Map Neurosis: China’s Cartographic Anxieties are Intense Too

Recent steps by India and China show that both countries, not just India,  are willing to resolve the border dispute.

Published
Opinion
3 min read


<!--StartFragment-->A man walks inside a conference room used for meetings between military commanders of China and India, at the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, Arunachal Pradesh. (Photo: Reuters)&nbsp;<!--EndFragment-->

Cartographic passions are undoubtedly the most potent of all invisible elements of maps, and both India and China suffer from the same neurosis that reflect deep, hard-to-resolve and enduring discrepancies, with each trying to validate its claim over large swathes of territory.

Since before and long after the disastrous 1962 border war between the two countries, this persistent neurosis has marked Indian practices of state and nation building a shade more than it affected the Chinese.

Domestic production of maps is often marked by the official caution that “the external boundaries of India as depicted are neither accurate nor authentic.” After all, maps are a peculiar kind of visual text – not just a mere instrument of utility, but which reflect “invisible ingredients” that render every map, contested or otherwise, a Pandora’s box.

Driving Home a Point

Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the latter’s hometown of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, China’s state-owned television CCTV showed India’s map without Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh over which Beijing has laid territorial claims in an unresolved border dispute between the two countries.

In June last year when China released a map showing Arunachal Pradesh as a part of it, the Indian ministry of external affairs took little time to trash it with its spokesperson claiming that “cartographic depiction doesn’t change facts” and that “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India and has already been raised at higher levels.”



<!--StartFragment-->A signboard is seen from the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in Arunachal Pradesh. (Photo: Reuters)<!--EndFragment-->
A signboard is seen from the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in Arunachal Pradesh. (Photo: Reuters)

This time, however, instead of a hyper-nationalist rebuttal of China’s anxiety, India maintained a diplomatic silence. But Modi took it upon himself to drive home a point in his joint press conference alongside Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing on May 15 when he used diplomatese to remind the Chinese that instead of skirting around the issue, Beijing should bring all issues related to the border dispute on the table for a reasonable and mutually acceptable solution.

Tough talk, yes, especially when years of Indian cartographic anxiety vis-à-vis China has been hardened by a peculiar combination of its “creation-by-amputation” at Partition and the subsequent obsessive nationalist discourse of not to give up even an inch of land even as the festering border wounds held back advancement of bilateral relations.

As long as the need of modern states for boundaries – lines agreed in diplomatic negotiations (which is delimitation), jointly marked out on the ground (called demarcation), accurately represented on maps and clearly and unambiguously described in an agreement between two sovereign countries – are not addressed, their frontiers will remain contested.

Not an Easy Proposition

The parallel moves by both China and India towards greater subregional integration will become hostage to territorial disputes. The critical link between peace, security and development cannot be over-emphasised.

Claude Arpi, a China-India watcher who has consistently advocated that New Delhi must be more circumspect of Beijing and its regional ambitions, claims that “unfortunately, it (the border dispute) is not an easy proposition.”

Arpi’s contention is that “it takes time and patience to solve differences, even for a relatively minor dispute, like the one between Bangladesh and India.” Dispute resolution involving borders is admittedly incremental when anachronistic claims and counter-claims are involved.

Chinese soldiers stand next to barbwires, which divides the two countries at the Indo-China border at Nathula Pass in  Sikkim. (Photo: Reuters)<!--EndFragment-->
Chinese soldiers stand next to barbwires, which divides the two countries at the Indo-China border at Nathula Pass in Sikkim. (Photo: Reuters)

There is no doubt that the differences between India and China are major, especially because each country continues to affirm its tightly-held notions of history and fiercely hold on to the timeless permanence of their own boundaries.

And yet, the passing of the Constitution Amendment Bill that ratified the 1974 India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement three days before Modi’s departure for China could be deployed as a diplomatic signal of New Delhi’s intent to resolve her border dispute with Beijing.

Barring the odd instances of so-called border intrusions by the PLA, the October 2013 India-China agreement, which acknowledged the need to maintain peace, stability and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control and recognised the need to continue implementing confidence building measures in the military field along the LAC, followed by negotiations between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Yang Jiechi, his Chinese counterpart, have considerably eased tensions.

Seen in perspective, the cartographic anxieties are trivial. But the danger lies in irrational policy making which both India and China must eschew to get out of the diplomatically deadlocked dispute.

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