The Washington Post

Could this map of China start a war?

(Hunan Map Press/Xinhua)
(Hunan Map Press/Xinhua)

Chinese authorities unveiled this week a new map showing the totality of Beijing's territorial claims. It supplants an earlier map, which had a cutaway box displaying China's declared claims over the South China Sea. Now, Chinese citizens can "fully, directly know the full map of China," wrote the People's Daily, a state paper. "Readers won’t ever think again that China’s territory has primary and secondary claims," said the editor of the map press that published it.

On the face of it, the map shouldn't be too much of a surprise to China's neighbors. It counts Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, as part of China. It shows China's longstanding belief in its suzerainty over the Spratlys and Paracels, the two main archipelagos of the South China Sea, which are contested to varying degrees by Vietnam, the Philippines and a number of other Southeast Asian nations. A 10-dash line (as opposed to China's earlier nine-dash line) encircles most of the South China Sea, a body of water which sees some $5.3 trillion worth of trade pass through it every year.

Check out this useful interactive built by the Council on Foreign Relations on the overlapping maritime claims.

The new map also shows China's claim over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. China and India have one of the world's most intractable and long-running land border disputes, which flared during a brief, bloody war in 1962. Arunachal Pradesh is fully integrated into India's federal system, with regular state elections. But China claims most of it as part of "Southern Tibet."

While it may seem silly to some, maps like this routinely flare tensions in Asia, where many nations are still wrangling with the complicated geography left behind by lapsed empires. Two years ago, a map published in new Chinese passports sparked a diplomatic firestorm, with foreign ministries in Vietnam and India both voicing protests and adopting counter-measures.

(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post) (Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

China's economic rise has led to an increasing assertiveness in the region, with its expanding navy worrying neighbors and challenging U.S. dominance in the Pacific. It has triggered an arms race in Asia, punctuated by a growing number of dangerous incidents, including frequent maritime standoffs and altercations with Vietnamese and Philippine vessels and risky fighter jet flybys over Japanese ships.

While other countries complain, Beijing is steadily changing facts on the ground. It is building up a city in the Paracels. In May, China deployed a $1 billion oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, which led to violent protests and riots in Ho Chi Minh City. China is now moving in a second oil rig, despite the vociferous objections of Vietnamese officials.

The new map is an echo of this provocative worldview. But Beijing officials have sought to play it down. "The goal is to serve the Chinese public," said a Foreign Ministry spokesperson. "As for the intentions, I think there is no need to make too much of any association here."

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

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