conducting affairs as a pseudo-independent nation following the breakup of the Qing Dynasty – has been consistently rejected by the PRC, despite the apparent presence of Chinese representatives at the negotiations. China refuses to acknowledge any agreement made with the Tibetan authorities as it declines to recognize that Tibet had any level of suzerainty in this period of history. Interestingly, China’s refusal to recognize this agreement has some validity as it was, in fact, in breach of the Anglo-Russian Entente. Signed in 1907, but annulled in 1922, it stated that all dealings with Tibet must be conducted through the Chinese authorities in Beijing.

In October 1962 China invaded Aksai Chin and Arunchal Pradesh, the two largest portions of disputed territory over which it claimed sovereignty, but which were occupied by the Indians at the time. The simultaneous invasions were over a thousand of miles apart. The war lasted precisely one month, with the Chinese winning a military victory and successfully occupying much of the disputed areas. However, once military superiority had been established, a ceasefire was called and the Chinese unilaterally withdrew from all the territory they had gained in the offensive. While China’s real reasons for unilaterally withdrawing and ending hostilities are still debated, it is likely that a key reason for their retreat was the prospect of US involvement in the conflict, which raised concerns in China of an unwanted and unnecessary war with the superpower. Premier Zhou Enlai insisted that the withdrawal was a signal of good faith and that China had always wished to resolve the dispute peacefully.

The casualties in the war were relatively small, with an estimated 2000 Indians and more than 700 Chinese troops thought to have been killed. However, the consequences for the relationship and the region as a whole were extensive. While the Chinese succeeded in demonstrating their military superiority over their Indian rivals, the invasion harmed their international image and fed the belief in the West that China was a belligerent power intent on using aggressive means to expand its territory and influence. The lesson learned by India was that its military was woefully underprepared and wholly inadequate for purposes of self-defense. It therefore set about wholesale modernization of its military capabilities.

Territorial Issues


Territorial disputes are probably the greatest issue of difficulty between China and India. The disputes involve ten separate portions of territory, though several of these are tiny. There are two particularly significant areas: the more than 60,000 square km – around three quarters – of what India, and most other countries in the world, consider to be the state of Arunachal Pradesh; and the 37,000 square km Chinese-administered Aksai Chin, to the west of Nepal. It was these two areas over which the 1962 war was fought. At the time the Arunachal Pradesh was sparsely populated, but is now home to around one million Indian citizens. Since the 1962 war there have been many skirmishes along the disputed area, most notably in 1967 and 1987.

Given the size of the larger territories under dispute, it is politically difficult for either country to concede the territory to the other. This is especially true in the case of Arunachal Pradesh, which would be tantamount to the the Indian government effectively giving away the majority of an established Indian state. The other major disputed area, Aksai Chin, is considered by India to be a part of Kashmir and therefore complicates the matter further, given that India is already contesting Kashmir with Pakistan. Certainly, no solution to the current impasse appears imminent and the failure of the two great powers to resolve this remains a constant thorn in the side of diplomatic relations of the two. With that noted there has been some limited success in reaching agreement over the Indian state of Sikkim; initially claimed by both India and China but effectively operating as an independent state, Sikkim voted to join the Indian Federation in 1975. China originally refused to recognize this and continued to display Sikkim as a separate state on maps produced in the PRC. In 2004, it finally accepted it as an Indian state, although it did so with little fanfare.

As with most territorial disputes around the world the problem is exacerbated by nationalists on either side, who are prone to react to even the slightest provocation. Though nationalist responses in China are not as prominent as those that are directed against Japan or the US from time to time, India has emerged as a target for outpourings of nationalist sentiment, particularly over the issue of the disputed territory. Simon Shen, an academic who specializes in Chinese online nationalism, has identified that China’s online nationalists have turned their attention to India in recent years and use the government’s reaction to any perceived provocation as something of a litmus test. India also has its share of hotheaded protesters who make themselves heard whenever China acts in ways considered to infringe on India’s sovereignty over these areas.


For historical, religious, cultural and geographical reasons, India continues to play a role in the Tibet issue. Homeland to the Tibetan people, and located on the high plateau of the north-eastern Himalaya, Tibet was unified in the 7th century, but then fractured into various territories which have since been controlled at various times by Tibetans, theDaniel J. Rao / Mongols and the Chinese. Tibet has been part of the People’s Republic of China since 1951, though full control by Beijing was only established following a military advance into the region in 1959. While China’s sovereignty over Tibet is accepted by the international community, its continued rule there remains controversial with the Dalai Lama continuing to campaign internationally for the Tibetan people to be allowed greater autonomy. Though China insists that the Tibet issue is a purely domestic matter in which no other country must interfere, India is inescapably intertwined in the problem. This is, primarily due to the fact that when the PLA rolled into Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India where he was given asylum, and allowed to establish the Tibetan “government in exile” – in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala. There have certainly been times since 1959 when the Indian government has wished it could bring an end to its own involvement in order to ease its strained relationship with China over this issue, but the Dalai Lama’s successful international promotion of the Tibetan cause has made this an impossibility, at least while he remains alive. For its part, China continues to raise this matter with Indian leaders, particularly whenever Tibetan refugees flee across the border to seek asylum there.

Competition for Water Resources

Tibet is also relevant to Sino-Indian relations as it is the source of the Brahmaputra River which provides significant water and power resources for Bangladesh and India. To take advantage of Tibet’s vast hydro power, China is planning a series of dams on the various transnational rivers that originate there. One of its proposed mega-dam projects is on the Brahmaputra, where it does a big U-turn in the world’s deepest canyon before entering India, close to one of the borders disputed by the two countries. This bend on the Brahmaputra is considered to be one of the world’s largest concentrations of river energy on earth. This mega-dam at the Brahmaputra is just one of what is estimated to be as many 28 dams on the Brahmaputra that are either planned, completed or under discussion by China. While China denies it, some Indian scientists also fear that China might also be planning to divert 200 billion cubic meters of water a year from the Brahmaputra to the Yellow River and other Chinese rivers.

China’s damming of the Brahmaputra puts control of a key source of Indian water into Chinese hands. More than 185 million people in north-eastern India and Bangladesh depend on the Brahmaputra. In the Indian state of Assam, 80 per cent agriculture relies on water from the river. Damming also affects a river’s ecosystem, altering silt and nutrient flows that risk impacting India’s downstream fertility and fisheries. Additionally, India derives significant power from its own hydroelectric projects on the river and its tributaries. The efficacy of these dams could be affected if China significantly alters the river’s flow volumes

Competition for Influence

As large and now rising nations, China and India have competed for and will continue to compete for influence in Asia and abroad. One keen area of competition is in Nepal and Myanmar. There is a difference in motive for the two of these countries. Nepal is considered to be a buffer state between the two powers, so that influence and access within Nepal is a strategic priority for both China and India. In any potential conflict between the two countries, Nepal would have clear tactical importance. Myanmar, on the other hand, is important to both countries as a source of natural resources, particularly natural gas. To seek influence in Nepal and Myanmar, China and India provide both countries with badly needed infrastructural investment; both Nepal and Myanmar have some of the worst infrastructure in the world. China in particular has been focused on building crucial road links throughout Nepal and into China, boosting trade and enhancing ties between the two countries.

