Chinese Passports Stir Up Territorial Disputes

China delivered a rousing jolt to its various border disputes last week with the introduction of a controversial new passport design. Visa pages in the passports incorporate a map—shown in an annotated photograph at The Washington Post—which includes Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin in the Himalayas, the long tongue of South China Sea bounded by the nine-dashed line, and, naturally, Taiwan. From Mark MacDonald at IHT Rendezvous:

“I think it’s one very poisonous step by Beijing among their thousands of malevolent actions,” Nguyen Quang A, a former adviser to the Vietnamese government, told The Financial Times, which first reported on the modified passports.

A senior diplomat based in Beijing told the paper that the new map represented “quite a serious escalation because China is issuing millions of these new passports and adult passports are valid for 10 years. If Beijing were to change its position later it would have to recall all those passports.”

[…] John Blaxland, a research fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at Australian National University, said the map gambit was “pretty clever.”

“It basically forces everyone who’s a claimant of South China Sea elements to acknowledge it by stamping it,” he told VOA News, calling it part of the “long game” being played by Beijing.

For now, the Philippines is playing along, but Vietnam has started issuing new visas on separate pieces of paper and invalidating existing ones to avoid endorsing the new passports. India has been more assertive, reports Rama Lakshmi at The Washington Post:

Now, the Indian Embassy in Beijing is doing a tit-for-tat with its own map. It has started stamping its version of the Indian map on visas issued to Chinese citizens, one that includes the two regions.

[…] Two years ago, China caused much irritation among Indian officials when it began stapling the visas of residents of Kashmir, a Himalayan province where Indian troops are fighting to put down a Pakistan-backed separatist Islamist insurgency for more than two decades. By stapling the visas, instead of stamping them, Beijing was declaring that they regarded Kashmir was a disputed region as well.

Indian officials had to sternly remind Beijing in 2010 to be “sensitive” to its concerns about Kashmir, just as New Delhi is sensitive to Beijing’s attitude about Tibet.

Earlier this year, Beijing declined to issue a visa to an Indian air force officer who hails from Arunachal Pradesh. The row led New Delhi to cut the size of the military delegation that visited China in January.

The controversy arrives barely a month after the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Sino-Indian War, fought over disputed territory in Arunachal Pradesh. Future conflict between the two countries may be more likely at sea, however. From The Economist:

China suspects India of complicity in efforts to undermine its sweeping claim to sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea. It saw evidence of this in India’s involvement in oil-and-gas exploration in waters disputed by China and Vietnam. The underlying fear is of an American-led plot to contain China. Even were such a plot hatched, India would be a reluctant conspirator. But it and China are in a “security dilemma”, where one country’s “essential steps” to safeguard its interests are taken by the other as threats that demand a response.

[…] The risk, as Chinese and Indian warships venture farther afield, is akin to that in China’s maritime disputes with Japan and its South-East Asian neighbours: of an accidental conflict that escalates. This is exacerbated by an absence of codes of conduct and forums to thrash out disputes. The East Asian Summit, which includes America, might one day become such a gathering. But for the time being it aims only at “confidence-building”. Marred this year again by squabbles about how to discuss disputes in the South China Sea, the summit finds even that elusive.

Meanwhile, The Japanese government and The Washington Post’s Max Fisher have both suggested that the hotly disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are absent from the passport map. (CDT believes it can see a slight thickening of the map’s texture in roughly the appropriate location, though well short of anything that might indicate a duplicate set of islands). Even allowing for the islands’ tiny size, one would expect them to be more obviously visible given China’s recent demands for cartographical fastidiousness. At the height of the islands row in September, Beijing increased penalties for publishers of maps which failed to include all outlying islands claimed by China. From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

Current regulations, drafted in 1995, allow for a maximum fine of 10,000 yuan (US$1500) which would increase to 100,000 yuan (US$16,000) if the new law is passed, according to the Xinhua news agency.

The draft also proposed greater supervision of Internet map services, requiring providers to place data servers within China’s territory and use only approved maps.

Charles Custer tweeted that these regulations can greatly complicate magazine design, as not only formal maps but any graphical representation of China’s shape must include “ALL distant islands”.