Lessons of a Bygone Era: Wars of Symbolism

In September, China released its new “standard map,” laying claim to most of the so-called “South China Sea,” as well as territory that it disputes with neighboring states, including over 90,000 square kilometers. of Indian state territory. The new map caused an uproar when it was initially released because, in the context of Russia’s brutal, massacrous invasion of Ukraine, China’s new map was a stark reminder of that state’s ruthless, expansionist ambitions. More importantly, it should have been a reminder to Western military strategists that wars are fought through at least as much symbolism as lead.

China’s new map is a textbook case of cartographic aggression, used to represent reality in a manner more favorable to a particular state, and almost always a predictor of future warfare, as states attempt to realize their broad territorial claims.

Maps as Declarations of War

During the interbellum period, the Nazi Party produced and disseminated maps depicting parts of the lands of other states, which it claimed for Germany, under titles such as “It Should/Shall All Be Germany” and “Map of German Ethnic and Cultural Lands.” Versions of similar maps appeared in Western news sources, such as The New York Times and Life Magazine with the headlines “A Geography Lesson for Young Germany” and “The Key Nazi Map of a Greater Germany,” respectively. Obviously, everyone the world-over is aware of how that particular geopolitical situation ended.

Another important case of cartographic aggression is described by the esteemed geographer Harm de Blij, within his book Why Geography Matters: Three Challenges Facing America: Climate Change, the Rise of China, and Global Terrorism, in a chapter titled “Maps of Bad Intentions.” Harm de Blij states that in mid-1990, prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, he was sent a new, ostensibly official Iraqi-produced map through an intermediary at the University of Baghdad. This map was especially interesting, however, because it showed Kuwait as Iraqi territory, and it was yet another example of Iraq’s long historical record of irredentist claims upon the Kuwaiti State. Just a short time later, after Saddam Hussein’s August 2nd, 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and his subsequent annexation of Kuwait towards the end of that same month, Iraqi printers began mass-producing a map listing Kuwait as the Iraqi Province 19, in an attempt to completely erase its southern neighbor from existence.

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it gave life to another manifestation of this international conundrum. Russia, of course, began reacting with fury and characteristic bellicosity, in response to the production of maps that depicted Crimea as disputed territory — or as the territory of Ukraine.

In January 2023, as Russia neared the one-year mark from its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Russia propagated a law making it a crime – considered a form of political extremism – for any Russian citizen to publish maps showing Crimea, and four other Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine (Luhansk and areas of Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia), as anything other than Russian territory. 

Cartographic aggression is a particularly insidious form of symbolic warfare because map-makers were historically tasked with producing maps for navigation, or maps of newly-discovered territories; in other words, these maps were created with the intent of representing and conveying reality, and thus, these prototypical cartographers – and those who commissioned their work, often Royals or large trading companies – placed a high value on accuracy. As the world’s four corners became thoroughly mapped and exploration ceased, the map became an increasingly political tool – although it would be inaccurate and somewhat naive to state that map-making was ever fully devoid of political agendas — and yet, the general perceptions of maps remained unchanged. Maps in the modern age – the age of geopolitics – have increasingly become tools for displaying a particular, biased perception of reality, and yet, the public still tends to view maps with an entirely uncritical eye. It may be the case that, because maps are the sole tool known to mankind for conveying geographic truths, they are treated as though map-makers always convey those truths. 

An easy example of this conundrum, once again, comes from Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. Global corporations which claim to produce or convey unbiased information, such as Google, National Geographic, and Wikipedia, struggled to choose between the widely accepted truth (that Crimea remained the legal territory of Ukraine, or at least, disputed territory), and offending Russia, or caving to the authoritarian tactics of the Russian Federation. Google chose the latter, Google Maps software conveyed different “truths” to Russian visitors than those from the rest of the world, effectively attacking Ukraine’s sovereignty and destroying that company’s claims to supplying unbiased, accurate information. 

What’s in a Name? Names as Expressions of Identity

China’s new, official, “standard map,” However, is not just a quintessential example of cartographic aggression, but in the author’s opinion, it is the result of the United States’ neglect of yet another important symbolism — names.

Whether it is used in regards to a person or a place, a name is closely linked with a sense of identity — both, one’s sense of identity as it is presented to the public, and as the subject understands their identity, themselves. The importance of a name to one’s identity became painfully obvious during and after the period of democratic advancement which began during the late-1970s and early-1980s, what Samuel Huntington termed the “third wave of democracy.” Many post-colonial states – either newly independent, or already so but facing new nationalist or democratic fervor – were forced to grapple with the difficult question of affirming their separation from previous imperial states, and self-confidently asserting themselves upon the world stage. Many of these burgeoning nations chose to re-affirm their self-identity by abandoning the names bestowed upon them by former colonial masters. 