While Nepal and Myanmar are important considerations, the relationship with Pakistan is potentially explosive. China has been Pakistan’s long term ally, while Pakistan remains India’s greatest foe, a consequence of the fact that most Indians opposed Pakistan’s separation from India before independence. During the Sino-Indian 1962 border war, Pakistan saw an opportunity to develop a strategic relationship with a large neighbor that would help to balance against what it perceived as the threat of Indian invasion. For its part, China sees its relationship with Pakistan as a way to offset what it believes to be a US strategy to contain China, which the US employs by forming strategic partnerships with significant powers surrounding China, revolving around the axis of Japan, Australia and India. There is unquestionably some truth in this analysis of US intentions, and India’s position within this alliance system is very important. The continuance of friendly relations with Pakistan is one way China works to counter this US strategy, though this has been complicated over recent years by the US-Pakistan alliance that formed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. China’s engagement with Pakistan involves it in India’s most prickly international issue, Kashmir, which in turn causes further friction with India at both the government and the societal levels.

China and India are also now beginning to come into direct competition for influence and access to resources in Africa. China’s engagement with Africa has increased significantly in the last two decades as it looks to Africa both as a source of raw materials and as a market for its goods. India’s foray into Africa is still in its early stages, but it is already clear that both countries are pursuing differing strategies within the region. India’s investment strategy has been led by the private sector, where China’s incursion into Africa has been led by large SOEs and government ODA seeking access to Africa’s raw materials such as its oil and timber. Indian multinational companies are seeking to penetrate African markets by exploiting the comparative advantage of a significant Indian diaspora on the continent, as well as the ability of its nationals to speak English. That said, as competition for the continent increases, India’s government seems increasingly willing to engage to secure its competitive position. In 2011 for instance, Manmohan Singh, India’s Prime Minister, announced a three year aid package to Africa worth $5 billion. While significant, it is still dwarfed by Chinese aid that currently tops $20 billion per annum. As the China and India continue their rapid development, this competition for access to Africa’s resources and markets is likely to increase in the future though, for now at least, China appears better placed to take advantage.

Bilateral Trade

Though bilateral trade is not as large as one might expect given the sizes of the two nations, it offers one of the best chances to promote a cooperative coexistence between the two Asian giants. China is already India’s largest trading partner and in 2011 bilateral trade topped $74 billion, though this fell back slightly in 2012 to $66 billion. The 2012 reduction in trade was driven almost entirely by a 20% drop in Indian exports to China, with the trade deficit now $29 billion. Total bilateral trade is projected to reach $100 billion by 2015 with potential for even faster growth after that.

China does not offer India economic complementarity in the way that it does to some ofjbor / its richer neighbors to the east, such as Japan and South Korea. India, whose population is expected to surpass China’s within two decades, also competes to be a hub for low-cost manufacture out-sourcing. However, India provides China with raw materials; ore and slag, for instance, account for more than a quarter of all Indian exports to China. India also exports $1.5 billion dollars of cotton to China annually, providing a crucial source of supply to China’s critical textile industry, which is the world’s largest and responsible for a quarter of all Chinese exports. In contrast, Chinese exports to India are predominantly in manufactured goods, in particular electrical machinery which represents around a third of total Chinese exports to India. The fact that India exports raw materials to China and China returns finished goods reflects a slightly imbalanced relationship; indeed, India ran a trade deficit of around $20 billion with China in 2010. Nevertheless, deeper economic ties with China remain in India’s long term interests. Overall, India is developing its own economy in different ways to China. Specifically, India has focused on information technology and services. China’s rapidly growing IT market, which already boasts the greatest number of internet users in the world, offers opportunity for India’s leading IT firms. For instance, Infosys Technologies, an Indian IT firm, set up a Chinese subsidiary as far back as 2004. While its Chinese subsidiary still derives the majority of its income from outside of China, the Chinese domestic market now accounts for one third of its profits; this is projected to grow in the coming years. By 2014, Infosys predicts its Chinese subsidiary will employ 10,000 people, triple what it does today. The Tata Group, through Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), has also established a significant presence in China. It exports IT services to the Chinese banking sector, with Bank of China among its most notable clients. Its workforce in China is expected to quadruple over the next three years, taking the total number of its employees to over 5000. Following in TCS’ wake is India’s Wipro Technologies which has plans to center its Asian operations in China’s western city of Chengdu, in order to focus on growing its Asian market, and to diversify away from the US and Europe. India’s other great success story in China has been Mahindra & Mahindra, a manufacturer of tractors. Mahindra & Mahindra has established two joint venture tractor manufacturing companies in China which, combined, account for more than 30,000 employees and produce more than 30,000 tractors each year, many of which are exported to Europe or India. Indian IT firms are also seeking Chinese investment. By June 2009, the total Chinese investment in IT in India reached almost $30 billion. Much of this came from the Chinese giant Huawei.

Like many foreign companies working in China, Indian firms have also complained of barriers to their entering and expanding within the Chinese market. These barriers are increasingly being raised at the highest political levels. Complaints from the Indian side are met with calls from China for a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Although India has been reluctant to agree to this until its trade deficit with China has been tackled, such an agreement, if signed, would represent the largest free trade area in the world measured in size of populace.

The BRICS Nations

Another area of promising cooperation between China and India is their involvement with the BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The name originally came from an economist working for Goldman Sachs, who coined the term ‘BRIC’ in 2001 (South Africa was not included in either the original thesis or the initial gatherings of the countries) when writing about the shift in global power balances from the large developed western countries to the large developing ones. Initially not a formal structure, the four BRIC countries sought to capitalize on the success of the term by launching annual summits in 2009, where the countries meet to discuss their positions in the global order and to call for greater equity within it. South Africa was invited to join at the end of 2010 and attended its first summit in 2011. Both Brazil and India seek to exploit the status of the alliance in order to promote their aspirations for permanent membership of the UNSC, though declarations from the BRICS summits do not go as far as to directly call for this. Questions have been raised about the continued relevance of the grouping with varying degrees of economic growth; in 2012, only India and China surpassed GDP growth of 5% with South Africa as low as 2.8%.

Future Trends

Of the potentially disruptive issues that remain in the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship, the territorial dispute is probably the thorniest. There is seemingly some room for maneuver on China’s part in the disagreement over Arunachal Pradesh; certainly it seems impossible that the Chinese would try to make good their claims on an area that is widely recognized internationally as Indian territory and which is populated by more than one million Indian citizens. However, other disputes seem more intractable, particularly where Kashmir comes into the equation. Acts of insensitivity on either side are likely to continue to provoke minor spats, but the prospect of armed conflict between the two is highly remote. Indeed, informal talks on this very issue were held in Beijing in December 2012, though without any significant movement. The last formal negotiation on the matter took place in January of the same year.

The Tibet issue seems likely to continue to be an irritant as long as the Dalai Lama survives. It is probably China’s own calculation on this issue as a whole, not just with India, that the Dalai Lama’s death will help to remove Tibet from the intense international focus that it has been under for the last few decades. From India’s perspective, the trouble the Dalai Lama has caused has likely overwhelmed any soft power that it may have accrued as a result of it providing the Tibetan leader with asylum. There is probably understanding at the highest political level in the bilateral relationship that there is little that can be done in the short term over this issue.

China’s water disputes with its neighbors will likely be a growing problem, particularly given the unprecedented level of its dam building. Tension over water rights with India will be no exception. What is unclear is what its downstream neighbors can do about China’s hydro ambitions. It will likely be an increasing source of acrimony between China and India, especially as India plays catch-up to China’s water projects. India might voice these concerns more vocally on the world stage. It might also gain influence and leverage with other countries that are similarly vulnerable to China’s hydro ambitions to place economic and other pressures against the country.

