As anybody who travels with personal documents from countries like India or China or Vietnam will tell you, an Asian passport can be a miserable thing. It means having to steel yourself through weeks, if not months, of visa-application processes that can be both interminable and humiliating. It means being forced to wait for special screening at the borders of prosperous Western nations, just by circumstance of birth and bureaucracy. It means feeling forever a second-class citizen of a world that is supposed to be growing ever more interdependent and intertwined.
But, if it wasn’t enough of an albatross, the Asian passport has become something else altogether more absurd: a crude weapon of geopolitics. In the past week, neighboring governments reacted with anger after Beijing rolled out a new iteration of Chinese passports. The Indian Foreign Minister deemed it “unacceptable.” A Vietnamese official, speaking to the Financial Times, described it as “one very poisonous step by Beijing among their thousands of malevolent actions.”
At issue is what’s inside these new Chinese passports: specifically, a map of the People’s Republic that draws China’s borders around territories disputed by China’s neighbors. The map counts as Chinese the barren Kashmiri region of Aksai Chin — 16,000 sq. mi. occupied by China since its 1962 border war with India. It also counts as Chinese most of India’s Arunachal Pradesh, a rugged northeastern Indian state that holds regular democratic elections and sends parliamentarians to New Delhi. Much to the ire of Vietnam and the Philippines, the map also includes shoals and archipelagoes in the South China Sea that Beijing claims almost entirely, but which are contested — and in some cases patrolled — by a number of other Southeast Asian nations.
China’s controversial passport map poses a ludicrous yet nevertheless real quandary for other governments. An official stamp from, say, an Indian consulate would seem an act of recognition of China’s claims to Arunachal Pradesh. In response, according to reports, India has already begun to issue visas to Chinese citizens stamped with a map of India’s borders as seen from New Delhi. After lodging a formal complaint with Beijing, the Vietnamese are now issuing visas to Chinese nationals on separate slips of paper — rather than stamps affixed to passport pages — in order to avoid any shameful mark approving China’s hubris.
The Vietnamese measure echoes an earlier Chinese consular practice of stapling sheets of paper into the passports of those from the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, and Arunachal Pradesh — a sign then of Beijing’s passive-aggressive refusal to accept India’s legitimate authority there. The move infuriated India so much that some Indians traveling with these modified visas were barred from leaving the country. In 2009, officials in Delhi airport prevented a Kashmiri scientist from receiving an award in the Chinese city of Wuhan because his Chinese visa had been stapled rather than stamped. The professor, an expert on Himalayan lakes, grumbled to the press at the time: “This tussle between India and China has hindered the business and career prospects of people here.”
There’s little sign of these disputes fading, particularly when they involve China, the continent’s budding hegemon. The new Chinese passport’s pages also boast pictures of famous cultural landmarks and heritage spots — two of which happen to be in Taiwan, an island nation Beijing views as a renegade province. “This is total ignorance of reality and only provokes disputes,” read an angry official Taiwan statement. Conspicuously — and thankfully — absent from the new passport was reference to the one territorial clash that’s roiled waters most recently: while the passport’s map articulates China’s claim to the South China Sea, it does not similarly spotlight the islands to the east of the mainland. The past few months have seen China and Japan spar over the Senkaku Islands (known to the Chinese as the Diaoyu); Japanese and Chinese surveillance vessels have been locked in tense standoffs around the archipelago, which most governments recognize to be under Tokyo’s suzerainty. The dispute has led to heated, violent protests in China and a boycott of Japanese goods.
In 21st century Asia — home to nearly half the world’s population — inhospitable mountain crags, barren spits of sand in the sea and now images on passport pages possess a far too dangerous resonance. That’s in large part a product of the regional unease barnacled to a rising China. Its authoritarian leadership fans the flames of popular nationalism, often as a means to quiet or distract from other domestic pressures. And as China’s military — as well as Chinese assertiveness — grows, so will the impulse of neighbors to come together and hedge against Beijing. Provocations as seemingly innocuous as the design of a passport booklet deepen fears of a cold war nobody wants.
It’s a far cry from the sentiment expressed decades ago by the Indian artist, poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Greeted by crowds on a tour through a host of Chinese cities in 1924, Tagore preached a pan-Asian humanism that would melt away the bitter, bloodstained legacy Western empires had imprinted on Asia. In a speech in Shanghai, he urged: “I hope that some dreamer will spring from among you and preach a message of love and therewith overcoming all differences bridge the chasm of passions which has been widening for ages.” Almost a century later, colonial-era borders remain, national hatreds have hardened, and Asian passports have become documents of division and discord.