Indonesia’s foreign minister said in an interview published on Thursday that new Chinese passports featuring a map laying claim to disputed islands were “counterproductive.”
Although it is not a claimant itself, Indonesia has mediated in the dispute between China and several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), using its position as the bloc’s biggest economy as leverage.
It is also a major supplier of commodities to China, which is increasingly exploring mines and constructing smelters in Indonesia to fuel its economy.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who has hopped between claimant nations this year over the issue, warned that the passports would worsen the already tense dispute and said Jakarta would convey its position to Beijing.
“These actions are counterproductive and will not help settle the disputes,” he said in an interview with the Jakarta Post daily.
“We perceive the Chinese move as disingenuous, like testing the water, to see its neighbors’ reactions,” he said.
He said Asean should concentrate on finalizing a code of conduct as a first step to alleviate tensions over the issue.
“I hope that we, Asean and China can focus on dialogue,” he said.
Beijing has infuriated its southern neighbors with its increasingly vocal claim to vast swathes of the South China Sea, with Chinese maps showing a dotted line that runs almost to the Philippine and Malaysian coasts.
The new passports have angered claimants Vietnam and the Philippines, which have refused to stamp the new passports.
India has started stamping its own map onto visas for Chinese visitors as the passports also show the disputed border areas of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as Chinese territory.
Beijing has attempted to downplay the diplomatic fallout from the recently introduced passports, with the foreign ministry arguing the maps were “not made to target any specific country.”
RI concerned about map in new Chinese passports
The Indonesian government has raised concerns over China’s inclusion of a map of the South China Sea in Chinese passports as such unilateral gestures could exacerbate territorial disputes in the area.
“We perceive the Chinese move as disingenuous, like testing the water, to see its neighbors’ reactions,” Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said on Wednesday.
China is issuing passports containing a map marking its territorial claims in maritime disputes with neighboring Southeast Asian nations. It means other claimant countries will have to stamp the microchip-equipped passports of thousands of Chinese tourists and businessmen containing the Chinese claims that they dispute.
What had been done by China would not help settle the issue, but had the potential to worsen the already tense situation surrounding the South China Sea, Marty warned.
Indonesia will convey its position to the Chinese government, stressing that other nations’ acceptance of the new passport with the map included could not be seen as their acquiescence to the territorial claims. “They can issue [the map] but it will have no effect,” said Marty.
Barren islands, reefs and coral outcrops in the South China Sea have been disputed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Taiwan due to their potential oil and gas deposits, rich fishing grounds and proximity to busy commercial sea lanes. Many fear that the disputes could potentially become Asia’s next flash points for armed conflict.
Indonesia is not a claimant, but has actively helped mediate the disputes by drafting a code of conduct as a first step toward reducing tension over the issue.
“Indonesia’s focus will not be shifted [by any unilateral move]. We should concentrate on the completion of the Code of Conduct. I hope that we, ASEAN and China can focus on dialogue,” Marty said.
The Chinese move would not succeed because the South China Sea rifts would only be settled through negotiations, not by maps in passports or other unilateral actions such as oil exploration concessions or deploying naval ships to disputed waters. “These actions are counterproductive, and will not help settle the disputes,” he said.
Instead of settling the issues, the maneuver has been rejected by other claimants. The Philippines and Vietnam condemned the Chinese move, saying the map incorporation violated their respective national sovereignties by marking disputed waters as Chinese territory.
The Philippines said on Wednesday that it was taking steps to avoid any possibility of being seen as
legitimizing China’s claims, saying it would no longer stamp visas for visitors from China in their passports, but would issue them on a separate form.
“This action is being undertaken to avoid the Philippines being misconstrued as legitimizing the 9-dash-line,” Edwin Lacierda, a spokesman for Philippine President Benigno Aquino, said as quoted by Reuters, referring to the disputed demarcation line on Chinese maps.
Vietnam had written to China in protest of the new passports and had asked it to “reverse their incorrect content”, said Luong Thanh Nghi, a spokesman for Vietnam’s foreign ministry.
India, which also claims two Himalayan regions shown as Chinese territory on the map, is responding by issuing visas stamped with its own version of the borders.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US had concerns about China’s map causing “tension and anxiety” between countries in the region. However, the US will accept the new Chinese passports as they meet the standards of a legal travel document.
Responding to neighbors’ concerns, China said on Wednesday that people should not read too much into the inclusion of the map in its passports. The aim of China’s new electronic passports is to strengthen its technological abilities and make it convenient for Chinese citizens to enter or leave the country.
“Too much should not be read into the issue of the maps in China’s new passports. China is willing to remain in touch with relevant countries and promote the healthy development of exchange between the Chinese and the outside world.” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.