The Chinese Strategy and Consistent Disgard of Territorial Sovereignty of Nations

China’s continued challenges to territorial sovereignty of various nation states around the world is slowly becoming a growing international concern
June 01, 2024 | 00:00

At present, China is engaged in multiple territorial disputes with various countries, spanning from small nations (Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Brunei etc.), island nations (Japan, Philippines, Indonesia etc.) to large superpowers (Russia, India, Mongolia etc.). Many experts believe that China takes a flexible approach towards established international laws on territorial sovereignty that allows it to exploit the international order without amending the letter of law in most regions. However, China’s approach to its territorial expansion is furthered by its mixed use of soft power and hard power as opposed to strict hard power. It usually aims to reshape the legal norms across various domains of international laws. While China deploys mixed strategies towards land-based nations as compared to island territories, geo-political experts believe that China’s selective reliance on its history with neighbouring territories is a method of gaining control under present narratives of international laws, according to the hongkongpost.

Instances of indirect disruption of territorial sovereignty

The growing concerns of Chinese territorial expansion is reflected in China’s actions to amend and influence laws in various parts of the world. These laws range from domestic laws of the nation to trade policies under various bilateral treaties. In India, China constantly aims to integrate the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh under its territory, by stating that areas of “Zangnan” (the Chinese appointed name of Arunachal Pradesh), form a part of South Tibet (which is the subject of a separate internal conflict). The recent renaming of 30 places in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh highlights this continual attempt to usurp nations’ territorial sovereignty. The renaming, inclusive of 12 mountains, 4 rivers, 1 mountain pass and 11 residential areas in Arunachal Pradesh, is a list of “standardised” geographical names and is the fourth such schedule issued by China, published merely a year after it released its third schedule. The third schedule renamed 11 other places in the Indian state. The first schedule of such names, whereby 6 places were sought to be renamed was in 2017, followed by the second schedule in 2021, where 15 names were proposed.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir region marks another instance of China’s attempt to disturb India’s territorial sovereignty. The corridor established under Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has garnered criticism not only for infringing national integrity but also for creating an unsustainable environment and debt burdens for indigenous communities in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. The proposed addition of Afghanistan to the CPEC Project in the backdrop of China’s energy deals with the Taliban-administered nation, raises further concerns of its intention to usurp territorial sovereignty of India.

The use of indirect methods to gain territorial advantage is not limited to India. In June 2020, the Standing Committee of National People’s Congress of China established a law that allowed Chinese authorities to enforce vaguely defined political crimes laws in the interest of safeguarding “national security” in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Experts believe that this new law exhibits mainland China’s steady encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy that was instituted by Sino-British Joint Declaration. In Tibet, Beijing aims to culturally assimilate Tibetans under its ‘Tibet’s liberation” project by suppressing their religion, language, culture, and environment. Recent legislative measures and policies in Tibet, including restrictions on movement and communication, mass relocations, environmental degradation, and diminishing Tibetan language in education, are seen as methods of strengthening territorial control over smaller nations.

The misuse of indirect methods such as bilateral treaties and projects like the BRI highlights China’s revisionist strategy to assert territorial claims over larger land-based nations. As of the year 2023, China holds ownership or operational control over ports and terminals situated in nearly 100 locations across more than 50 countries, encompassing diverse geographical regions. It has set up military facilities are strategically positioned along crucial international waterways. China officially acknowledged the construction of a military base in close proximity to the Chinese-operated port of Djibouti, giving it crucial military advantage as the port was situated mere six miles away from a United States military base within the same jurisdiction.

Another example was seen in Sri Lanka, where the inability to meet repayment obligations for a substantial loan associated with a BRI project aimed at the development of the strategically significant Hambantota port resulted in the necessity to concede a 99-year lease on the port to Chinese entities. While commercially, the foreclosure on the Hambantota loans represents a customary recourse by the creditor. However, in a geo-political sense, this highlights the ceding of control over a pivotal national seaport to foreign powers.

Instances of direct disruption of territorial sovereignty

China’s ‘veiled’ attempts to annex territories within its mainland is not limited to the use of indirect methods. In recent times, China’s aggressive and proactive approach with respect to the international demarcations is seen as a primary driver of territorial conflict. Some have characterized China’s approach in the South China Sea as part of its legal warfare or “lawfare,” strategies defined as the “use and misuse of international law to achieve strategic gains.” Interestingly, the South China Sea disputes represent a direct challenge to the status quo of island-based territories and maritime disputes as opposed to the indirect methods of annexation towards land-based nations.

While adjoining countries have debated over the demarcations, China demands exclusive economic and military rights over the South China Basin. In 2013, when Philippines questioned the historic and maritime entitlements of China over the region during an arbitral proceeding before the Permanent Court of Arbitration, China refused to participate in the proceedings, stating reasons of national sovereignty.

The Chinese maps depicted a u-shaped 9-dash line (a slight modification from the erstwhile 11-dash line) that encompassed roughly 90% of the South China Sea. Overtime, China has increased its ‘reclamation’ efforts by way of building various military infrastructures, naval bases in the region as evidenced by its airstrips in Paracel and Spratly Islands. Since 2010, China has undertaken extensive efforts to transform uninhabited islets into artificial features, effectively bringing them under the purview of United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). China’s activities also involve altering the size and structure of reefs such as Haven Reef, Johnson South Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef through physical modifications to the land features. Moreover, Chinese fishing fleets have been observed engaging in activities that align with the state’s paramilitary objectives rather than strictly commercial fishing endeavours. In 2014, China moved an oil rig into Vietnamese waters, sparking massive protests in Vietnam. As on August 2023, China aggressively asserted its stance by revealing a revised map of its territory, The revised now shows a 10th dash line along with a larger claim portion of the South China Sea.

China is thought to frequently misuse provisions of the Chinese Coast Guard Law (CCGL) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While the CCGL authorizes the Chinese Coast Guard to use coercive actions against foreign vessels not complying with Chinese domestic law, the UNCLOS offers complete immunity to ‘government non-commercial vessels’ from the jurisdiction of another state. This underscores the potential conflict arising from the CCGL’s authorization of the use of force by the Chinese Coast Guard in cases of sovereignty violations, especially under the light of UNCLOS requirements for foreign warships to leave territorial seas immediately.

However, China’s periodic revision of its maps is not limited to the South China Sea. China also used its historical record in 1970s to stake claim over Japan’s Senkaku Islands, after discovering potential oil reserves. Similarly, in 2023, China represented the entire island of Heixiazi Island in Russia as a part of its domain despite settling disputes related to the island in 2004. It is believed that Beijing awaits the “appropriate time” to claim back any territories in Russia that were erstwhile a part of northeastern China by relying on its national history.


China’s assertive actions to expand its territorial control, whether through indirect methods such as economic influence or direct approaches like maritime claims, have raised significant concerns globally. The use of mixed strategies, including soft power initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative alongside hard power tactics such as military presence and legal revisionist manoeuvres, underscores China’s comprehensive approach to territorial expansion. In the backdrop of infrastructure and developmental constructions projects in Arunachal Pradesh to improve mobility and connection between strategic locations, the recent renaming of 30 places in the Indian state by China highlights Beijing’s concern over the growing strength of Indian military and is consistent with China’s past strategies for establishing territorial claims over sovereign super powers

Tarah Nguyen
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