How Asia's official maps promote propaganda

Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 March 2020 (16:43 IST)
Some countries in issue official maps with their own version of where the national borders should be drawn. Many are used to influence public opinion. In India, distributing an unofficial map is a criminal offense.
When children anywhere in the world are taught geography, they draw maps and learn the location of states, borders, cities and rivers.
Indian schoolchildren drawing a map of will draw the Ganges perhaps with a blue squiggle; the capital New Delhi with a big black dot. And when they draw northern India, they will be taught to include all of Kashmir, a territory that India, and even claim parts of.
Indian schools will also avoid conveying the fact that large parts of supposedly "Indian" are actually administered by Pakistan. Schoolchildren won't learn that some people living in India-administered Kashmir seek independence from India, or even advocate joining the territory with Pakistan.
Many Indians learn about this geopolitical debacle for the first time as adults after reading about it in foreign publications or seeing maps produced abroad. In India, distributing maps that do not depict the official version of geography can result in criminal prosecution.
The modern geopolitics that influence the region date back to the British Empire in India, and the "princely state" of Jammu and Kashmir that was dissolved following the partition of India in 1947.
In Pakistan, the Kashmir issue is equally touchy. On official maps, Jammu and Kashmir is included as the territory of Pakistan. However, contrary to the Indian maps, Pakistani maps indicate the ambiguous status of border areas with terms like "disputed territory" and "frontier undefined" printed on maps.
Mapping nationalism
India and Pakistan are not the only countries using maps as a propaganda tool. Many Asian countries publish official maps with geography that has a fleeting connection with accuracy. 
Tim Trainor is chairman of the International Cartographic Association and founding member of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management. He told DW that maps can influence how people think about parts of the world.
"Maps are very powerful and you know when most people look at a map, the most map readers assume that the information that they're looking at is correct," he said.
Similar to numbers and figures that seem to be objective, but are not required to be accurate, maps are especially effective as instruments of propaganda.
The German author Ute Schneider writes in her book "The power of maps" that there are no "objective" or "unbiased" maps because "maps are instruments of power."
Maps can become a contentious issue between countries. For example, several countries in Southeast Asia strongly criticized the 2019 movie "Abominable" for a scene where a map depicting China's controversial interpretation of the South China Sea was seen in the background.
The map showed the "nine-dash line," which depicts all of Taiwan and the entire South China Sea as Chinese territory.
China claims historical sovereignty, but Taiwan and neighboring countries reject Beijing's territorial claims in the region. In 2016, an international court ruled that China's claims in the South China Sea are not legal under international maritime law.
Critical use of maps
Many maps around the world show borders that are inaccurate, one-sided or intentionally incorrect.
In an ongoing dispute, North and South Korea both claim the entire Korean Peninsula. For years, there was disagreement between Thailand and Cambodia about the border near the Preah Vihear Temple.
Japan, which lost part of the Kuril Islands to the Soviet Union (now Russia) after World War II, depicts the islands as Japanese territory on its maps.
On a correct version of this map of Japan, the Kuril Islands would be indicated as Russian or at least as disputed. The reference to "the northernmost end of Japan" is misleading.
To avoid biased cartography, map expert Trainor said that maps should be produced in a critical and responsible manner.
First of all, it should be clear to everyone that cartographers do not define borders. That is the job of states through contracts and agreements.
"There's not one authority for all boundaries across the globe," said Trainor, adding that people should look at maps keeping in mind: "Who created the map and for what purpose?"
A good map should include the sources for how boundaries are drawn and include a date.
The maps from the US Geological Survey provide a good example. In the lower left corner, the map maker is listed along with the data for all of the map contents, including streets, names and boundaries.
Interpreting Google Earth
The UN is aware of the political sensitivity of maps. The department officially responsible for maps, the "UN Geospatial Information Section," publishes them with a disclaimer: "The boundaries and names shown and the designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations."
For several years, Google Maps has been by far the widest used web-based navigation tool. Google Maps is a geographic source for private users, and is also a basis for scientific and journalistic research.
But online maps are also influenced by politics. In 2014, the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project proved that Google adapts its maps according to the user's location.  This means that a user in India sees the world differently from how a user in China or Pakistan would see it.
When asked by DW how Google approaches depicting disputed borders, the company said its maps reflect border disputes as much as possible.
"If we have local versions of Maps, we follow the local regulations for designations and boundaries. We do not create normative maps, we depict the basic truth," Google said in a statement to DW. "We do not create or make changes to boundaries; rather we work with our data providers to obtain the best possible definition of where a border should be."
Who the data providers are, and who decides the bottom line is unclear. Google did not respond to DW's follow-up questions.
In January 2020, former Google manager Ross LaJeunesse said that the company was required to comply with national regulations for maps in China.
"In China, the government not only demands full access to a company's user data and infrastructure, it also expects the full cooperation of companies to ensure that Chinese users see only content that is in line with government standards," LaJeunesse wrote on the blogging platform Medium.