For some countries, this change was simply a re-christening of their state’s name in a local tongue, thus bringing their public presentation in line with a corresponding national identity. This was the case with Burma which, in 1989, under the leadership of a new military junta, changed the state’s name to Myanmar, which is simply the word for “Burma” in the local vernacular. More recently, in 2018, Swaziland was re-christened as Eswatini, to reflect the name that the Swazi use for their own country. President Erdogan of “Turkey,” last year, stated that his state was to be known by the form of its name that is used by native Turks — Türkiye. President Erdogan stated that his abandoning of the anglicized “Turkey,” best “represents and expresses the culture, civilization, and values of the Turkish nation.”

For other states, a name change represented a more complete severance from their imperial progenitors. Such was the case with the British-African territory of Rhodesia which, in a political process far to complex to elaborate upon here, dissolved into three separate states in the 1960s, and eventually, each of these states selected a name entirely separate from that bestowed upon it by the United Kingdom, names that had significance to the nation’s culture and were rendered in the nation’s native language. These three states are Malawi (named for a tribal empire of indigenous peoples who occupied the land, prior), Zambia (named for the Zambezi River, a significant geographic landmark within the state’s territory), and Zimbabwe (named for a great medieval city which served as the capital of an empire within the present Zimbabwean territory.) In 1972, the British dominion of Ceylon gained its independence and adopted the official name Sri Lanka, which translates to “blessed island” in the nation’s vernacular.

Indeed, the importance of names and identity has been made even more clear in the year following Russia’s detestable invasion of Ukraine, which has served as a crucible for the Ukrainian people, who have become increasingly bonded into a single nation by their shared sacrifice. Ever since 2014, when Russia’s revanchist, imperial ambitions became painfully clear with its invasion of Ukraine, and following Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement which fought for the Ukrainian nation’s liberal, European soul against Russia’s hostile interference in Ukraine’s domestic politics, the Ukrainian people have pursued de-Russification with ever-increasing fervency. This fight often culminates in attempts to replace Russian place names imposed upon Ukraine by an imperialist, Soviet state. The pervasiveness and insidiousness of Russia’s penetration of Ukraine’s culture was laid bare, as most of the West was forced to re-learn the spelling of key Ukrainian terms, such as the name of Ukraine’s capital city — Kyiv. For as long as can be remembered that city’s name had been recorded in its Russian form, “Kiev,” and each time the name was mentioned by the news media or within school textbooks in its Russian form, it was a stab in the side for the Ukrainian nation at the very moment when the Ukrainian nation was working to obtain much needed agency upon the world stage.

In the case of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), that state has proven itself to be particularly sensitive to the geopolitical significance of place names, especially in regards to the matter of Taiwan. Taiwan bears many names: Taipei, The Republic of China, Chinese Taipei, Taiwan – Province of China, and most especially, it is often called a “renegade province.” Beijing detests the name “Taiwan,” as a standalone term – i.e., if “Taiwan” is not immediately followed by the words “Province of China” – because the name Taiwan implies not only a separate state, but also a distinct cultural identity. It is much more difficult for the PRC to maintain its ridiculous claims to the possession of Taiwan, with a burgeoning national identity binding the people of that island, an identity that has been shorn of its traditionally Chinese characteristics, indeed, an identity which may even reject things that are Chinese. The Republic of China is an equally objectionable name – if not more objectionable than “Taiwan” – to the PRC, because if perpetuates the notion that there exists two Chinas — the legitimate China (the successor to Chiang Kai-Shek’s center-right government, based in Taiwan), and likewise, the continuation of Mao Zedong’s totalitarian socialist project in the PRC (mainland China). “The Republic of China” is a name for Taiwan that entirely denies the right for the Communist Party of China to rule the mainland Chinese state. The name “Chinese Taipei” has far more interesting origins. It is the name which Taiwan and the Republic of China have agreed upon for Taiwan’s use in international settings, in particular, Taiwan’s use of the name “Chinese Taipei” is what enabled Taiwanese participation in the Olympic Games as an entity separate from China. There is little way to see the use of this name as anything but a near-complete victory for the People’s Republic of China. The use of “Chinese Taipei” implies the immutable Chinese nature of the Taiwanese people, effectively denying the existence of any Taiwanese national community distinct from that of the Chinese culture. Additionally, the term Chinese “Taipei,” with each use, asserts the Peope’s Republic of China’s ownership over the island and the Taiwanese people. By insisting upon the use of the name “Chinese Taipei,” the PRC is attempting to diminish the significance of Taiwan’s liberal democracy, and to paint the island as if it were a mere petulant child, on a flight of fancy, destined to be returned to its “rightful” place firmly in China’s imperial grasp.

