IN-DEPTH: China’s Claim of Foreign Territories in New Map Linked to Troubles Within CCP, Say Experts

The timing of China’s publication of a new map indicates a power struggle within the ruling Communist Party, experts say.
IN-DEPTH: China’s Claim of Foreign Territories in New Map Linked to Troubles Within CCP, Say Experts
A map designed by China includes an insert with nine-dash lines showing the Chinese regime's claimed territory in the South China Sea in Beijing on June 15, 2016. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)
Venus Upadhayaya
NEW DELHI—The new map released by the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources on Aug. 28 has claimed the territories of multiple Asia-Pacific countries, triggering protests from all except Russia.

Experts opined that the map is more than cartographic diplomacy. Some noted that the timing of its publication indicates the power struggles between political factions within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Moreover, experts say the only way to counter Beijing's hegemonic ambition is for the encroached countries to contain the regime collectively.

“While there is a big difference between lines on the map and line making on [the] ground, the significance of the map cannot be underplayed,” professor Dibyesh Anand—China and Tibet expert and head of the School of Social Sciences at London's University of Westminster—told The Epoch Times in an email.

The “2023 Edition of the Standard Map of China” shows old and new territorial claims.

The territories claimed in the new map as part of the “National Mapping Awareness Publicity Week” belong to India, Russia, Vietnam, Philippines, and Taiwan and directly impact other countries like Japan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

While the territorial claim of Indian lands, such as Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin, is nothing new, the CCP has, for the first time, laid claim over the largely uninhabited Russian island of Ostrov Bolshoy Ussuriysky, also known as the Heixiazi Island or Great Ussuri Island.

According to the “Legal Annex Relating to the Eastern Sino-Russian Border"—signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-CCP leader Hu Jintao in 2004 and ratified by China in 2005—the island was divided between the two countries after Moscow handed over the western part of the island to Beijing in 2008.

"The eastern tip of that island, now claimed by China in its entirety, is just opposite the lone (in the Far East) Russian city of Khabarovsk. There is even a small Russian village of Ussuriskyi with a smallish river harbor on the eastern tip of Heixiazi Island, right opposite Khabarovsk. This would make the Russians living in that little village ‘Chinese,'" Frank Lehberger, a Germany-based sinologist, told The Epoch Times.

'We Reject These Claims'

In addition to the Indian and Russian territories, Beijing has claimed almost the entirety of the South China Sea and a "10-dash line" to the east of Taiwan. Since the map was released, formal complaints against the map have been lodged by India, Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Russia is yet to respond, and the United States has called it “unlawful.”
"We have today lodged a strong protest through diplomatic channels with the Chinese side on the so called [sic] 2023 'standard map' of China that lays claim to India’s territory," India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi said in a first complaint statement on Aug. 29.

India and China are facing a tense border situation since the bloody trans-Himalayan conflict of Galwan in 2020, which has increasingly led to military buildup on both sides of the thousands-mile-long Himalayan border.

"We reject these claims as they have no basis. Such steps by the Chinese side only complicate the resolution of the boundary question," said Mr. Bagchi.

Malaysia's complaint came on Aug. 30, and its foreign ministry said that China's claims are "unilateral" and the map is "not binding" to the nation.
 China's new map issued on Aug. 28, 2023, has claimed the entire Bolshoy Ussuriysky island, which, according to an earlier agreement, was divided between Russia and China. (Insider, CC BY-SA 3.0/Creative Commons)
China's new map issued on Aug. 28, 2023, has claimed the entire Bolshoy Ussuriysky island, which, according to an earlier agreement, was divided between Russia and China. (Insider, CC BY-SA 3.0/Creative Commons)

Rift and Nationalism

The new map touches on the nationalistic sentiment of the Chinese people, and the timing of its release gives a glimpse of the situation within the CCP, where various cliques continuously compete for power, said experts.

“This map is hyper-politically correct in China and some sort of proof of absolute patriotism and loyalty to Xi dogma. It was issued by the Ministry of Natural Resources, not the foreign ministry. So this is also some intra-CCP contest of who is the [most loyal] of them all,” said Mr. Lehberger.

Claude Arpi, an Indian-based Tibetologist, French-born author, and historian, believes the map represents a rift within the CCP.

“I don't think that Xi is the boss today in China and that he has full control over all the ministries. Qin Gang is proof of it. My only guess is that perhaps a party [that opposes] him wants to exacerbate the division with the neighbors by republishing the map,” Mr. Arpi told The Epoch Times in an email.

The map was published immediately before Chinese leader Xi Jinping skipped the G20 summit in India and the 18th ASEAN summit in Jakarta earlier this month. Mr. Arpi believes the timing was significant.

“The publication of the map at that particular time looks like a sort of sabotage of Xi's foreign tour,” said Mr. Arpi, adding that things haven’t been looking favorable for Mr. Xi after the Beidaihe conclave last month. He particularly drew attention to the 19th round of unsuccessful border negotiations between India and China in mid-August.

