There are several unresolved territorial disputes in the waters surrounding China and from time to time they lead to confrontations between ships belonging to various nations. The latest chapter in this saga is the conflict over a map of China including the South China Sea in Chinese passports.
It is by no means a new thing for countries to use maps as a non-military means of staking their claims over disputed territory. For example, not long after the Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone of the Republic of China (中華民國領海及鄰接區法) was enacted in 1998, the government released maps to demonstrate that Taiwan’s national territory includes the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — which Japan also claims and calls the Senkakus — and Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) in the South China Sea. China has also recently republished a sea map illustrating its position on the Diaoyutai Islands dispute.
China’s idea of proclaiming its territory by printing a map in its passports is quite a novelty. Countless Chinese Internet users have posted messages applauding the move. A common theme being that even though some countries do not like it, there is nothing they can do because they need Chinese tourists to boost their GDP. On the other hand, others point out that traveling the world with a Chinese passport was never easy, even before this incident, and this has only been exacerbated by China’s latest move.
No country gives way easily over territorial disputes, but passports are really not the right weapon to wield in this kind of battle. As the word suggests, nations issue passports to their citizens as a way of asking other countries to let them pass through their ports of entry and exit. The following wording is printed in Taiwanese passports in both Chinese and English: “The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China requests all whom it may concern to permit the national of the Republic of China named herein to pass freely and in case of need to give all possible aid and protection.”
Chinese passports and those of many other countries include similar requests. For a great nation like China to ask other countries for protection on the one hand, while using the same document to cause them offense, really is enough to make one shake one’s head in dismay.
Do other countries have no choice but to put up with China’s move? Does any country that stamps its visas on Chinese visitors’ passports give its “stamp of approval” to China’s claim over the territories portrayed on their visa pages?
Of course things are not so simple. India is giving China a taste of its own medicine by stamping Chinese visitors’ passports with a map of India showing its own version of the two countries’ disputed border. It looks as though India has beaten China at its own game this time.
Vietnam is taking a different approach by giving Chinese visitors new visas on a separate document, while stamping the word “canceled” over the original visa. The government of the Philippines is also planning to issue visas on a separate document for the same reason.
China’s passport maps have stirred up a lot of indignation, but China has not let that put it off making further moves. The southern island province of Hainan recently adopted a set of regulations governing border defenses and law enforcement. Wu Shicun (吳士存), president of the Hainan-based National Institute for South China Sea Studies and director of Hainan Province’s Department of Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs, says the area to which these regulations apply includes all bodies of land and neighboring waters within the U-shaped “nine-dashed line” that defines China’s territorial claim in the South China Sea.