Certainly, then, it may be worth examining the symbolism which underlays the PRC’s territorial claims advanced by its new “standard map,” particularly in the so-called “South China Sea,” perhaps one of the most important geopolitical hotspots in the world. The term “South China Sea” is standardized throughout the United States, and most of the Western world — it is doubtful that most Western scholars would recognize that body of water by any other name, but indeed, it has many other names. First, it is important to note that the name “South China Sea” originates from the imperial Chinese concept of the “Four Seas” which bounded the Chinese Empire. In the land between these seas, the world seemed to belong to China; however, due to these natural barriers, the apoapsis of the Chinese imperium necessarily seemed to require active domination of the maritime realm. Thus, the sea became a frontier to be conquered, for men to test their strength upon. Like all frontier myths, the sea represented the unknown, and thus, it was something to be feared as much as it was to be held in awe. Despite the fact that a mythical frontier begets conquering, in practice, imperial China never did conquer the frontier posed by the South Sea, or by the maritime realm in general. Although the government of the PRC makes the perfectly accurate claim that China’s maritime activity begins as early as – or even earlier than – the 2nd Century B.C., the reality is that, for approximately a millennia, Chinese sailors utilized circuitous routes, through shallow waters or the coastal waters of islands, to traverse large distances without ever venturing into the deeper waters of the sea. For most of the history of the South Sea, it served as a facilitator for multinational trade and trans-culturation. It is worth noting that the facilitation of these sorts of activities was the exact reason for Hugo Grotius’ proposal of the idea of the Freedom of the Seas, which is now an inviolable cornerstone of international law. Like many ancient and medieval maritime bodies, the notion of the “Freedom of the Seas” was remarkably similar to the de facto condition of the South “China” Sea, first because of the technological barriers to maritime activity, and then due to the logistical difficulties of maritime power projection — indeed, even today, maritime power projection is a tool only available to the greatest of military powers. Indeed, in many instances the Chinese Empire seemed to believe that the sea was something from which it needed to be guarded – which serves to underscore the fear of the unknown that a frontier can evoke – and the Chinese imperial officials imposed isolationist maritime policies. These isolationist tendencies were exacerbated by the rapacious pirating which often plagued that sea in the Early Modern Period, and onward. All that is left of this potent myth is a strong belief that the South Sea should belong to China, without any historical record indicating that the Chinese empire had ever conquered that frontier, a precondition upon which China’s national claim rests.

The United States Must Fire a Symbolic Salvo

By using the name “South China Sea,” the United States and the rest of the Western world are claiming the sea for China. However, many of the United States’ allies within the Indo-Pacific region refuse to cede such a claim, even symbolically, and thus they have adopted different terminology for referring to this body of water.

The Phillipines has endorsed the name “West Philippines Sea,” although it has not used this name to imply ownership over portions of the sea to which it has no claim, such as China routinely does with the assistance of the name “South China Sea.” Vietnam has named it the East Sea, not to be confused with China’s own “East Sea.” Indonesia has renamed a portion of the sea as the “North Natuna Sea.” None of these names are likely to gain any international appeal, because they are each specific to the preferences of a single culture or state. However, there is a name which has received support from almost all of the United States allies in the region, a name that is unbiased and inclusive towards the other states in the region, and one that is far more representative of the United States strategic interests: “The South East Asian Sea.”

The United States allies within the Indo Pacific region should not be left to fend for themselves, against Chinese hostility and violations of their sovereignty, particularly as the world continues to watch while China increasingly abuses and antagonizes Philippine naval ships and private vessels.

President Biden has, within his power, the ability to alter administration policy in this area, regardless of legislative consent. Geographic names are typically the prerogative of the Foreign Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, however, the Board’s responsibility only applies to geographic features for which the President nor Congress has yet to establish a government position. For a region as overladen with geopolitical significance as the Indo-Pacific, the President has the imperative to act on otherwise mundane policy questions, due to the mandate provided by the traditional understanding of the President’s plenary power over foreign relations. President Biden should, through executive order — although, a Presidential Memorandum may also be sufficient to accomplish the same task, while not bearing the complete force of law — direct all executive agencies to adopt the name “The South East Asian Sea” in all official correspondence, publications, and documents. This will send an immense, symbolic message to both China and the United States’ allies within the Indo-Pacific, reaffirming the United States’ belief in the enduring rights of all states to utilize this contested body of water, and reassuring our allies that the United States will, indeed, stand firmly by their side in the face of unwarranted Chinese aggression. Additionally, President Biden should pair such a declaration with a simultaneous, dramatic increase in the conducting of freedom of navigation operations, in tandem with regional allies, within the Sea. These freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) provide a tangible assertion of the United States’ maritime rights and national security interests, and an increase in FONOPs within the contested Sea will significantly bolster the symbolic message sent by the renaming of the “South China Sea,” especially since the PRC typically vehemently opposes these operations by U.S. warships.

[Photo by Qilei Cai, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Logan M. Williams is a student at the University of Connecticut, studying History and Global Studies, and he presently a researcher at the Center for a Free Cuba. The Center is an organization dedicated to monitoring human rights abuses within Cuba and to advocating for Cuba’s eventual liberalization. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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