Breaking the Rules-Based Order: the security implications of territorial accession
The nature of territorial accessions has changed over the last 100 years. Colonial empires dissipated, the Soviet Union rose and fell, and a liberal, rules-based world order was established which championed international institutions and multilateral cooperation. Any nation-state found to be unilaterally imposing its agenda on others is in breach of this rules-based order. However, what if these actors are the first and second most populous states in the world? China’s territorial ambitions, as evidenced by the 2019 Hong Kong protests, its militarisation of the South China Sea, and shows of military force in the Taiwan Strait this year have been highly publicised. Less discussed was India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its accession of the previously autonomous state of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019. These territorial ambitions signal instability in the Asia-Pacific region, and due to the size of the enterprising states, also complicate the international security architecture.
The Regional Security Structure
The concepts of Regional Security Architecture (RSA), stability, and the international order are connected. RSAs are shaped by the issues, interests and relationships of the region. When the security architecture is altered by an actor or event, the region becomes unstable and the international rules-based order is expected to restore stability. For the last few decades, the international liberal order, led by the United States, has influenced the RSA in the Asia-Pacific by fostering multilateral forums such as ReCAAAP, the Malacca Straits Patrol, ASEAN, and APEC. The US has also been the main security provider in the region, demonstrating its geopolitical and economic influence.
Be that as it may, the US is at a major disadvantage - it is not actually a member of the region. When China or India make unilateral geopolitical decisions and override the prevailing international framework, the RSA shifts. These shifts significantly exacerbate pre-existing volatilities in the nuclear-charged, densely populated region.
An accession in India and ambitions in China
Narendra Modi’s BJP is a right-wing party which promotes “Hinduness” and is critical of secularism in India. In August 2019, the BJP abrogated Article 370 of the constitution which afforded Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) statehood status and a degree of autonomy highly valued by the only Muslim-majority region in India. J&K shares borders with three nuclear states - China, India and Pakistan - and has been a source of significant contention between India and Pakistan, who both claim the territory. Insurgents in J&K have called for secession from India since the 1990s, with the region militarised and curfews imposed as a result.
In downgrading J&K’s status and revoking its autonomy, India made clear that ideas of secession would no longer be entertained and also signaled to Pakistan that they would not relinquish territory to a regional rival. What followed was a seven-month communications blackout, increased military presence, weakened political trust and hundreds of political moderates arrested to quash insurgency movements. Modi justified the move by claiming J&K’s autonomy impeded development and encouraged separatism.
India’s successful territorial accession is what China aspires to do in Hong Kong and Taiwan, without provoking violent civil unrest. Similar to J&K, Hong Kong is a highly autonomous region administered by China. In 2019, protests erupted in Hong Kong over declining democratic freedoms and a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be tried on the Chinese mainland. This bill was withdrawn, but unease over Hong Kong’s autonomy still festers.
These concerns are also present in Taiwan, which is self-governing but officially considered Chinese sovereign territory by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP has made its wish to unify all historically Chinese regions with the mainland clear and in 2005 passed legislation that allowed the use of force against secessionist movements. China has also used economic tactics and promoted tourism in order to entangle Taiwan with the mainland, and has conducted increasingly threatening displays of military force directed at Taiwan. It seems clear that the CCP is pursuing policies which aim to return China to its former dominance. Westernised, democratic bodies, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, undermine the CCP’s legitimacy and secession is not an option the Party will consider.
The accessional ripple effect: regional and global
Territorial accessions are essentially about exerting hard power, expanding territory and improving a state’s position in the Zero-Sum Game, where if one actor wins the other loses. This is incompatible with the prevailing international security architecture, which depends upon liberalism and multilateralism to mitigate unilateral power grabs, protect stability and promote a Positive-Sum Game, where all actors benefit. The two approaches clash when a multilateral institution rules against the legitimacy of a state’s unilateral movement but such a ruling is ignored.
Territorial accessions in the Asia-Pacific have heavy implications. According to the Lowy Institute’s 2020 Asia Power Index, China closely follows the US as the second most powerful state in the region with 76.1 points, with Japan in a distant third place and India close behind with 39.7 points in fourth. However, of the four, it is China and India that share the continent, are nuclear-armed and rub proverbial shoulders in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. India has spent decades asserting geopolitical dominance over Pakistan. With an increasingly assertive China, territorial accession in a region as contested as J&K is a display of Indian power that defies China’s unilateral interests.
China’s territorial accessions have both regional and international consequences. As noted in the Power Index, China’s influence is unrivalled in the Asia-Pacific if we are to discount the extra-regional US. Therefore, Xi Jinping’s geostrategic ambitions are less about intimidating China’s regional neighbours and more about posturing against the rules-based international order, which is fundamentally incompatible with its values and interests. The CCP may not have made unilateral moves in Hong Kong and Taiwan yet, but the Party is known for employing long-term strategies to achieve its goals and has shown its willingness to put its money (and military) where its mouth is in Xinjiang and the South China Sea.
The rules-based order curtails China’s capacity to pursue its geopolitical and strategic ambitions. Territorial accessions are its way of undermining the RSA, and the US’ reluctance to engage in a hot-war over threats to Hong Kong and Taiwanese autonomy is telling of the weakness of the rules-based order in the region. China has outstripped the US in regional investment, such as the Belt and Road initiative, and has proceeded to incrementally change the balance of power. The notion of the US going to war in China over territorial accessions seems increasingly untenable due to economic repercussions and the potential for nuclear war.
Ultimately, the capacity for large states to unilaterally make real territorial gains seriously undermines the legitimacy of the rules-based order. In an RSA wherein every country does not hold the same respect for institutional normative power, the rules-based order is already weakened. The entire purpose of intergovernmental institutions is to avoid conflict and achieve stability. However, they do not have military power of their own to defend targeted territories or populations; thus, their punitive powers are only somewhat coercive. Again, this works if the states in question are open to normative coercion and want to be a part of the rules-based order. Yet if this order is deemed to hinder more than it helps, then states will no longer value the rules enough to abide by them.
The United Nations Security Council repeatedly failed to resolve the Indo-Pakistani dispute over J&K, so India took the matter into its own hands. Similarly, multilateral institutions have not been ruling in China’s favour concerning its strategic interests. Thus, international institutions are perceived as obstacles to navigate around, if not steamroll over altogether.
Conclusion: a symptom of a larger phenomenon
Territorial accessions in the Asia-Pacific are signs of the eroding normative power and stability of the current international order. India’s abrogation of Article 370 and continued military presence in J&K to snuff out insurgency movements was seemingly made possible due to India’s relative benignity in the eyes of the West, and the fact that J&K is not a liberal stronghold in Asia in the same way Hong Kong and Taiwan are.
China, on the other hand, is paradoxically hamstrung by its size and capability. In China’s actions - especially something as assertive as unilateral territorial accession - there is much at stake. If China were to make a serious political or military attempt on Taiwan or Hong Kong’s autonomy, the US and its allies would be obliged to interfere to protect the values of the rules-based international order. Such a conflict could have grave nuclear implications. If these territorial accessions are allowed to pass and the US does not interfere, then a serious shift in the region’s status quo will occur, one that has long been rumoured to be inevitable. India has set a dangerous precedent in the region, but it is the symbolism of China’s success or failure in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as its other geostrategic ambitions, that will truly indicate the health of the rules-based security architecture in the Asia-Pacific.
Sarah Knight is a third year undergraduate student of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her interests include international security, geopolitics and strategy, and ethnic conflict.