Asia’s Passport Wars: Chinese Map Triggers Diplomatic Firestorm

Grumbling over territory and marine boundaries, China and India and Vietnam go titting and tatting with pieces of paper.

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BIJU BORO / AFP / Getty Images

Indian Army soldiers patrol at the India-China border in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh on Oct. 21, 2012

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.”

(MORE: The Sino-Indian War — 50 Years Later, Will China and India Clash Again?)

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.

(MORE: China’s Newest City Raises Threat of Conflict in the South China Sea)

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.

(MORE: Why Asia’s Maritime Disputes Are Not Just About China)

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.

55 comments
TanyaSedova
TanyaSedova

It’s worth noting that China's passport map does not include Sensaku/Diaoyu islands. This seems to indicate that China’s rulers have abandoned their claim to these islands. Congratulations to the Japanese! As someone had correctly pointed out some months ago, the Senkaku/Diaoyu fuss would dissipate into thin air the moment China's rulers got over the Bo Xilai issue (or think they have). As always, China's rulers bend their heads low with respect to Japan, just like Deng XiaoPing did in his famous photo fisrt shown around 1979.

TonyWang
TonyWang

The rulers of China are notorious for their barbarity (witness their cold-blooded murder of students in TianAnMen Square right in the heart of China’s capital not long ago), and boundless greed (witness their invasion and grab of Inner Mongolia, Tibet, East Turkistan, Paracel Islands, Senkaku islands (attempt), Manchuria, etc.). So their latest move about printing the Cow Tongue on their passports should not be a surprise. Of course they would not stop at this if they could. Clearly and without a doubt, they have become a dire and mortal threat to mankind and civilization.

As a first step to reduce this dire and mortal threat to mankind, I suggest the civilized world stamp their passports with a world map, indicating clearly the borders of Inner Mongolia, Tibet, East Turkistan, Senkaku, Paracel islands, Manchuria, testifying to the fact that these are either separate sovereign states, or belonging to other countries. I urge countries like Russia, Japan, India, North Korea, South Korea, Myanmar (Burma), Taiwan, Mongolia, USA, France, UK, Ukraina, Germany, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, to be among the first to apply this new, correct and humane procedure.

FelixTrouper
FelixTrouper

@niansh  What law did China break exactly by occupying Tibet? China controlledTibet during the time of the Mongol Empire and it fell away later, soChina believed it belonged to them and they wanted to grow the regioneconomically and also unite the region to the growing China. 

I am unfamiliar with the war in 1962, but I would assume the reason whythere is still a dispute over the land is because both countries claimcontrol, which may not be a black and white situation. As for noregard, Tibet and India is not enough base for a statement such as "noregard for any other country." I would like to bring attention to thework China has done to help many countries in need in Africa, all ofsoutheast asia for tsunami relief (China has been sending food andsupplies since 2006), and Haiti, just to name a few.  

As for sucking up the natural resources in Africa, from what I have read, theyhave not "taken" natural resources from Africa unlike the Europeanpowers in the 1700-1900s, but instead have done a good amount ofbusiness with Africa and help them through hard times, giving money toestablish infrastructure and support peace between other Africannations. 

So I would certainly not call Chinese idiots nor say they are utterly selfish until you look at the bigger picture.

venky6666
venky6666

Communist China is a criminal bully !!

HieunTsang
HieunTsang

Chinese think offense is best defense. They are losing the battle over Tibet - almost one third of landmass china shows in its map. Everyone knows eventually Tibet will be free. too bad !!!

JONASN24
JONASN24

This stupid author is very biased, trying to depict China as an invader to those neighboring countries. Time sucks with such idiot.

Kajua
Kajua

Western empires had imprinted  global world order on Asia, times are changed, new horizens are on the verge, China is the Super power of the day and it too have the right to imprint global world order on Asia like western empires.

JericoCruz
JericoCruz

I only have two words about this issue, China sucks!

my-new-life-in-asia
my-new-life-in-asia

@Junk.Mail You comparison is incorrect. It has become fashionable to compare countries the West doesn't like to Nazi Germany (that's how Bush tried to justify his invasion of Iraq). Hitler's purpose was to conquer Europe from France to Russia, enslave the majority of the population of the continent and "free" it from the Jews. That's why it wasn't possible to deal with Hitler in any way: he wanted war.China is rather like the Soviet Union, Franco's Spain, Communist Germany and all other dictatorships that existed in modern history: they are different from the West, but their reason of being is not war and destruction, so that a peaceful coexistence is possible.Nevertheless, I think that this move on the part of China was unnecessary and harmful. I hope they'll realize they'd better soothe their neighbour to avoid conflicts.

