Home / World / China is doubling down on its territorial claims – here’s what you need to know

China is doubling down on its territorial claims – here’s what you need to know



From the South China Sea to the Sino-Indian Himalayan border, and even in one of its cities, China has doubled down on its land claims and taken a tougher line in response to perceived challenges.

And as these disputes escalate this year with new and growing tensions, Xi has stepped up the military and increased his budget, with the instruction to “resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.”

Here’s what you need to know about China’s major pain points in the Asia-Pacific region.

Dotted with small islands, coral reefs and shoals, the South China Sea is a crucial global shipping route and the site of a disordered territorial dispute.

Who claims what: China claims to own nearly all 1

.3 million square miles of the South China Sea, but at least six other governments have overlapping territorial claims in the disputed waterway: Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

The US has no claims in the waters, but has repeatedly contested China’s claims.

China went ahead and built islands anyway: Since 2014, China has transformed numerous coral reefs and dark sandbanks – far from its coast – into man-made islands heavily fortified with missiles, tracks and weapon systems, sparking protests from other governments.

The United States and its allies withdrew by sailing warships across the South China Sea near features claimed or occupied by China, in what it calls freedom of navigation (FONOPS) operations. They say that such patrols impose the right of free passage in international waters; China claims that these are violations of its sovereignty.

The Chinese-controlled artificial island of Mischief Reef in the South China Sea, seen on CNN from a US reconnaissance plane on August 10.
But things are escalating now: The United States has stepped up its challenges this year; it formally rejected China’s claims as illegal and sanctioned dozens of Chinese companies for building the artificial islands. In July, two US Navy aircraft carriers conducted joint military exercises at sea for the first time in six years, a strong show of strength.

All this has sparked Chinese fury and intensified tensions; China has launched a series of ballistic missiles at sea, with state media warning that “China is not afraid of war.”

Because it’s important: Under international law, anyone who owns the disputed series of islands in the sea will have the rights to all resources in its nearby waters such as fish, oil and gas. More broadly, whoever controls this sea will also have power over one of the world’s most valuable trade routes – home to a third of all global shipping.

What’s the matter with Taiwan?

Taiwan is an autonomous democratic island of around 24 million people, which separated from mainland China in 1949 after the end of a bloody civil war.

China insists that Taiwan is its territory: The authorities in Beijing claim full sovereignty of Taiwan, even though Taiwan has never been controlled by the ruling Communist Party of China. The two sides have been ruled separately for more than seven decades.

For years, Beijing has attempted to impose diplomatic, commercial and military pressure on Taipei, marginalizing it in the international community – for example, China has successfully blocked Taiwan from joining global agencies such as the World Health Organization.

What does it mean for other countries: Most countries are sticking to China’s demand that Taiwan not be recognized as an independent nation, publicly observing Beijing’s view that there is “only one China,” although many governments maintain close unofficial ties with Taiwan.

Things escalated this summer: In recent months, there has been a warming in relations between the United States and Taiwan, much to China’s anger.

Two high-profile US officials visited Taiwan in the space of two months, in a symbolic display of support from the Trump administration. In August, the United States also sold 66 fighter jets to Taiwan, the largest arms sale on the island in years.

In response, China carried out a series of military exercises and air strikes in the waters and airspace near Taiwan, marking a significant escalation of tensions.

Chinese officials warned in September that “China is firmly opposed to any form of official trade between the US and Taiwan.” Some even hinted at the threat of sanctions against US officials.

President Xi was clear in his ambitions to “reunify” the island with the mainland and refused to rule out the use of force. The recent military exercises have been described by the Chinese state media as “evidence for the takeover of Taiwan” and the threats of invasion have increased sharply as tensions with the United States escalate.

Why do China and India collide in the Himalayas?

The China-India conflict centers on a long-disputed border in the Himalayas.

After fighting a bloody border war in 1962, the two countries drew a loosely defined dividing line called the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

But I disagree on his position: Although the LAC appears on the maps, the two nuclear powers disagree on its exact location and both regularly accuse the other of overstepping it or trying to expand their territory.

They have a restless status quo: The countries signed a series of agreements in the 1990s to try to keep the peace, including an agreement that neither side will open fire within 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) of the LAC.

