In a move that has reverberated across the international stage, China released a new map on August 29, 2023, following the BRICS meeting held in South Africa. This seemingly innocuous act of cartography has far-reaching geopolitical implications, as it asserts China’s territorial claims over several disputed areas, unsettling not only its neighbors but also the delicate balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.
The new map has raised eyebrows for several reasons, chief among them being China’s bold assertion of sovereignty over territories that have long been subject to competing claims by multiple nations. Some of these claims directly contravene previous agreements and have the potential to spark diplomatic tensions and even conflict. Through this new map, China has incited offense among a number of its neighboring nations, including several of its close allies.
The contentious claims featured on this map encompass several key territories: Firstly, China has laid claim to the entirety of Bolshoi Ussursky Island, also recognized as Heixiazi Island, which resides within the boundaries of Russia. This assertion contradicts a 2004 border agreement between China and Russia, which stipulated the division of the island between the two nations, with China securing control over its western portion and Russia maintaining authority over the eastern section.
Furthermore, China’s territorial claims extend to encompass the complete Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands. These contested islands have also been subject to claims by Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines, engendering protracted tensions within the region. China’s ambit in the South China Sea is further illustrated by its assertion of sovereignty over the entire expanse of the South China Sea, excluding only those waters enclosed within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
These expansive claims hinge upon the so-called nine-dash line, a U-shaped demarcation that encompasses the majority of the sea, although it is noteworthy that this nine-dash line lacks recognition under international law. Turning westward, China’s map lays claim to the eastern sector of the Aksai Chin plateau, a territory presently under Chinese administration but contested by India. Similarly, the northeastern reaches of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state are delineated as Chinese territory, despite being under Chinese control yet claimed by India.
Additionally, the dispute has extended to affect Nepal and Bhutan, heightening regional tensions. These audacious territorial claims on China’s new map have catalyzed consternation and diplomatic friction among the nations directly affected, underscoring the complex web of geopolitical disputes in the Asia-Pacific region. One of the most striking aspects of this new map is China’s assertion of ownership over the entirety of Bolshoi Ussursky Island, also known as Heixiazi Island. This island, located in the Amur River near Khabarovsk, Russia, holds immense strategic significance, as it controls access to the Amur River and the Sea of Okhotsk. This move has raised questions about China’s motivations and its potential challenge to Russia’s established claims over the island. To understand the gravity of these recent developments, it is essential to delve into the historical context, the significance of the disputed territories, and the geopolitical implications of China’s actions.
Complex Historical Roots of China’s Territorial Disputes
The roots of these territorial disputes can be traced back to historical ambiguities, changes in territorial control, and competing historical narratives. These factors have led to longstanding tensions between China and its neighboring countries, including Russia, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and India.
One pivotal moment in resolving these disputes was the border agreement of 2004 between Russia and China. Officially titled the “Agreement on the Russian-Chinese State Border in the Eastern Part of the Russian-Chinese Border Zone,” this agreement aimed to address a range of border issues and lay the foundation for peaceful coexistence. The agreement focused on the eastern section of the extensive China-Russia border, specifically addressing the division of Bolshoi Ussursky Island (Heixiazi Island) and Tarabarov Island (Yinlong Island) in the Amur River.
The division of Bolshoi Ussursky Island was a central aspect of the 2004 agreement. It was agreed that the island would be split into two parts, with China gaining control of the western half and Russia retaining authority over the eastern portion. This arrangement was intended as a compromise solution to a long-standing dispute over the island’s ownership. Tarabarov Island, another contentious point, was also divided between the two countries. The northern portion was allocated to Russia, while the southern part was transferred to China. This division was part of a broader effort to delineate clear and mutually agreed-upon boundaries along the Amur River, enhancing stability in the region.
Amur River Accord: Bridging the Gap and Building Trust in Sino-Russian Relations
The Amur River, a vital waterway in the region, played a significant role in the 2004 agreement. The demarcation of the border along the Amur River not only provided clarity but also facilitated economic cooperation. The agreement allowed for increased trade, investment, and transportation between the two countries, bolstering economic ties and regional connectivity.
The successful resolution of these border issues in 2004 was seen as a milestone in Sino-Russian relations. It marked a departure from historical tensions and conflicts, solidifying a period of improved cooperation between these two major global powers. Both nations officially recognized each other’s sovereignty over the territories they gained through the agreement, contributing to the overall stability of the border region.