It is in the economic ties that the greatest reasons for optimism lie. The different directions that the two economies have taken in their development mean that the potential for bilateral growth is significant. For both countries economic development is key and will continue to be so. They share much in common in terms of the continued need to raise large sections of their population out of poverty, a problem that is particularly pronounced in India. The incentive to stay focused on trade rather than to get tied down by territorial disputes or regional competition should remain at the forefront of the minds of policymakers on both sides of the Himalaya.

The election of Narendra Modi as India’s new prime minister in 2014 brought some new-found optimism given his pragmatic approach to international relations and prioritisation of economic cooperation. Modi was already popular in elite circles in China thanks to his careful diplomacy when serving as a regional leader in Gujurat, during which time he made numerous trips to Beijing. Nevertheless, the many thorny issues in the relationship cannot simply be washed away and the presence of Tibet’s prime minister-in-exile at Modi’s swearing in ceremony indicated that he would not simply roll over and acquiesce to all of Beijing’s demands.

The Tibet Issue


To many in the West, China’s continued rule in Tibet is often considered to be a foreign occupation, though few inside China accept this point of view. Tibet is of great psychological importance to China and to Chinese people in terms of national identity and the maintenance of Chinese national unity, as well as of enormous strategic importance with regard to China’s traditional national security and its access to water and other vital natural resources.


The Tibetan Plateau is the highest region on the planet, sometimes referred to as “the roof of the world”. With an average elevation of more than 4500 meters, it is an

inhospitable place to plant and animal life alike and frequently leaves unaccustomed visitors gasping for air. It is home to one half of the world’s highest mountains, including Mount Everest or Qomolangma as the Tibetans call it, with the peak forming the border with Nepal. Tibet is also the source of many of Asia’s major rivers, including China’s two biggest, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, as well as the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong, the Irrawaddi, the Arun, the Karnali, the Sutlej and the Indus. About 90% flows downstream to China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The sources of these rivers are the huge glaciers that exist in the Tibetan mountains, effectively forming enormous frozen reservoirs that are gradually released to flow down river. The constant flow of these rivers creates a stable source of water in regions which are otherwise dominated by monsoon rain falls. The Tibetan rivers are thus extremely important to sustaining life throughout South and Southeast Asia.

The territory of Tibet is large, with the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) spanning more than 1.2 million square kilometers. Historically, though, Tibet has often included the whole of Qinghai province, as well as the western sections of Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan, making it geographically almost the size of modern day India. These areas outside of the autonomous region maintain a strong Tibetan identity today and continue to be populated by mainly ethnic Tibetans. Indeed, many of the protests that have made the news in recent years have occurred outside of the autonomous region, predominantly in Sichuan. When the Dalai Lama speaks about Tibet, he’s referring to those parts of the plateau that were historically Tibetan and are primarily populated by Tibetans. When China refers to Tibet, it is normally referring solely to the TAR.


Despite covering such a vast area Tibet’s population is relatively small. The harsh climate has dictated sparse population throughout its history and, even with advances of modern technology, this continues to be the case. The TAR has a population of just 3 million people, though the total Tibetan population of areas that have historically been within Tibet numbers around 6 million. Such small numbers in such huge areas make Tibet one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet, a striking contrast to the thronging cities of eastern China.

Sam DCruz / Shutterstock.comUnlike the other autonomous regions in China, Tibet has maintained its ethnic identity throughout the history of the PRC; whereas the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Hui in Ningxia, the Mongols in Inner Mongolia, and the Zhuang in Guangxi all now account for less than half of the population in their respective areas, Tibetans still represent 92% of the population in their own autonomous region. This is, however, changing rapidly. The opening of the world’s highest railway connecting Qinghai to Lhasa – an impressive engineering feat that takes trains across mountain passes over 5200 meters high – has enabled a much greater flow of people into, and out of, the TAR. Han Chinese currently make up around 6% of the population, but that number is beginning to rise as the Chinese government encourages Han migration into the areas by providing incentives such as housing, business, and pension benefits. Indeed, It is estimated that Han Chinese now make up 50% of the population of the capital city, Lhasa, and the Chinese government is heavily investing in the city’s infrastructure to raise the city to modern Chinese standards. Beijing says that the Han economic migrants have temporarily come to Tibet in order to help modernize the area. Some Tibetans fear that China will use demographics as a way to more thoroughly integrate the region into China. Visitors to Lhasa are keenly aware of the division with the city almost literally split into two areas, one almost entirely Tibetan and the other almost entirely Han.

Tibet remains overwhelmingly Buddhist, though the influence of Tibet’s native religion, Bon, can still be seen in some of the practices. Although the much of Tibetan monastic heritage was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Tibet still remains home to many large and small Buddhist monasteries and temples, with Tibetans making pilgrimages at various times of the year to sites of importance. The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is the centerpiece of Tibetan Buddhism. It attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims yearly, particularly during the winter months when some Tibetans from rural areas may walk hundreds of miles to pay homage by prostrating themselves around the perimeter.

The Tibetan Economy

China currently invests about $2.5 billion annually in the region, primarily in the form of shutterstock_77066617infrastructure projects. Farming, forestry, animal husbandry and fishery accounted for approximately 70% of the total gross output value in 2000. Because of its high altitude and mountainous conditions, the Tibetan growing season is short, and the main crops grown are barley, wheat, buckwheat, rye, potatoes and some fruits and vegetables. Sheep, cattle, goats, camels, yaks and horses are also raised within Tibet, with the yak being particularly well suited to Tibet’s harsh winter conditions. Most of the farming, animal husbandry and forestry is still done by hand or with animal labor. Increasingly, electric and hydro-power, mining, light industry and handicrafts also generating earnings for the region. Tibetan hats, jewellery, wooden items, clothing, quilts, fabrics and carpets are all important money earners, as is tourism, with most tourists staying in Lhasa, Shigatse, and the Mount Everest base camp, though the number of foreign tourists permitted to visit Tibet has been scaled back in recent years. Tibet also has large deposits of gold, copper, salt and radioactive ores, although its lack of infrastructure to date has meant that it has been difficult to extract these minerals. China’s huge investment in infrastructure should mean that mining will be a growing sector for Tibet in the future. Overall, China’s significant investment in the region has meant that many Tibetans have seen a rise in living standards. Annual per capita income, for instance, quadrupled to $1076 between 1986 and 2006, though there are claims that this benefit is felt primarily by Han Chinese migrants and not by the indigenous population. Unemployment remains high at approximately 10.3%, more than double the national urban rate.

The Historical Argument

The Tibetan empire reached its zenith around the 8th century CE with an empire that encompassed parts of Southeast Asia, Central Asia, northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and also parts of what are now the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan in China. During the Tang dynasty in around 640 CE the Chinese princess Wencheng was sent to Lhasa to marry the then Tibetan emperor Songtsan Gampo. Many Chinese academics credit this as the first sign of China’s suzerainty over Tibet, though many Tibetans claim the opposite: that this was a sign of Tibet’s power and independence since the Emperor only acquiesced in sending the princess under threat of force from Tibet (a claim which is not accepted by modern Chinese historians and was not recorded in the Chinese written Tang annals). Contemporaneously, an informal treaty was signed between the two countries in which the Tibetans claim that the Chinese recognized Tibet as equal to China. By 821 a formal peace treaty was agreed and signed between Tibet and China, known as the Tang-Tibetan Alliance, and the details of this were inscribed on a stone pillar outside of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa in both Tibetan and Chinese. This pillar remains in place today.

