China is renaming disputed locations in Asia to bolster its territorial claims and build evidence to support those claims in case any sovereignty disagreements land in court, experts say.
Beijing has used new names and other map coding to back its claims in the South China Sea, East China Sea and, most recently, parts of the mountains that it contests with India.
The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs announced on Dec. 29 that it had used Chinese characters to “standardize” 15 place names in the Indian-controlled state of Arunachal Pradesh in the country’s northeast, the Chinese state-operated Global Times news website reported. India uses its own place names for those locations.
Lian Xiangmin, a Chinese expert with the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing told the Global Times that the 15 names fit into a “national effort to standardize the management of place names” including spots that “have existed for hundreds of years,” the report says.
Analysts told VOA they believe the Chinese leaders renamed the 15 places to remind their own citizens of their claims while keeping up pressure on their opponents in disputes around Asia, especially in preparation for any International Court of Justice or world arbitration court hearings.
“I think the Chinese view is that part of narrative warfare, part of shaping a narrative about what a conflict is about, is wrong-footing or putting your adversary or rival claimant or disputant in a position where they are disadvantaged, and China holds an advantage,” said Scott Harold, Washington-based senior political scientist with RAND Corporation research group.
China also uses military buildups and economic ties to advance its disputed sovereignty claims. Over the past decade, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and India have pushed back. China and India got into two military standoffs including one in 2020. In 2016, Manila won a world court case against Beijing over South China Sea claims.
Other Asian countries have renamed disputed features as well, including Manila calling the South China Sea the “West Philippine Sea.” China stands out for its efforts since 2010 to expand its maritime reach, often using military superiority to gain an edge in territorial disputes and alarming its neighbors as well as their Western allies. Sino-Indian border tension shot up in 2017.
Old places, new names
Before borders became widely enforced around the world after the 17th century, people moved around more fluidly and named landmarks in passing. China seeks to “draw on that history” now, Harold said.
Alan Chong, associate professor at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies agrees. Chinese mapmakers pick names that are consistent with China’s historic role in a region it is targeting, he said. Beijing has said, for example, that its fishing boats sailed the South China Sea some 2000 years ago, and thus has named the sea’s tiny islets to reflect that history.
Among the 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh that China renamed, eight are residential areas, four mountains, two rivers and a mountain pass, the Global Times report says. China renamed six other places in the same region five years ago. Among China’s names is Zangnan, which means “South of Tibet” in Mandarin.
Lian called the new names “a legitimate move and China's sovereign right.”
Beijing has renamed the two major archipelagos of the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea despite rival claims by several Southeast Asian countries. Officials in Beijing say their nine-dash line follows Chinese fishing patterns over the centuries. The dashes encompass about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea from Hong Kong to Borneo.
China has also long used uniform map colors to amplify its claim to self-ruled Taiwan, said ruling party lawmaker Lo Chih-cheng.
“They have been doing that all the time,” Lo said. “They paint the color of Taiwan the same as China. That’s the way to show that Taiwan is a part of China.”
In the East China Sea, Beijing renamed the uninhabited, Japanese-held Senkaku Islands as “Diaoyu” after the mid-1950s, Harold said. Beijing disputes the islands with Tokyo and Taipei.
The Chinese public and its supporters abroad are a primary target audience of the renamed landmarks, Chong said. New names will remind those audiences of China’s claims to disputed territories, he said. Map names may even be “inadvertently forced” on other countries, Chong added.
New names and other map coding eventually make it onto Chinese passports, into international media reports. In one case, 14 Chinese tourists angered Vietnamese immigration police when they arrived in Vietnam in 2018 in T-shirts depicting a line that Beijing uses to mark its maritime claims that overlap Hanoi’s boundary.
Eventually China can use the names to seek advantage in territorial disputes, said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Hawaii.
“In the legal argument, you have to substantiate that you administer a place and part of that is, you name it,” he said.
China would wait for the right timing, Chong said.
“They may agree to freeze the status quo right now, but 50 years from now they might suddenly decide, ‘all right, let’s go to a court and win it peacefully,’ and then they’ll start pointing to the fact that they’ve got maps and other documents revealing that a Chinese name was given to this territory 50 years ago,” he said.
Hinting at a legal showdown, Beijing's state-run China Daily news website blamed India in October for "illegal occupation" of three disputed regions including Arunachal Pradesh.