Putin Powerless To Complain About China Claiming Russia Territory

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping shake hands after delivering a joint statement following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.© Mikhail Tereshchenko/Sputnik/AFP/Getty


Chinese media outlets this week shared a new geographic map from China's state-owned standard map service that shows Russian territory as part of China.

The map, which is said to have been approved by Beijing and was released by China's Ministry of Natural Resources, comes as Western observers have speculated that the relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping has become strained.

Shortly before Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he and Xi signed a "no limits" partnership agreement, but Chinese officials have since publicly called for a peaceful resolution to the war. Earlier this month, the Institute for the Study of War think tank wrote that China's public stance of neutrality in regard to Ukraine is causing a fissure between Beijing and the Kremlin.

The new map will likely not help Russia-China ties, George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government Professor Mark Katz told Newsweek.

"The Kremlin very definitely pays close attention to Chinese maps—especially official ones—claiming that Russian territory actually belongs to China," he said.

However, Katz added that if Putin is upset, he "is not in a position to loudly complain about this since Moscow has become so dependent on economic relations with China as a result of Western sanctions."

The 2023 geographic map indicates that Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island on the Amur River is part of China. Russia and China disputed claims over the island beginning in the 1860s until the two nations agreed to divide the territory in a 2008 treaty, according to the Russian business news outlet RBC.

Whereas the agreement gave the western part of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island to China, the standard map service shows the entire island as Chinese territory.

Newsweek reached out to the Russian and Chinese foreign ministries via email for comment.

Russian land was not the only territory belonging to another country that was claimed by the Chinese map. India's Arunachal Pradesh state and the border region of Aksai Chin are also shown as belonging to Beijing on the map.

On Tuesday, New Delhi said it had lodged a formal protest with China over the map, and India's foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, called the claim on Indian territory "absurd."

"The Chinese like to use maps as assertions of their authority and power—or what they wish their authority or power was," David Silbey, an associate professor of history at Cornell and director of teaching and learning at Cornell in Washington, told Newsweek. "The most recent famous examples are the nine-dash line maps that they've put out, claiming grand swaths of land in the South China Sea."

Silbey said the new map doesn't quite violate the 2008 agreement, "but it's a tiny little poke of the Russians, nothing too major but just annoying enough to be meaningful, like stealing a piece of food off of someone's plate."

Katz said the Kremlin may take a different approach than India in protesting the territorial claim made in the map.

"Moscow's response to this new official Chinese map is likely to be reciprocal in the sense that the Russian government will point to its own map about what China and Russia agreed to in 2008," Katz said. "Besides, redrawing a map on paper is not the same thing as trying to forcefully redraw a map on the ground, as Russia has sought to do in Ukraine. Nor does Beijing seem likely to attempt to do anything like this at present."

He continued, "Still, Moscow must be concerned that this relatively small Chinese territorial claim, despite a previous agreement, might be followed by even larger ones."