China, India, Pakistan, Japan: The power politics of map drawing

Some countries in Asia issue official maps with their own version of where the national borders should be drawn—and clearly India is not the only one provoked by China's

China provoked India with a new official map in August, given an already contentious situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the common border (photo: DW)
China provoked India with a new official map in August, given an already contentious situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the common border (photo: DW)


A new national map published by the Chinese government in August sparked an outcry in India, exacerbating tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

This version of the Chinese map published on the website of the ministry of natural resources clearly shows India's north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing considers to be part of Tibet, and the Doklam Plateau, over which the two sides have feuded in recent years, included within Chinese borders, along with Aksai Chin in the western section, which China controls but India still claims.

Responding to China's claim, an Indian foreign ministry spokesperson said, "We reject these claims as they have no basis."

Foreign minister Jaishankar Subhramanyam also dismissed the new map, saying, "Making absurd claims on India's territory does not make it China's territory."

Indian opposition politician Rahul Gandhi also called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to respond to China's claim.

Maps as political weapons

China's publication of the new map and the uproar it has caused in India is an example of how maps can be used to project power.

Tim Trainor is chairman of the International Cartographic Association and founding member of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management. He told DW that maps can influence how people think about parts of the world.

"Maps are very powerful and you know when most people look at a map, the most map readers assume that the information that they're looking at is correct," he said.

Similar to numbers and figures that seem to be objective, but are not required to be accurate, maps are especially effective as instruments of propaganda.

German author Ute Schneider writes in her book The Power of Maps that there are no 'objective' or 'unbiased' maps because 'maps are instruments of power'.

This also applies to maps issued by the Indian government. They show, as a matter of course, the 'head' of India — meaning the Kashmir region, to which India and Pakistan, and to a lesser extent China, lay claim.

The modern geopolitics that influence the region date back to the British Empire in India and to the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir that was dissolved following the Partition of India in 1947.

However, the map does not show these territorial conflicts, and the fact that large parts of the supposedly 'Indian' Kashmir are administered by Pakistan and China.

Conversely, the same is true for Pakistan.

Many Indians learn about this geopolitical debacle for the first time as adults, after reading about it in foreign publications or seeing maps produced abroad. In India, distributing maps that do not depict the official version of geography can result in criminal prosecution.

In Pakistan, the Kashmir issue is equally touchy. On official maps, Jammu and Kashmir is included as the territory of Pakistan. However, contrary to the Indian maps, Pakistani maps indicate the ambiguous status of border areas, with terms like 'disputed territory' and 'frontier undefined' printed on maps.

Mapping nationalism

India, China and Pakistan are not the only countries using maps as a propaganda tool. Many Asian countries publish official maps with geography that has at best a fleeting connection with accuracy.

In this respect, it is not surprising to see maps becoming a contentious issue between countries.

In the dispute over the South China Sea, for instance, there are increasingly disputes over maps depicted in movies.

Most recently, the Hollywood movie Barbie was banned in Vietnam because it allegedly showed what Hanoi considered an illegal map of the South China Sea.

In 2019, several countries in South-East Asia strongly criticised the movie Abominable for a scene where a map depicting China's controversial interpretation of the South China Sea was seen in the background.

The map showed the 'nine-dash line', which depicts all of Taiwan and the entire South China Sea as Chinese territory.

China claims historical sovereignty, but Taiwan and neighbouring countries reject Beijing's territorial claims in the region. In 2016, an international court ruled that China's claims in the South China Sea are not legal under international maritime law.

Interpreting Google Earth

The UN is aware of the political sensitivity of maps. The department officially responsible for maps, the UN Geospatial Information Section, publishes them with a disclaimer: 'The boundaries and names shown and the designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.'

For several years, Google Maps has been by far the widest used web-based navigation tool. Google Maps is a geographic source for private users and is also a basis for scientific and journalistic research.

But online maps are also influenced by politics.

In 2014, the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project proved that Google adapts its maps according to the user's location. This means that a user in India sees the world differently from how a user in China or Pakistan would see it.

When asked by DW how Google approaches depicting disputed borders, the company said its maps reflect border disputes as much as possible.

"If we have local versions of Maps, we follow the local regulations for designations and boundaries. We do not create normative maps, we depict the basic truth," Google said in a statement to DW. "We do not create or make changes to boundaries; rather we work with our data providers to obtain the best possible definition of where a border should be."

Who the data providers are and who decides the bottom line is unclear. Google did not respond to DW's follow-up questions.

Critical use of maps

Many maps around the world show borders that are inaccurate, one-sided or intentionally incorrect.

In an ongoing dispute, North and South Korea both claim the entire Korean Peninsula. For years, there was disagreement between Thailand and Cambodia about the border near the Preah Vihear Temple.

Japan, which lost part of the Kuril Islands to the Soviet Union (now Russia) after World War II, depicts the islands as Japanese territory on its maps.

On a correct version of this map of Japan, the Kuril Islands would be indicated as Russian or at least as disputed. The reference to 'the northernmost end of Japan' is misleading.

To avoid biased cartography, map expert Trainor said that maps should be produced in a critical and responsible manner.

First of all, it should be clear to everyone that cartographers do not define borders. That is the job of states through contracts and agreements.

"There's not one authority for all boundaries across the globe," said Trainor, adding that people should look at maps keeping in mind "who created the map and for what purpose".

A good map should include the sources for how boundaries are drawn and must include a date.

The maps from the US Geological Survey provide a good example. In the lower left corner, the mapmaker is listed, along with the data for all of the map's contents, including streets, names and boundaries.

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Published: 08 Sep 2023, 3:27 PM