Intervention – Cartographic Nationalism and Territorial Confusion in East Asia

Marijn Nieuwenhuisby Marijn Nieuwenhuis, University of Warwick


The idea of nationhood rests on the claim of a specific territorial area. The cartographic demarcating of territory automatically exposes, however, the contingent nature of borders. Modern borders are the product of a world system composed of nation states which are not organic unities but socially constructed entities in need of constant affirmation. Nationalism, the modus operandi for that affirmation, often takes a cartographic form. Cartographic nationalism is of all ages but seems in East Asia to have become especially important in post-Mao China.

This short article wishes to offer some insight into the ways in which maps are increasingly being used to arouse nationalist sentiments in East Asia. I do not aspire to explain the reasons for the trend of a rise in nationalism, but instead wish to engage with the manner in which this has become apparent by looking at the ways in which maps have recently been used to settle territorial disputes.

The Cartography of Rocks

The US has recently issued serious concerns over the growing animosity between China and Japan over the uninhabited rock formation in the East China Sea. A former US ambassador to China warned that the territorial dispute could escalate into an “unintended confrontation”. The dispute has a history which dates back to Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the late 1970s. The Senkaku islands (or Diaoyu in Chinese) were, after the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, colonised by the US before being returned to Japan in 1972. Japanese territorial claims of ownership are based on the annexation of the islands in 1895 (at the time considered to be terra nullius or unclaimed) in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The ambiguity of the ownership over the islands stems largely from historical accounts which are grounded in the not-so-unreasonable idea that China was at the time of the treaty forced to cede the islands. Chinese sources rest their claim on historical records which go as far back as the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Zhong Yan in the Beijing Review argues for the “discovery” of the islands in 1403 and draws his authority from antique texts to argue for the “indisputable” claim that the Chinese state has over the islands. The use of old texts is often accompanied by equally ancient maps which feature especially strongly on Chinese internet forums.

Disputes over the islands are not merely limited to academic discussions. The dispute has increasingly been a hot theme in the popular Chinese imagination. Blogs by so-called ‘Netizens’ feature a countless number of maps, both historical and more contemporary, which underline the legitimacy of China’s claim. Apple iPhones were recently threatened by boycotts as a result of a mapping application which allegedly marked the islands as Japanese territory. Many Chinese cities witnessed of angry protestors marching on the street last year. Boycotts of Japanese products were so widespread that Party leaders feared for a drawback in the strongly intertwined economic relationship between the two countries.

The case poses several interesting and challenging questions to which there are no definitive answers. Perhaps the most fertile one is that of the historical transferability of sovereignty. How does a temporally distant ‘discovery’ translate into modern legal claims over territorial ownership? The unequal distribution of power at the time of the Treaty of Shimonoseki forms another obstacle. The Chinese claim dates back to a time before the formation of the modern Japanese and Chinese states. The Japanese claim goes back to a time in which both states were in the process of taking their present, modern form. The main problem seems, therefore, to be one of two different ideas of what territory entails. The first, Chinese, conception of territory rests on a pre-modern authority and is embedded in the idea of ownership by right of imperial legacy. The second, Japanese, interpretation rests on the idea of international law which functions on the basis of a world system founded and constituted by sovereign nation states. This difference in understanding territory is further complicated by the fact that the islands are uninhabited which means that, unlike in other cases (e.g. the Falklands), we cannot arguably legitimise ownership on the basis of a right to self-determination. The dispute is, therefore, likely to remain unresolved for some time to come.

The territorial dispute seems instead for both sides to perform as a nationalist catalyst from which state legitimacy is attained, and has been fuelled by nationalists on both sides of the East China Sea. Nationalism functions, therefore, as the proverbial “double edged sword”. On the one hand, it unifies people and, on the other, forms a threat to the economic stability of the two countries.

Cartographies of the Sea

Nationalism has in East Asia taken an increasingly cartographic stance. The recent issuing of Chinese passports, which depicted China’s sovereignty over a large part of the South China Sea, Taiwan, Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin (the latter two areas are disputed borderlands between Indian and Chinese territory) fuelled public anger across the region. Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ border authorities were reported to be refusing to stamp the new passports (see here and here), while Indian authorities responded by issuing Chinese visas with a map showing Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as integral territorial parts of India.


Figure 1: Close-up of the map in the new Chinese passport

A divergence in the understanding of what territory entails, looms also large in the ‘South China Sea’ (or ‘West Philippine Sea’) dispute. The Philippines recently turned to Spain for help in its dispute with China over the area. Spain handed over 70 historical maps to underline the claim that the disputed islands in the South China Sea were already part of the Philippines when it was under Spanish colonial rule. Comments on Filipino internet forums and Facebook pages hailed the act of the once coloniser and welcomed the gesture as an attempt to reconcile with the violent past. Other members of the ASEAN community have similarly expressed their concerns over the dispute which potentially could threaten the economic relationship between ASEAN and China. The US stated, in turn, that it is not willing to endorse the new passport.

