China: The most Hostile Neighbor

China and its Neighbours: troubled relations

China: The most Hostile Neighbor

As the most populous country in the world and third-largest in area, China also has the largest number of neighbours (14) sharing its 22,000km land borders namely: North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. China has had or still has, border issues with some of its neighbours. The biggest outstanding border issue is with India. This paper reviews the origins of China’s border disputes with its neighbours, the current state of development, and discusses what can be done to overcome the challenges China is facing in the region.

North Korea

North Korea (DRPK), China’s closest ally, shares a 1,416-kilometre-long border, which has been mainly defined by two rivers, the Yalu and the Tumen, as agreed between both sides in 1962, Sino-Korean border treaty. There are, however, disputes mainly concerning the demarcation line in the middle of the rivers, ownership of islands and particularly Mount Paektu, which is the highest peak in the region and the source of the two rivers. Another source of tension is access to the Sea of Japan. Since the last part of the Tumen river defines the border between the DRPK and Russia, China has no access to the Sea of Japan which has further implications on its military strategy in the region. In the Yellow Sea, an economic and fishing zone has been drawn unilaterally by the North Koreans 200 miles off the Chinese coast. Unlike the border demarcation between the DPRK and Russia, which was renegotiated in the early 1990s, the territorial and maritime disputes between North Korea and China have not been effectively resolved, largely due to China’s unwillingness to negotiate and the DPRK’s dependence on China, both politically and economically. But these disputes hardly constitute a serious problem in relations between the two countries.


China shares its second-longest border of 4,300 km with Russia. The disputed area in the eastern border mainly concerns Zhenbao Island (Damansky in Russian) on the Usui River and some islands on the Amur and Argun rivers situated in China’s northern tip.  China claims historical ownership over these disputed territories arguing that unfair treaties were signed between the Qing Empire and Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. The USSR refused to accept this interpretation and insisted on its ownership. Although both sides reached a preliminary agreement in the early 1960s that Zhenbao Island would be under Chinese sovereignty, border clashes took place that lasted for seven months in 1969. Later that year, there were further conflicts in the Pamir Mountains that lay on the western border of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tajikistan.  Consequently, Sino-Soviet relations soured after the 1969 conflict. Serious border negotiations did not take place until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The question of control over Zhenbao Island, and three other islands in the Amur and Argun rivers were finally settled in 1995 and 2004 respectively, whilst the demarcation of the western border was completed in 2008. In 2011, Heixiazi Island (Bolshoy Ussurysky Island), once a bone of contention at the confluence of the Amur and Ussurui rivers, was officially opened up as an eco-tourism zone after Russia had ceded half of the 335 square-km islands to China in 2004. Both sides now refer to each other as strategic partners and are fellow members of the BRICS.


Having been taken over by China in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1364) and gained international recognition of its independence in 1946, Mongolia shares a border of 4677 km with China, the longest for both countries. The Sino-Mongolian border treaty was signed in 1962, and a final agreement on the exact demarcation of the border was reached in 2005. China increasingly turns to Mongolia to meet its energy needs. Interestingly, when both China and Russia offered in 2008 to build a railway from the Tavan Tolgoi mine, one of the world’s largest unexploited coal deposits, using different tracks in opposite directions, the Mongolian government decided to ‘synchronize’ the opening of two export railways, adopting a middle-way approach to please both sides. Having been effectively a Soviet colony until 1991, Mongolia has since developed closer ties with China, not just in trade and natural resources but also on security issues.


China and Kazakhstan share a border of 1,700 km in China’s vast North Western province of Xin Jiang. Border disputes date back to Soviet times. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the new Central Asian countries including Kazakhstan took over these border disputes with China. In 1998, a treaty was signed between China and Kazakhstan, which settled a disputed area of 680 square-km near the Baimurz pass and another 380 square-km area near the Sary-Charndy River. When the treaty was signed China offered a lucrative economic package including investment in one of Kazakhstan’s biggest oil fields, a 3,000-km gas pipeline across Kazakhstan and a 15-year economic co-operation programme. A close relationship with Kazakhstan serves China’s long-term interests in the region, both economically and strategically. Not only does it release China from relying excessively on imported oil from the Middle East through a lengthy and risky shipping route but it serves as a buffer zone between China and Russia. Kazakhstan is increasingly important for China in terms of security cooperation, especially combating Uighur separatism.