Geopolitical Significance of Bolshoi Ussursky Island in China-Russia Relations
While Bolshoi Ussursky Island may appear unassuming on the map, its geo-political importance cannot be understated. Situated in the Amur River, near the city of Khabarovsk, Russia, the island holds several key strategic advantages. First and foremost, Bolshoi Ussursky Island controls access to the Amur River and the Sea of Okhotsk. This position makes it a crucial point of influence and control over regional transportation routes, facilitating trade and connectivity between Russia’s Far East and China’s northeastern provinces. Geopolitically, the island’s location at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers carries historical, strategic, and symbolic significance. This confluence has been a focal point of interest for both China and Russia.
Furthermore, Bolshoi Ussursky Island has symbolic importance within the context of China-Russia relations. Its resolution in 2004 served as a tangible example of peaceful territorial dispute resolution, underscoring the cooperative approach taken by these two global powers in international affairs. In the broader regional context, the Amur River region, including Bolshoi Ussursky Island, factors into the balance of power in Northeast Asia. Control over this island can influence regional dynamics and relationships between China, Russia, and neighboring countries.
Complex Motivations Behind China’s Assertive Territorial Claims
The multifaceted motivations behind China’s assertive territorial claims on maps, using the example of its claim over parts of Russian territory, Bolshoi Ussursky Island. It suggests that these claims can serve both domestic and international purposes. Domestically, they can appeal to nationalist sentiments and enhance the government’s image as a guardian of China’s territorial integrity. On the international stage, these claims can test how other countries respond and assess the level of international pushback.
Additionally, some claims may be driven by the desire to secure valuable resources or enhance geopolitical influence, especially in strategic regions like the South China Sea. Historical narratives, diplomatic leverage, and adaptation to global power dynamics also play roles in shaping China’s territorial assertions. The motivations behind these claims can vary depending on specific contexts, and they may not always be explicitly articulated by the Chinese government.
China’s Claim on Bolshoi Ussursky Island: A Disruption in Sino-Russian Relations
In 2023, China’s release of a new map asserting its ownership of the entire Bolshoi Ussursky Island has disrupted the status quo established by a 2004 agreement. Russia has unequivocally rejected these claims, emphasizing its control of the island since the 19th century and the binding nature of the 2004 border agreement. This response signals Russia’s reluctance to yield to China’s territorial claims and raises questions about the future of their Sino-Russian relationship. Both countries have options for addressing this issue. They could choose to disagree on the island’s status while maintaining cooperation in other areas.
China might reconsider its claims to preserve good relations with Russia, potentially de-escalating tensions. Alternatively, Russia could take a more confrontational approach, risking a deterioration in relations. However, this could have wider regional implications. The path forward is uncertain, but the Bolshoi Ussursky Island dispute is a significant development in Sino-Russian relations, closely monitored by neighboring countries and the international community due to its potential impact on regional stability in the Asia-Pacific.
China’s release of a new map in 2023, asserts territorial claims over several disputed areas, which has caused geopolitical tensions and concerns in the Asia-Pacific region. China’s claims encompass territories subject to competing claims by neighboring countries and contradict previous agreements. These claims have incited diplomatic tensions and raised questions about China’s motivations. The article delves into the historical roots of territorial disputes and highlights the significance of the 2004 border agreement between China and Russia, which aimed to resolve border issues and enhance regional stability. Bolshoi Ussursky Island, located in the Amur River, is emphasized for its geostrategic importance and symbolic value in China-Russia relations. The multifaceted motivations behind China’s territorial claims are explored, including domestic and international factors, historical narratives, and geopolitical strategies. The article concludes by discussing the disruption caused by China’s claim over Bolshoi Ussursky Island and its implications for Sino-Russian relations and regional stability.
About the authors:
- Prof. (Dr.) Jagmeet Bawa: Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala, India. Dr. Bawa brings with him a rich experience of 15 years in teaching and research. His expertise lies in the domains of Indian Political System and Central Asian Politics. Prior to his current position, he taught for a decade at I K Gujral Punjab Technical University, Jalandhar, India. Throughout his academic journey, he has guided ten students toward the successful completion of their Ph.D. degrees. Additionally, Dr. Bawa’s scholarly contributions extend to the realm of publications, with five books authored and over 30 research papers penned. His pursuit of academic excellence has taken him across various countries, where he has engaged in academic and research activities. Presently, his focus lies on Central Asian Politics, with four students currently pursuing their doctoral degrees under his guidance on this very subject.
- Balinder Singh: Research Scholar and Academic. Ph.D. in Political Science, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala, India. Dr. Singh has actively participated in numerous national and international conferences and has published over 20 research articles in esteemed international journals.