'China wages quiet war of maps with neighbours'

China has been waging a quiet campaign, using ancient documents, academic research, maps and technical data to bolster its territorial claims in the East China Sea.

According to the Washington Post, China’s attention to maps and other documents has intensified, which has brought a spats of a new kind.

The most recent began shortly after Christmas when a Japanese publication posted what it claimed was a 1950 Chinese government document unearthed in China’s own archives calling the disputed islands by their Japanese name, implying that Beijing then regarded the islands as Japanese, the report said.

China’s embassy in Japan sidestepped the question of the document’s authenticity, saying that “even if the document exists, it won’t change the consistent position of the Chinese government”.

According to the report, the embassy later dismissed the whole thing as a “Japanese attempt to support their wrong stance with an anonymous reference document”.

But just weeks after, with little explanation, the China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs shut down access to a large portion of its archival documents.

A staffer at the archive last week said that the closure was ‘due to an upgrading of the system’, but was unable to say when the work would be complete.

The bitter feud between China and Japan over a handful of rocky outcroppings may seem frivolous. But the fight carries great weight domestically for both countries — and huge implications for the United States.

According to the report, if the military bluster and threats continue, US diplomats and experts fear, it could lead to a military miscalculation and, in the worst case, an actual war that could draw in the United States, as an treaty-bound ally of Japan.

China’s increasingly aggressive posture on such claims is driven by a heady mixture of nationalism and strategic and economic interests.

There has also been a flurry of official interest in China’s documentary backing for its territorial claims.

Several seminars and conferences were convened by government-affiliated think tanks.

At one high-profile gathering in Shanghai, scholars concluded with a five-point consensus “to pool together our wisdom” and “to safeguard the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands and to oppose Japan’s violation”.

China’s State Council issued a 5,200-word white paper that laid out, point by exhaustive point, China’s case.

This fall, key historical documents, atlases and journals were assembled into an exhibit at China’s National Library.

The library’s official statement included a sneering reference to the “sheer historical lie” of Japan’s claims, and the displays included records from imperial envoys stretching back to the Ming dynasty in the 1300s.

Maps — ancient and modern — have been a particular area of focus, with the government’s scientific and academic subsidiaries pumping out atlases, three-dimensional graphs and sketches of both disputed areas, the report said.

New passports were outfitted with maps that include a dotted area that pointedly marks China’s claimed portions of the South China Sea. Even weather reports on state-run television have been amended to add forecasts for disputed areas, it added.

According to the report, some international scholars, however, question how much credibility the recent burst of historical studies and technical data adds to China’s claims — especially given the fact that most think tanks and universities in China remain firmly in the grip of the Communist Party and its government.

Chinese scholars have defended their work as sound, even as some are trying to build credibility by relying less on Chinese documents and instead finding foreign materials to support China’s claims, it added.