Junk.Mail
Junk.Mail

There is something about current Chinese policy that reminds me decidedly of Germany in the run-up to WWII. They are too late to the empire game but want to play now, so they do it through massive military expansion, pushing borders in all directions at once, ever more aggressively in all directions until violence finally breaks out, claiming that it is all Chinese anyway and therefore justified. Lack of democracy and human rights seem to ripen the environment for government radicalism. Hatred of other ethnicities seems on the rise with hostilities to Japanese businesses.  The intellectual elite are fleeing in droves. The attempt to line up some friends in Russia, Iran and Venezuela (who they have no fundamental agreement with other than common Western opponents) is familiar too. Let us hope, just this once, that history does not repeat itself.

niansh
niansh

As an Indian I think China is not fit to be a country. It should disintegrate like USSR did. They just have no respect for international law or history. The more China asserts itself, the more other Asian nations will get united against its designs. This is a self defeating purpose for China.

Time for eye for an eye.

liuqiuhuaiok
liuqiuhuaiok

Why are there so many people saying unfairly about China without reading the history of the disputes?

ToanNguyen
ToanNguyen

China claims nearly 80% of South China Sea, draws a border that touches other countries' shore (including Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia). That is just unexceptable! They have to know that there is no place for bullies in today world! When Vietnam was still a French colony in the early 20th century, the French took over and controled the Paracels and Spratly Islands from Vietnam. Since 1954 and during Vietnam war, South Vietnam army was the only force to stay there. Then when the war came to the end in 1974, South Vietnam was so week and China started to invade the whole Spratly Islands, brought out a what they called 'The Bull's Tongue Shape Map' that drawn in 1950s and claimed like they were the victim! Shame on China because they can become the world number 1 in a near future but also the most hated country too!

Ivan
Ivan

China is a useless nation...

mathewr
mathewr

The only effective response to the Chinese move is  not to recognize those pass ports that depict contested areas as China's. The actions of china, with her growing military expansion,  clearly points out to aggression and to instill nationalist passion . Also an act of divergence from the many ills that China is suffering from. India, on the other hand, has miserable history, as far as her relationship with China. Defeatism in all sphere of diplomacy, allowing China to take full advantage of the chaotic political system that has eroded much of India's power, beginning from the ill fated war in 1962 and loosing the clout in the Indian ocean and with her immediate neighbors. India did not learn  any lesson from the humiliation and her political system never enabled India to be a counter weight to China and provide assistance to countries like Vietnam , military or diplomacy. India 's policy towards China is based on see no evil, speak no evil and here no evil from which India is yet unable to come out.  The culture simply does not allow India to come out of the closest and be  smart with qualities of leadership.  These are divergence that China take full advantage. A small step towards Taiwan , with other countries wold definitely give China the wisdom to act prudently. At this time China is aggressively bullying the Small countries. But India with resources, but lack of a political system, allows herself to be bullied. This is agragious folly and shame.

AndyRoma
AndyRoma

I trully believe it is time for all kinds of government to grow up for good... My 5 years old boy would not be as childish...

FredericBrewer
FredericBrewer

It's the 21st Century and it's time for humans to make a new, giant leap in consciousness. In the name of peace, we must start viewing ourselves as the human species, rather than as races and nations with entitlements to pieces of the earth.

All nations and all cultures are transient, they did not exist in the past, they will disappear in the future. Just look up "History of China" on Wikipedia and note the changing maps - in fact, look up ANY map over time. Think of how many innocents have died throughout the ages to maintain the illusion of ownership and power over pieces of the earth for a select few.

The situation in Asia is escalating but there is time to hit the breaks. If you consider these words naive, consider the alternative, which is not only naive but also insane: finding glory and national pride through war and death for some useless, uninhabitable islands and mountains.

BingJou
BingJou

Chinese can draw a map in any way it likes. It does NOT change one bit of the nature of the dispute. To me it highlights only the foollishness and childishness of this Chinese Communist Party. The new passport design achieves nothing but offending the neighbors Chinese profess to love and want to befriend in fervent earnest. Chinese neighbors should not be angry at China at all. How could it possible to be angered by CCP cadres who easily evince a bunch of kids kvelling and exulting at a sight of a miniture globe marked as "Chinese-owned"? The new passport map reminds of only Daffy Duck in Looney Tunes immorally squealing, "IT'S MINE! MINE! ALL MINE!"

