National Map Feud Exposes Asia's Geopolitical Fault Line

By Elliot Chen August 31, 2023

Rising tensions over China's newly released map ignite territorial disputes with neighboring countries Philippines, Malaysia, and India.

The recent publication of a new national map by China has sparked territorial disagreements among its Asian neighbors, primarily the Philippines, Malaysia, and India. These neighboring nations have all issued strong public declarations of dissent against Beijing's territorial claims as shown on the revised map.

Released by China as a rectification of 'problematic maps,' the new version has elicited serious objections, especially due to its delineation of the disputed territories within the South China Sea. The Philippines condemned this decision, underlining that China's positioning around the contentious marine areas contradicts the 2016 international court ruling favoring Manila. As per the statement from the Philippines Foreign Affairs Department, the map appears to be an illegitimate assertion of Beijing's so-called sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Philippines' features and zones with no grounding in international law.

India had already lodged its vehement objections on Tuesday against the inclusion of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and the disputed Aksai-Chin plateau within Chinese territories. India's foreign secretary, Arindam Bagchi, conveyed strong disapproval over China's 'standard map' of 2023, expressing rejection of these baseless claims. Meanwhile, Malaysia too has spurned China's 'unilateral claims,' with its Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating that the nation steadfastly rejects any external sovereignty claims over Malaysia's maritime features.

In response to these escalating controversies, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin dismissed these objections, terming the updated map a 'routine exercise of sovereignty,' and urged involved parties to avoid overreacting to the issue.

Following his ascension to power in 2012, China’s leader Xi Jinping has taken more assertive stances on key Asian flashpoints, in line with his ambition to solidify China's position as a global superpower. The map dispute occurred shortly after a meeting between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in South Africa, where they agreed to 'intensify efforts' to resolve tensions at their contested border. Despite appearances of progress in these disputes, experts posit that real resolutions might be elusive.

The Indo-China border controversy has long been a sticking point and has seen deadly conflicts, including a war in 1962 won by China. The Line of Actual Control, a vaguely defined de facto border splitting the two populous nations, has been the focus of numerous tense episodes. The Galwan Valley conflict in 2020 marked a significant deterioration in their relationship, a tension that remains unresolved.

Indian opposition party leaders have lambasted Modi for minimizing the border issue. Congress party chief Mallikarjun Kharge called China a habitual offender of redrawing territories and demanded that Modi take firmer action against China’s purported occupation of Indian territories. Rahul Gandhi, another Congress leader, urged Modi to address the map issue publicly, as the controversy continues to steep.

Comfortably refraining from comment on the border disputes, Modi has taken steps to counter perceived Chinese threats, such as banning TikTok and other Chinese apps for constituting a 'threat to sovereignty and integrity,' whilst also planning to withhold 5G network supply contracts from Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE.

The palpable rise in nationalism within both nations, along with concerns over China's growing boldness, has seen India foster a stronger alliance with the United States, through outfits like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an initiative also involving Japan and Australia conceived as a counter to China's influence.

A scheduled G20 tourism meeting in the disputed Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir was boycotted by China earlier this year, whose stated reason was its disapproval of hosting international meetings in disputed territories. The region is also claimed in totality by Pakistan, adding further complexity to the regional disputes.