360b / Shutterstock.comThe 13th century Mongol subjugation of Eurasia brought Tibet and China under one rule for the first time when both countries became subject nations under the Mongol empire. Having conquered China, Kublai Khan consolidated his rule by proclaiming himself the Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. Despite the Yuan Dynasty being formed as a result of an invasion from an external force, Kublai Khan is considered in China to have been Chinese as he perpetuated China’s cultural heritage. That he was Mongolian is no barrier to this interpretation, as Mongolians are recognized as one of China’s official 56 ethnic groups. As a result, modern Chinese historians argue that it was during the Yuan Dynasty that Tibet formally became part of Chinese territory and has remained so ever since. In contrast, the opponents of this view maintain that China and Tibet were two independent countries subjugated by an outside force; in emphasis, they point out the Mongols ruled the two territories separately much in the same way that the British ruled its colonies independently, and that Tibetan life remained centered on monastic Buddhism rather than Chinese cultural norms. Tibet continued to move in and out of the Chinese sphere of influence throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties that followed the Yuan, leading up to the end of the 19th century.

The 13th Dalai Lama entered a rapidly changing international order when he assumed power from his regent in 1895, by which time both Tibet and the Qing were under pressure from predatory Japanese and European colonial powers. By 1890 the British were negotiating a treaty with the Qing to establish the border between Tibet and Sikkim, which the British sought to include within its Indian colony. Historically, the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim had been viewed as a vassal tributary state by Tibet, yet the Tibetans were not consulted during the treaty negotiations. Mainly as a result of fear that Russia was making incursions into Tibet in order to establish a sphere of influence, Britain invaded Tibet in 1904 and the 13th Dalai Lama fled into exile. The British invasion of Tibet refocused Qing attention on the region, which had been distracted by challenges closer to home. By December 1904, Tibetan officials left in charge by the 13th Dalai Lama, capitulated to British terms in order to secure withdrawal of troops from Lhasa. In the resulting convention between Great Britain and Tibet, Tibet accepted London’s annexation of Sikkim and agreed not to conduct for relations with foreign states, including China. Tibet also had to pay war reparations.

During this time, the thirteenth Dalai Lama was trying to get Russia to engage on Tibet’s shutterstock_94573753 resizedbehalf, yet Russian help was not forthcoming. Ultimately it suited both the British and Russians that Tibet was neither an independent state nor a vassal of an enemy. London and Moscow concluded that it was in both their interests to recognize a purposely vague Chinese claim over Tibet, especially as the British realized that it would be too expensive to turn Tibet into a true British protectorate as it had done to Sikkim. As a result, some clauses of the 1904 Convention were rejected by the Foreign Office in London, and it negotiated two new treaties with the Qing and with Russia. In a 1906 treaty with the Qing, the government of Great Britain engaged not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet. The Qing undertook to prevent other foreign states from interfering with the territory or internal administration of Tibet. The British then signed a second 1907 accord with Russia in which the two states agreed to recognize the principle of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, thus effectively denying that Tibet was an independent nation. Moreover, English legal and historical documents were beginning to equate China with all the territory of the Qing empire. At the same time, as those Han Chinese that sought to end imperial rule began to think what a Chinese nation would be once the Manchus were overthrown, they too began to define their borders by those drawn by the Manchus when they took power. The Chinese became fixated on the humiliation that they were experiencing at the hands of foreign powers so the defense of Chinese borders became a matter of national pride for the Chinese people. By 1912, a year after the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the formation of the Republic of China, San Yatsen declared China to be a multi-ethnic state composed of Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Han and Uyghurs among others. Promoting this diverse population was one of the ways that the young republic articulated that its aim was to consolidate its country upon the larger Qing borders.

Taking advantage of the chaos during the early days of the Republic of China, in 1912 the 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet’s complete independence, and a voluntary Tibetan army drove the remaining Chinese out of the Tibet. In 1913, the Dalai Lama returned from exile after an absence of eight years. Importantly, the Tibetan government also negotiated with British India over shared borders and an agreement was signed between British India and Tibet in 1912 which ceded Tibetan territory to colonial India. This is often cited as proof that Tibet acted with genuine independence as a nation state at this time, but it is the only example of Tibet ever acting as such in the modern international system. It is worth noting that Chinese authorities were included in these negotiations and the Chinese representative even initialed the final treaty. Though this is now downplayed by Beijing due to the complications of continued disputes with India over the modern border, it does raise a serious question over the ability of Tibet to act as a genuinely sovereign nation even during this sole example of it apparently doing so. Furthermore, Britain was in breach of its own Anglo-Russian Entente, signed in 1907, in which it had agreed that all matters surrounding Tibet would be dealt with through the authorities in Peking (Beijing) and that no negotiations would be conducted with Tibetan authorities. The chaos and confusion in China after the fall of the Qing left Tibet’s status relatively unaddressed. During this period, the 13th Dalai Lama passed away. Tibet’s 14th and current Dalai Lama was born on July 6, 1935, 18 months after the death of his predecessor.

Tibet under the PRC

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During the struggle against Japanese occupation and the civil war between the communists and the nationalists, it is reported that Mao Zedong pledged that the periphery regions of China, such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Outer Mongolia, would be free to decide their own future. However, upon the establishment of the PRC in 1949, this policy was repudiated (with the exception of Mongolia, whose independence was accepted by the communists probably as a favor to their allies in the Soviet Union). By 1949, the Chinese were using its radio infrastructure to broadcast into Tibet its need to peacefully liberate the country. By October 1950, the PLA had entered Tibet’s eastern regions. After initially rejecting the idea of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, the Dalai Lama signed the “17 point agreement” in 1951 after recognizing that it was not in Tibet’s interests to make an enemy of its giant neighbour against which it stood little chance of military success. The Chinese army had already inflicted defeats against Tibetan resistance and it was clear that the battle could not be won. The agreement accorded the Tibetans autonomy over their own affairs, recognized the position of the Dalai Lama and guaranteed freedom of religion in Tibet. It needs to be acknowledged that this both demonstrates that the PRC government recognized the ability of the Tibetan authorities to act on behalf of Tibet (otherwise they would not have conducted negotiations and signed an agreement with them) and also that several of the points in the agreement have been broken by the PRC authorities, in particular the promise not to interfere with the position of the Dalai Lama and the guarantee that local religion would be respected.

The Dalai Lama remained in Tibet after this agreement was signed and, according to his own account of the story, met with Mao Zedong in Beijing on more than one occasion. In March 1959, following three years of sporadic battles at the edges of Tibet between local paramilitaries and the PLA, the Dalai Lama officially repudiated the agreement citing breaches from the Chinese. What followed was an uprising from Tibetans against the increasing Chinese presence in Tibet, followed by a large military response from the Chinese and a bloody wave of repression. The Dalai Lama fled, on horseback, across the Himalaya into India where he later claimed asylum and established the ‘Tibetan government in exile’ in Dharamsala. It took a further three years to fully establish Chinese control over Tibet. The number of Tibetans killed has never been independently verified but the Tibetan government in exile claims the figure to be in excess of 86,000. It is also believed that the US was involved in inspiring the uprising by engaging in training some of the Tibetan paramilitaries, a practice that continued for several years after the uprising was crushed.