Jakaro
Jakaro

I have no respect for a writer who includes phrases like "bitter, bloodstained legacy Western empires had imprinted on Asia" in an article not even about the topic. Western rule in Asia was demonstrably benign compared to all native regimes save some of the present ones, themselves inspired by Western forms of government.Mr. Tharoor, any time you would like to have a debate on whose legacy is more bitter or bloodstained, that of the Moghul Empire under such luminaries as Aurangzeb or that of the British Raj, kindly contact me.

niansh
niansh

@JONASN24 Precisely, China is not just an invader, it is a law breaking, utterly selfish, people suppressing country which has no regard for any other country in the world.

wmalquitar23
wmalquitar23

@Kajua Before you can call yourself a superpower, try to defeat first a superpower and conquer a continent, like what Japan did on Russia.

anie
anie

@Junk.Mail    I'm sure you have not been to China . Because of your speech looks very ridiculous !

ScottWan
ScottWan

@niansh  If Indian leader ship had the vision they would have a block of small neighbour on thier side but unfortunalty it is other way around, where i see no chance of  India in future standing up to China.

bahadur227
bahadur227

What a joke this coment is from a bunderstani(baharat/india)?He is furious at chinese,while ignoring his own country's record.While every body in the world accepts Jamu & Kashmir is a disputed teritory betweenPakistan and bunderstan.There,is a line of control between Azad Kashmir (Free)and Bunderstani Occupied Kashmir,supervised by the UNO observers under the UNO resolutions,but his government will not let any publication into the country showing actual land holdings of Kashmir by Pakistan,China and bunderstan.Now the shoes on other foot and bunderstanis are up in arms.What a shamefull attitude.Before lecturing others,get your facts right.

Maaq
Maaq

@mathewr India lost whole of the Tibet region which feeds to the Indian rivers, water resources in the control of an enemy. One would wonder what kind of political system is that which is always ready to attack small neighbours.

wmalquitar23
wmalquitar23

@BingJou The claim the world as their own, because most of the globe are labeled "Made in China"


ToanNguyen
ToanNguyen

@BingJou You can't be more right! Chinese's greed and their stupid nationalist passion need a prescription!

niansh
niansh

@FabioJuliano Your argument as to whose legacy was more bloodstained - Mughal or British is fundamentally flawed. Western occupation of Asia has been much more than just bitter and bloodstained. Just do some reading on the million killed in India due to famines in British time. 

British did not just loot and kill, they utterly neglected the people and let millions die - this is criminal. Don't let emotions get in the way of facts.

Freydom
Freydom

@FabioJuliano I don't think the author was presenting "bitter, bloodstained legacy Western empires had imprinted on Asia" as his opinion or as a statement of fact, but as part of the message of Rabindranath Tagore.

JONASN24
JONASN24

@niansh You are just so funny for using phrases such as "law breaking" and "no regard". I bet you can't even list the so-called "law"; and be careful with "any other", which only shows that you are just very ignorant.

Junk.Mail
Junk.Mail

@anie @Junk.Mail Actually, I work from time to time in China.  I think my mistake though is forgetting that outside people do not actually remember Germany (where I happen to live, though American) in the run up to WWII--they think 1930's Germany was all about Hitler and the Holocaust; truly horrible themes, but not actually that relevant in geopolitical terms at the time. Germany was recently poor country of proud tradition, suddenly rising to military power and experiencing a change in economic fortunes and national pride to such a degree that the loss of democracy wasn't such a big deal.  Antisemitism was prominent theme only later (although China, like the US and many other countries have their histories in the ethnic cleansing arena).  It is the nationalistic muscle flexing and early attempts to grab territory that clearly doesn't belong to China in the context of poor human rights, fueling a potential for radicalism that remind me of 1930's Germany.  I don't see a Hitler or ethnic cleansing there, but then he just happened with the right circumstances, even the Germans didn't really know who he was until it was too late; there was nothing special about Germans as a people then.  I don't think the Chinese, or Americans or anybody else is above crazy when nationalism goes awry.

niansh
niansh

@bahadur227 Dear Pakistani, you already screwed up with Bangladesh. Just wait for Balochistan to be free. All the terrorists that you have been rearing for the past 3 decades are not destroying your own country...as a result even Kashmiris know that they cannot look up to a failed states to help them.

First you manage to keep Pakistan intact then you even think about Kashmir.

rpai12
rpai12

Go hide in a cave in Porkistan.