As with Kazakhstan, the border dispute between China and Kyrgyzstan is the legacy of Soviet times. An agreement was reached in 1999, which defines 900 out of 1,100 km of the Kyrgyz-Chinese border. Accordingly, Kyrgyzstan received 70% of the disputed territory including the 7,000m peak of Khan-Tengri in Tien Shan, whilst China received 9 square-km of the mountainous area of the Uzengi-Kush located south of the Issyk Kul Region. The signing of the agreement provoked some heated reaction in the Kyrgyz parliament as the then-President Akayev was considered ‘traitorous’ and nearly ousted. The demarcation of the boundary was finally completed in 2009. As a result of ethnic tensions in Kyrgyzstan, China temporarily closed its border in 2010. China has offered to help Kyrgyzstan build a power grid in the South, which would be the largest inter-governmental project between the two countries.


 After reaching border agreements with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, China’s border negotiations with Tajikistan lagged behind due to the civil war in Tajikistan. In 1999 an agreement was reached in which China would gain sovereignty over an area of 1,000 square km in the Pamir Mountains, lying on the Tajik border with China and Afghanistan, less than 5.5% of what China had originally claimed. China’s substantial concession in this border settlement is believed to be closely associated with the surge of violence in Xinjiang province since the early 1990s. China looks to Central Asian governments to crack down on Islamic fundamentalism and Uighur separatism.  


China and Afghanistan share the 210 km border known as the Wakhan Corridor, situated between Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Historically, a caravan trade of fruit and tea flourished in the Wakhan corridor for centuries. Border disputes in the area were settled as early as 1963. During most of the Cold War period, China had very friendly relations with Afghanistan. However, relations with the Taliban regime were very hostile as the Taliban was a staunch supporter of the Uyghur separatists and the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’. In 2009, the Afghan government proposed to open the border as an alternative supply route to help combat the Taliban. To co-operate with Afghanistan, China adopted “an earnest and positive attitude” over transport, trade and economy. In December 2011, the Afghan government signed a deal with China’s National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) allowing the CNPC to exploit natural gas and oil in the country’s northeast that could earn Afghanistan $7 billion over the next 25 years.


Four years on from its independence in 1947, Pakistan established diplomatic relations with China, one year after India. At the time, there were unresolved border issues to which neither side paid serious attention. After the Sino-Indian war in 1962, China and Pakistan became aligned with each other, even though they clearly did not share the same political values. As a result of a border agreement in 1963, China ceded 1,942 sq-km to Pakistan in exchange for Pakistan’s recognition of Chinese sovereignty over parts of North Kashimir and Ladakh. This agreement is considered economically beneficial for Pakistan and bilateral relations between Pakistan and China have since improved significantly. Currently, China and Pakistan share a 523 km long border, ending near the Karakoram Pass. There are no border disputes between them.  China has sided with Pakistan in the dispute that Kashmir does not belong to India. If and when the Kashmir dispute is resolved there will need to be an additional agreement between Pakistan and China.


The borders between the Indian subcontinent and China have been peaceful for thousands of years and India was among the first nations to grant diplomatic recognition to the PRC in 1950. However, there have been disputes over competing historical claims, partly fuelled by the British penchant for drawing administratively convenient borders during the colonial period.  Two territories currently in dispute are Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. Aksai Chin is claimed by China as part of Hotan County in the Hotan Prefecture of Xinjiang Autonomous Region and by India as a part of the Ladakh district of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Despite being an uninhabitable area with no resources, Aksai Chin has strategic importance for China as it connects Tibet and Xinjiang. In 1957 China completed building a road in Aksai Chin, about which India did not know until a Chinese map was published in 1958.

Arunachal Pradesh, situated in India’s north-eastern border has been a separate state since 1986 and is claimed by China as ‘Southern Tibet’. British Administrator, Sir Henry McMahon drew up the 890 km ‘McMahon Line’ which defined the border between British India and Outer Tibet at the Simla conference in 1913-14.  While the British and Tibetans signed the resulting Accord the Chinese did not.  Today, India still recognises the McMahon Line as the border but the Chinese disagree, citing Arunachal Pradesh as being geographically and culturally part of Tibet since ancient times. After tensions built up following the Dalai Lama’s exile during the Tibetan uprising in 1959, a Sino-Indian war erupted in 1962 over this disputed Himalayan border. China swiftly declared victory but voluntarily withdrew back to the McMahon Line. Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh remain sources of tensions between China and India and both sides have not managed to negotiate an agreement as to the precise border. Meanwhile, trade and economic ties between China and India have developed substantially in recent years.


China and Nepal share a border of 1,415 km, which was demarcated according to a 1961 treaty. There has been no major border dispute since and China’s relations with Nepal have been generally smooth and friendly. Nepal considers China a major source of investment, development aid and economic support, whereas China sees Nepal as a strategic buffer state against India with regard to Tibet. Although Nepal stopped accepting Tibetan refugees in the 1980s, they are generally allowed to cross Nepal on their way to India, an informal agreement, which does not seriously antagonise China.


