Last Monday morning (Aug. 13), my attention was attracted to an eye-catching story, complete with photo and maps, in the middle of the Washington Post’s print edition headlined “Small island at heart of a US-Canada boundary dispute.” It seems that, today, in 2018, the two friendliest nations on earth continue an ancient squabble over lobster fishing around a 200-meter wide islet off the Maine and New Brunswick coast. Tiny “Machias Seal Island” is a rock that Britain may, or may not, have ceded to the United States in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. “God forbid if oil or natural gas were ever found here,” one Canadian mariner lamented.
Really? Is it possible that Washington still obsesses over 235-year-old geographic minutiae? No doubt, the US Department of State’s Office of the Geographer is somehow involved with this border punctilio. The “Office of the Geographer” carries out authoritative, government-wide “boundary and sovereignty analysis and research” in close collaboration with the State Department’s Legal Advisor and the oceans, environment and science bureau.
Hence, it is puzzling that the State Department’s country page for “China” (https://www.state.gov/p/eap/ci/ch/index.htm) features prominently a revised map, prepared by that same Office of the Geographer, which shows “Taiwan” as part of “China.” On the other hand, the State Department’s web-based fact sheet for “Taiwan” (https://www.state.gov/p/eap/ci/taiwan/index.htm) shows Taiwan separate from China.
Yet, the “Taiwan” fact sheet further confuses matters by showing the “Kinmen Islands” — sometimes rendered in its Zhangzhou (漳州) pronunciation as “Quemoy” — as part of Taiwan! How does the State Department get THAT wrong? The US government has always considered Kinmen and Matsu as “Chinese” territory. As Secretary John Foster Dulles explained to the Senate committee considering the US-Republic of China Mutual Defense Treaty in 1954: “The legal position [of Quemoy and Matsu] is different, by virtue of the fact that technical sovereignty over Formosa and the Pescadores has never been settled [….] Therefore the juridical status of Formosa is different from the juridical status of the offshore islands [Quemoy and Matsu] which have always been Chinese territory.” The Mutual Defense Treaty, said Dulles, would not cover the offshores because they were “Chinese” territory — Taiwan was not.
In late 1954, the Senate was relieved to hear this because Communist China had just launched a broad campaign to clear Nationalist forces from all China’s offshore islands. The United States Navy was in the middle of evacuating of Nationalist troops and civilians from the Ta-chen Islands (大陳群島), and was bracing for Communist attacks on Quemoy and Matsu. The Senate was not eager for American forces to be treaty-bound to defend the Nationalists on indefensible coastal redoubts.
That Quemoy and Matsu “have always been Chinese territory” was something Premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) in Peking and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) in Taipei actually agreed on.
In February 1972, Premier Zhou wryly reminded visiting US President Richard Nixon that: “… in 1958, then-Secretary Dulles wanted Chiang Kai-shek to give up the islands of Quemoy and Matsu so as to completely sever Taiwan and the mainland and draw a line there. Chiang Kai-shek was not willing to do this. We also advised him not to withdraw from Quemoy and Matsu.”
Premier Zhou was perplexed by Taiwan’s “unsettled international status” and therefore was alert to the symbolic importance of Chiang’s continued occupation of Quemoy and Matsu as the last two plots of land indisputably under “Chinese” sovereignty. This vital point suffused Zhou’s entire view of Taiwan, to a degree of which American policy-makers were completely oblivious. “…[Chiang’s] idea is that there is only one China … we appreciate this point of his,” Zhou told Nixon six days before Nixon echoed an identical sentiment in the Shanghai Communique.
Nowadays, for some reason, State Department officials give the impression that “our one China” policy is a rhetorical imprecision, and besides, it is relevant only to Taiwan. Every time one Department official blurts out “our one China” someone else is obliged to append “in the context of the Three Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act.” Yet, Beijing’s “One China Principle” is hardly limited to Taiwan, nor is it vague or amorphous.
If cartographic squabbles between the lobstermen of Maine and Canada warrant a half-page of real estate in Washington’s major newspaper, then State Department geographers should take similar care in geographic delineations of even greater global moment. Mapmaking is central to addressing China’s recent cartographic aggressions against Japan, in the South China Sea, against Bhutan and even India, as well as Taiwan.
Beijing’s “One China Principle” now incorporates its “core interests.” These include exerting and enforcing China’s sovereignty across the vast expanse of the South China Sea encompassed within its “nine-dash line” (or eleven-dash, or even fourteen-dash line). Beijing several times has challenged the United States’ alliance with Japan in its claims to the Senkaku Islands (釣魚台列嶼), administered by Japan and hence within the ambit of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty.
China also declaims a “core interest” in sovereignty over “Tibet,” the cartographic extent of which, as Beijing insists, covers the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a jurisdiction nearly the size of Taiwan itself.
And since 1993, China has summarily occupied 8,000 square kilometers of Bhutan, one-sixth of that isolated Himalayan kingdom’s rugged territory. In 2002, when Chinese border negotiators “claimed to have documentary evidence on the ownership” of 7,000 square kilometers of Bhutan, including several sacred mountains, Bhutan pleaded with “them to be generous with a small neighbour like Bhutan.” Alas, the demoralized Bhutanese foreign minister reported in the National Assembly, the Chinese “said that, as a nation which shared its border with 25 (sic) other countries they could not afford to be generous with one particular neighbour.” The unbending Chinese negotiator in 2002 was none other than China’s current foreign minister, Wang Yi (王毅).
So, each time an American official says, “we recognize Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China. We are not in favor of independence,” as President Barack Obama told China’s Chairman of State Xi Jinping (習近平) in November 2014, the Chinese hear “we accept Beijing’s territorial claims on India and Bhutan.”
Of course, US borders with Canada are of a different order of legal pertinence to America’s diplomatic mapmakers than borders among third countries half a world away. But the potential for the State Department’s lawyers and geographers to mislead Beijing (or Moscow, or 1990 Baghdad, or 1938 Berlin) into armed aggression by insisting that “the United States takes no position regarding these sovereignty disputes” ought to inspire heightened care in State Department cartography. When American diplomats mumble their “one Chinas” they must be alive to China’s perception that “one China” is transcendent; it is continental and pelagic in scope. It is not at all China within the bounds of American maps, but a China expansive and evolving. And when the State Department revises maps on its web pages, as it did recently with Taiwan, the department should be aware that more than lobsters are at stake.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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