China agitates ASEAN neighbours as it maps out territorial claims

The decision to publish the map further asserts and advances Chinese sovereignty, ahead of the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta from 5-7 September, and the G20 Summit in Delhi from 9-10 September.
A collage of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Beijing's new 'standard map', used for representational purposes only.
A collage of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Beijing's new 'standard map', used for representational purposes only.

HONG KONG: On August 28, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources published a “standard map” of China, which amounted to a unilateral assertion of whatever territory it wants to claim. Beijing said the new version was introduced to “eliminate problem maps”, but China has succeeded only in upsetting numerous neighbours.

So far, five ASEAN countries have issued public statements denouncing China’s creative cartography.

In the following order, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei have complained. These five Southeast Asian states are all in dispute over China’s excessive territorial claims in the South China Sea. 

Interestingly, China’s controversial – and legally baseless – Nine-Dash Line that is vaguely emblazoned on maps over the South China Sea is now a thing of the past. Instead, it has grown into ten dashes.

The Natuna Islands of Indonesia appear within the dashed line, for example, while the new tenth dash runs to the east of Taiwan, supposedly cementing the democratic nation as “belonging” to China. One might even interpret that Chinese claims extend up to and including part of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands.

Manila angrily retorted, “The Philippines rejects the 2023 version of China’s standard map … This latest attempt to legitimize China’s purported sovereignty and jurisdiction over Philippine features and maritime zones has no basis under international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

Likewise, Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokesman Jeff Liu said, “No matter how the Chinese government twists its position on Taiwan’s sovereignty, it cannot change the objective fact of our country’s existence.”

The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in 2016 that China’s ambiguous Nine-Dash Line is inconsistent with international law. This new map thus represents a slap in the face for the international community; the Hague had already decreed the Nine-Dash Line was meaningless, but it has brashly taken it a step further by adding an extra dash.

More than that, China seems to be claiming the new dashes as its legitimate “international border.”

This is hegemonic behaviour in the extreme. It stands in stark contradiction to Chairman Xi Jinping’s claim last week at the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg that “hegemonism is not in China’s DNA.”

This is yet further evidence that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) and Xi’s words are utterly devoid of integrity, if not bald-faced lies. Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu told the world at June’s Shangri-La Dialogue, “Mind your own business”, when quizzed as to why China’s military engages in unprofessional behaviour when other nations’ militaries pass by in international waters.

The release of this map smacks of the same hubris – “Mind your own business. We don’t need to consult you. We can do whatever we want. We claim what we wish.”

The decision to publish the map further asserts and advances Chinese sovereignty, and significantly it came shortly before the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta from 5-7 September, and the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Delhi from 9-10 September.

China is busily stirring the pot, keeping the issue of territorial claims on the boil. This is China’s modus operandi, as it pushes its own agenda in the full knowledge that it will naturally upset others. It just does not care, since each time it acts like this it is marking a new and more advanced line in the sand to lodge outrageous claims.

Such tactics are part of Xi’s irredentist view of regaining lost territories, rejuvenating the nation and restoring the Chinese empire to its former glory. Except, the thing is, China has never owned these areas. It is hegemony and bullying, pure and simple.

Southeast Asia was not the only victim of the 2023 standard map.

It also shows Arunachal Pradesh and the Doklam Plateau as wholly Chinese territory, as well as Aksai Chin, which China controls but India lays claims to. The two sides have feuded over Eastern Ladakh and the Doklam Plateau in recent years, so this is particularly insulting to India, as thousands of soldiers on both sides face off along the mountainous border.

Delhi lodged a protest to Beijing, and Indian External Affairs Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar noted, “Making absurd claims on India’s territory does not make it China’s territory.”

This map also mocks Xi’s and Modi’s recent meeting at the BRICS Summit, where they agreed to de-escalate tensions along the disputed border.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry could only mouth empty rhetoric that it has no intention of upholding: “The two sides should bear in mind the overall interests of their bilateral relations and handle properly the border issue so as to jointly safeguard peace and tranquillity in the border region.”

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the map was “a routine practice in China’s exercise of sovereignty in accordance with the law”. With his CCP blinkers on, he crowed, “We hope relevant sides can stay objective and calm, and refrain from over-interpreting the issue.”

In other words, this map reflects our sovereign territory, it is legal and you should just shut up and accept it. Unfortunately, this high-handed manner and bullying are increasingly China’s only lingua fracas.

Also of great interest was China’s cartographic “conquest” of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island on the Amur River. Sino-Russian territorial disputes date back to the 1860s, though they were seemingly resolved via a 2008 treaty when the western half of this island was given to China.

However, as early as 2016, Chinese maps were claiming the whole island, something reinforced in the 2023 map. Russia has not responded to China’s map. Nor is it likely to, for Putin is not in a position to make demands – he is embroiled in a grinding war and needs Beijing’s support.

Yet it shows that no relationship is sacred for China. It is willing to make demands on anybody, even upon its closest partners, because nothing trumps Chinese preeminence.

One might be tempted to ask, “Who cares if China fudges a few borders here and there on its internal maps?” But it matters a great deal.