Prior to China’s ‘liberation’ or ‘occupation’ (what it is called depends on one’s own viewpoint) there is no doubt that life in Tibet was a long way from the idealistic vision of a harmonious, peace-loving, and free society that some in the West tend to paint it as. Life expectancy was just 36 and the overwhelming majority of the population was illiterate. A majority of Tibetans were hereditary serfs of varying statuses, allowing the elite – including the religious leaders – to live a luxurious life on the backs of a poor, uneducated society that was structurally condemned to remain in poverty through the following generations. In essence, this was precisely what the international communist movement sought to bring to an end. Tibet had no roads, poor sanitation, and no monetary system. Until the 1960s, there were virtually no vehicles of any kind, motorized or otherwise. Punishment for various crimes was barbaric, including amputation of limbs and eye-gouging.

Hung Chung Chih / Shutterstock.comHowever, whatever the rights and wrongs of the legal or moral claim that China may have over Tibet, there is no question that many Tibetans suffered both during the ‘liberation’ and after, particularly through forced collectivization and during the Cultural Revolution. In this latter period many temples were destroyed and monks forced to tend pigs, sometimes within the walls of their own religious institutions, a grievous insult. While it is important to keep such acts in context – the Cultural Revolution was a chaotic and unpleasant time for most people in China, regardless of ethnicity – it does not excuse such acts in the minds of Tibetans, and many continue to harbor ill feelings over this. Despite the orgy of destruction that ensued in the late 1960s, it is thought that the Potala Palace, the former winter home of the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s most famous symbol, was preserved at the behest of Zhou Enlai who recognized its significance.

The Dalai Lama has remained in exile since 1959 and has spearheaded a very public campaign for Tibetan autonomy, gaining much sympathy and support in Western countries and elsewhere, including in Japan. In 1989 another attempted uprising, marking the fortieth anniversary of Dalai’s flight from Tibet, was crushed on the orders of the then-Party Secretary of Tibet, Hu Jintao, who would later go on to become China’s president and supreme leader. During the incident around 400 Tibetans are believed to have been killed. This occurred just months before the Tiananmen Square incident but did not receive a similar level of coverage due to a lack of media presence on the plateau at the time. Later that year, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “consistent resistance to the use of violence in his people’s struggle to regain their liberty”. The award, and the celebrity endorsements that have continued to flow (the Hollywood actor Richard Gere is the most notable), have helped to keep the Dalai’s drive for “genuine autonomy” within the PRC in the headlines, at least in the West. He abandoned hopes of Tibetan statehood in 1979, though the PRC government continues to paint him as a “splittist” seeking to create a separate country, and maintains that Tibet can exist within the PRC to the chagrin of some of his followers who would prefer a cleaner separation.

The Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most important spiritual leader who has the responsibility of identifying the reincarnated Dalai Lama after his death, was arrested shortly after being confirmed as the current Dalai’s accepted choice in 1995. Aged just six years old at the time, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was considered to be the world’s youngest political prisoner by many in the Tibetan movement. Beijing subsequently appointed their own choice of Panchen Lama, Gyancain Norbu, a somewhat difficult position for the CCP to explain given its strictly atheist constitution. Beijing’s Panchen Lama has never been accepted by the Dalai Lama and the campaign for the release of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima continues. He is reported to still be alive and living in Beijing under virtual house arrest and with an assumed identity. This complicates any future succession the Dalai Lama. Under the system in place in Tibet for more than five centuries, the Panchen Lama has the responsibility to identify the reincarnated Dalai, something he clearly will not be able to do whilst under house arrest in Beijing. Any reincarnation identified by Beijing’s hand-picked Panchen is unlikely to garner support from grassroots Tibetans and will be probably be seen as simply a puppet of the Chinese. With this in mind, the current Dalai Lama – who, while in good health, is already in his late seventies – has suggested that his reincarnation might be found outside of Tibet.

In recent times, particularly since the death of Mao and the launch of the reform era in China, there has been a drive towards economic development in Tibet. This has included some of the aspects of Chinese rule that provoke controversy among Tibetans and pro-independence groups such as increased migration of Han Chinese. Most controversial has probably been the development of a railway line that now connects the Tibetan heartland to the rest of China, making it possible to take a train from Beijing all the way to Lhasa (an extension to Shigatse will open in 2014). While this railway represents a notable engineering feat – with passes as high as 5200 meters it is the highest railway in the world – concerns over damage to Tibet’s delicate ecosystem have not been allayed. Furthermore, the massive increase in internal tourism that has accompanied the launch of the train service threatens to erode Tibet’s unique culture even further, turning important historical and religious sites into Disneyland-esque tourist stops. While it is undeniable that this has brought economic benefits to the area, with an increase in GDP per capita of around 400% during the first decade of the 21st century, an astonishing growth rate even by China’s standards, accusations that this increase does not benefit the local population abound. The truth is difficult to ascertain as the Chinese government does not release relevant statistics and may not even keep them itself.

Over the last few years there has been an upsurge in political activity and protest in the TAR and the surrounding Tibetan areas. The most high profile of these was a series of protests in Lhasa in March 2008, marking the anniversary of the 1959 uprising but also timed to gain maximum international attention in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. Riots across Lhasa left hundreds wounded and a reported 18 dead, mostly Han Chinese. The response from the Chinese authorities was initially relatively low key, though Tibetan groups in exile later reported that upwards of 1500 people were arrested, with many allegations of torture being used to extract confessions. Since 2008 security in the TAR and surrounding areas has increased, making it substantially more difficult for foreigners to visit for tourism and almost impossible for journalists or academics to investigate some of the claims being made. In 2012, a series of self-immolations made the headlines both in China and abroad, leading to the Dalai Lama to appeal for Tibetans not to resort to such measures, though Beijing is resolute in its insistence that such acts are committed at his behest.

China’s Traditional and non-Traditional Strategic Considerations

Tibet provides a buffer region between the Chinese heartland and both India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers. While neither of these two countries poses an apparent and immediate threat to China (they are normally more focused on each other) this is a consideration that any strategist would make. In particular China’s relationship with India has been problematic and the two fought a border war in 1962, and have a continued dispute over territory. A sparsely populated region such as Tibet is an ideal way to keep tensions at a minimum between two such nations. Allowing any form of independence to Tibet risks creating a kind of power vacuum that might be filled with Indian influence. From the point of view of national self-defense, no government in the world would countenance this if it did not have to.

Access to water resources will be crucial to China in the coming decades as it seeks to continue its rapid economic growth and improvement in living standards. China has less than half the per capita average of available water resources and large areas of the country suffer from serious drought on an almost annual basis. For this reason, the large rivers that flow through China are essential to the survival and prosperity of its people. Several of China’s largest and most important rivers have their sources in Tibet, including both the Yangtse and the Yellow River which, combined, provide water supplies for more than 500 million people. The Tibetan Plateau is the greatest store of fresh water outside of the North and South Poles. Although not explicitly acknowledged by the Chinese government in any discussion of the question of sovereignty over Tibet, it is clear that this remains a significant consideration for policy-makers when addressing the issue. The control of these river sources is an important advantage that no country would give up willingly, particularly one that is in such a precarious position with regard to its water supplies.

