China has roiled the diplomatic waters in the region by publishing a new map that lays claim to swaths of the South China Sea that encompass almost all of Southeast Asia.
The map reinforces China's claim to islands that are disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia. The disputes have escalated in recent months to confrontations between Chinese and Vietnamese ships, water cannons and at least one ramming.
The new map is bound to court controversy because it is seen as an official statement that asserts the internationally disputed waters and islets are inherently part of China’s national territory. The provincial level Hunan Map Press, the publisher of the new map, said in an online article this week that the new map more clearly portrays the disputed area as under Chinese sovereignty.
Professor Lee Yunglung at the South China Sea Institute of Xiamen University said that the map raises the South China Sea issue to a level of prominence equal to China’s decades-long disputes with Japan over the East China Sea and the Senkaku Island.
He said the publication of the map serves a two-layered purpose. Domestically, the map “enhances Chinese citizens’ understanding of China’s sovereignty" over the South China Sea. On the international stage, the map gives a “more comprehensive narrative of the historical justification for China’s claims of sovereignty” over the disputed area.
The map's creator is calling it a "vertical" map. Unlike old horizontal maps, which focus on China’s huge landmass and show the South China Sea in a separate corner box, the new map features the South China Sea on the same scale in one complete map. The English website of People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s official newspaper, shows the new map.
Lee said that by letting a provincial level publisher put out the map, the central government in Beijing is “testing waters.” This gives the government the opportunity to see how other countries would respond and, where necessary, make amendments to mitigate the consequences of its actions. Given the recent upheavals in the South China Sea, “publishing the map directly by the central government could lead to clashes,” he said.
The demarcation line marks out the South China Sea and includes two prominent clusters of islands, the Paracels and the Spratlys, within the line. China, Vietnam, and Taiwan have all voiced claims to the Paracels. Six governments, including China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, claim the Spratlys.
Lee said Vietnam has also published maps that “include the entire Spratly and Paracel Islands” and has been using them in textbooks. In contrast, some maps published in the Yunnan and Guangxi provinces in China in the 1970s and 1980s exclude these islands. Vietnam has “used the maps produced back then to undermine China’s claims over the islands.”
The publication of the map follows a series of actions China has undertaken to assert its sovereignty over the South China Sea and the disputed islands. Last month, China positioned an oil rig in waters claimed by Hanoi as well as Beijing. This has led to rammings between vessels from the two countries.
Since January, China has also been moving sand onto three or four reefs and rocks in the Spratlys in an attempt to turn them into bigger islands that can support large buildings and human habitation. These actions have set off anti-China riots in Vietnam factories owned by Taiwanese, Singaporean, and Chinese companies last month. Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported that at least five Chinese citizens were killed in the riots and 20 foreign-owned factories were burned down, affecting over 1,000 foreign companies.