Since 2021, China has repeatedly introduced legislation to strengthen and expand its territorial claims in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Himalayan Borderlands. In October 2021, China adopted a new land border law to strengthen its border control and for related purposes. Similarly, its January 2021 Coast Guard law went into effect in February of that year. Also, its Maritime Traffic Safety Law took effect on September 1, 2021. These new regulations, introduced unilaterally by Beijing, have only upped the ante in its Asian neighborhood.
Controversial Ten-Dash Map
More recently, in September 2023, Beijing published a new standard map. It features a so-called "ten-dash line," extending Beijing's claim over most of the South China Sea. The map not only rejects the 2016 international court ruling declaring its so-called "nine-dash line" unlawful but also extends into newer territory.
Further, China's new map affects India as well. While China is already negotiating a dispute with India regarding Ladakh, the map has ignited a new dispute. The ten dashes extend to the waters around the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as well as the Aksai Chin plateau.
The maritime claims reflected in its new map are unlawful and are China's furtive attempt to obfuscate international sovereignty. In effect, it sends out a lucid message that Beijing does not respect a rules-based international order and is unlikely to conform to any consensus-based framework.
Local Border Wars
In recent decades, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has been concentrating on preparing itself for potential conflict situations around its borders in high-altitude areas. Assessing the regional dynamics, Beijing seemingly is working towards retaining the edge from a strategic and geographic vantage point.
A nation's military strategy is fundamentally crucial and consequential in defining its operational doctrine. The gradual enhancement in China's military capabilities during the last decade poses significant challenges to its neighboring countries in East Asia.
Beijing's military buildup indicates its orientation towards Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, the South China Sea, and the Himalayan high-altitude region. In all, China's objective to fight and win local border wars, maritime or land, poses a grave challenge to regional stability.
With local conflicts and regional flashpoints as a recurrent theme, the PLA has expanded militarily and made profound preparations for military struggle. Such preparations serve as a key impetus to its overall military modernization.
The PLA has tried to accentuate modernization from a higher platform by building newer combat capabilities to win local wars. It has focused on raising its fighting capabilities based on information systems and enhancing its capabilities in firepower and mobility, among others. China currently implements a military strategy of active defense by strengthening the architecture of its armed forces. That includes upgrades to its border, territorial sea, and territorial air defenses.
Furthermore, the PRC has been carrying out extensive infrastructure development in the high-altitude regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. It has also been doing the same in areas close to its southern borders. These include the development of road, rail, and air networks, fiber-optic networks, pipelines, telecommunications, and industrial bases. Such extensive development of logistics infrastructure indicates the priority given to the PLA's logistics capability, which, in turn, will enhance its operational capability in China's western frontier.
Military Posturing Backed by Legislation
In the maritime realm, China's rapid reaction capability in sea-based operations has provided the much-needed fillip to Beijing's naval preparedness. Combined, it accentuates the enhanced ability of the PLA to become a more mobile and better-equipped fighting force. A force that can be deployed faster and sustained over a longer period. Such a military force would provide Beijing with all-inclusive support for any potential offensive operation outside of its mainland.
This military preparedness and posturing are backed by China's persistent introduction of domestic legislation expanding its land and maritime borders. Such laws are aimed at suggesting a focal point for negotiations in territorial disputes. Backed by robust military stealth, Beijing can be expected to employ these laws in all its disputes surrounding territory. Its goal, of course, is to win favorable terms of settlement.
The new laws have galvanized assessments on how Beijing might employ them to justify its assertive politico-military posture and expansionism. The PLA's posturing in the border regions seemingly rests on Beijing's legislative foundations. This also comes against the backdrop of rising strategic uncertainty across Asia, creating a perilous combination. It could raise the strategic ante much beyond anticipation.
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Author: Dr Monika Chansoria
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter).