The conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea by powers such as China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia have long been a point of contention. However, on Friday the Chinese government issued new passports with a map of China that includes a disputed area of the South China Sea in its territory. Countries who accept these passports would be tacitly agreeing to China’s claims, which include the Spratly Islands. However, the map does not include the islands in dispute between China and Japan.
China justifies its claims by citing that Zheng He crossed the South China Sea during the 14th century, with historical maps that predate the founding of the PRC in 1949. The Foreign Ministry states that its discovery of the Spratly Islands goes back 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty.
In a faxed response to Business Week, China’s Foreign Ministry said, “The outline of China’s map in the passport wasn’t targeted at specific countries. China is willing to communicate with relevant nations and promote the healthy development of contact between China and foreign personnels.”
This “nine-dash” inclusion has sparked outrage from its neighbors. Taiwan condemned these new maps, while the Vietnamese government lodged a complaint with the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. The Philippines’s foreign affairs ministry spokesman, Raul Hernandez, said in a text message, “The action of China is contrary to the spirit of the declaration of conduct of parties in the South China Sea.”
Leaders in Washington have also exhorted the Chinese government to follow a proper code of conduct. John Blaxland, with the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at Australian National University, notes the importance of rules of interaction. “When you think back to the days of the Cold War, there was a clear code of conduct between Soviet or NATO or Western ships, that when they encountered each other, there was a protocol. Well there isn’t one at the moment for the South China Sea, and that is problematic.”
The U.S. president’s visit to the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in mid November emphasized the United States’ interest in helping maintain stability in the region to members of the ASEAN. Although the Obama administration has mentioned that it currently does not want to intervene or take official sides in the dispute, the U.S.’s actions have raised suspicions for top Chinese leaders.
During his stay in the Cambodian capital, President Obama convened leaders from Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam. He urged them to form a free-trade bloc called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) composed of all ten ASEAN members along with the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Peru. The TPP would have 16 countries with a projected GDP of $15 trillion.
Notably excluded from the partnership is China. Meanwhile, the framework for one of the largest trade blocs in the world called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) had already been established last year between the ASEAN members and China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea. If the plan is adopted, the RCEP will be composed of 16 countries, three billion people, and possess a GDP of $19.78 trillion.
Moreover, with the establishment of stronger relationships between the U.S. and countries such as Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam, China fears that its political, trade, and energy interests in Southeast Asia will be further undermined by the U.S. presence. This rising tension is increasingly heightened by the U.S.’s “Asian Pivot” strategy that includes increased American military presence in the Pacific region.
Although China’s new passports are largely a symbolic gesture, it is a manifestation of real concerns from Chinese political leaders. They not only consider the territories and potentially vast resources in the South China Sea as a historical birthright, they are increasingly responding to what they perceive as outsiders’ attempts to curb China’s rise to economic and military dominance.
As Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi note in a Brookings study, although the U.S.’ and China’s fundamentally different political traditions, value systems, and cultures are hard to reconcile, the “strategic distrust” in their relationship can be reduced by having both countries’ leaders address each other’s underlying concerns, and discuss practical strategies moving forward. Even if there may never be complete trust, a greater degree of transparency would dispel some misconceptions, and encourage dialogue rather than breed mutual contempt that could result in a major economic or military crisis.
China’s New Passport Sparks Controversy
Several Asian countries last week reacted with unusual fury over the new design of the Chinese passport, which features watermarks that include 90 percent of the South China Sea, Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin, as well as famous tourist attractions in Taiwan. Although Beijing’s move was mostly symbolic, it constitutes yet another escalatory step in China’s many territorial disputes and could, depending on how other countries respond, make already complex issues even more difficult to resolve.
So far, the reactions to the new passport have been uniformly negative, with Hanoi and Manila issuing official protests over the inclusion of the so-called nine-dash lines in the South China Sea and island groups such as the Paracels and Spratlys. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry went as far as to request that Beijing remove the “wrong” content from the passport, and Hanoi is now reportedly refusing to stamp the passport, and will instead stamp a separate piece of paper.
Even Taipei, the current government of which has engaged in a multifaceted effort to improve relations with China, called the passport “unacceptable” and warned it could negatively impact upon the ongoing rapprochement (under the Republic of China constitution, Taiwan’s sovereignty claims within the region are almost exactly like China’s). Aside from including areas claimed by the ROC, the new passport shows Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan’s Nantou, and Chingshui Cliffs in Hualien, both top tourist spots and symbols of Taiwan’s natural beauty.
India, whose Ministry of External Affairs called the inclusion of Arunachal Pradesh, which borders China-controlled Tibet, and Aksai Chin in Kashmir, “unacceptable,” quickly responded by issuing visas to Chinese citizens with a map clearly showing the two disputed areas as part of India’s territory.
Interestingly, another bone of contention with Beijing’s neighbors — the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu islands by the Chinese and the Diaoyutai Islands by Taiwan — is either too small to be seen on the watermarks, or was left out altogether. Notably, when the new passports were initially issued in May regional tensions focused primarily on the South China Sea, with the East China Sea only becoming a serious source of renewed tensions after Tokyo’s purchase of three of the islets comprising the chain on September 11.
While irritating to other claimants, the maps and sites depicted in the new passport are not legally binding and only add to a long list of documents, official and not, that purport to strengthen China’s claims to its “historical waters” and “indivisible” territory. As some analysts have already noted, Beijing’s “pretty clever” move would ostensibly force governments to acknowledge Beijing’s territorial designs by stamping the new passport. However, doing so does not legally reinforce China’s position, and as New Delhi has already demonstrated, other claimants can retaliate with their own similarly symbolic gestures. The end result, therefore, could be a “visa war” between the various claimants, with passports becoming the primary casualty.
A riskier outcome would be for other claimants to respond by imposing various restrictions on Chinese travelers — or barring their entry altogether — which could then engender a cycle of retaliation that, in the end, would only complicate matters further. Whether Beijing’s gamble succeeds or backfires remains to be seen, but the decision was presumably made under the assumption that other countries would acquiesce to it. Should that turn out to be the case, Beijing will have succeeded in adding yet another layer to its creeping regional expansion, one that is increasingly backed by a modern and capable military.
Of all the countries involved in this affair, Taiwan’s reaction will be the trickiest, and perhaps the most interesting. While China’s disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Brunei, and Malaysia only concern overlapping territories, Beijing’s claims Taiwan (and its people) in its entirety, which puts Taipei in a difficult position should it seek to retaliate. Responding on Monday to Taiwan’s reaction, the Taiwan Affairs Office under China’s State Council said there is only “one China” and that protestations by Taipei were an attempt to “stir controversy” and risked undermining cooperation across the Taiwan Strait. In other words, Taipei’s actions, not Beijing’s, would be to blame if the relationship soured over this fracas.
Hanoi and India can probably get away with affixing a visa stating their own territorial claims in Chinese passports. For Taipei to do so, however, at a time when the Ma Ying-jeou administration has made better relations with China a central pillar of its tenure, would risk creating serious irritants in relations across the Taiwan Strait, something Beijing knows all-too-well. As such, and with last week’s unusually strong language notwithstanding, Taipei’s likely reaction will be to do nothing and to “accept” the new passport, which Beijing will then advertise as further evidence that Taiwan accepts the “one China” framework. Consequently, aside from forcing Taiwanese immigration officials to stamp a passport that denies the very existence of their country, the new passport, with its inclusion of well-known tourism destinations in Taiwan, will continue to spread the image abroad that the island is part of the People’s Republic of China, and thus further blur the sovereignty lines in the Taiwan Strait.