The Psychological Importance of Tibet

Knowing China’s modern history is crucial for understanding its perspective on many contemporary issues. Moreover, comprehending the Chinese interpretation of that history is the key to unlocking much of the Chinese view of the so-called “Tibet issue”. China’s view of itself as a victim of various powerful nations that took advantage of it while it was fragile, and sought to keep it weak by breaking it up, is a powerful lesson both for those in government and for the citizens of modern China. This “century of humiliation” was (in the Chinese narrative) brought to an end by the Communist victory in the civil war in 1949 but the scars remained in the form of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. What is viewed in China as the rightful “return to the motherland” of the first two went some way towards redressing this and the continued desire to “reunify” with Taiwan demonstrates its continued role. Given that nearly all Chinese start from the view that Tibet is part of China, efforts to remove it from the unity of the PRC are viewed through this lens, and foreigners who involve themselves in the issue are ordinarily seen as trying, once more, to “split” China. This is a particularly potent storyline during a period of time in which China’s power is clearly rising and fears from outside are evident.

The View from the West

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Tibet is frequently presented as an almost-mythical “land of snows”, populated by peace-loving religious people who live a simple (indeed, backward) life. The mythical Shangri-La is widely believed to be in Tibet (it has officially been designated as Zhongdian in northwest Yunnan but this is purely for tourism purposes). Tibetan people are portrayed as being deeply religious and almost entirely homogenous in their devout commitment to their religion and its leading figure, the Dalai Lama, as well as to the path of peace that he passionately advocates. In many ways Western depictions of Tibet and its people are simplistic, romantic, and occasionally patronizing.

When Tibet comes into the consciousness of Westerners it is often through the activities of high profile groups such as the International Campaign for TibetTibet House and Free Tibet, all of which are based in major Western cities such as New York, Brussels and Berlin. Richard Gere’s role in several of these groups has raised the profile further and reached audiences that do not ordinarily pay a great deal of attention to international political issues. The involvement of celebrities has sometimes been frivolous; the British rock band, Oasis, was denied visas to play concerts in Beijing and Shanghai in 2009 because of the involvement of Noel Gallagher, the band’s guitarist and lyricist, in a ‘Free Tibet’ concert twelve years previously despite Gallagher’s own confession that he had no recollection of the event and no interest in the movement. Condemnation of human rights abuses in Tibet frequently comes from senior figures in the US political scene as well as from independent NGOs across the Western world, lending such reports an air of credibility despite the difficulty in corroborating many of the individual stories that constitute the reports. The explanations offered by these groups for China’s continued presence and interest in Tibet focus entirely on the economic benefit that China can gain from the region. Free Tibet, for example, cites only the vast reserves of minerals and the sources of much of China’s water supply as its motivation, making China’s motives appear entirely selfish and materially-based.

The most visible manifestation of this feeling in the West came in 2008 with the protests Sam DCruz / surrounding the Olympic torch relay, particularly in European cities such as Paris and London. Large crowds of people displayed banners and waved Tibetan flags while some attempted to extinguish the Olympic flame. This was in direct response to the reports of riots in and around the Tibetan Autonomous Region in March of that year. The riots were misreported by some parts of the media in the West (this was not helped by the Chinese authorities preventing many outlets from entering the territory) and so it is not fully understood that many of those that died were Han Chinese, killed or burned alive by Tibetan rioters. These acts, if carried out in a US domestic context, would have been labelled as terrorism. This reporting caused anger among many Chinese who cannot understand where the Western bias comes from and consider it to be simply “anti-Chinese”.

No country in the international system recognizes Tibet as an independent nation and all who have diplomatic relations with Beijing acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over the region (indeed, even those few countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei instead consider it to be part of the Republic of China). The last country to fall into line and recognize Tibet formally as part of the PRC was the UK, which did so in 2008, blaming a bureaucratic oversight for not having done so previously. Even the Dalai Lama himself no longer calls for independence, but for “genuine autonomy” within the People’s Republic.

The Future of Tibet

The Tibet question is one that has shown no sign of simply going away. The Dalai Lama’s successful internationalization of the issue has made it infinitely more complex for the Chinese leadership to handle but their legitimate and rational security concerns, combined with the crucial issue of maintaining territorial integrity of the Chinese nation, mean that the Dalai’s wish for genuine autonomy is unlikely to be granted. The Chinese government, despite its intermittent negotiations with representatives of the Dalai (the last of which took place in 2008 prior to the riots), shows no intention of shifting position and appears to be playing a waiting game, apparently believing that Tibetan resistance will subside after the death of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Having captured the Panchen Lama and appointed their own, they consider themselves to be in charge of the future of that particular institution. However, the Dalai himself has raised the possibility that a future reincarnation of himself may be born outside of Tibet (previously believed impossible) which might allow for a continuance of a government in exile that maintains some level of loyalty from the Tibetan people. Furthermore, he has already announced that he intends the position to be one only of religious leader and that the head of the Tibetan government should be democratically elected. Even without this, there is no guarantee that the Chinese waiting game will pay off in the long run; there is some evidence, particularly in the wake of the 2008 protests and the recent spate of self-immolations, that Tibetan youth is becoming radicalized in the face of an apparently immovable Chinese position, and without the calming influence of their spiritual leader it is possible that further violence might erupt.

China continues to focus on the economic development of Tibet, hoping that continued economic prosperity will help Tibetans feel more integrated into China. China has invested heavily in Tibetan roads, housing, schools and electrical grids so that it may feel the benefits of being part of China. Yet proposals that carry with them the prospect of greater prosperity, such as the proposal to extend the railway from Lhasa further into Tibet, are also viewed with suspicion by some Tibetans who fear that they are just another tool for the Chinese military to ensure control over the region is maintained. To assuage these fears, China needs to pay more attention to the legitimate complaints of Tibetans who feel that their culture and history is being destroyed. This loss cannot be compensated with the kind of economic progress that has, so far, satiated other parts of Chinese society.



Taiwan: Strait Talking


More than sixty years after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China when Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists fled to the island, Taiwan remains at the core of domestic and foreign policy decisions for Beijing. Despite enjoying de facto independence, having never been directly ruled by the CCP, Taiwan is considered by Beijing to be an inalienable part of its territory and the goal of ‘reunification’ is one of its highest priorities. This is resisted in Taiwan where most people favor retention of the status quo; that is, neither a declaration of de jure independence – a move that would almost certainly provoke an angry reaction from the mainland – nor a move to accept CCP rule over the island. The issue is a sensitive one in China at both the political and societal levels and any suggestion of support for an independent Taiwan ordinarily sparks heated responses from China, which accuses its protagonists of trying to ‘split’ China. It is a complex, emotional, and seemingly intractable problem.

Chinese Annexation and Japanese Colonialism

Taiwan was formerly known as Formosa in the West

Known as the island of Formosa in its past, Taiwan’s history over the past two hundred years has been complex. The largest island of the Formosa island chain located off the southeastern coast of mainland China, it was originally the home of aborigines and the occasional Chinese migrant, refugee, and pirate. Neither Western nor Asian powers showed any sincere interest in acquiring the island until the late seventeenth century, when China brought Taiwan under its authority in order to quell pirates using the island as a base of operations. China largely left the island untouched until the Qing Dynasty was forced to cede the island to Japan after its loss in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5. Qing subjects were given a two-year grace period to sell their property and move to mainland China if they so wished, but very few Taiwanese saw this as feasible and most remained under Japanese rule. An 1895 effort by pro-Qing Taiwanese officials to challenge impending Japanese rule was quickly put down by Japanese forces.