But things went wrong this year: This June saw the bloodiest Sino-Indian confrontation in over 40 years. Troops at the border fought with fists and stones in a brawl that killed at least 20 Indian soldiers; China has not recognized any victims. Both sides accused the other of crossing the border.
Things heated up in September after each side accused the other’s troops of firing warning shots. It is believed to have been the first time shots have been fired along the border since 1975.
Where do things stand now: Officials are now engaged in talks to reduce escalation; At the end of September, both sides agreed to stop sending troops to the border and to strengthen communications.

But a meaningful peacekeeping mechanism may be a long way off, in part due to increasingly assertive foreign policy on both sides.

Why is China fighting Japan for some tiny islands?

Both China and Japan have claimed a chain of rocky and uninhabited islands in the East China Sea as their own.

Located 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) southwest of Tokyo, the islands are known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China.

The islands are also claimed by Taiwan, where they are known as the Tiaoyutai Islands.

The overlapping statements: Both China and Taiwan say their claims about the island chain date back to the 1400s, when it was used as a stopping point for Chinese fishermen.

However, Japan claims it saw no trace of Chinese control of the islands during an 1885 investigation, so it formally recognized them as Japanese sovereign territory in 1895. The US occupation of Japan after World War II complicated matters, but eventually the islands were returned and Japan has administered them since the 1970s.

Because it’s important: The area has much coveted resources; has a rich fishing area and recent surveys suggest that the waters around the islands may contain oil and natural gas fields.

A Japanese military plane flies over the Senakuku / Diaoyu Islands in this photo.

How things have increased: China and Japan have been engaged in ruthless struggles for years, with the issue escalating sharply in September 2012 after the Japanese government formally bought the islands from their private Japanese owner. This resulted in some of the largest protests seen in major Chinese cities in decades.

Tensions escalated again in June after a Japanese city council bill stated that “the islands are part of Japanese territory.”
China, meanwhile, has shown military muscle; Japan announced in June that Chinese government ships have been spotted in the waters near the islands every day since April. And in July, Chinese coast guard ships broke into Japan’s territorial waters multiple times, forcing the Japanese coast guard to stop them from approaching Japanese fishing vessels.
The number of Chinese Liberation Air Force (PLAAF) warplanes flying near or around Japan’s southwestern air zone, which includes the disputed island chain, has increased exponentially in recent years, according to the Air Self Japanese Defense Force (JASDF).

Where do things stand now: The two countries have intensified their rhetoric; Japan filed diplomatic protests and China accused Japan of violating its sovereignty.

This summer’s escalation has raised international alarm; under a mutual defense pact with Tokyo, the United States is obliged to defend the islands as part of Japanese territory.

What’s happening in Hong Kong?

The semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong was plunged into a political crisis in 2019, as anti-government protests blocked much of the territory. Protesters have received many complaints, including alleged police brutality and limited democratic freedoms, but at the heart of it all is the city’s conflicting relationship with the central government in Beijing.

Is Hong Kong part of China? Yes, but being a former British territory, it was granted freedoms of the press, speech and assembly when it was returned to China in 1997. Hong Kong also has its own legal and political systems, currency and trade. These freedoms stand in stark contrast to China’s authoritarian leadership and strict censorship.

So what’s the conflict? Under the handover agreement, Hong Kong is expected to maintain its limited autonomy until 2047, but many Hong Kong citizens say China is violating that promise and invading their freedoms. This fear was exacerbated by a controversial extradition bill last year, which started the protests and was later canceled.

Meanwhile, China has criticized the movement as a threat to security and stability. Some protesters also called for Hong Kong’s independence and asked for assistance from other countries, which China condemned as an unacceptable challenge to its national sovereignty.

How things have increased: In June, China cracked down on imposing a national security law on Hong Kong, completely bypassing the city’s legislature. Details of the law were not made public until it was passed.

China said the law, which grants Beijing new radical powers, is needed to curb the unrest; critics say it is a devastating blow to Hong Kong freedoms.

Where do things stand now: The law has already been used to make numerous arrests; for example, several people were arrested in September for using protest slogans, which are now criminalized. Those who have been found guilty by law could be sentenced to sentences of up to life imprisonment.

Since it came into effect, political parties have disbanded, protest signs have been withdrawn across the city, and Hong Kongers are fleeing to seek asylum or refuge in other countries.

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