Henry V is better known for waging war than for creating the modern passport. But according to the UK’s Home Office the victor of the battle of Agincourt is also the father of ‘safe conduct’ documents. These instructed other sovereigns to offer safe passage to their holder. Given Henry’s propensity for picking a fight, his request carried considerable weight.
Fast forward six centuries and a passport is fuelling a row that Henry himself would recognise – a dispute over territorial rights. This time it is a Chinese passport that features a new map which is angering the country’s neighbours. Though first issued in May, the passport’s map only recently got noticed – and was soon drawing fire for including disputed territories. The Philippines and Vietnam objected to Beijing’s inclusion of islands they claim as their own, while India was incensed that China has incorporated large areas of disputed border regions.
Their responses were defiant in their administrative ferocity. Vietnam instructed its immigration officials not to stamp the new passports, while the Philippines said it would only stamp a separate visa application form rather than the passport itself.
“Through this action, the Philippines reinforces its protest against China’s excessive claim over almost the entire South China Sea,” the country’s Department of Foreign Affairs warned, also saying that stamping the passports could be “misconstrued” as legitimising Chinese claims. But Asia Times reckons India had the “most original response” when it instructed its immigration personnel to paste into the passports a visa with a map showing its own version of territory in the border dispute.
Excellent news for anyone queuing behind Chinese nationals at Indian border control…
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has tried to downplay the spat, asking others to behave in a “rational way” and “avoid causing unnecessary disturbances to personnel exchanges”.
The US made clear that the new passports were not helpful politically but confirmed that “as a technical legal matter, that map doesn’t have any bearing on whether the passport is valid for entries into the United States”.
Much of China’s press went into nationalist mode to report on the row. The Guangming Daily called the countermeasures from the Philippines and Vietnam “contemptible” and said both countries had acted in bad faith against “China’s peaceful development and ignored the territorial sovereignty of China”.
The Global Times also suggested that the pair were trying to exploit the passport issue to draw the US into the dispute on their side.
Few would have predicted it five years ago, but the South China Sea is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most truculent trouble spots. In an interview with the Financial Times the outgoing secretary general of ASEAN even said it risks becoming “Asia’s Palestine”. But what is also disquieting is the hardening tone coming out of China. Last week new leader Xi Jinping gave a speech in which national “rejuvenation” was the theme (message: rejuvenating nations don’t cede territory) and some Western analysts are talking in terms of the Prussian nationalism of a century ago, when maritime tension with Britain rose during the race to build more dreadnoughts.
Perhaps there are parallels with China’s new aircraft carrier here, after news of the first landing of a China-built jet on deck. The event was greeted with widespread excitement, with photos soon circulating online of Chinese in poses that imitated the carrier’s crouching ground crew in action.
Similarly, the death of Luo Yang – the engineer who designed the J-15 jet in question – got widespread coverage. The China Daily dedicated a whole page tribute to Luo and noted that “crowds mourn [the] national icon”. Turning a military engineer into a hero isn’t wholly new (Britain last did it in 1942, when it made a film about the Spitfire designer RJ Mitchell) but the timing of Luo’s elevation isn’t wholly encouraging.
Meanwhile, the row over the region’s maritime waters rumbles on. Vietnam is now protesting about Chinese fishing boats disrupting its seismic survey vessels and cutting their cables, while India has said that it will send its own navy to protect its oil interests in the South China Sea.
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