During Japan’s fifty-year control of Taiwan, the occupying government imposed harsh rule on the island, showing no tolerance of dissent, and limiting lucrative jobs and business contracts to Japanese living on the island. Aboriginals and Chinese were treated as second-class citizens. Despite this harsh rule, the Japanese helped to develop Taiwan’s economy and brought with them technology that was unseen on the Chinese mainland. They also helped to enlarge Taiwan’s railroad and other transportation networks, built a widespread sanitation system, and developed the public school system. Rice and sugarcane production also increased greatly under Japanese occupation. Thus, by the end of the World War II the island of Taiwan was much better off than mainland China. That it was largely saved from the ravages of the Japanese occupation that were meted out on the mainland certainly helped in this, but it is an uncomfortable truth for those on both sides of the strait that Taiwan owed its position of relative economic strength to its former occupiers.

The Republic of China

Japanese rule over Taiwan came to an end after they surrendered to the Allies at the end of World War II in 1945. At this time the approximately 300,000 Japanese living in Taiwan were repatriated back to Japan. After Japan’s surrender Taiwan once again fell formally under Chinese rule, which was by this time under by the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT), with China now formally called the Republic of China (ROC). Celebration of the island’s return to Chinese rule was short lived. Tension soon built between the locals on the island and their new government. The source of this tension was two-fold. Firstly the KMT government questioned Taiwanese loyalties after their having been subject to fifty years of Japanese rule. The KMT thus continued Japan’s policy of treating the Taiwanese as second-class citizens. Secondly, as the KMT was fighting a civil war with the Communists in China, they took every resource available on the island to support their war efforts.

These tensions culminated in the 228 Massacre of 1947, so called because it occurred on February 28th. What started off as police harassing an old woman who was peddling cigarettes turned into island-wide riots in which local residents attacked mainland immigrants and their property. KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek and Taiwan governor Chen Yi responded by bringing in military reinforcements to restore order to the island. The result was the execution of as many as 4,000 Taiwanese. The 228 Massacre was the start of the nearly four-decade White Terror in which the KMT established a dictatorship over the island and suppressed any organized dissent.

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Monument in modern day Taipei

In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek was forced to flee to Taiwan after Mao Zedong and the Communists took control over all of mainland China and founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Eventually, 2 million people, most of them soldiers, KMT party members, intellectuals and business elite where evacuated to Taiwan. These refugees brought with them many national Chinese art treasures, as well as gold in foreign currency reserves. Most people on the island believed this would be the end of the KMT as Mao amassed an invasion force in the Chinese province of Fujian, directly across the Taiwan Strait from the island. In addition, the US, the KMT’s largest provider of funds and material, announced it would take no further steps to support Chiang in his fight against the Communists. It appeared that it was simply a matter of time before the PRC would gain control of the island.

The situation changed quickly in 1950, however, when communist North Korean soldiers crossed the attacked the US ally South Korea. US President Harry Truman, fearing communist attempts to take over all of Asia, reversed his policy on Taiwan and sent the US Naval Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to protect the island from Chinese invasion. This led to a political and military stalemate that is still basically in effect today. Because of the Cold War, most Western nations and the United Nations regarded Taiwan’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China until the 1970s, when the most nations began switching their recognition to the PRC, a response to a thaw in relations with the US that saw it achieve mutual diplomatic recognition by 1978. Initially, Taiwan held the seat on the United Nations Security Council under its formal name of the Republic of China, recognized as the sole legitimate government of all of China. In November 1971, the seat was transferred to the PRC, since which time Taiwan has had no formal representation at the UN despite some sporadic attempts to achieve this.

Taiwan’s accelerated economic growth since World War II has transformed it from a largely agrarian island into an industrialized, developed society. The IMF categorizes it as an ‘advanced’ economy, and the World Bank considers it to be a ‘high income’ economy. One of the strengths of its economy is its advanced technology industry, which plays a significant role in the global economy. Although most of this manufacturing is now outsourced to mainland China, Taiwanese companies still control the production of a large portion of the world’s consumer electronics.

Political Reform


The Sun Yat-sen Memorial in Taipei

Chiang Kai-shek died in April 1975, just over a year before the death of his old foe, Mao Zedong. Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, took over. The younger Chiang slowly instituted political reform, allowing more native Taiwanese to enter into the bureaucracy and tolerating limited dissent. One example of the latter was the Tangwai. While the KMT did not allow any opposition parties to develop before 1987, it did allow for candidates to run for office independently. Thus some independent activists and politicians founded the Tangwai. The Tangwai, whose name literally translates as “outside the party”, was a loose coalition of people whose main commonality was opposition to the KMT’s dictatorship. The KMT did occasionally persecute its members, namely in response to a 1979 protest held in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. Nevertheless, KMT leaders largely tolerated the organization.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the island’s first enduring opposition party, was founded in 1986, a year before such parties officially became legal. The DPP’s makeup was similar to that of the Tangwai in that members were united predominantly in their opposition to the KMT. In fact, the DPP was made up largely of former KMT members. However, within a few years of its founding, the party had established itself as a pro-Taiwanese independence party that promoted a Taiwanese cultural and national identity.

Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988 and was replaced by his hand-picked successor Lee Teng-hui, the first native Taiwanese to become ROC president and KMT chairman. Lee continued with Chiang Ching-kuo’s reforms, working within the KMT and with activists to open up more government positions to competitive election. For example, the National Assembly and Legislative Yuan, the government’s two legislative bodies, had their first general elections in the early 1990s, and Taipei, the island’s capital, had its first competitive mayoral elections in 1994, which was won by the DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian.

Shi Yali /

Taiwan’s current president is the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou

Taiwan’s democratic reforms continued through the early 1990s and culminated with the island’s first ever direct presidential election, held in 1996. Interestingly, in a world where dictatorial parties tend to get punished in free elections, the KMT’s Lee Teng-hui won what was widely considered to be a fair election. China reacted angrily to the possibility of elections in Taiwan and engaged in military exercises in the Taiwan Strait in a naked attempt to intimidate politicians and voters on the island. The move backfired as it led to the US intervening by sending its aircraft carrier into the area as a warning to the Chinese. The move also appeared to harden both the determination to democratize as well as the opposition to any suggestion of ‘reunification’ with the mainland. Four years later, taking advantage of a split KMT ticket, DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian was elected and succeeded Lee, becoming the first non-KMT president of Taiwan and marking the first change in government brought about by democratic elections anywhere in the Chinese speaking world.

Despite grand hopes that the new ruling party brought with them into office, Chen’s eight years as president were largely disappointing. There were many causes of this disappointment. For example, Chen came to power during a global economic downturn. As Taiwan has an export-based economy, the slump in demand significantly harmed many Taiwanese livelihoods. Additionally, China refused to deal with Chen, declaring him to be a Taiwanese separatist with whom they could not deal. While economic ties between the two sides continued to strengthen, political ties significantly worsened. Another problem lay in people’s expectations of Chen himself. Chen, as president, actually had relatively little power to keep his campaign promises. The power his predecessors enjoyed were largely due to martial law and other temporary revisions the government put in place during the KMT’s dictatorship. As the country instituted democratic reform, many of these presidential powers were taken away and given back to the legislature, where the writers of the constitution originally allocated them. This left Chen mostly powerless to enact some of the reforms he promised. Lastly, many in Chen’s administration, and ultimately Chen himself, were accused of corruption. After Chen’s terms as president ended, he was indicted on charges of bribery and is now in prison serving a 19 year sentence, though he maintains that the trial was politically motivated.

