In his Strange Maps post “China Sets Its Sights on Taiwan”, Frank Jacobs wrote about Chinese irredentism, past and present.
By building islands and stationing soldiers where before there were only reefs and sea turtles, China has literally cemented its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The Middle Kingdom seems confident that its sheer economic size and growing military might will defeat the overlapping claims of other countries. Should Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia eventually accept China’s takeover of the area as a fait accompli, that would also be a defeat for the U.S.
Since its much-vaunted “pivot to Asia” a few years back, Washington’s undeclared policy has been to counterbalance Beijing’s growing geopolitical ambitions in the region. However, if Beijing manages to take possession of the Spratlys, Paracels, and other disputed islands, banks, and reefs without a fight, it will have successfully called Washington’s bluff. America’s allies in the region will wonder if the U.S. will do anything to come to their defense. It will make the next item on China’s wish list that much easier to acquire.
[. . .] As daunting as it is now, China throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries was the “Sick Man of Asia,” and outside powers abused the Empire’s weakness to obtain concessions, be they territorial or commercial. Nothing fans the flames of nationalism like the sense of historical wrongs as yet un-righted, so these ‘unequal treaties’ feature prominently in Chinese school curriculums.
This is not a recent development, nor is the present Communist regime the first to exploit these injustices for its own purposes. The map shown is one of several that populated the textbooks of elementary schools in 1930s nationalist China, usually titled “A Map of National Shame” (國恥地圖) or something like it. It shows the territorial expanse of the Chinese Empire in all its former glory. This mega-China runs as far west as the Aral Sea and as far east as Sakhalin Island; it incorporates both Afghanistan and Singapore, and virtually all lands and territories in between.
The pink bit in the middle shows the extent of China’s borders in the republican period. This already was an exercise in wish-fulfillment, as Japan was occupying a large part of coastal China, and much of the interior was ruled by warlords. Nevertheless, “pink” China also comprised the now independent state of Mongolia and (by the look of it) also Tuva, now a part of Russia (and home of the famous throat singers). A wide belt of green and red indicates territories unjustly detached from the Chinese motherland.
Among the more notable territories assigned to China by this map are Korea, Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, all of mainland Southeast Asia, and most of Central Asia and the Himalayas. This map, as Jacobs goes on to note, misrepresents the limits of China’s historical sphere of influence with China’s actual borders. I would note that, whatever legitimate reason there is for unhappiness with China’s current claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere, at least it is much more moderate than this!