China’s contentious new map reinstates territorial claims, mirrors actual or intended border incursions

With the 43rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in full swing until September 7, and the upcoming Group of 20 (G20) Leaders’ Summit in India later this week, global politicians have a lot on their plate to discuss about, especially following the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Ministry of Natural Resources’ contentious publication of a new map on August 28.

The new map, also called the “China Standard Map Edition 2023”, stakes Beijing’s claims over huge expanses of the South China Sea also contested by Việt Nam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei, along with some land areas in Russia and India.  

Moreover, the Indian news outlet WION observed that China’s new map reintroduced the “10-dash” line – with another dash to the east of Taiwan, a contrast from the typical nine-dash line Beijing has been relying on in recent years to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea. 

Besides, the new map considers a considerable part of northern India as “South Tibet” and included the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh and the territory of Aksai Chin within Chinese jurisdiction.

The CCP mouthpiece, China Daily, justified the timing of the map’s publication, stating that it coincided with “National Mapping Awareness Publicity Week,” a government holiday intended to commemorate CCP officials specializing in cartography. 

Wu Wenzhong, the chief planner of the Natural Resources Ministry, declared to China Daily that the new map of China’s borders is the first step in building up more advanced digital resources that showcase the terrain in each area in detail. 

“The next step will be to accelerate the application of geographic information data such as digital maps and navigation and positioning in the development of the digital economy.” 

Wu posited “such as location-based services, precision agriculture, platform economy and intelligent connected vehicles.”

The services mentioned by Wu would seem to be particularly crucial in the challenging mountainous terrain that bestrides the “Line of Actual Control” (LAC), the border between China and India as India recognizes it.

Analysts have contended that Beijing’s decision to launch the map was a timed move for China to demarcate its territorial claims prior to the aforementioned multilateral summits that Chinese leaders are attending or are poised to do so. 

For instance, Allan Behm, director of the International and Security Affairs Program at The Australian Institute, told Channel News Asia (CNA) that China’s move to publish the map at this time was equivalent to “stirring the pot” while ensuring the topic of its territorial claims remains “on the boil”. 

“With a number of important regional meetings about to take place, China appears to wish to re-apply pressure on conference and summit participants by advancing its (territorial) claims once again,” Behm said.

“The claims do not assist in bringing the discussions about competing claims any closer to conclusion. Neither does their re-assertion (further) complicate the negotiation of the current disputes and disagreements. It merely keeps them front of mind.” 

Behm added the additional dash in the map seemed to be China’s reinforcement of its claim to Taiwan as part of China. 

“It clearly includes Taiwan within its ocean boundaries, lest any country imagine that China has wavered at all on its claim to Taiwan,” he said. 

Behm also stated that although China’s claim to Taiwan has been a long standing one, doubts remain over how countries will respond if China were to “seek to reintegrate Taiwan forcibly”.

Likewise, political analyst Professor James Chin from the University of Tasmania also told CNA that China’s decision to push its territorial claims ahead of various regional summits was “typical of Chinese diplomacy”.

“Timing is very important. The Chinese want this to be a talking point at the summits and want to show that they are consistent in claiming these territories as theirs,” Chin asserted. 

Additionally, the professor pointed out that the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 decided the nine-dash line lacked legal grounds, and that China’s new map with a 10-dash line was a message to the world that Beijing “does not recognize the ruling” and that it was prepared to stand by its claims. 

Christopher Sharman, a U.S.-based Indo-Pacific security strategist, told the WION news outlet that China “periodically issues these maps illustrating PRC claims. Previous iterations of this map also illustrated China’s claim over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. These maps continue to be a source of irritation with neighbors such as India, as well as the other claimants of features and islands in the South China Sea.” 

Before Chinese authoritarian leader Xi Jinping indicated that he was not to attend the G20 summit in India, Sharman had opined: “The upcoming G-20 meetings may be an opportunity for PM Modi to address China’s recent publication of its map with Xi if he attends, but even engagement at the highest level is unlikely to prompt the PRC to adjust or to modify its territorial claims. Beijing, after all, prefers to address such issues bilaterally.”

