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Asian century's geopolitics mapped

What is the relationship between maps and peace among nations? Maps depicting state territories, often attached to a peace treaty, were historically inked on paper. Two things call for attention here: first, a treaty by definition must have at least two parties and, consequently, a harmonious interpretation of treaty and its annexed maps is an exercise in treaty interpretation. International law, not power, must dictate map readings in international law.

For instance, in the Delimitation of the Polish-Czechoslovakian Frontier Advisory Opinion, the Permanent Court of International Justice had noted that “maps and their tables of explanatory signs cannot be regarded as conclusive proof, independently of the text of the treaties and decisions”. In the Minquiers and Ecrehos case between Britain and France, Judge Levi Carneiro, likewise, commented that a map “is not always decisive in the settlement of legal questions relating to territorial sovereignty”.

Powerful states might think otherwise nevertheless. Today a “cartographic aggression” — the use of maps for asserting territorial claims often prefiguring the threat of the use of force or use of force — is a prime feature of the 21st century geopolitics in Asia. Powerful states hide their imperial ambitions with the fig leaf of unilateral maps.

This file photo shows an original Dutch map of Ayutthaya, showing the ‘Hollandze logie’ or VOC trading lodge, c. 1650.Source: Algemeen Rijksarchief, The Hague, as pictured in ‘In the King’s Trail: An 18th Century Dutch Journey to the Buddha’s Footprint’, published by the Royal Netherlands Embassy Thailand.

Unilateral Maps

In September 2023, Beijing released a so-called “standard map” that touched the geopolitical nerve-point of the Association of South East Asian Nations as well as in East and South Asia. China’s map, notably, put 10, and not 9, dashes on the South China Sea claiming marine entitlements that under the United Nations Convention on the law of the Seas, 1982, belongs to the Philippines and Malaysia. Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines registered their protest against Beijing’s cartographic aggression.

Moreover, China’s September 2023 map also put Aksai Chin and the whole of Arunachal Pradesh under China. For India “such steps by the Chinese side only complicate[ed] the resolution of the boundary question” between India and China. India’s position aligned with Judge Alvarez’s opinion in the Minquiers and Ecrehos case that attributing “excessive importance to historic titles” is incorrect since it does not “sufficiently take into account the state of international law or its present tendencies in regard to territorial sovereignty”.

On the contrary, China’s position paper of December 2014 argues for “historic titles” for its sovereignty based on the alleged “Chinese activities in the South China Sea” that “date back to over 2,000 years ago”. The erstwhile China’s incomplete embrace of Westphalia is remarkably strategic; deploying Westphalian international law when convenient while rejecting responsibility international law imposes. We can see why China follows the policy of not taking its territorial disputes to international courts. Any state using unilateral maps would walk similar lines.

From nations to states and cartography

All maps used today by states are, historically, a work of western cartography. During colonialism, a fixed territory became an integral part of the Asian sovereignty as expressed in the Montevideo Convention on States, 1933.

Consequently, even as Asian states in Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul’s words developed a geo-body made up of broad spaces divided into urban spaces, jungle, rivers, arable fields, and mountains, western maps gradually became the sole evidences of territorial holdings both due to colonialism and technology.

In the Temple of Preah Vihear case between Cambodia and Thailand decided at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Thailand acknowledged the use of made-in-France maps without scrutinising their accuracy. Even China advances its map claims today, as China’s state media Global Times noted, “based on the drawing method of national boundaries of China and various countries in the world”.

It however begs the question: are there are indeed “various countries in the world” that put dotted lines on oceans to capture it as part of their sovereignty? Unilateral maps, like an ideological regime’s textbook, are, therefore, of no legal value under international law.

International law of maps

Are unilateral maps legal in international law? In the Kasikili/Sedudu Island dispute, the ICJ noted that it was unable to draw conclusions from the cartographic material “in view of the absence of any map officially reflecting the intentions of the parties to the 1890 Treaty” and in the light of “the uncertainty and inconsistency” of the maps submitted by Botswana and Namibia. For the ICJ only treaties to which maps could be legally annexed and provides maps a legal evidentiary value under international law.

It was, however, in the Temple of Preah Vihear case that the ICJ nevertheless declared a map reading as an issue of treaty interpretation. This was Asia’s first case before the ICJ on the adjudication of a boundary dispute. Thailand argued that the “contradiction between the treaty definition and the map must limit the evidentiary value of the map”.

The ICJ ruled otherwise stating that in the interpretation of a boundary treaty which has maps annexed to it, rules of law and not of the technology of cartography prevailed. In such ways the ICJ protected the French uti possidetis — “respect for frontiers inherited from colonisation”.

China’s imposition of unilateral overland and oceanic maps is, therefore, not consistent with international law. Such unilateral maps, like a regime’s textbook, are merely the representation of a single state’s version of history. Unilateral maps seemingly oscillate between illegality and legal uncertainty. Bilateral or multilateral maps that are products of treaty negotiations possess legal value and offer sustainable solutions.


Prabhakar Singh is professor at BML Munjal University School of Law, India.

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