The Beidaihe conclave, or "summer summit," is held annually between July and August and attended by current and former top echelons of the CCP who conduct informal negotiations, discuss major national policies, and finalize decisions.

“There is nothing 'new' in the map recently published by China, as far as India is concerned. China claimed the same territories as in its map of 1960. The question is why was it necessary to reiterate these claims now at a time when the negotiations in Ladakh have reached a crucial point,” wrote Mr. Arpi.

The expert believes that Mr. Xi can’t afford to look weak by accepting the Indian position on the border.

“In all probability, Xi Jinping can't afford to give away anything in Depsang and Demchok and admit that he changed the status quo in May 2020 in Ladakh due to internal problems within the CCP,” said Mr. Arpi.

The fact that China's communist regime is ready to take on several nations at a time by reaffirming its territory shows a gap between what Mr. Xi professes and the reality of Beijing's "official" position, he said.

“When this split takes place in China, it often means that there are two views strongly opposing each other, the hardcore nationalist position (often led by the People's Liberation Army) and the 'diplomatic view.' Again, it means a deep division among the top leadership. This would explain why Xi desisted [from attending] the ASEAN and the G20 meetings and decided instead to send his premier, who is very new to diplomacy,” wrote Mr. Arpi.

However, professor Anand said that there are rumors of tensions among the CCP's top leadership due to China's economic slowdown, but given Mr. Xi's paramount authority and the shared belief of leaders in the survival of the Party being the primary goal, he is unlikely to face a serious challenge.

“From the very beginning, Xi's leadership has been using stronger nationalism, and I see these changes as continuity of that rather than a rupture from the past,” he wrote in an email.

 G219, the highway the Chinese built through Aksai Chin in Xinjiang. Aksai Chin is claimed by India as part of its Union Territory of Ladakh. (L: 瑞丽江的河水, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Common. R: Hogweard/Wikimedia Commons)
G219, the highway the Chinese built through Aksai Chin in Xinjiang. Aksai Chin is claimed by India as part of its Union Territory of Ladakh. (L: 瑞丽江的河水, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Common. R: Hogweard/Wikimedia Commons)

'China’s Claim Could Expand in the Future'

The new map doesn’t tally with the actual cartography of the Asia-Pacific region, which indicates that the CCP has plans to expand its territorial claims, leading to increased border conflicts, according to the experts.

“Not necessarily some ‘war’ but surely some armed clashes,” said Mr. Lehberger.

Mr. Anand said the new map indicates that the Chinese cartography is more "belligerent" than in the past.

“Once a maximalist claim is made on an official map, the stakes are high in boundary negotiations, and one can expect China to be rigid in bargaining at best and militarily aggressive on the ground at worst,” said Mr. Anand.

Satoru Nagao, a nonresident fellow with the Hudson Insititute, told The Epoch Times in an email that the new map also conveys that if a nation challenges Beijing’s territorial stance, a war could break out.

“That is a clear message,” he said. “China’s claim could expand in the future.”

According to Mr. Nagao, Beijing does not trust anyone, including its close ally, Moscow.

“Because Russia relies on China now, China expanded [its] claim [of Russian territory] without hesitation. Russia needs to fight in Ukraine. To do this, the supply line through China is vital,” he wrote.

Diplomatic Countenance

Experts said the only way to discourage Chinese cartographic aggression and border conflict is by forging multilateral strategic alliances that work together for diplomatic countenance.

“When affected countries lodge diplomatic protests but do not follow up with any action [to counter China] ... that is a success for China. Protesting states seem to do little to inform world opinion about China's cartographical expansionism,” said Mr. Anand.

Mr. Nagao said that since Beijing ignores the current global order based on international law, the incumbent countries could repeatedly emphasize rule-based order in their joint statement.

“This time, India, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, [and] Taiwan have criticized China's claim,” he said. “The real response should be the cooperation of countries around China. They should strengthen their military power to contain China’s claim. If such a map creates a new NATO in Asia, China will not publish such a map so easily [again],” the expert said.

Mr. Nagao said the Asia-Pacific nations should understand the significance of such cooperation to contain communist China, whose military expenditure increased by 76 percent from 2011 to 2020 while the U.S. defense budget decreased by 10 percent in the same period.

“If countries around China cooperate with each other and possess strike capabilities like cruise missiles, China's military expenditure will need to be divided in multiple directions. Thus, cooperation is an important factor to deal with China's territorial expansion,” he wrote.

Beijing’s territorial expansion claim also consists of a non-military factor, according to Mr. Nagao. He believes China's economic rise is the crux of the CCP’s military and cartographic aggression, allowing it to increase its defense budget rapidly.

“Because China is rich, China can invest in infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative and create debt for recipients and control them. Thus, reducing China's income is the main [way to] counter China's policy. That is why many countries are focusing on economic security,” he said.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free trade agreement between the 12 Pacific economies, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity launched by the United States last year are meant to create alternative markets and limit China’s access to Western technologies, according to Mr. Nagao.

The success of all these frameworks is meant to contain the Chinese regime’s multifaceted aggression, including its cartographic transgressions, he said.

Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.