Another buffer state between China and India and a traditional ally with the latter, Bhutan has not established official ties with China, thus relations have been frosty. Both sides share a border of roughly 470 km with a disputed territory of 495 square-km. Although there have been negotiations on border settlement in the last two decades, their competing claims have not been reconciled.


Burma established official ties with the PRC in 1950, the first non-Communist state to recognise Communist China. Today, China and Burma share a 2,185 km border based on the border agreement of 1960.  Relations between both sides were volatile throughout the Cold War, largely due to alleged discrimination of ethnic Chinese within Burma. Since China started supporting the military junta in 1986, the Burmese regime has become highly dependent on the Chinese both financially and militarily, especially after the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1988 in Burma. Today China is the largest trade partner for Burma. Whilst China has been helping Burma build its infrastructure and develop its industries, Burma in return offers China oil, gas and other natural resources. The economic relations between the countries have strong political connotations. China had for years sheltered the Burmese military junta from UN sanctions and ensured its domestic stability. Burma, on the other hand, is important for China, not just for its natural resources, but its strategic location in South Asia. However, a growing number of problems on both sides, evidenced by the sudden halt of the Myitisone dam project and incidents on the Mekong river, have shown the limitations of their relationship. In 2009, violent clashes between the Burmese government and the Kokang, a group of armed rebels in northern Burma, resulted in Chinese casualties and Burmese refugees flooding into the Chinese province of Yunan. Fearing the escalating violence would threaten China’s border security and economic interests in Burma, China repeated called for a ceasefire.


China shares a border of 505 km with Laos based on a border treaty signed in 1991. Although Sino-Laos relations were strained during the Cold War due to China’s involvement in Cambodia and Vietnam, diplomatic relations have been normalised since the early 1990s and China has become the largest foreign investor in Laos.


China shares a land border of 1,300 km with Vietnam. For centuries, Vietnam was subject to Chinese domination resulting in conflicts and invasions. During the Vietnam War (1954-1975), China was the ally of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its ally, the United States. Following the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1976, relations with Beijing deteriorated and in 1979 China invaded and fought a short but bloody war with Vietnam. While both sides claimed a victory each suffered heavy casualties. A border agreement was eventually signed in 1999 following border skirmishes throughout the 1980s. In 2007, the building of the Hanoi-Kunming highway was announced that marked a significant improvement in Sino-Vietnamese relations. While China has now become the second-largest trading partner and the largest source of imports for Vietnam, tensions over territorial issues were recently rekindled over the Spratly Island, an oil-rich area in the South China Sea.

Maritime Borders

Besides the obvious cross-strait relations with Taiwan, China shares maritime borders with four countries, Japan and South Korea in the East China Sea, the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea. These borders are not agreed and the subject of continuing disputes. In the  East China Sea (1,249,000 sq-km), China is currently in dispute with Japan and South Korea over the extent of their respective exclusive economic zones, each resorting to different parts of the UN Conventions on the Law of the Sea. In the South China Sea (3,500,000 sq-km), one of the world’s busiest waterways with huge potential oil and gas fields to be exploited, China claims most of the water ‘based on historical facts and international law’, a position that is disputed by its all its neighbours, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines. ASEAN has attempted to resolve the disputes through multi-lateral talks but China prefers to deal with each country on a bilateral basis.  Another factor is the presence of the US in the Pacific and its determination to uphold freedom of navigation. China has expressed concern at the American plans to increase its military presence in the region.


China has clearly been successful in resolving border disputes with most of its neighbours in a ‘win-win’ situation since the 1990s. The Central Asian borders were the easiest to resolve with China being willing to make concessions to enlist the support of these governments in combating a perceived security threat. The borders with the two fellow members of the UNSC were more difficult. It took a decade to reach an agreement with Russia and the border with India remains unresolved. It is, however, the maritime borders that have caused most trouble in the past two years with China being accused of increasingly assertive behaviour towards its neighbours.

It may be useful for China to revert to the diplomatic language it used during its ‘peaceful rise’ in order to assure its neighbours that it is not a bully. Whether China can regain the respect of its neighbours that it had during the era of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ remains to be seen. It will be a difficult balancing act for China – on the one hand demonstrating that it is back as a major power after the century of humiliation, and on the other wishing to be regarded as an important but peaceful neighbour. The last thing that China needs in its current situation is an armed conflict with any of its neighbours. In an era of growing political and economic interdependence, such a development could only impact negatively on China.