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  • Siddhant Jain

Cartographic Aggression: Deceit through Maps

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Politics is intrinsically geographical. Maps regulate discourse on international politics and have considerable ramifications for the population of the territory depicted. China has had a long history of trespassing on the sovereignty of bordering countries through military assault, coupled with unparalleled cartographic propaganda. China has actively used cartographic aggression as a part of its 'Three Warfares' strategy—media, psychological, and legal warfare—to weaken its adversaries by expanding global influence through skewed narratives. China’s propaganda often reflects entrenched ambitions for territorial expansion.

Deepening Antagonism

A new map was released by China's Ministry of Natural Resources during the celebration of Surveying and Mapping Publicity Day and National Mapping Awareness Publicity Week. It had sparked uproar in Asian countries, including India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Vietnam. It is yet another Chinese ploy to legitimise its ludicrous territorial claims, encroaching upon the territorial sovereignty of neighbouring states. China has made unwarranted territorial claims over Arunachal Pradesh, the Doklam Plateau, and Aksai Chin. In contrast, on its maritime front in the south of the Chinese mainland, it claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea through its fictitious nine-dash line. The current and other recent iterations of the map include a tenth dash to the east of Taiwan. The new map contravenes the Sino-Russian agreements and asserts a claim over Russian territory; China portrays the entire Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island in Russia's Amur region as its territory.

Complementing its unwarranted territorial claims, China employs a renaming spree to bolster its claims. Over the years, China has unilaterally changed the names of numerous islands and other geographical features in the South China Sea. In 2023, China unilaterally renamed eleven places in Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims is 'South Tibet.' The process of "standardisation" of names occurred in both 2017 and 2021 as well. Often, the Chinese claims find their roots in old myths, folklore, and subjective perceptions of history. The foremost reason behind incessant Chinese propaganda against India is the ambiguous status of Indo-China borders; in the eastern sector, China rejected British India’s McMahon Line, contending that Tibet was not a sovereign state and therefore, the Shimla Treaty of 1914 had no standing, whereas, in the western sector, it rejected British India’s proposal of the Johnson-Ardagh Line as it had kept Aksai Chin within Indian territory. After the 1962 Indo-China War, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) became the de facto border, with Aksai Chin coming under China’s control.

Cartography as a tool of international politics has been in use since the times of European colonialism. Countries employed it actively during the World Wars and the Cold War in their pursuit of power projection. Countries earlier used postcard maps, giant images of animals, and vicious cartoons as propaganda tools. In waging cartographic warfare against neighbouring countries, China seeks to influence perspectives to its advantage. It has been regularly engaging in cartographic aggression against India since 1957. These tactics have also encouraged Pakistan and Nepal to follow suit. Cartographic misinterpretation of Indian territory is an adverse outcome of this aggression.

Combating Propaganda

Over time, experts have proposed diverse measures to counter this cartographic propaganda. Some of these measures include timely detection and reporting of distorted maps in the digital space; increased accessibility to accurate, high-resolution maps for digital use at a nominal cost; increasing incentives and funding for strategic experts and academicians to publish more research papers to debunk Chinese propaganda; diplomatic outreach towards friendly states and proactive vocal protests at various international forums, especially in the United Nations; engaging with international media; stricter law implementation at the local level; and promoting Indian narratives in online cartographic discourses through the public relations (PR) wing of intelligence agencies.

It is important to note that amidst the economic slowdown in China, the Communist Party of China (CPC) might seek to simmer nationalist sentiments through its propaganda to distract the attention of its citizens. India and others ought to call this out. Additionally, aggrieved states should invoke the sanctity of global laws to counter China; despite being a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China has disregarded and violated it. States must accentuate China's tyrannical posturing in South and Southeast Asia at international forums.

India and other nations should actively create and advocate for collective policies to counteract China's harmful propaganda. The Indian government must establish a specialised task force to dominate the ‘war of narratives’ rather than fact-check as done on the Information Warfare (IW) front currently. Government agencies and private organisations should collaborate to facilitate the development and utilisation of geospatial infrastructure. Instead of solely reacting, a more effective approach is to replace reactive condemnation with proactive measures. A carefully balanced strategy that combines assertiveness and diplomacy should be employed to safeguard the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity, making it non-negotiable.


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