The Dishonest Confidence of Political Cartography

Article excerpt

There is the veneer of authority in a map. A splotch of color bordered by cold, static black lines is the world as it is and as it is for all. Maps, however, are an abstraction of reality. We see the world in a particular way and so we splash this vision onto the page. There is within this a tension.

A fellow editor for this paper recounted to me a story of travels in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. He arrived at the border with a book of maps. Written on certain pages, as in most political cartography, was the term "Israel" - the ink hovering above a portion of land in the Middle East. This was, in the mind of the customs officer, clearly a mistake, one he would promptly fix. Every instance of this word, be it above a squiggle of borders or buried in the index, was totally blacked out. The term was, literally, wiped off the map.

Maps are a statement of the political "reality" as one sees it and in that is the tension. Politics, and so its maps, is now and always has been infused with a strain of postmodernism: no one truth. Many.

This politics of maps has drawn itself into the headlines recently in a way that, were it not for the sour history involved, might be considered cheeky, even comical.

Only a few days ago reports emerged that China's new passports include a map of the country that makes a confident if disputed claim to reality. A dotted line curves across the oceans to the east and south of mainland China. In the process it wraps in its net not only Taiwan, a fairly common habit of Chinese cartography, but also much of the South China Sea, notably the island chains of the Paracels and Spratlys. Meanwhile, to the west, Arunachal Pradesh and the Himalayan region of Aksai Chin, the sovereignty of which India and China disagree about, are included within Chinese territory.

To be sure, such a cartographical "land grab," as a Filipino or Indian may term it, are nothing new. In 1947, China printed a map that laid claim to much of the territory in the South China Sea, which the country says has been an integral part of their territory for 2,000 years.An Associated Press (AP) report has highlighted the novelty of the situation - that the maps are included in passports. This requires "other countries to tacitly endorse the claims by affixing their official seals to the documents." For a country to accept the veracity of a passport, it must accept the claims represented within the document. The reality of China's new map, however, is disputed. The countries involved have made that clear.

In Taiwan, the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) has said: "This is total ignorance of reality and only provokes disputes." The MAC has said the country will not accept the map.

Taiwan has fared, perhaps, worse than others with pictures of two of the country's famous landmarks, Sun Moon Lake and Qingshui Cliff, also included within the document. …