The teahouses of Jiufen

The KMT took back the presidency in 2008 with the election of Ma Ying-jeou, showing the resilience of this once dictatorial party. Ma has moved to improve relations with the mainland, recognizing the futility of antagonizing Beijing and the enormous potential of cross-straits trade, though he has always stopped short of advocating imminent reunification. The KMT remains rhetorically committed to the goal of reunifying with the mainland, though insists that this cannot be under the rule of the CCP. Though this had previously been an unacceptable stance to Beijing it has become the lesser of two evils in contrast to the pro-independence stance taken by many in the DPP. Ma was re-elected in January 2012 with more than 51% of the vote on an impressive turnout of over 74%.

Relations with China

Alan49 /

Taiwan’s army is focused almost entirely on one possible aggressor

Despite having a mature and stable government, a thriving economy, and an active civil society, Taiwan’s status in the international community remains in limbo. The reason for this is the position of China. Beijing insistence that Taiwan is a part of China that must eventually come under Beijing’s rule, whether peacefully or by force, remains a stumbling block for Taiwan in many of its dealings with the international community. Though Taiwan has never made a formal declaration of independence, partly because of the KMT’s stance that Taiwan is part of one China but also because of the fear of serious reprisals from Beijing if it did so, Taiwan maintains its de facto independence. In other words, Taiwan is independent for all practical means and purposes. It maintains set geographical boundaries, a government to rule over lands within those boundaries and this government and its state are recognized by its population. The international realm is not so clear. Other states do recognize Taiwan’s passport but most do no conduct formal bilateral relations with the island, although many maintain links in an unofficial capacity. There are 23 states that maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei instead of Beijing, a reduction from 71 in 1969, the most significant among them being Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and the Vatican. A practice of the PRC and Taiwan competing for diplomatic recognition among states seems to have come to an end; according to a document released by Wikileaks, Panama made moves to switch its recognition to the Beijing but was asked to remain with Taipei in order not to cause diplomatic embarrassment at a time when cross-straits relations were improving. Taiwan is therefore not able to enjoy de jure independence, which means it is not independent according to law. This means that Taiwan cannot join many international organizations that require statehood for membership. These organizations include the UN and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Additionally, when joining in other international events and organizations, Taiwan must join under some alternate name, such as its official Olympic title of Chinese Taipei.

Christopher Parypa /

The US continues to supply F16s to Taiwan, despite objections from China

The status of Taiwan cannot be ignored in any aspect of China’s international relations; it is impossible for any state in the international system to have diplomatic relations with Beijing without recognizing the PRC’s sovereignty over the island. This is especially pronounced in the relationship with the US, and in almost every high level political meeting it is incumbent on the representatives of the US to reiterate their support for the “one-China policy”. However, there is a nuance to this acceptance by the US in that it explicitly opposes any actions or statements that would “unilaterally alter Taiwan’s status”. This applies to both Taiwan and the PRC, meaning that Taiwan has an insurance policy in its relationship with the US that ought to deter China from making the first move in any conflict. The special relationship that exists between the US and Taiwan is at the root of this sensitivity, but it is more serious than a linguistic exercise in diplomacy. The US has, on several occasions, demonstrated its willingness to defend Taiwan should it be subject to an unprovoked attack from the PRC. This was evidenced in the 1996 deployment of warships to the Taiwan Strait in response to PRC missile testing in the region. Additionally, the US has continued to meet its legal obligation to provide Taiwan with defensive arms which provokes strongly worded protests from Beijing on each occasion. Since 1990, according to a US Congressional report, Taiwan has requested major purchases in every calendar year except for 2006 and 2009. One of the most recent purchases, agreed in January 2010, included 114 PAC-3 defense missiles and 60 Black Hawk helicopters in a deal worth almost $6.4 billion; one of the largest ever agreed. In September 2011, the US reached a decision to refurbish Taiwan’s fleet of F-16s, fitting them with AESA radars (a form of stealth technology) but stopping short of approving the sale of new planes, but going far enough to anger China. While there are now some calls among American academics to rethink this alliance, it is unlikely to alter in the near future. The involvement of the US seems to assure that the future will be one of an easy maintenance of the status quo. While far from a perfect a solution, this is probably the best option for all concerned.

Christopher Parypa /

China Airlines, Taiwan’s national carrier, now flies direct to the mainland

The period of Chen Shui-bian’s presidency was certainly a low point in cross-straits relations, but the recovery since Ma’s election in 2008 has been impressive and encouraging. Political gestures have been important in this process, most notably the historic visit to the mainland by then-chairman of the KMT, Lien Chan, in 2008. Following Lien’s trip Beijing relaxed rules on Taiwan residents visiting the mainland and on mainlanders visiting Taiwan. The result was a dramatic increase in grassroots exchanges across the strait, with up to 3000 mainland tourists visiting the island every day. Direct flights were permanently established in the same year as Lien’s visit and have expanded consistently ever since, with a total of 558 weekly direct flights between the island and one of 41 cities on the mainland. Taiwanese investment in the mainland is thought to be greater than from any other territory, though the exact figures are obscured by a tendency for the investment to be channeled through tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands. More than one million Taiwan residents – around 5% of the population – now live on the mainland.

Future Trends

Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world for a time

While maintaining such an unconventional status within the international arena does present some symbolic challenges for the Taiwanese, the situation across the Strait right now remains stable and even mutually-beneficial for both sides. By some measurements, Taiwan is the number one source of FDI into China, providing valuable capital and knowledge from Taiwan’s world-class IT industries. In turn, these economic ties have allowed Taiwanese companies to remain cost-effective even as the island has shifted away from a labor-intensive to a knowledge-intensive economy. These economic ties have also gone some way in tempering Beijing’s saber rattling towards the island. One example of this was seen in 1996 when local officials in Fujian province, an important destination for Taiwanese capital, encouraged Beijing to show restraint during missile tests in the Strait, lest they scare off investors from the island. While CCP leaders say that economic factors would not deter an attack on the island if warranted, the prospect of the flight of Taiwanese capital from China certainly raises the potential cost for any Chinese action.

Although most states in the world continue to pay lip service to China’s ‘one China’ policy, they also maintain informal relations with Taiwan in their day-to-day affairs, particularly in the economic sphere. The US, in particular the US Congress, is Taiwan’s most ardent and powerful supporter. The involvement of the US and the potential for a conflict between to the world’s two greatest powers means that the cost of China acting unilaterally with regard to Taiwan is high, though the complexities of the forces competing for influence in China over this issue mean that it cannot entirely be ruled out. Oddly, one of the most potent sources of political tension in the region – the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands – has provided an opportunity for improved relations between China and Taiwan, since both share a rhetorical position on the matter. Nevertheless, the most likely future path for Taiwan and its relationship with the mainland is one of an uneasy maintenance of the status quo; it is in neither side’s interests to act unilaterally and the scope for common ground is too narrow to allow an agreement to be reached in the foreseeable future. Taiwan will not gain the independence that some of its people seek, but it is unlikely to be swallowed whole by China any time soon.