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China’s cartographic aggression: Implications for India’s geopolitical landscape First Post 06 Sep 2023
On 08 May 2020, Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh virtually inaugurated a newly built 80 Km-road linking India’s Dharchula to the LAC via the Lipulekh pass. The intent was to facilitate movement of pilgrims to the Mansoravar lake in Tibet. Lipulekh is disputed between Nepal and India.
A fortnight later Nepal’s Oli led government issued a new map incorporating 300 square Kms of Indian territory including Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani as part of Nepal. Objections by the Oli government on the construction of the road led to anti-India protests in Kathmandu. India protested on the map.
In Aug 2020, on the first anniversary of abrogation of article 370, Pakistan’s Imran Khan led government issued a map which included J and K, Ladakh and some areas of Gujarat as part of its territory. As per a press notification from Islamabad, the map was released by PM Imran Khan after it was approved by the cabinet and had the backing of the army.
The announcement further stated that this would be Pakistan’s official map. A text below the map mentioned, ‘Disputed Territory– Final Status will be decided in line with relevant UNSC resolutions.’ Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister stated that for the first time in history, ‘our government has openly presented its stance before the world.’
The Indian government termed Pakistan’s actions as ‘political absurdity, laying untenable claims to territories in the Indian State of Gujarat and our Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.’ It also added, ‘These ridiculous assertions have neither legal validity nor international credibility. In fact, this new effort only confirms the reality of Pakistan’s obsession with territorial aggrandisement supported by cross-border terrorism.’
A month later, India’s NSA, Ajit Doval, walked out of the SCO’s (Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s) NSA virtual meeting, when his Pakistani counterpart displayed the wrong map in the background. The Pakistan NSA refused to relent to requests from the chair, Russia, to remove the flag.
Both Nepal and Pakistan issuing maps were a fallout of India releasing its own map in Nov 2019, post abrogation of article 370 resulting in the creation of union territories of J and K and Ladakh. Other than heating the political temperature in all three countries the release of maps did nothing else. Neither talks progressed to resolve disputes nor were the maps removed nor territory lost.
Last week it was China’s turn to play its cartographic game. It released a map which included Aksai China and Arunachal Pradesh as part of its territory. On its eastern seaboard the map included Taiwan and shoals/islands covered by its nine-dash line in both the South and East China Seas. China is in dispute with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Japan and Indonesia over different shoals/islands in these seas. The map was released by China’s Ministry of Natural Resources during the celebration of Surveying and Mapping Publicity Day and the National Mapping Awareness Publicity Week.
China has, as part of its publicity exercise, thrice earlier renamed regions, which it claims, whether it be in Arunachal Pradesh or those in the South and East China Sea. China had even objected to the holding of G 20 preliminary meetings in Arunachal, Srinagar and Ladakh, to which India paid no heed. India has, as is customary, objected to Chinese issuance of maps.
On the Chinese action, India’s foreign minister, S Jaishankar, stated, ‘It’s an old habit of theirs. These (territories) are very much part of India. This government is very clear (about) what our territories are. Making absurd claims doesn’t make others territories yours.’ The Indian spokesperson added, ‘We reject these claims as they have no basis. Such steps by the Chinese side only complicate the resolution of the boundary question.’
Apart from India, other countries in dispute with China, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Taiwan also rejected the Chinese claim. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson defended the map stating, ‘It is a routine practice in China’s exercise of sovereignty in accordance with the law. We hope relevant sides can stay objective and calm, and refrain from over-interpreting the issue.’
What remained interesting was the timing of the release. It was done shortly after Indian PM Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a tete-a-tete in Johannesburg, whose script the Chinese soon amended. It resulted in political wrangling in India as it opened doors for the opposition to target the government on the failure of the Xi-Modi meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS summit. Volume of political discussion on China including the standoff in Ladakh has increased in recent days. It also signals the possible non-attendance of Xi for the G 20 summit.
What does the release of the map signify for India? It confirms that China is not willing to engage in talks to resolve the LAC. Therefore, there is unlikely to be any bilateral between PM Modi and whoever represents China in Delhi for the forthcoming G 20 summit. Secondly, it would justify any Chinese attempts at infiltration in Arunachal as they would claim it as their territory (not that they have not done so in the past). Finally, it conveys that the Chinese believes that India does not possess the economic or military power to challenge it.
The issue of the map will have no major impact on the border standoff as China is aware that India can and will respond to any attempts at changing status quo. It will only push India to continue to enhance its ties in anti-China groups as also reject Chinese proposals in any global forum. Further, India will have to accept that under Xi, China will remain in an aggressive posture and any talks (military, political or diplomatic) will be meaningless. India must concentrate on developing its military and economic power to deter China.
The impact of the new map will be more in the South China Sea, where China is projecting its power more forcefully. Chinese recent military exercises in the Taiwan strait as also use of water cannons against the Philippine navy, which was attempting to provide logistic support to its troops stationed in a disputed shoal (Second Thomas in the Spratly Islands) are examples. Most of the nations in dispute with China in this region are smaller and weaker and hence it displays its aggressiveness more brazenly. China exploits its military power and their economic dependency on it. Simplistically put, China is bullying weaker nations where it can.
India needs to ignore the Chinese map, as these possess zero value. If it must counter China in cartographic warfare, then its next map must display Tibet as an independent/occupied nation.