Passports: China playing with fire

By Lin Cho-shui 林濁水  / 

Sat, Dec 15, 2012 - Page 8

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.

The “nine-dashed line” stretches more than 2,000km from continental China to near the coastlines of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, encompassing two thirds of the South China Sea. Most people would agree that these are open seas through which the ships of all nations should be able to pass freely.

Hainan’s new regulations allow public security and border defense authorities to board, inspect, impound or expel ships and boats in this area; or to order them to stop sailing, alter or reverse course. It authorizes the authorities to apprehend vessels that infringe China’s rules, or impound their navigational equipment or other devices, and to investigate them in accordance with China’s laws and regulations.

These regulations have provoked a clamor of objections from all sides. At first it seemed as if it was a case of regional officials taking nationalism to an extreme. However, a few days ago the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs endorsed the regulations saying that China has the right to allow its maritime police to board ships and boats in the South China Sea.

The notion of “maritime power” has come into fashion in China in recent years, and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) says China should establish itself as a maritime power. At first glance, the passport map and Hainan’s new regulations appear to be in keeping with this trend, since they call for an expansion of China’s sovereignty across the sea.

In reality, however, the idea of extending maritime territory as far out over the ocean as possible is completely at odds with the ideology of maritime power. It is the mindset of continental powers. The continental concept of power is all about occupying land. Although maritime powers are generally in favor of extending jurisdiction over the seabed to include the whole continental shelf, when it comes to the sea surface, they want to see territorial waters kept narrow — the narrower, the better — and have long opposed the proposal for countries to have exclusive economic zones (EEZs) extending 200 nautical miles (370km) out over the seabed.

The reason is simple. Maritime powers have powerful navies and big merchant fleets and are highly capable of developing and exploiting the seas. The smaller countries’ territorial seas and EEZs are, the freer these maritime powers will be to sail wherever they want. On the other hand, weak countries bordering on the sea want to protect their interests by extending their territorial seas and EEZs. Following World War II, countries advocating each of these points of view formed two opposing groups that crossed swords at numerous international maritime conferences, and the present-day International Law of the Sea is a product of the wrangling between these two sides.

When people go to extremes, they are more likely to do infantile things. China’s passport maps and its regulations treating the South China Sea as its “territorial sea” both represent very confused values and concepts. They are infantile acts of the kind that you get when extreme nationalism goes to people’s heads. Precisely because they are so childish, these two theatrical productions are sure to get taken off stage sooner or later.

China’s leaders should not take the matter lightly. The fact that a provincial government, a provincial people’s congress and the Chinese Ministry of Defense teamed up for a joint performance of this masterpiece shows just how infectious the infantile disorder of extreme nationalism is in China. It is scary to think what might happen if it were allowed to get out of hand.

Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.

Translated by Julian Clegg