An astronaut’s perspective reveals China’s geopolitical claustrophobia

This map takes you to mesmerizing heights. It gives you an astronaut’s view on a space station orbiting the world hundreds of miles from the Eurasian landscape. You’re still crossing Central Asia, but already the Pacific Ocean is glinting into view.

Although you are familiar with the coastal contours of East Asia from looking at world maps, now you see them upside down. You see the archipelago – Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia – strung together like a pearl necklace.

East Asia as seen from Eurasia

In the upper right is the unmistakable bulk of Borneo, the world’s third largest island (after Greenland and New Guinea, its western tip visible on the horizon). In the lower right is Sri Lanka, the exclamation mark of the Indian subcontinent.

East Asia is framed by two peninsulas: the Korean one, badly divided between North and South, and the Malay one, more peacefully shared by Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia.

Two bubbles in between. The Indochina Strait is where Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia meet. The title of this map is „East Asia and the Pacific as seen from Eurasia,” but its real meaning is the other bulge in the center of the map: China.

Its real point isn’t to make you feel like you’re floating far from Earth (although that’s a pleasant side effect), but to give you another perspective on this part of its surface.

If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, this map easily replaces a long essay on China’s geopolitical situation, illustrating some of the friction with its East Asian neighbors (and by extension, the US).

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China turned out to be China upside down. (debt: Rhodes Cartography/Thinking in Space – CC BY-NC 2.0)

The map’s unfamiliar angle highlights China’s geographic constraints and points toward its strategic ambitions. China extends to the center of Eurasia. It has the world’s largest natural fortress, the Tibetan Plateau. The fortress-like qualities of Tibet mean Beijing will never leave this region. Imagine another power – India, Russia or the US – commanding those heights.

They actually look down on China’s population centers, highlighted in yellow, most of which are near the coast. Tibet is a wall that protects them from the outside, but it also seals them off from easy land transport and trade with India and the rest of Asia. In terms of trade, although the Silk Roads are old and new, China needs the sea.

But as this map’s perspective makes clear, the Middle Kingdom looks out toward the Pacific and feels like a decidedly „pressed middle.” Behind it: The Isolators of the Himalayas. On its shores: Japan, South Korea, and US-allied hostile powers Philippines.

Seizure of islands in the South China Sea

Seen in this light, China’s island grabbing in the South China Sea is clearly an attempt to protect shipping lanes towards the Straits of Malacca, upsetting other countries with overlapping claims. Even so, the narrow passage between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra is outside Chinese control and could still be easily closed by other powers.

Closer to China’s mainland is Taiwan, a Chinese island province that defected to the defeated Nationalist side in China’s civil war after the Communist takeover of the mainland in 1949. Annoying door to China.

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Between Taiwan and Japan, the Ryukyu Islands are a small string of pearls. The US has a major base on Okinawa, the largest of the islands. Meanwhile, China denies Japanese control over the Senkaku Islands, which form the part of the archipelago closest to Taiwan.

A person holding a book to a world map.

A map that inspired countless cartographers to play with perspective: Richard Eades Harrison’s “One World, One War” (1942). (Credit: Ruland Kolen, reproduced with permission).

Thanks to its unusual perspective, this map is a great way to experience firsthand the geopolitical claustrophobia that animates much of China’s foreign policy strategy. The map was created by Rhodes Cartography, which provides a high-resolution version of the map. Download for free.

„My admiration for Richard Eades Harrison and my attempts to emulate some of his style are obvious,” says the map maker.

A precursor to unfamiliar map perspective

During and after World War II, Harrison produced maps and atlases that pioneered the use of unfamiliar angles and global perspectives. One of his most famous drawings is „One World, One War” published in March 1942 Good luck magazine.

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At a time when the United States had not yet entered the war in full force, the map showed how close the conflict was to the United States, and the fighting could and should not continue to be ignored.

An open book with a map of Europe.

Harrison’s map with a similar slant, but a different focus: Japan instead of China. (Credit: Roland Golan, reproduced with permission)

By introducing spatial thinking about global political matters to a wider audience, Harrison helped place „Geo” in geopolitics—a field undergoing changes in perspective.

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A World War II-era Harrison map shares the same astronaut-like view of East Asia, but with one slight difference: the map’s focus is not the current East Asian Pokemon, but an earlier one—Japan.

Weird Drawings #1212

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