The official Chinese cartographic institution, Sinomaps Press, responded earlier this year with its own territorial representation. The depiction of the South China Sea in the new map is similar to the one earlier used in the new Chinese passports. The map is, in fact, the first official cartographic attempt to show the entirety of the claimed territory on the same scale as mainland China.

There exists, however, ambiguity over the political coherence of China’s territorial claims. The map in the Chinese passport has in the aftermath of international condemnation been downplayed by Chinese authorities as the result of a mere “technical problem”. The territorial boundaries of China in the new Sinomaps map are, in contrast, intentionally deployed by the Chinese state to arouse a national sentiment. The Chief Editor of the Sinomaps institute argues in the China Daily that “[t]he [Sinomaps] maps will be very significant in enhancing Chinese people’s awareness of national territory, safeguarding China’s marine rights and interests, and manifesting China’s political diplomatic stance”.

While the function of a passport is the technical means to overcome territorial borders, then, the official map is primarily used domestically to expand those borders in an attempt to arouse a sense of nationalism. There exists, therefore, a contradiction between the two cartographic realities. The passport performs primarily a diplomatic function and is for that reason by the Chinese state pragmatically considered to be a mere ‘technical’ issue. The map in the new atlas is, in contrast, said to follow a domestic and educational purpose. The overlapping in the meaning of the map underpins the logic of the ‘double-edged sword’ of nationalism which, on the one hand, is meant to unify the nation and, on the hand, threatens to endanger China’s economic and diplomatic interests.

Cartographies of Resistance

Cartographic representations of territorial disputes are not only limited to the domain of intra-state relations, but also feature prominently within states. The geographic imaginations of stateless nations receive relatively little attention in conventional academic accounts. Nevertheless they play an important role in the popular geographic imaginations of separatists. The case of the Uyghur, a sizeable ethnic community in the western part of China, is officially represented by the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) in Washington D.C. The mission of the WUC is to “promote democracy, human rights, and freedom for the Uyghur people and use peaceful, nonviolent, and democratic means to determine their political future…[The] WUC endeavors to set out a course for the peaceful settlement of the East Turkestan Question through dialogue and negotiation”. The ‘East Turkestan Question’ concerns the Chinese province of Xinjiang (officially the ‘Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’).

The WUC website provides a clear indication of where the organisation thinks the borders of East Turkestan should be drawn. The demarcated borders are exactly the same as those of the present Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region which were originally established in 1955. The geographical contours of East Turkestan have over the course of history changed quite substantially. The official and unofficial dissemination of maps among the Uyghur population has, however, helped to formulate an increasingly uniform cartographic representation of East Turkestan. The following map was posted on the website of the London Uyghur Ensemble – a London-based organisation which promotes Uyghur culture – and shows how the Uyghur manoeuvre between demands for greater autonomy and calls for the establishment of a sovereign nation state.


Figure 2: Map of the Uyghur Region also often described as East Turkestan

The map replaced the official Chinese Xinjiang name (which literally translates as ‘new borders’) with that of the somewhat ambiguous label of ‘Uyghur Region’. The language on the map is written in Uyghur script. The ‘region’ has not only linguistically but also geographically become detached from the rest of China. The region is ‘desinicized’ (if you like) and has become appropriated by and filled with a distinctive Uyghur identity. China is instead portrayed as being external to the region and is presented as a sovereign territorial equal in the same fashion as other states on the map are. Uyghur maps are a form of resistance and are, in a similar manner as the previously discussed examples, deployed, produced, and disseminated in both online and offline discussions. The publication and increasing dissemination of such maps occurs at a time of surge in violence between Uyghur separatists and the Chinese security forces in the region.


The Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski famously argued that the map does not represent the territory which it depicts; the map conveys instead a representation of how we mentally perceive and politically organise and make sense of the world. Maps inform us about the way territory is perceived. They are important political instruments to maintain the popular belief that the nation state is a natural phenomenon. They help legitimise governance and embody the idea of ownership of the earth.

Maps in Asia seem increasingly to perform as the platform of territorial contestation among sovereign states and between stateless nations and territorialised nation states. The authority of maps is in such cases often directly linked to history. Looking at a map is, as we have seen, a lot like looking at history. Narratives are constructed and are appropriated by states to legitimise their existence. Cartographic representations result in competing narratives from which opposing claims to land among nation states and between states and stateless nations arise. This form of cartographic competition seems to be fuelled by a rising tide of nationalism in East Asia.

Marijn is a PhD student at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick.