December 8, 2020 | By Tufail Ahmad
In recent years, a war over maps has been heating up between the nuclear-armed Asian powers of China, India, and Pakistan as well as involving the landlocked nation of Nepal, which is sandwiched between China and India. China, India, and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons, enormous armies, and a history of wars, historical wounds, and bitter bilateral relations. The threat to the nuclear peace of Asia became real during the summer of 2020 when China wrested from India’s control about 1,000-square-kilometer of area in Ladakh, a strategic region at the intersection of Pakistan, India, and China, according to a report by journalist Vijaita Singh.
Disputes between China, India, and Pakistan, over maps and borders have been developing recently.
On the night of June 15, 2020, 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a “violent face-off” with Chinese soldiers in the Galwan area of Ladakh, though the number of Chinese casualties were not revealed by Beijing. Although the Indian government was initially reticent to speak publicly about the killing of Indian soldiers or the territory in Ladakh lost to China, the Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, addressing parliament on September 17, 2020, summed up how much land China has to come occupy over the years: “China continues to be in illegal occupation of approximately 38,000 sq. kms. in the Union Territory of Ladakh… In addition, under the so-called Sino-Pakistan ‘Boundary Agreement’ of 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq. km. of Indian territory in PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) to China. China also claims approximately 90,000 sq. kms. of Indian territory in the Eastern Sector of the India-China boundary in Arunachal Pradesh.”
Ladakh, a part of Jammu & Kashmir state until August 2019, sits at the north-western corner of the 3,400-kilometer Line of Actual Control (LAC) between China and India, while Arunachal Pradesh is situated at the LAC’s north-eastern end. Since the LAC is undefined, the Chinese push and seize land inch by inch, while India does not appear to be using such expansionist tactics.
This paper’s objective is not to evaluate the accuracy of the cartographic claims by these Asian nuclear powers, but to discuss the border map disputes, which could threaten Asia’s nuclear peace, or the stability induced by their nuclear weapons, potentially drawing big powers into a war.
China’s Revised Map Claims Parts Of India’s Arunachal Pradesh State
While China’s aggressive encroachments against the 3,400-kilometer LAC have rattled India, Beijing too is getting jittery about the Quad, an emerging NATO-like military alliance involving India, the U.S., Australia, and Japan. These nations have held joint military exercises in recent years.
In April 2020, China updated its map to include in its international boundaries parts of Arunachal Pradesh, the north-eastern state of India. The map updated on Beijing’s own 1989 version by Sky Map, China’s authority on digital maps, showed that several counties of Arunachal Pradesh were now included in China.
Pakistan’s map included India’s parts of Jammu & Kashmir (Roznama Ummat, August 5, 2020).
This may not be a sudden move by Beijing. In 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose supporters have projected him as an iron man with a 56-inch chest, was visiting China, the state-controlled China Central TV showed a map of India “without Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir,” according to Pravin Sawhney, an Indian military expert. On his Twitter handle, Sawhney also wrote that China “has given new names to places in Arunachal Pradesh” and “is preparing for new war Indian mil[itary] knows nothing about.”
In December 2020, China raised the stakes by saying that it was within its legitimate rights to build a dam on the Yarlung Zangbo river, which originates in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), flows into Arunachal Pradesh where it is called Siang, and then to Assam, where it is known as Brahmaputra, before flowing into Bangladesh. Although the bulk of water flowing in this mighty river originates within India, China’s plans to build dams has caused concern in India about droughts and climate change, though similar moves by India to build dams on rivers flowing through Kashmir into Pakistan have alarmed the Pakistani government too, with a Pakistani editor warning in 2009 of a nuclear war against India over the water issue.
Revised Maps By India, Nepal, And Pakistan Make New Territorial Claims
In the north-western sector, Ladakh was once part of and sat on top of Jammu & Kashmir’s map. On August 5, 2019, the Indian government stripped Jammu & Kashmir of its special status, reducing its powers of autonomy and dividing it into two regions: Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, with each becoming a federally-ruled Union Territory.
India’s move, followed by a new map released by New Delhi in November 2019, to reduce the historical status of Jammu & Kashmir from a state to a union territory not only alarmed Pakistan and Nepal, but China too raised questions on the status of Ladakh, leading to the occupation of 1,000 kilometers by China in the mid-2020. The November 2019 map was conspicuous in that it included Pakistan-controlled areas in Kashmir (known as Azad Kashmir in Pakistan) as part of India’s Jammu & Kashmir as well as Pakistan-controlled Gilgit Baltistan as part of India’s now-federally ruled territory of Ladakh.
In August 2020, a year after India’s move to quash the special status of Jammu & Kashmir state, Pakistan responded by publishing a revised map of its international border with India, showing within Pakistan not only Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir – but also Manavadar and Junagadh, a region in India’s western state of Gujarat, which shares a seacoast with Karachi. In 1947, India and Pakistan were partitioned under a British-administered plan, but Pakistan continued to nurse historical grievances after Junagadh, Hyderabad, and Jammu & Kashmir became part of India despite Muslim-majority populations in these regions.
India’s November 2019 map including Kalapani (left) and Nepal’s map (Kathmandupost.com).
Unveiling the new map in August 2020, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan described it as “the most historic day for Pakistan,” while the Indian government called it “ridiculous,” “an exercise of political absurdity,” and Pakistan’s “obsession with territorial aggrandisement supported by cross-border terrorism.” Speaking about the new Pakistani map, journalist Kallol Bhattacharjee observed: “It leaves out a claim line at the eastern end of J&K [Jammu & Kashmir] indicating Pakistan’s willingness to make China a third party in the Kashmir issue.”
Much before Pakistan’s release of the new map, the Himalayan nation of Nepal, which is sandwiched between the mighty nuclear powers China and India, issued its own map in May 2020. It was the November 2019 map released by New Delhi that had first triggered concerns among Nepal’s government leaders by showing some regions disputed between India and Nepal as part of India. “India wants to keep a close watch over Chinese movements on the border,” wrote the Nepalese writer Atit Babu Rijal soon after the new Indian map was released.
At a press conference in Kathmandu on May 20, 2020, Nepal’s minister of land management Padma Kumari Aryal launched a new map claiming three areas of Kalapani, Limpiyadhura, and Lipulekh. Aryal stated: “It is a historic moment of happiness for the people of Nepal. The government… will uphold the prestige of Nepal. We will publish the new map and make it a part of the school textbooks.” In June 2020, Nepalese parliament approved the new map.
In normal times, India would not be bothered by Nepal’s actions. But in this Himalayan region, these are not normal times. Nepal, which has been traditionally dependent on India even for small things such as kerosene oil, nowadays leans in favor of China, which has emerged as a military and economic behemoth with new abilities to influence diplomacy and international relations, a characteristic of great powers. With Pakistan and Nepal, as well as other neighbors of India such as Myanmar and Bangladesh or Sri Lanka and the Maldives, firmly in the Chinese sphere of influence, India stands isolated in its immediate neighborhood.
In August 2020, Nepal’s government raised the geostrategic stakes against India by announcing that it was preparing to send the newly updated map, which includes Kalapani, Lipulekh, and Limpiyadhura as its integral part, to international organizations such as the United Nations and Google, among others. Nepalese writers like Atit Babu Rijal have stressed that a tiny nation like Nepal cannot afford to jeopardise its interests with India and therefore “Nepal should fix its claims upon the lands and file the issue in the International Court of Justice.”
South Asia’s War Over Maps Goes International
This issue of maps involving the Asian nuclear powers has gone international. In October 2020, Saudi Arabia released a 20-riyal note to mark its presidency of the G-20 Summit, but the note did not feature Ladakh or Jammu & Kashmir as part of India or Pakistan. Anurag Srivastava, a spokesman of the Indian ministry of external affairs, said: “We have conveyed our serious concern to Saudi Arabia… for this gross misrepresentation of India’s external territorial boundaries on an official and legal banknote of Saudi Arabia…”
Saudi Arabia’s 20-riyal note omitted Jammu & Kashmir from India.
Although Saudi Arabia and India seem to have resolved this issue, the war over maps in this region involving the three nuclear weapon states has also strengthened the Kashmiris’ sense of struggle and desire for freedom. Ghulam Nabi Mir, the head of World Kashmir Awareness Forum, told the Middle East Eye: “We are happy that Saudi Arabia made the decision to show solidarity with Kashmir and we hope they will not retreat as India is occupying and colonising Kashmir using domicile laws. Saudi Arabia has taken the first step, and they need to leave it to Kashmiris to decide their own independence.”
Earlier, in April 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO), which had already been faced with accusations of delaying the declaration of the Coronavirus a pandemic allegedly under Beijing’s influence, published a map in which parts of Ladakh (in Pakistan-controlled areas) were shown as part of Chinese territory with a color code and dotted line on the WHO website.
The map also showed the rest of Jammu & Kashmir and the rest of India in different colors. India’s former ambassador to China and Pakistan Gautam Bambawale said: “The map of India depicted by WHO differs from the standard depiction even of the United Nations itself, by not showing parts of J&K which are under actual control of India as a part of our country.”
Earlier, in November 2014, ahead of the G-20 Summit in Australia, an incorrect map of India, with Kashmir missing from it, was shown at an event during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. Syed Akbaruddin, then spokesperson for the Indian ministry of external affairs, lodged a “strong protest” and the organizers of the event apologized for what seemed to be an unintentional mistake.
India’s Increasing Sensitivity Over Maps
In recent years, India has displayed greater sensitivity to cartographic issues. In April 2015, India ordered Al-Jazeera television to go off the air for five days for repeatedly showing the country’s incorrect maps. The Surveyor General of India (SGI) observed that in some of the maps depicted by Al-Jazeera “a portion of Indian territory of Jammu and Kashmir (i.e. PoK and Aksai Chin) has not been shown as a part of Indian territory.” In reality, both PoK and Aksai Chin are under the control of Pakistan and China, while India claims them on its map legally.
About a month before Al-Jazeera was ordered off air, Organiser – a weekly magazine published by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organization of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – also had published an incorrect map showing parts of Jammu & Kashmir within the Pakistani territory, though the magazine later apologized. Similarly, wrong maps of India were handed to journalists by Gujarat state, where Modi’s party is in power, showing parts of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh as disputed territory.
In May 2016, India introduced a new law under which showing an incorrect map such as those concerning PoK, Aksai Chin or parts of Arunachal Pradesh on any online or electronic platform or in physical documents could lead to a seven-year jail term and a fine of up to Rs 100 crore, equal to roughly 15 million U.S. dollars. In December 2020, India asked Wikipedia to remove a map showing Aksai Chin as part of China.
It is evident these Asian powers are getting embroiled in wars of maps, showing lands on maps that they do not control on the ground. The risk is these Asian neighbors, three of them having nuclear weapons, can stumble into a war as border tensions recur, though they also sit at an ocean of opportunity to transform these disputed border areas into free trade zones, making the borders redundant and potentially build a new Europe for the shared future of their peoples.
* Tufail Ahmad is a Senior Fellow at MEMRI
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