Recently, when the leaders of G-20 countries including President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Japan Prime Minster Fumio Kishida, and others were meeting in New Delhi, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources released the 2023 edition of its map that shows vastly dispersed territories that it falsely claims as its own.
Maps have always played a pivotal role in shaping geopolitical realities. They serve as powerful tools of communication, shaping public perception and, at times, laying the groundwork for territorial aggressions. China understands this power well and has been actively using maps to assert its territorial claims.
For example, China’s map includes in its claim the entire Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island, which is located at the junction of the Ussuri and Amur rivers that separate Russia and China. The dispute, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry, was settled 15 years ago. But now when Russia is brutally entrapped in the Ukrainian War and needs China’s support, China thinks it could get away with its old cartographic claim on the island, which was divided between the two countries in 2008. For China, mutually agreed international agreements function only so long they serve its interests.
One of the most controversial examples of China’s cartographic aggressions is the infamous Nine-Dash Line. This demarcation, found on Chinese maps, encircles Taiwan and nearly the entire South China Sea, encompassing vast swaths of territory claimed by other countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. China’s false historical claims do not hold up to international legal scrutiny, but who is talking? For China, might is right.
China’s cartographic overreach is not confined to lines on maps; it also involves the actual creation of territory. China has embarked on extensive land reclamation projects in the South China Sea, turning submerged reefs into artificial islands. These reclaimed islands have military infrastructure, raising serious apprehensions about China’s strategic intentions in the region.
China’s cartographic aggressions have no doubt strained its relationships with neighboring countries. The Philippines, in particular, challenged China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea through arbitration at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on July 12, 2016. The court ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines, rejecting China’s historical claims as insufficient under international law. However, China refused to accept the verdict and continued its activities in the disputed waters.
In the face of China’s insidious aggressive map-making, the international community has not remained silent. The United States, in particular, has increased its presence in the South China Sea through freedom of navigation and naval exercises with regional allies. These actions are meant to challenge China’s false territorial claims and assert the principles of freedom of navigation under international law.
China’s cartographic aggressions contribute to regional instability, as neighboring countries perceive China as a threat to their territorial sovereignty. Additionally, the militarization of reclaimed islands escalates the potential for conflict in the South China Sea. The future of Taiwan and the South China Sea, and the world’s response, especially America’s response to China’s aggressions, will shape the geopolitics of the 21st century.
One of the most notorious examples of China’s cartographic belligerence is its depiction of India’s territorial boundaries on official Chinese maps. Despite India’s sovereignty over these regions, China has shown Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh as part of its territory.
China’s false cartographic claims are not limited to maps; it is also evident in its infrastructure development along the disputed border. The construction of roads, military installations, and border outposts has raised concerns about China’s intentions and its ability to quickly reinforce its positions in case of conflicts.
Another egregious instance of China’s territorial encroachments in the Himalayas is Aksai Chin, a region in the western sector of the India-China border. China stealthily occupied Aksai Chin in the 1950s and built a strategic highway connecting Tibet and Xinjiang through this area. India’s claims to Aksai Chin have persisted, but China’s control remains.
In 2017, the Doklam standoff brought attention to another contentious area. China attempted to extend a road in the Doklam plateau, which is claimed by Bhutan but is also strategically important for India. India intervened to prevent the road’s construction, resulting in a tense standoff that lasted for over two months before both sides disengaged. China didn’t achieve its goal, but it marked an attempt to change the status quo in the region.
In June 2020, violent clashes erupted in the Galwan Valley, an area situated in the eastern Himalayas. This incident resulted in 20 Indian soldiers dead. It highlighted China’s incremental actions to alter the ground realities in disputed regions.
Another hotspot is Pangong Lake, where China has been incrementally advancing its positions. The lake straddles the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC), and China has been building infrastructure and fortifications on its side, leading to standoffs and skirmishes.
China’s nibbling of Indian territory in the Himalayas has significant implications for regional stability and security. It raises concerns about China’s intentions in the region and its willingness to challenge the status quo. These actions have also led to increased military deployments, heightening the risk of accidental escalation and conflict.
India has responded to China’s incremental encroachments by strengthening its border infrastructure, enhancing troop deployments, and seeking diplomatic channels to resolve disputes. India has also sought support from the international community, engaging in discussions with like-minded nations that share concerns about China’s assertiveness in the Himalayas.
While the border dispute and overt military conflicts often take center stage in Sino-Indian relations, there exists another layer of interaction characterized by micro-aggressions from China towards India. These subtle, often diplomatic, actions can have significant implications and require a closer examination.
One prominent avenue for China’s micro-aggressions against India is through its economic leverage. China has invested heavily in Belt-and-Road infrastructure projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, an integral part of India, which challenges India’s sovereignty.
China’s unfounded territorial claims, backed by fake cartographic forays, from the Himalayas to the South China Sea and other parts of the world such as Russia-China border belie China’s pretentious claims about peaceful coexistence. Only the US military presence and regional trade networks can guarantee peaceful co-existence in Asia and elsewhere. Isolationism will be a disastrous choice for America.
Narain Batra is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Diplomacy and International Relations at Norwich University. Early November, under the auspices of Osher Institute at Dartmouth College, he is set to give a public lecture, “Our freedoms and the age of artificial intelligence.”