Cartographic representation of disputed regions and the discrepancies therein have always been a source of international tussle. The latest instance was served up during the annual Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Summit in Beijing last week.
After destroying thousands of maps depicting Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India, China uploaded a map of its flagship One Belt, One Road (OBOR) that showed the entire states of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir as parts of India, which is at odds with China’s own stand on these areas. The map was also displayed during the three-day summit on the mega infrastructure project in Beijing.
While China has been claiming Arunachal Pradesh for itself for a long time, it has always made out a significant portion of Kashmir as part of Pakistan in its maps, something that is not recognised in Indian maps. Thus, it was met with surprise and scepticism all over the world, even after it got taken down.
Here’s what happened
According to news reports, the rogue map displayed routes for the economic road and maritime belt passing through India with Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir as undisputed Indian territories.
The map was reportedly seen on Friday on MOFCOM, the Chinese government’s Ministry of Commerce’s website, where India was also listed as a partner of BRI despite boycotting the Belt and Road Initiative Summit for two successive years.
It was taken off the forum, as mysteriously as it had been put up, sometime during the weekend following the second edition of the summit in Beijing last Thursday.
According to a report by India Today, a different one was put up reflecting some modifications, as the earlier map clearly “misrepresented” China’s stated position on Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) and Arunachal Pradesh.
So where does China stand with these states?
The Chinese vehemently decry any visit by top Indian leadership to Arunachal Pradesh, which they have designated as “Southern Tibet” in government parlance. So the inclusion of Arunachal in the BRI map contradicts a long history of tension and dispute over claims to the north-eastern, viewed as strategically and ethnically important to Beijing. There continues to be sustained friction at the borders separating the state from China.
Although China has traditionally presented the part of Kashmir under Pakistan as PoK, last November, China’s state-run media (CGTN television) excluded it from the map of Pakistan. A similar exclusion was run by the channel while reporting the terror attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi.
How does one make sense of this?
Sources have indicated that the uploading of the BRI map may have been a genuine error. Since such slip-ups are uncommon in official Chinese publications or on their websites, the carefully timed appearance of the map has led experts to speculate if this should be viewed as a tactical move to placate India.
Leaders at the summit did address some of the concerns India had expressed with respect to BRI. India had previously declined to take part in the summit in 2017, despite China’s effort for India to at least represent itself at the forum.
New Delhi has been known to decline the initiative itself multiple times, citing that some of its projects, like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), violated India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had criticised the belt-road initiative, saying connectivity could not be allowed to undermine the country’s sovereignty.
The CPEC, which is the most important connectivity link under BRI, is a major point of dissent. The route runs through Gilgit-Baltistan that falls in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, which means India cannot comply with BRI’s obligations without risking India’s territorial sovereignty.
At a time when the Centre has been closing existing cross-border trade routes for fear of illegal trade and smuggling post-Pulwama attack, it is less likely to open up trade routes to regional rivals Pakistan and China without significant returns.
But a map where China recognises the disputed Valley as a part of India can dispel India’s reservations about the CPEC. India, after all, had drafted a law in 2016 that would allow a fine of up to Rs 1bn for anyone who published “wrong or false topographic information” about its disputed borders with Pakistan and China.
Even though the Bill failed to pass, Google started complying, denoting Indian territory with solid lines, and dotted lines outside.
In a bid to get New Delhi to attend the summit in 2017, China had even offered to rename the corridor. Territorial affirmation through cartography and taxonomy may not be enough at the end of the day, but for this to work, China cannot waver from its position as it has done by retracting the map.
What else can China do to get India onboard?
China has been charged by India as well as the international community for being too soft on Pakistan. It has invested heavily in infrastructure projects in PoK even before BRI was launched, in a bid to strengthen Pakistan against their common enemy.
Recently, it vetoed the move to brand Jaish militant leader Masood Azhar as an international terrorist in the wake of the Pulwama attack.
Beijing might want to begin with responding to India’s complaints against funding projects and posting troops in PoK, hosting Hurriyat leaders and offering J&K citizens stapled visas. It must also deescalate border tension in Arunachal Pradesh instead of instigating residents to reject their Indian statehood.
This entire debacle is reminiscent of numerous other controversies over the mapping of borders and boundaries. Outrage followed in 2016, after the (misleading) news that Palestine was removed from Google Maps.
“I guess, naively perhaps, we hoped we could have one global map of the world that everyone used, but politics is complicated,” Ed Parsons, Google’s geospatial technologist, said in 2014.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.