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China Focuses on Territorial Issues as It Equates Tibet to U.S. Civil War South

November 15, 2009

By EDWARD WONG
The New York Times
November 13, 2009

BEIJING -- The Chinese government had a special
message for President Obama on Thursday: He is
black, he admires Abraham Lincoln, so he, of all
people, should sympathize with Beijing’s effort
to prevent Tibet from seceding and sliding back
into what it was before its liberation by Chinese
troops: a feudalistic, slaveholding society headed by the Dalai Lama.

"He is a black president, and he understands the
slavery abolition movement and Lincoln’s major
significance for that movement," Qin Gang, a
Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a news conference.

Mr. Qin added: "Thus, on this issue we hope that
President Obama, more than any other foreign
leader, can better, more deeply grasp China’s
stance on protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity."

For many Americans, Mr. Qin’s analogy might sound
like a stretch, but it revealed which issues
Chinese leaders see as among their top
priorities, ones that Mr. Obama will no doubt
have to grapple with after he arrives in China on
Sunday for his first trip here.

While much attention will be focused on broad
international issues like trade and currency
values, climate change and the ailing world
economy, questions of sovereignty and territory
remain an obsession of Chinese foreign policy.
Some scholars and analysts see this as an
expression of an aggressive expansionism that
will only deepen as China moves toward superpower
status. Others argue that China is driven more by
the need to recover territory wrested from it
during the decades it was known as the Sick Man
of Asia, when pieces of it were humiliatingly
annexed by European powers and Japan.

As a result, Mr. Obama can expect to get an
earful from Chinese officials not only on the
Dalai Lama, whom the president says he will meet
after the China trip, but also on Taiwan, the
self-governing island that China says is a rebel
province. Taiwan receives annual arms shipments from the United States.

"Tibet and Taiwan are, from China’s perspective,
the two core sovereignty issues, and they rank
above all others in Chinese diplomacy," said
David Shambaugh, a visiting scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Disputed territory is also the biggest obstacle
in relations between China and its largest
neighbor, India. On Tuesday, Mr. Qin denounced
the Dalai Lama for his visit this week to the
Tibetan Buddhist enclave of Tawang in the Indian
Himalayan state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Tawang is one of the most potent symbols of
China’s unresolved sovereignty issues. China says
it was once part of Tibet, which the Chinese
military seized in 1951, and so belongs to
Beijing. India says that Tibetan leaders ceded it
to British-ruled India in a 1914 treaty. Tawang
figured centrally in a border war between China and India in 1962.

Part of the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist
Party lies in the notion, rightly or wrongly
held, that it ousted foreign influence from the
country and has tried to reunite fragments of
China to return the boundaries of the modern
nation to roughly those of the Qing Dynasty
(1644-1912) at its height. That includes Taiwan,
Tibet, the western region of Xinjiang and, by China’s calculation, Tawang.

"In most respects, the People’s Republic of
China, of course, inherits the fixed boundaries
of its predecessor nation-state, the Republic of
China, which declared as its territorial
boundaries what had been mostly the messy
frontiers of the Qing empire," Alice Miller, a
political scientist and research fellow at the
Hoover Institution at Stanford University, wrote
in a China discussion forum posting that she agreed to make public.

"Messy" is the operative word here. In the age of
empires, there were no hard and fast borders,
whether the imperial rulers were the Ottoman
Turks or the Manchus or the Moghuls. The seat of
empire had its sphere of influence, radiating
outward, with tributary states occupying the
borderlands but rarely being governed in the same
way as regions within a modern nation today.

Trying to define national borders along the
contours of an old empire is a daunting task. If,
for example, Tibet paid tribute to the Qing
emperor at certain points in history, should
Tibet be part of modern China? If Tawang did the
same with Tibetan rulers in Lhasa, should Tawang be part of modern Tibet?

Along with India and Indonesia, China is one of a
handful of vast, multiethnic nations that follow
the contours of fallen empires. Because of their
size and history, all three nations grapple with
the same issues: border disputes,
ethno-nationalism, occasionally violent movements
by disaffected ethnic or religious minorities.

China is often criticized as handling uprisings
harshly in Tibet and Xinjiang, which the
country’s ethnic Han leaders consider internal
issues of sovereignty. But in dealing with its
neighbors on territorial issues, China has in the
recent past generally sought to settle conflicts
through negotiation, scholars say.

Since 1949, it has resolved 17 of 23 border
disputes, offering concessions in 15 of those
instances and, over all, receiving less than half
of the contested territory, said M. Taylor
Fravel, an associate professor of political
science at M.I.T. The compromises have generally
come at times of regime instability, when the
Communist Party has felt threatened by external or internal forces, he added.

The big question, then, is whether Chinese
leaders will continue to show flexibility on
border issues as China becomes a greater world
power, and as it stamps out internal threats.

China’s maritime disputes have proven harder to
settle than those on land. In the resource-rich
seas to its east and south, China is trying to
assert control of various islands -- most notably
the Spratly, Paracel and Senkaku or Diaoyu
Islands — that are also claimed in whole or in
part by other Asian countries. In March, official
Chinese news organizations reported that the
government intended to send six more patrol
vessels to the South China Sea in the next three to five years.

Even the United States has run directly afoul of
China’s maritime border claims: On March 8, five
Chinese vessels harassed an American surveillance
ship in what Pentagon officials said are
international waters. The Chinese insisted that
the American ship, the Impeccable, was conducting
illegal surveillance in waters under their jurisdiction.

Dennis C. Blair, the national intelligence
director, told Congress that China’s general
behavior in the South China Sea was "more
military, aggressive, forward-pushing than we saw a couple of years before."

This all speaks to how a bolder, brasher China
might handle issues of sovereignty and territory,
comparisons to Abraham Lincoln notwithstanding.

"The biggest unknown is how a stronger China will
behave in its outstanding disputes," Mr. Fravel
said. "When it has compromised in the past,
mostly in disputes on its land border, it was a
relatively weak state. The question now becomes:
how will a stronger China behave in its remaining
territorial disputes over maritime sovereignty and with India?"
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