Such maps form legal documents, and they are promulgated by government departments and taught in schools, universities and institutions all across China. The users will come to believe this is all Chinese territory, even though there is no legal basis for it.

It amounts to brainwashing the next generation of Chinese society, and it acts as a precedent. They might only be lines drawn on a map now, but those who believe in their infallibility might be tempted to fight for them in the future.

This is a very real danger, for China, which likes to make legal cases and fait accompli on the ground-as it did with its militarized reefs in the South China Sea – will push the boundaries again and again.

It will not be satisfied with an extra slice of territory from India, Russia or ASEAN here or there, but will continue in the same vein, pushing, cajoling, threatening and stealing.

This is the real danger of such disingenuous and dishonest behaviour, and it has happened before. Nazi Germany, for example, used maps in its propaganda in the 1930s to solidify claims and create consensus about its national territory. It is perhaps no coincidence that some compare China’s territorial ambitions under Xi with what happened in Nazi Germany.

Former Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton, for example, likened China’s current trajectory to Germany’s path in the 1930s. “We have to stand up with countries to stare down any act of aggression to make sure that we can keep peace in our region and for our country.”

Dutton added, “We’re in a period very similar to the 1930s. And I think there are a lot of people in the 1930s that wish they would have spoken up much earlier in the decade than they had to at the end of the decade. I think that’s the sobering reality of where we are; it’s the sobering reality of the intelligence that we receive.”

Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino has also alluded to Nazi Germany in relation to Chinese actions in the South China Sea. He said in 2015, “I’m an amateur student of history and I’m reminded of… how Germany was testing the waters and what the response was by various other European powers.”

The similarities between the two are more than superficial, for the same territorial ambitions, the ideology of national rights and alleged grievances afflict both nations. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria under the Anschluss, a word that means “connection” or “joining.” In doing so, Germany directly violated the Treaty of Versailles forbade unification of Austria and Germany, and showed Hitler’sdisdain for the European order.

Europe’s acceptance represented appeasement, and Hitler was emboldened to continue his expansionist policy. Decrying illegitimate strictures, Hitler had the twin aims of uniting Germans within a Nazi empire and acquiring living space in the East. Hitler’s words echo those of Xi towards Taiwan: “…The reunification is a life task to be carried out by all means! German-Austria must be restored to the great German Motherland … People of the same blood should be in the same Reich.”

On 13 March 1938, Austria submitted to the Reunification of Austria with German law. Yet this was a complete misnomer, for Austria had never been part of the German empire. However, it did lend an air of legality, which is precisely what China is trying to do with its current map. Austria was thenceforth a German province, and the Nazis set about eradicating traces of a separate Austrian identity. The Nazis lauded it as the fulfilment of Germany’s destiny, and the event was glorified in propaganda.

The Anschluss was a watershed moment in Hitler’s territorial aggression; there was no international intervention, only appeasement. Six months later, Germany manufactured a crisis in the Sudetenland, and Europe agreed to cede this region of Czechoslovakia to Germany. Soon to come was Hitler’s invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia and eventually of Poland, which started World War II in 1939.

The same arguments and twisted logic are very evident in Xi’s and the CCP’s dealings with Taiwan and the rest of the world. The Nazis blamed Jews for all ills, while the West – particularly the USA – is Beijing’s convenient whipping boy.

For instance, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a speech on 2 September that the Ukrainian crisis must never be repeated in Asia, and regional security should be promoted through dialogue and cooperation. “[We] should disclose the backstage manipulator who aims to serve its own geopolitical needs and has been attempting to stir up troubles undermining the peace in the South China Sea issue for many years.”

Yet China refuses to acknowledge the truth, that it is the primary cause of tensions. It unilaterally established military bases on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, enforced fishing moratoriums on all, deliberately collided with foreign fishing boats, acted imperiously in others’ EEZs, and threatened foreign aircraft and warships in international airspace and waterways. Certainly, maintaining the status quo will only exacerbate problems for neighbours as China throws its weight around.

The CCP’s one-eyed approach, where it is righteous and others are the cause of all evil, is only worsening the situation. Beijing willfully refuses to recognize that it has singlehandedly raised up coalitions and groupings against itself, examples being AUKUS, the Quad and US-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation.

Relations with Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, the USA and Western Europe are plummeting. The same attitude of blaming others and egging on paranoia at home is seen in a new Counter-Espionage Law that came into effect on 1 July 2023.

The old 2014 law had 40 clauses but the latest one has increased to 71, adding vague references to“espionage activities” and “national security and interests.” 

It takes a holistic view of national security, and Xi has begun to securitize every aspect of life. The government is pushing counterespionage propaganda and urging the public to beware of foreign spies lurking around every corner and under every bed.

Xi is increasingly doing what is good only for him and the CCP, and not what benefits the populace. Denny Roy of the Lowy Institute in Australia observed, “President Xi Jinping’s rule has clearly been a boon to the CCP. Recent developments, however, call into question whether Xi is capable, or will ever be capable, of ensuring it is good for Chinese citizens as well.”

Roy concluded, “Xi’s enduring tenure forces China’s political elites to confront an uncomfortable truth: the divergence between what is good for the party and what is good for the country seems to be widening.”

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