China’s Cartographic War: Old tactics of a sinking ship

By Maj Gen Sudhakar Jee

Destruction, self-destruction and rising again has been the fate of China and its empires since time immemorial. Importantly, its diplomacy has always involved stealth, deception and surprise as its weapons. The so-called modern Chinese state is no different from its ancient counterparts. Only question being who will present the ‘silk-scarf’ to all powerful president Xi Jinping.

China always had a penchant for publishing maps including contiguous territories of neighboring states, whom they regard the ‘lesser one’. Interestingly, China has claimed and encroached upon land of almost all its neighbors including Russia and North Korea.

This pattern continues as China recently has published a new map which includes many territories of India, Nepal and other nations.


UFWD: CCP’s Magic Weapon

China’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) was termed as one of  the ‘magic weapons’ of the CCP by Mao. It uses “disinformation, news farms and sophisticated networks in elite circles”  in target countries to achieve its goals.

UFWD is alleged to have interfered in the 2019 and 2021 Canadian federal elections, whereas Britain’s MI5 had issued an alert last year that a person linked to UFWD had infiltrated the British Parliament. The latest  Cartographic aggression by China deserves to be looked at with a backdrop of this very vital tool of China for the nuanced and holistic understanding of efforts undertaken by China to destabilize India.

Cartographic Aggression: Winning without fighting

Cartographic aggression translates to the intended use of cartography for exerting territorial claims, influencing the audience in the disputed area, and gaining public support for territorial expansion. The strategic use of cartography can be understood as a part of psychological warfare operationalized during peace-time.

Through visual messages such as maps, cartoons, posters, and postcards, countries define their view of sovereignty and claim over national and international territories. This further blurs the line of difference between the legal and factual claim of territory overtime, giving the aggressor an edge in the territorial dispute.

The latest Cartographic offensive

On August 28, China released what it called a “standard map” for 2023, as part of its “national map awareness publicity week”. This map showed the entire State of Arunachal Pradesh, the Aksai Chin and the South China Sea as Chinese territory.

China’s U-shaped line loops as far as 1500 km south of its Hainan island cuts into the exclusive  economic zones (EEZs) of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, thereby claiming sovereignty of 90% of the South China Sea where more than $3 trillion of trade passes each year.

The said map was different from a narrower version submitted by China to the UN in 2009 that included its so-called “nine-dash line”. The latest map was of a broader geographical area and had a line with 10 dashes that included democratically governed Taiwan, similar to a 1948 map of China. China had also published a map with a 10th dash in 2013.

China in Indo-Pacific 

China is increasingly getting isolated in the world and Xi’s geo-politics are not helping it either. Serving as a reminder of the currently low levels of trust, relations between India and China are at their lowest since the normalization of ties in the 1980s.

It is quite disturbing to recall that China, in April 2023, had announced ‘standardized geographical names’ in Mandarin and Tibetan languages for 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh including some nondescript peaks and forest tracts. Earlier they had done the same in April 2017 and in December 2021.

This was followed by renaming of various musical instruments and claiming over 19  sub-surface features in the international waters of the Indian Ocean for the first time in Indian maritime  history. These sub-surface features are 2000 kilometers from the Indian Peninsula , situated in the South Indian Ocean.

The China Ocean Mineral Resources R&D Association (COMRA) has been awarded an 15-year exploration contract in the southwest ridge of the Indian Ocean. Although India has also been awarded an exploration contract in the region for poly-sulphide modules, a precious metal, China’s overdrive of the said claims besides having a direct impact on India’s sovereignty in the Indian Ocean Region demonstrate China’s intentions in the Indo-Pacific Region.

Following the sojourn of the ‘eunuch’ Zheng He, is the story Xi wants to sell to his people.

China’s protracted war

The 2023 edition of the standard map of China, released by the Ministry of Natural Resources is neither its first attempt to illegally document unilateral claims on sovereign territories of other countries, nor the last one.

It has been published by designing the documents in order to justify its illegal claims by launching a cartographic offensive. It forms part of ‘Legal Warfare’ as a component of ‘Three Warfare Strategy’ as an attempt to produce legal justification of its illegal claims.

The illegal maps released by China so far, including the current one, forms the basis to build the background for ‘legal war’ to claim that all its activities are purely defensive to protect its own sovereign territory. That would likely be China’s stance in future negotiations with India and others. It is also an attempt to put the opposite side on the defensive on the negotiation table by adopting a maximal position in the beginning.

China- India Border stand-off

It is assessed that the trust deficit between both the giant neighbors will widen as the global supply chain networks shift out of China particularly to India, Vietnam, and Singapore. Moreover, a future skirmish along India’s northern border can not be discounted in near future .


India, historically, was never a neighbor with China. It was Tibet authorities which dilly-dallied at the crucial juncture of their history and lost their sovereignty to China despite global support for the Tibetan cause. It is unlikely to be reversed now but the World definitely could press China on human rights issues and transparency in its dealings and climate change before making it once again the world’s factory.

Moreover, India and the other countries in the region whose sovereignty and territorial integrity is being threatened must put up an united front, and collaborate with like-minded countries in the world, strengthen their diplomatic reach and ties and address China’s cartographic aggression.

The  response matrix  adopted should be calibrated, nuanced, escalatory with suitable ‘quid-pro-quo’ launched into China’s vulnerabilities against its Comprehensive National Power (CNP) to include political, physiological, diplomatic, military, technological and economic in short , medium and long term strategies.


Maj. Gen. Sudhakar Jee, VSM, is a former colonel of the Mahar Regiment who superannuated in 2020 after more than 37 years of active service. He has commanded troops in varied terrain, climate, and conflict zones. Currently, he is pursuing a doctoral thesis on the India-China border dispute.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times 

Images courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art and Provided

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