China released a new map where it borrows strips of lands from its neighbors. Although this is far from being the first time the country is involved in territorial disputes, Beijing's growing military shows it has the power (and will?) to try to make it a reality.
PARIS — Imagine if tomorrow, one of France's neighbors published a map that showed entire swathes of French territory as its own. And did the same with many other neighbors. That is, in simple terms, what China did last week — and as you can image, its neighbors are not pleased at all.
The map, published by China's Ministry of Natural Resources and circulated on social media, has drawn condemnation from all of China's neighbors: Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and of course the special case of Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be a stray part of its own territory.
But the strongest reaction came from India, after two disputed Himalayan regions were presented as being part of China. Narendra Modi's government responded yesterday with a show of military force on the borders with Pakistan and China.
Since bloody clashes erupted on the border between India and China three years ago, the two countries have been engaged in a staring contest, with tensions running high in spite of several meetings.
Still, China's sovereignty claims over more than 80% of the South China Sea, or over portions of Indian territory, are nothing new. The first map in which Beijing helped itself to most of the China Sea dates back to 2009.
Even countries known to tread around China cautiously have issued strong condemnations.
What has changed, and what can explain how strong the reactions are this time around, is that China has since equipped itself with the military means to match its ambitions, and that it doesn't hesitate to elbow its way through its neighbors to impose its vision.
Beijing has militarized a whole series of atolls in the China Sea, and as recently as last month, an incident pitted the Chinese coastguard against the Philippine navy. Reactions are in line with the magnitude of the threat: Even countries known to tread around China cautiously, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, have issued strong condemnations.
Paradoxically, China's longtime ally Russia has also had no choice but to react to the map, which seems to intrude on a piece of its territory. Moscow released a statement pointing out that border disputes were settled with a treaty in 2001.
Joint Russia-China military exercises in the South China Sea
Risk of conflict
Is there a risk of conflict? China's imperialism is not a classic one per se: The country hasn’t been to war since a brief conflict with Vietnam in 1979. However, it aims to impose its hegemony onto Asia — both by demonstrating its military superiority at all times, and by highlighting the economic advantages of being in business with Beijing. Taiwan is its own thing, where the possibility of war is very real.
The disputed map is the symptom, not the cause, of a dangerous game.
There are two obstacles to this regional ambition: The most important is the American presence, which enables a large part of Southeast Asia to resist Chinese pressure. The second is the growing power of India. The map controversy comes just a few days after the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, and clearly shows that the club of emerging countries, although it is gaining momentum, is far from being a coherent bloc.
Tensions are running high — case in point, Chinese leader Xi Jinping's absence from the G20 summit, to be held this weekend in New Delhi. The disputed map is the symptom, not the cause, of a dangerous game being played in the world's most militarized zone.