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Saturday, May 23, 2015

China's Latest Cartographic Aggression

China's state-owned CCTV showing a map of India without Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh on backdrop of Prime Minister Modi's visit did create a controversy but not a significant one. The usually hyper-ventilating hyper-nationalist twitter users, television anchors/journalists were silent, perhaps assuming that any outrage would put the Prime Minister in an uncomfortable situation and not embolden him and that the issue has nothing to do with national interest. After all, these maps do not represent the ground realities. But then, why would China, which is not known to indulge in vanities when it comes to state policies, let this situation develop. Everything about maps in China is supervised by a special committee in coordination with 13 ministries, so the broadcast of this map being entirely the decision of a news channel producer or executive seems bit of a long shot. Especially so when seen in the context of China's history of cartographic aggression.

In fact, the very concept of cartographic aggression is mostly associated with China and the tactic is unique to it. It would be prudent here to recall that "China" is unlike other nation-states, it is an ancient civilization but a modern state which gives indications of not having settled issues of its territorial sovereignty. Of course unlike other modern states such as monolithic European nation-states and multi-ethnic states like India which were pretty much carved out in modern maps by Western colonialists, China's transition to modern nation-state was never smooth or complete. Even in post World War II, there existed two Chinas for international community- mainland China known as People's Republic of China and Taiwan based Republic of China. Thus when Mao Zedong's Communist Party of China captured the entire mainland in 1949, the exact territorial limits of Chinese empires of the past was unclear but instead of treating this as a disadvantage, PRC used it to fire nationalistic sentiment of Chinese people to rally behind the party.


Map of humiliation (1927) outlining "old national boundary"
The Communist Party used and continues to use the twin narratives of recreating the state on the lines of Imperial China of the past while constantly reminding its people of the period referred to as century of humiliation or the period of Western and Japanese imperialists' intervention in China. The century of humiliation remains an integral part of the national discourse, education and propaganda and has been used time and again to strengthen Chinese nationalism with focus on sovereignty and territorial integrity, especially when the regime faces threat from external agents or internal politics. While the narrative of humiliation may be partly true, the Party's idea of the historical empire's territorial sovereignty is far too ambiguous even for the PRC. Given the nature of political relationships between the various Chinese emperors and their vassals, history of civil wars and its unique form of cartography,it is difficult to determine territorial suzerainty of the past emperors. Some maps even seem to indicate the entire region which fell into the empire's sphere of influence and trading partners as part of the empire though the original cartographers may not have implied that at all.

Perhaps, it is for this reason that Sino-Indian border doesn't have a Line of Control but a pair of Lines of Actual Control since China is unwilling to indicate what it considers its LAC to be. Nehru may have been complacent and made strategic blunders during the events leading to Sino-Indian War of 1962 but it remains a fact that as late as 1959 the then Chinese Premier had claimed that the official map given to India were  interim maps since their regime had not consolidated itself in China. Yet, two years later the PLA invaded India-held territories claiming them to be theirs. And it is just not India, China has fought border wars with Russia in 1969 ,Vietnam in 1979 and perpetual stabd-off with Taiwan.  Chinese cartographic aggression begins with revised official maps suddenly including new territories which it claims as its own but doesn't attempt engage the other party. Instead it lets the new vision be absorbed by its national consciousness. The second step involves small scale incursions by it troops (or fighter planes) and after much probing tactics efforts are made to establish military checkposts. In some instances, the third step is not actually carried out, instead the threats are used to bring out desired behaviour of reluctant neighbour(s).

Interestingly, the latest map showing Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh was released during Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari's visit to Beijing for the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel accord. Indian government's response was measured and in the ensuing months it even went to the extent of excluding Union (MoS) for Home Affairs , Kiren Rijiju from talks and entire proceedings with visiting Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, as the minister hails from the state of Arunachal Pradesh. However, around the same time Modi had extended military assistance to Vietnam and engaged with Japan and USA, three countries wary of China's growing ambition.But CCTV depicting a map of India without Arunachal Pradesh and the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir during the PM's visit, cannot be seen in isolation from China's previous campaign of cartographic aggression.

 PM Modi has been a great critic of Nehru's China policy. Nehru's fault lay in his belief that China and India were destined to togather lead a resurgent Asia and in the path to economic development through partnership, territorial dispute would take backseat. We now know this resulted in the unfortunate war between the two countries. Ironically, Modi seems to be following the same policy even if he is in a far better bargaining position than Nehru was in. China's new map also claims 80% of South China Sea as Chinese internal water which poses a significant potential risk to global trade (though currently there seems to be no threat) China's new maritime boundaries undermines sovereignty of its South-Eastern neighbouring countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Philippines. Just three years back, China forcibly occupied Philippines' Scarborough Shoal, even Philippines' key ally, the USA was reluctant to act. The Vietnamese, on other  and have been very vocal in their protests against China's territorial ambition in the South China Sea.


With nearly every neighbour of China being critical of its cartographic aggression , it is perplexing why the Prime Minister who claims to have raised India's self-esteem,simply ignored the misrepresentation of the Indian map It sounds naive to hope to settle border dispute when the other side lays claim over an entire province and a third of another and even excludes PoK in contravention to international norms. Any objection raised by him would have hardly affected any  economic deal being worked out. With majority of nations, especially, its neighbours and members of international community raising objections over the same map, India laying low hardly makes it a global player.  A great deal of foreign policy and diplomacy does consists of symbolism but these  symbolic acts manifest in the interaction between the representatives of the nation states involved and not the engagement of the visiting leader and the diaspora.  For a country which has learnt a painful lesson in the past because of China's cartographic aggression, ignoring this latest attempt may prove costly.

P.S.  To really understand the the uniqueness of Chinese cryptography and role of maps in the shaping of modern Chinese nationalism  please do read WA Callaghan's The Cartography of National. Humiliation and the Emergence of China's Geobody

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