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Why China's latest border map has heightened regional tensions

China's unveiling of its standard map has sparked outrage in several countries, but Beijing remains resolute in maintaining its traditional border policies.

A view of the Great Wall of China in Beijing.Spriha Srivastava

In August 2023, amidst global summits, Beijing released its latest standard map, causing significant controversy in the Indo-Pacific region.

This move, combined with China's aggressive border strategies, has created uncertainties across the region. China's perception of international laws as products of Western customs has allowed it to navigate these laws with flexibility, posing challenges for neighboring countries and Western powers alike.

However, the release of the 2023 map has triggered a growing backlash, leading to questions about the long-term sustainability of China's approach to its territorial disputes.


China's approach to international law can be described as 'stealthy compliance.' While Beijing ambiguously accepts international law, it interprets it flexibly to advance its territorial claims.

This strategy allows China to assert its claims without enforcing them immediately, serving as a bargaining chip in bilateral negotiations.

Moreover, it diverts attention from domestic issues like Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, channeling nationalist sentiment outward and bolstering the Chinese government's domestic legitimacy.


For decades, China has unveiled its nine-dash line map to assert its claims in the South China Sea, creating ambiguity regarding these claims' scope.

While the claims pertaining to water rights, land features, or both remain a mystery, they symbolize China's aspirations to reduce U.S. control over regional shipping lanes, secure natural resources, and project power into the Pacific.

The 2023 map reintroduced a tenth dash east of Taiwan, challenging the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and extending China's reach.

It also emphasised China's rights to the disputed Senkaku Islands, drawing criticism from Japan and Taiwan.


The release of the 2023 map just days before the ASEAN summit sparked swift rejection from member states such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

China's actions in the South China Sea, including its occupation of the Paracel Islands and clashes with Vietnam and the Philippines, have fueled tensions.

Recent confrontations with Malaysia and the Philippines have pushed these nations to take a more confrontational stance towards China.


While the Philippines under President Bongbong Marcos has adopted a tougher approach, not all ASEAN states are willing to confront Beijing. Indonesia downplayed the map's significance and launched a China-backed high-speed rail project.

Resisting China's territorial claims is complicated because many countries in the region have their own disputes and are wary of getting involved in further conflicts.

For example, Taiwan claims Japan's Senkaku Islands, while Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines have their disputes.

By inflaming its own border disputes, China exacerbates existing conflicts, dissuading countries from taking a firm stance against Beijing.


China's land border disputes with ASEAN member Myanmar have not elicited significant opposition due to Myanmar's internal strife and economic reliance on China.

India's attempts to rally regional opposition have been complicated by Nepal, which has territorial disputes with both China and India.

In contrast, Bhutan, supported by India in its territorial disputes with China, appeared to consider concessions in 2023, potentially indicating a shift in its stance.

China's 2023 map revived a settled dispute with Russia, claiming a small island divided between the two countries in 2005.


This move may have been retaliatory in response to a Russian map from 2022 that irked China. Russia's tepid response reflects its growing dependence on China since the Ukraine invasion.

China's aggressive border strategies have far-reaching implications for regional and global stability.

While these tactics have provided short-term benefits, they carry the risk of escalating disputes into conflicts and generating significant international backlash.

As the geopolitical landscape remains dynamic, countries, both major powers and smaller nations, are searching for effective responses to China's actions.


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