Changing maps of the Asia-Pacific

In Asia, geography is always altering

Nicky Lovegrove

Society and culture, International relations, Development | Asia

26 May 2016

Nicky Lovegrove looks at how maps are constantly changing in the Asia Pacific.

“The map is not the territory”, as the father of semantics Alfred Korzybski once said. Which is true of course. But maps do tell us a lot about the territory, and not just about mountains and rivers and toll-roads. They also tell us about about power and politics, and about change occurring on the ground. To that end, here is a shortlist of five of the more contested and important maps of today which provide a window into a changing Asia Pacific.

1. India and Pakistan border dispute

(Photo source:

This is one area of the world you want to be careful to show on a map. Last week the Indian government released its proposed Geospatial Information Regulation Bill. India has long been sensitive to portrayals of its disputed Kashmir territory with Pakistan, but recently that sensitivity was stepped up a notch. If the bill passes, you could be fined US $15 million or imprisoned for 7 years for distributing a map of the kind shown above.

Although India has in the past pursued news outlets like The Economist and Al Jazeera for publishing maps outlining the disputed borders, this latest bill goes further by targeting online distribution of non-official maps, and making the fines much more explicit. Needless to say, Pakistan is not so happy about this latest turn of events.

2. India-Bangladesh border enclaves

India Bangladesh Enclaves cropped

(Photo source: Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

A year ago this month, India and Bangladesh adopted an agreement to end the world’s strangest land border by straightening out their territorial enclaves. There are many enclaves around the world, for instance Lesotho is a country enclaved by South Africa. But only in South Asia was the world’s only third-order enclave: a piece of India inside Bangladesh inside India inside Bangladesh.

How did this come about? The answer is a complicated history involving Mughal-era landlords holding territory against an invading state, and multiple colonial era partitions. But as fascinating as these bubbles of sovereignty were to historians, they were no joke to the 50,000 or so stateless people living inside them, who had neither identity documents nor a way of accessing their respective country’s mainland consulates in order to gain them.

Since the signing of the agreement last year, those living in the enclaves were given the choice to remain living where they were and become citizens of the enclosing state, or be relocated to the mainland of the other country. Most opted to stay where they were. Earlier this month, former occupants of the Bangladeshi enclaves were able to exercise their rights as Indian citizens for the first time by voting in the West Bengal state assembly elections.

3. The centre of the world

Asia population circle bigger

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Asian Century’ thrown about. Still, nothing quite demonstrates it visually like this map made by redditor Valeriepieris in 2013 showing where half of humanity lives.

It is true that this region has held the bulk of the world population for the last several millennia. But what this map does is shine a spotlight on Asia just as it starts to hold more of the world’s economic and political activity too. We’ve all heard that China is on track to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy, probably by 2026. Less mentioned is that by 2050, Asia as a whole is also expected to account for more than half of the world’s economy.

What else is special about this circle? As it turns out, the circle is also home to a majority of the world’s Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and nuclear-weapon states.

4. New islands appear


(Photo source:

If map three tells a story of a shifting balance of power towards Asia, map four gives us a tangible demonstration of what that new power can achieve. The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are currently part of a territorial tug of war between six claimants: China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Of these China has been the most forceful in its claim, with one of its more controversial actions being the construction of military installations on several of the reefs. Pictured above are the before and after shots of Fiery Cross Reef, on which China is currently building an airstrip.

Earlier this month, Fiery Cross Reef made international news when a US destroyer sailed nearby, and was followed by two Chinese fighter jets and three warships. Washington views the area as international waters, and has recently stepped up its military presence in the South China Sea in an attempt to assert this view and rebuff Chinese territorial claims.

5. Old islands vanish


(Photo source: Simon Albert/The Conversation)

The image above might not look like much, but it’s what it doesn’t show that tells the story. Just this month, the first scientific evidence has emerged of islands disappearing, not just off the map, but off the face of the Earth itself. Australian researchers have published a report detailing how soil erosion and rising sea levels have inundated five reef islands in the Solomon Islands. An additional six islands have seen their shorelines dramatically recede, which has destroyed villages and required the community to relocate.

The Solomon Islands is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, experiencing 3 times the global average since the 1970s. But as the authors of the report stress, what the Solomon Islands is suffering now is what much more of the world can expect as the oceans expand. Unless more is done to address the impact of climate change, we can expect many more islands to vanish.


From border disputes to a changing balance of power, from artificial islands to disappearing ones, this is just one snapshot of the Asia Pacific in 2016. It is clear that future maps of the region will only show more change this century.

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