Rocks
Rocks

@bahadur227  Get your facts right. Kashmir is a legitimate integral part of India. Kashmiri maharaja legally aceded to India not to speak that Kashmir has regular democratic elections and elects its representatives. The only people who are against Indian rule in kashmir are the Islamists who reject India's secu;ar constitution.Is kashmir perfect ? no.Is India perfect ? no. but to compare Kashmir's situation  with China's is like comparing apples with oranges. 

joseph.imre
joseph.imre

"niansh" would we wise to do some reading as well. Colonial rule in Asia is the core of India's, Singapore's, Hong Kong (before the handover), and countless others' success in the contemporary age. It is curious how all these former colonial outposts (especially British one's) are economic engines in Asia. It is interesting how British legal, education, and models of democracy have been so readily adopted by these successful nations. You would wiser if you made those connections. You also apply modern concepts of human rights and legility retroactively which is a sign of gross ignorance towards the study of history and liberal democracy. With your logic, India then should be held responsible for the 1 million or more lost in the transfer between Pakistan and India as well? If you apply a standard, you must live it yourself. Shameful how ignorance flourishes in a world so open to information and resources.  

niansh
niansh

@JONASN24 Dear China sympathizer, China broke the law by occupying Tibet, Aksai Chin (part of Kashmir) and invading India in 1962. That explains the law and no regard. 

 Wait till China crushes Pakistan, occupies the Pakistan occupied Kashmir too, sucks dry the natural resources in Africa and invades neighbors, breaks other laws as and when they please. The world can ignore and get beaten up by these idiots or stand up and beat them.

mux
mux

@jeezcak3 Only a specific map in 1770ish? Sounds like the typical cherry picking argument Vietnam makes. Yeah, you shouldn't be wasting your time on this. I laugh every time people like you need to try and talk over me by pretending I'm somehow subjected to Chinese govt censorship. That's news to me that the US is under Chinese gov't censorship.

mux
mux

jeezcak3 anie Junk.Mail - I live in the US and totally agree with anie. What does you being in the US have to do with knowing what's in China? Your Vietnamese knows Chinese spiel tells me you know nothing but just your racial attitudes. There is no policy espousing racial cleansing or a reich so to link to Nazi Germany is just a weak attempt to vilify. Keep in mind that Nazi Germany rose also because of the restrictions and reparation demands imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. It drove the average German into the Nazi camp. So in essence, if one wants to play this "reminds me of Nazi Germany" card, be aware that the constant attempts by various countries to block in China will drive the average people towards supporting their military even more. So it's not Chinese policy but outside policy as the root cause.Passport issue is more of a rebuttal. You've got the Philippines practicing neologism by attempting to rename a sea. You got Vietnam making laws that declare their new borders. So don't get all hurt when China decides to reply.

niansh
niansh

Absurd, which world do you live in? Sikkim is very much integral to India. People of Sikkim are Indians and stand by India. In fact they hate China just like Tibetians do, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and many other countries do.

China will pay back for their misdeeds and its so called all-weather-friend will be left high and dry. 

Somehow I feel that secretly Pakistanis think that partition was a bad decision but do not admit it. It just shows in their confused nationality. If Jinnah was so secular, then why did he go for partition?

JONASN24
JONASN24

@niansh Dear Indian, it's time for you to pay back for your invasion into Sikkim, for your massacring Chinese in Indian during the late 50s and for your bullying Pakistan, Bangladesh and other neighbor countries. India sucks!!!

Jakaro
Jakaro

@niansh @joseph.imre  

Yeah, if the U.S. had not gained independence from Britain early on, it might have become a famine-stricken wasteland like Canada. The funny thing is there a lot of Indians in Canada. I guess they go there just to feed the starving natives.

niansh
niansh

@joseph.imre A colonial sympatizer trying to justify his predecessor's crimes. But for British, India would be at least a fifty years ahead -if not more. Any kind of governance - monarchy or dictatorship would have been better for India than the british raj. To Indians, it will remain a bitter, bloodstained and criminal legacy.

 If given a chance, British would have destroyed USA too - good that they defeated British and went on to become what they are. Good riddance.

...and any-day, I would prefer being poor than being someone's slave. Also, the million that died during partition were not in Pakistan alone, they were on both sides.

resser
resser

@joseph.imre  Giving credit for India's growing economy to the British colonial rule! That was a good one. Like the other commenter mentioned, India's GDP after the end of the Mughal rule in the later part of the 18th century was still more than 20% of world's GDP. 

You might also want to read up on the history of famines in India before and during British rule. Tens of millions died in large scale famines India had not seen before British rule. The last big one was the Great Bengal famine of 1943 when 3 million died unnecessarily when Churchill was twiddling his thumbs and writing fiery speeches.

India still has many problems but has not had hundreds of thousands of people dropping dead for lack of food after independence. 

Rocks
Rocks

The rise of India's economy is not because of British legacy.Its simply returning to its pre-British economic supremacy ableit slowely.

Rocks
Rocks

@joseph.imre  May be you should do your own reading as well ! Comparing city states like Singapore and Hong Kong with India is ridiculous. The British legacy overall on India has been disastrous overall. One only needs to look at the Indian economic output before and after British colonization. India which contributed approx 26% of world's gdp in 18th century (before colonization) came down to less than 1% of worlds gdp in 1947 when the Brits left.