Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters on Tuesday that Tokyo had lodged a strong protest with Beijing over the map. He said the islands were “indisputably an inherent part of Japanese territory, both historically and under international law”.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning on Wednesday said the islands were “China’s inherent territory” and marked on its maps as “a matter of course”.
James Brown, a political science professor with the Japan campus of Temple University, said there was likely to have been “quite an internal debate” over the response from Tokyo. “Protest and it suggests acknowledgement of a dispute,” Brown said. “Say nothing and it could be seen as tacit acceptance of China’s claims. They evidently judged that option two was worse.”
Beijing has previously released what it calls the “standard map” to reinforce its “national sovereignty, security and development interests”.
The map includes all disputed areas that China considers its territory, such as Arunachal Pradesh and the Doklam plateau, which are claimed by India, self-ruled Taiwan, and most of the South China Sea, where Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are among the rival claimants.
Chen Xiangmiao, an associate researcher with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies on Hainan Island, said it was standard practice for governments to publish such official maps.
“I believe that no country in the world would mark disputed territories as belonging to rival claimants,” he said.
Beijing’s latest map does not mark out any new claims, but the strong reaction reflects “a collective concern, or a critical mass if you will, about China’s territorial and maritime claims”, according to Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Washington-based Stimson Centre.
She said the long-running border disputes with India had become a “particularly salient” issue in the lead-up to next week’s G20, which New Delhi is hosting.
Sun also noted that Manila appeared to be “much more ardent” about standing its ground after a recent incident in the South China Sea, when Chinese coastguard ships used water cannon to block a Philippine resupply mission to the Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed Spratly Islands.
She said Taiwan had also been a “focus of concern” over a possible People’s Liberation Army attack.
Nepal also criticised the Chinese map, saying it marked three areas that it considers part of Nepal as Indian territory.
Sun said that against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, “countries are more sensitive about China’s demonstration of a similar intent to gain territory by force or by coercion”.
That was especially the case as Beijing has been moving away from “a diplomatic dormancy” after three years of Covid-19 controls.
“The map released last year might have had the same content, but no one expected any credible follow-through given China’s self-imposed travel restrictions,” Sun said. “But now China has resumed its normal external activities, the implication of the map is much more significant as people believe now that China could act to enforce it.
“China might think this is something it has done regularly, and with no pushback. But this year things are not the same,” she added.
Chen from the Hainan institute said the protests from neighbouring countries could be part of efforts to consolidate their own claims.
He noted that tensions over the South China Sea had been rising in recent years, particularly since 2016, when an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that there was no legal basis to Beijing’s claims in the resource-rich waterway – a ruling Beijing rejected.
“If they don’t object, it could be seen as them accepting China’s claims,” Chen said, referring to the rival claimants. “I don’t think these protests have much to do with defending their sovereignty rights – they’re more a tactic to pressure China.”
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