China is the world’s fourth largest country by landmass. It’s nearly three times bigger than India, with roughly the same population. It spans roughly four time zones (but uses only one). Its terrain encompasses desert, jungle, plains and river valley—and everything in between. It has 9,000 miles of coastline. In other words, it’s big.
But apparently not big enough.
China abuts 14 other countries—the most neighbors in the world—and has had border disputes of some kind with all of them. Two of these disputes, with Vietnam and India, have broken out into open, deadly fighting. In all, China is claiming territory or rights at sea from nine nations. In the South China Sea, armed standoffs and threats—most recently with the Philippines—are regular occurrences.
Many of the land parcels have little intrinsic value. The area in the Himalayas hotly contested with India, for instance, is basically uninhabited. There is some strategic value in that China wishes to build roads or pipelines, but given China’s massive wealth, these rights of way could be negotiated without threat. Instead, this is about sheer nationalism—China’s post-Communist secular faith. While flexing its muscle militarily and in space, China has also embarked on a determined campaign of classic irredentism: contesting lands that it claims rightfully belong to China—or once did.
Others countries in the region—most notably Japan with Russia, South Korea, and Taiwan—also have border issues. Indeed, such disputes are common throughout the world. But it’s the volume of Chinese claims, coupled with China’s massive military and financial clout, that makes these objectionable and sometimes frightening to its neighbors and to the international community. If any adjacent country had doubts about what China might do with acquired territory, ongoing events in Hong Kong made the future all too clear. Moreover, some areas, like Tibet and Xinjiang no longer have border disputes because China forcibly incorporated them into its greater polity.
These actions make a certain sense within Chinese nationalism for they are based on history. Over the millennia, China has taken many geographical and political forms, from warring fiefdoms to continental empires, all within shifting borders. Nevertheless, China has defined its rightful current borders to include any desired place that was once considered within the realm of China—no matter how fleetingly or how tenuously it was held. But even that claim is based on sand. As Evelyn Rawski wrote in her comprehensive book, Early Modern China and Northeast Asia, while the various governments spoke of a grand polity, “Chinese rhetoric belied the inability of the Chinese state to control the vast territories that it claimed.”
As a result, China is currently clawing at chunks of territory—some of which haven’t seen any form of Chinese hegemony in ages. This is currently playing itself out in several tense areas.
In India, for instance, the spring of 2020 marked an escalation of a long-standing face-off between troops of the two countries over several spots in the Himalayas, including Tibet. It reached its height that June with the beating deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and over 40 Chinese troops sustaining casualties. The following September, for the first time in 45 years, shots were exchanged. It’s a far cry from the 1960s when a full-blown war left hundreds dead and thousands injured. This time, both countries are nuclear powers and vying for influence in the region and the world. Moreover, with border conflicts still ongoing and a substantial Tibetan diaspora, India is the center of resistance to Chinese irredentism. Google “China border disputes” and a majority of the news stories and reports originate in India.
But the most visible territorial flashpoint right now is the South China Sea. In the area of the Whitsun Reef, the Philippines is demanding that China remove some 200 vessels from the area Manila claims as its own. China is stalling, claiming according to Japan’s Nikkei news service, “that the Chinese vessels were sheltering from ‘adverse weather conditions when there were none’ and the ‘nonexistence of maritime militia in the area.’”
But Manila-Beijing is just one dispute in the area; others, notably, are Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. As this article was being written, Malaysia scrambled a dozen aircraft to confront Chinese warplanes flying over shoals claimed by Malaysia near its territory of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. China’s aggressive militarizing of the largely uninhabited but strategically important Spratley and Paracel Islands has also drawn in the U.S. Navy ostensibly to protect the world’s shipping lanes but also as a counterweight to China’s expanding footprint.
Meanwhile, China’s clampdown on the Uighur Autonomous Region is part and parcel of its ongoing push into Central Asia. China, has claimed for instance nearly the whole of adjoining Kyrgyzstan, based on its one-time incorporation into the Qing Empire. In 1863, China was forced to cede Kyrgyzstan to the Russian Empire. It remained in the Soviet Union and achieved independence in the 1990s. Although China has for now relinquished territorial claims on adjacent Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, resentment over its lost territory is still present in Chinese nationalist circles.
China’s 2002 nationalist-inspired Northeast Asia Project raised the ire of Koreans who saw it as an attempt to block North Korean immigration into China based on China’s historical interpretation. Indeed, the Chinese behind the project cited the history of the ethnic Korean Koguryo peoples whose fifth-century territory crossed today’s boundary lines. More recently in the late 1800s, the Korean Joseon Dynasty claimed that the area of northeast China inhabited by ethnic Koreans was, in fact, Korean territory. Fortunately, this feud has so far played itself out in scholarly journals and conferences.
The fervor over these various territorial disputes—with India, Korea, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia—burns in the inflammatory tracts and pronouncements of nationalists that make their way into Chinese media—social and otherwise. That these irredentist messages are tolerated by the Chinese government indicates that Beijing to a degree approves of the message—even if it isn’t always prepared to act on it.
The most notable case lies in the Russian Far East, where jingoist Chinese claim territory north from Manchuria through Vladivostok and beyond. China did have periodic settlement in the area, but it was never extensive or deeply rooted. There they clashed with both Japan and Russia until Russia won it in the 1858 treaty of Aigun and solidified its hold after World War Two. Russia and China have indulged in armed clashes in the region as recently as 1969, and it’s hardly a secret that China covets the abundant resources of the region. But the fact that Russia is itself militarily aggressive—and nuclear armed—makes any Chinese takeover moves highly unlikely, at least for now.
But Russia has seen during its tenure in Eastern Siberia what can happen to territories on its periphery. Manchuria was once the home of a distinct peoples called the Manchu. These people spoke a language related to those of the indigenous tribes of Siberia and not related to Chinese languages. They were expansionist and conquered China in the seventeenth century, founding the Qing Dynasty. In the end, though, their home territory was saturated with Han Chinese coming from the North China Plain who eventually intermarried with the scarcer Manchu population until today there are just a handful of Manchu-speaking people left in the area. China, it seems, doesn’t so much defeat its enemies as absorb them.
With 4,000 years of history, China is able to pick and choose which history it wants to cite to justify its border belligerence. At times the Chinese hark back to the Yuan Empire s when its boundaries reached their greatest extent in the fourteenth century. Although basing territorial claims on ancient configurations is hazardous at best and fraudulent at worst, China makes its claims with a straight face.
But maybe attainment of these dubious goals isn’t the aim of the policy of irredentism. Instead, re-actualization of empire likely fulfills other, present, needs. This is the muscular attempt to wipe away the centuries when China under the Qing Dynasty was forced into humiliating treaties, invaded and eventually partially occupied by the West and Japan. The hurt is real and if not everyone in China is concerned with it, enough are to create a receptive constituency for extravagant territorial claims. That’s why, at heart this isn’t so much a foreign policy adventure as an attempt at righting history and, as it turns out, a largely successful attempt at internal cohesion.
In the end, China does not seem to want open warfare, certainly not with Japan, India, or above all the United States. It’s sufficient for those nations to occasionally back down and perhaps sign treaties that can be presented to the Chinese public as triumphs, even if the gain is slight and of little consequence. China seems to want the world to be scared of it, and maybe that’s all. The problem is these things have a way of spiraling out of hand and meaningless clashes have often turned into global calamities.