Ray Powell, a SeaLight director at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, also commented with regard to China’s new map: “Certainly it’s an aggression, and very much in character for Beijing, which often uses maps to lay down a marker and act as a predicate for more aggressive action later.”

Alexander Neill, a Singapore-based defense analyst and adjunct fellow of Hawaii’s Pacific Forum think-tank, told CNA that China is still “resolutely determined” to implement its territorial demands. 

Neill said the new map, in demarcating China’s claims to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and the northern extension of Ladakh in Aksai Chin, covers an “extremely sensitive area that has been the focus of physical clashes between China and India over the years”. 

To boot, Neill singled out how the 10-dash line reinforced China’s claim to islands in Southeast Asia, such as the Natuna Islands, home to Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, and part of Malaysia’s Borneo. 

With regard to Russia, Neill noted that China’s new map considered the Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island on the Amur River as Chinese territory.

Beijing’s territorial claims have been attributed mainly to Chinese maps printed in the 1940s. 

Although Beijing initially used an 11-dash line to stake its claims, it reduced the line to nine dashes under former dictator Mao Zedong.  

Behm said that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, based on allegedly thousands of years of Chinese activities there, were “extravagant demands”. 

He contended that Việt Nam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines also have legitimate grounds for their own claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

“The reefs and shoals have been traditional fishing grounds for peoples living in the archipelagos for centuries,” said Behm. 

“As I understand them, China’s claims are not well documented historically, and the nine-dash line itself post-dates World War II.”

The CCP’s attempts to claim Indian territory have gone beyond merely cartographic re-drawings. Therefore, China’s new map is arguably a reflection of what the CCP regime has done or may be planning to do, in terms of border incursions.

For example, in June 2020, a large group of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers entered India’s Ladakh region and erected tents in India.  When Indian soldiers confronted the Chinese troops, the latter assaulted them. 

That year, Beijing and New Delhi kept an agreement for border soldiers not to use firearms. Thus, the Galwan Valley Battle, as it came to be known, was fought with basic weapons like rocks and sticks covered in barbed wire. 

Subsequently, the Indian military confirmed 20 deaths in the battle, while China did not release any information on casualties for months. According to Indian government sources, the Chinese suffered twice the number of casualties in the duel. 

Just last year, hundreds of Chinese soldiers streamed into Arunachal Pradesh to stake a base within India using “spiked clubs with nails on them, monkey fists and taser guns,” based on Indian media reports. In yet another fight without the use of firearms, Indian soldiers retaliated and coerced the Chinese into withdrawing from the region. 

Despite being in an alliance with China through the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) bloc, India has publicly stated that it did not get along with Beijing because of border clashes.

“We have agreements with China going back to the 1990s which prohibits bringing mass troops to the border area. They have disregarded that,” Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, complained in August last year. “You know what happened in the Galwan Valley. That problem has not been resolved and that has been clearly casting a shadow.”

“They are our neighbors. Everybody wants to get along with their neighbor. In personal life and country-wise as well. But everybody wants to get along on reasonable terms. I must respect you. You must respect me,” Jaishanker stated, while singling China out in February as the only major world power India was at loggerheads with.

As such, analysts have opined that China’s new map could even incite more dangerous and military clashes in the disputed territories.

Professor Chin remarked that because of China’s new map, “on the ground at these disputed territories, there will be more tensions.”

Chin said: “There are likely to be more close encounters, for example in Borneo, between Malaysia Coast Guard and China navy. This could escalate further especially since the U.S., Australia and the British have a naval presence in the South China Sea.” 

Nonetheless, questions remain as to whether military clashes or foreign policy démarches would soften Beijing’s claims. 

As Pacific Forum’s Neill put it, while other claimant countries “could express indignation and displeasure” at China, “it’s really limited what countries can do to apply any pressure on China because they are certainly not going to withdraw (their claims). And frankly the Chinese Communist Party leadership does not care one fig what countries think.”

Photo credit: iStock/ Андрей Глущенко

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