November 26, 2012

Beijing Pushes the Diplomatic Envelop on South China Sea Dispute

Territorial claims over the South China Sea took an interesting turn last week.  

According to a report from Reuters, China’s new passports have raised the eyebrows of several South China Sea claimants: the country’s microchip-equipped passports contain a map of China’s claim over the South China Sea – represented by the country’s disputed nine-dash line.

The Philippines and Vietnam have condemned the Chinese passports, worrying that accepting the documents could legitimize China’s diplomatic claim over the sea. According to Reuters, “The map means countries disputing the Chinese claims will have to stamp microchip-equipped passports of countless visitors, in effect acquiescing to the Chinese point of view.”                              

"The Philippines strongly protests the inclusion of the nine-dash lines in the e-passport as such image covers an area that is clearly part of the Philippines' territory and maritime domain," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said last week, according to Reuters.

China’s Foreign Ministry responded to questions about the passports, stating, "The passports' maps with their outlines of China are not targeting a specific country. China is willing to actively communicate with the relevant countries and promote the healthy development of Sino-foreign personnel exchanges.”

On Monday, the BBC reported that Vietnam has refused to stamp the Chinese passports. “Border authorities have instead been issuing visas on separate pieces of paper and stamping those issued previously as invalid,” according to the BBC report.  

China’s passports also brought India into the latest diplomatic row. In addition to the country’s South China Sea claims, the passports also include a map of China’s territorial claims over Arunachal Paradesh and the Himalayan region of the Aksai glacier, areas disputed by China and India, where the two fought a months-long war in 1962. The Guardian reported on Monday that in response, the Indian embassy in Beijing has started “stamping Chinese visas with a map showing disputed border territory between the two countries as belonging to India.”

China’s territorial claim over the South China Sea is in part driven by a belief among Chinese policymakers that the sea could be a “second Persian Gulf,” with significant reserves of natural gas and oil that could alleviate China’s energy vulnerabilities, particularly those related to the Strait of Malacca.

Photo: A map of territorial claims in the South China Sea. Courtesy of Liz Fontaine and CNAS.