Gray Zone Tactics Playbook: Cartographic Expansionism

Cartographic expansionism describes the gray zone tactic in which an aggressor nation manipulates maps to mark out, advance and expand its vast territorial and maritime claims.
Khushmita Dhabhai | MAY 1, 2024
Gray Zone Tactics Playbook: Cartographic Expansionism
China's new "ten-dash line" map, released August 2023

Khushmita Dhabhai




car·tog·ra·phy  /kärˈtäɡrəfē/ noun

The science or practice of drawing maps

For decades, Beijing has been causing international angst by releasing official maps that purport to fix what it sees as historical mistakes on its borders. A recent map from August 2023, shared on China's Ministry of Natural Resources website (and pictured above), raised new alarms when it encompassed additional areas of both land and sea. This included claiming all of the South China Sea and East China Sea around Taiwan, thus expanding its previous nine dashes to ten; parts of India's territory called Arunachal Pradesh; a disputed area called the Aksai-Chin plateau; and an island belonging to Russia called Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island.

Experts worry about this cartographic aggression as a sign of more serious aggressions to come. In the South China Sea, Beijing has for decades drawn a line on its maps that looks like a big U--what most came to know as the nine-dash line and the the Vietnamese call the "cow's tongue". 

The "cow's tongue" of the South China Sea

The first solid-line versions of this famous claim trace their origins back to 1936, before the People's Republic was born, though few outside the Middle Kingdom paid much attention at the time. As its maritime power has grown, however, China has started acting far more aggressively on its claim, even though it's not entirely clear precisely what what geography the dashes are supposed to represent. What is clear is that Beijing is deadly serious about claiming vast authority over the "relevant waters" that surround the South China Sea's myriad islands, rocks, reefs and shoals. 

Despite China's attempts to advance this interpretation through propaganda and lawfare, it was soundly rejected in a landmark 2016 Arbitral Tribunal case brought by the Philippines. Beijing repudiated that ruling, however, and its officials, scholars, and even its general population still perceive the dash-line claim as accurately representing China's "historic rights". 

Global Responses to China's Map Revisions

The world's reaction to China's 2023 map revision has been strongly negative. The Philippines promptly opposed the new map and reiterated its rights under the 2016 arbitration case. Malaysia also took the opportunity to reassert its own rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, while Vietnam renewed its own claim to all of the disputed Paracel and Spratly Island chains. India also rejected the changes made to the map, particularly regarding Arunachal Pradesh and the Aksai-Chin plateau. 

While Russia also disputed the new map, it took a softer tone and stated that its border disputes were long settled, including the Bolshoi Ussuriysky island. Rather than denounce the new map, Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesperson highlighted these past negotiations as symbolic of the two nations' friendship. Moscow's downplaying of the map likely reflects its geopolitical alignment with--and dependency upon--Beijing on other issues.

The Cartographic Gray Zone: Navigating Ambiguity 

During a regular media briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin downplayed these concerns. He characterized the changes as a routine assertion of sovereignty within legal bounds, and urged all involved parties to avoid excessive interpretation of the issue. 

In response to specific questions about the changes Wang dissembled, saying that China regularly updates and publishes various standard maps annually. With typical ambiguity he urged "relevant parties" to approach the issue with "objectivity and rationality", while not offering any new information as to why its maps had changed.

Research by Mark Raymond and David Welsch indicates that since 2016 China has balanced internal pressures to uphold widely-held beliefs about its rights in the South China Sea with external pressures to adhere to international law, including its UNCLOS commitments. This strategy, termed "stealthy compliance", seeks to navigate the tension between the clear text of UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award on one side with its vast maritime claims on the other.

Strategic Cartography: China's Territorial Tactics and Timing

Allan Behm likened China's approach to "stirring the pot" when it comes to redrawing maps and timing. He pointed out a pattern in which Chinese leaders make these changes before big international meetings--such as the ASEAN meeting and the G20 conference in India that followed the 2023 release--in order to put the other participants off balanace. Other scholars contend that when China wants to evade commitments during negotiations and bilateral maneuvers, releasing controversial new maps can serve as a useful distraction. 

Most concerning, however, is what the maps portend. China's increasing willingness to assert its claims by force--both in the South China Sea and in the Himalayas--suggests that each cartographic aggression foreshadows more forceful expansions to come.


Khushmita Dhabhai

Khushmita Dhabhai is a rising junior at Stanford University, studying Political Science and Data Science.

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