Responses from South and Southeast Asia

China’s Cartographic Aggression

04 Jul, 2014    ·   4538

Roomana Hukil draws conclusions from the ‘vertical atlas’ recently unveiled by China

Roomana Hukil
Roomana Hukil
Research Officer

On the 60th Anniversary of Panchsheel or the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence between India, Myanmar and China, China released its latest ‘vertical atlas’ that depicts parts of J&K (Aksai Chin), the whole of Arunachal Pradesh (Southern Tibet) and large swathes off the coast of Vietnam (South China Sea) under its annexation. The unveiled map cites China's longstanding belief in its sole sovereignty over areas that are considered to be within the ‘national soil’ by the other international claimant states.

The release of the map has unnerved the sentiments of the Southeast Asian states as well as India and has developed the deep seated divide even further. This commentary will address the concerns of the major stakeholders in the debate over the race for territorial sovereignty against China – primarily India and Vietnam. How have these states reacted to China’s geostrategic manoeuvres for suzerainty vis-à-vis the publication of its latest map? And, what are the implicit factors behind China’s timely release of the map?

Repercussions and Outbursts
China has engaged in a series of events in the past that time and again reinforce its assertiveness over the contested region, that are disputed by international claimants such as India, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia. The new official map of the country now lays greater claim to the disputed areas and is said to provide a clear, unambiguous understanding of China’s maritime acquisitions and territorial rights. This incident incited reactions from several quarters within India and Vietnam, who have a long-standing dispute with China over Arunachal Pradesh and the South China Sea respectively.

Within a month of Prime Minister Narender Modi coming to power, China’s release of its new map depicting the whole of Arunachal Pradesh and large parts of J&K as its territories came as a blow. With India still recuperating from the Chinese incursion six km into Pangong Lake, Ladakh, J&K on 24 June 2014, China's release of the map has left the new cabinet in a quandary yet again. These two incidents mark India’s first brush with China under the new government – whose leader marvels at its neighbour for the potential that both states hold in terms of socio-economic and political cooperation.

It is for this reason that Vice President Hamid Ansari visited Beijing last month to commemorate the 60th anniversary of signing the Panchsheel Treaty, which thrives on peaceful coexistence and cooperation. During the election campaign, Modi made several strong statements regarding the mounting Chinese encroachment. However, China continues its antagonising-India policy and their latest move validates this - that they remain undeterred by the prime minister’s stance. Post the map’s release, the Indian government exhibited a measured reaction in the context of securing greater Chinese investment. Therefore, it downgraded the issue stating that the cartographic change does not alter the reality on the ground. However, the Centre must set clear the terms of India-China engagement and communicate firmly to China that there are no tradeoffs between economic gains and the strategic interests of India.

On the other hand, Vietnam has strongly criticised the release of China’s new map stating that it 'violates international norms' such as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which do not recognise the creation of artificial islands on the SCS and discourage claimants from unilaterally altering the status quo. Thus, China unlawfully infringing upon its right to the use of the sea concerns Vietnam as well as ASEAN and the UN. The new map is primarily worrisome for Vietnam at two broad levels. First, it reinstates China's territorial ambitions in the said area as its 'core interest' immediately after the May 2014 episode. Second, the map galvanises a greater upsurge of anti-China sentiment in the popular nationalist echoes of the country. The chief of the Communist Party of Vietnam recently stated that Vietnam must 'prepare for all scenarios', including war, amid its tensions with China. If China persists in its expansionist policy over the SCS, Vietnam may, possibly, call for war.

Both Philippines and Vietnam have sought an urgent resolution of the escalating tensions over the SCS in accordance with international law. Their objective is to find a constructive solution to China's persistent assertions and expansion over the disputed islands and the SCS through peaceful means in accordance with the law.

Perfect Timing
The timing of the release of the publication of the map is critical since it coincides with Hamid Ansari’s visit to Beijing. China deciding to release the map at this time not only marks a high disregard for the commemoration of the Panchsheel’s anniversary but also reinforces China’s intensive vigour to project its expansionist ideology in the name of ‘territorial sovereignty’. China's response from the denunciation received from its neighbours is that “the newest map did not intend to provoke criticism, but rather, make clear to the Chinese public - the goal of China - to serve its people.” This stance is, however, fallacious considering that China did not take into account the Indian Vice President’s ongoing visit to Beijing or even the Vietnamese reaction over the deployment of the oil rig in its EEZ area in May.