GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

4.6 Potential Role of Geographic Information Systems and Cartography in Border and Boundary Conflict and Negotiations


Speaking to the interdisciplinary nature of geography, the formalization of borders as territorial limits and their linear nature also surfaced around the time of more accurate maps to draw these borders on (Szary, 2015). Maps are often viewed as truth, as an authority, as infallible. In the geographic discipline, we know this is not true, as maps are representations of the world as cartographers see it: their biases, beliefs, identities, and all. This geographic truth is not necessarily understood by those viewing maps, and the psychology behind the perceived truth of maps is well-studied (Von Reumont, 2021; Monmonier, 2018; Wright, 1942). This makes maps a powerful tool to convey identity.

Depictions of Contested and Conflict Areas in Digital/Web Cartography

In the past, it was rather easy for sovereign entities to regulate paper maps; however — with the rise of the internet, digital cartography, and volunteered geographic information — the content of maps, including their borders, are becoming more difficult to regulate. After Google Earth’s launch in 2005, many governments, including South Korea, Thailand, Australia, and India, expressed concerns over the high-resolution imagery that was available through the platform and the security implications for groups getting imagery for sensitive areas (Kumar, 2010). The high-resolution imagery wasn’t the only controversy Google Earth had to face: boundary representation was also an issue. Boundary representation issues included the Israeli-Palestinian border, where Google was accused of having an anti-Israeli slant; the Morocco-Western Sahara border; and the India-Pakistan border, especially with regards to Kashmir (Kumar, 2010; Von Reumont, 2021). The India-Pakistan dispute with Google was resolved by Google using differently-colored boundaries to denote the differences and disputes; however, these examples really illustrate how representations for national boundaries are controversial and speak to national identity.

In addition to boundary placement, place names have also become a point of contention in digital/web cartographic applications. Place names help convey a national identity and pride, and often symbolize territorial claims (Medzini, 2017). Different countries, languages, and cultures often have different names for different geographic features. Take, for instance, what we know in the United States as “Mount Everest.” In Nepali and Sanskrit, this mountain is referred to as Sagarmatha. In Tibetan it is referred to as Chomolungma. There are even different names for it in Chinese (Hunt 2021). While this example is less controversial than other examples, it definitely illustrates how multiple names can be used to reference one geographic feature. More controversial examples include the East Sea/Sea of Japan and Dokdo/Takeshima Islands disputes between South Korea and Japan, respectively (Medzini, 2017). Medzini (2017) illustrates that the ways digital and web maps decide to label these disputed areas can lend credence to one side over the other; however, even their compromises in an effort to remain neutral are often met with resistance. For example, in regard to the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands dispute, Google users in Korea will see the islands labeled as “Dokdo,” while Japanese users will see “Takeshima’ (Medzini, 2017). Other international Google users will see the name “Laincourt Rocks,” which is considered a more neutral name as it doesn’t indicate which country has territorial control over the area; however, this solution was not seen as satisfactory to either country (Medzini, 2017).

Use of GIS in Border Negotiations

Just as digital cartography and Web GIS have contributed to the disputes and territorial conflicts worldwide, it also has the ability to help in negotiations to resolve these conflicts. The emergence of GIS came with a slew of capabilities that could be useful in border negotiations, including but not limited to the ability to layer and overlay quickly and efficiently (and also remove those layers); greater flexibility; increased accuracy; the ability to edit on the fly, make rapid changes, and make calculations based off those changes; and the ability to concurrently show multiple different options (Branch, 2017). In addition, the emergence of three-dimensional GIS and high-resolution imagery has added a sense of realism to these cartographic inceptions that make them easier to imagine for the parties in a negotiation (Branch, 2017). While these capabilities of GIS and Web GIS have clear utility in negotiations, many of these capabilities are a double-edged sword, providing benefits to negotiators as well as creating some problems. Consider, for a moment, this conundrum and how these capabilities may help as well as hinder negotiations.


Branch, J. (2017). Territorial conflict in the digital age: Mapping technologies and negotiation. International Studies Quarterly, 61(3), 557-569.

Britannica. (2021, May 13). Mount Everest.

Kumar, S. (2010). Google Earth and the nation state: Sovereignty in the age of new media. Global Media and Communication, 6(2), 154-176.

Medzini, A. (2017). The role of geographical maps in territorial disputes between Japan and Korea. European Journal of Geography, 8(1), 44-60.

Monmonier, M. (2018). How to lie with maps, 3rd ed. University of Chicago Press.

Szary, A-l. (2015). Boundaries and borders. In J. Agnew, V. Mamadouh, A. J. Secor, and J. Sharp (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Political Geography (pp. 13-25). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Von Reumont, F. (2017). Taking the battle to cyberspace: Delineating borders and mapping identities in Western Sahara. In A. Strohmaier and A. Krewani (Eds.), Media and Mapping Practices in the Middle East and North Africa (pp. 13-25). Amsterdam University Press.

Wright, J. K. (1942). Map makers are human: Comments on the subjective in maps. Geographical Review, 32(4), 527-544.