Gu Suhua writes from Beijing: The brouhaha over the new Chinese passport is hotting up. The thing is that the new ten year passport includes a map of China. Nothing strange in that, you might say. However, besides Taiwan which Beijing has always included as a province of the People’s Republic it also includes the northern part of Arunachai Pradesh which India regards as part of its territory. The map also covers many small islands in the South China Sea which are claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Just to add spice to this mix, it also covers the islands in dispute between the Middle Kingdom and Japan.
Vietnam and India have declared that they will not stamp the new passport. Indonesia sees the move as an attempt to gauge China’s neighbours’ reactions to the grab. Is Beijing banking on acceptance of the claims over time? It has thrown down the gauntlet and it is up to others to respond. How will they counter this bare -faced cheek?
So why should China choose to up the ante now? In addition to the map are instructions to Chinese patrol vessels: from January 1, to board, search and detain whenever necessary, vessels deemed to be in Chinese territorial waters. These waters now include all those covered by the new passport map.
The obvious conclusion is that the much more robust defence of Chinese maritime interests in the South China Sea and elsewhere is related to the new US ‘pivot’ in South East Asia. Washington is expanding its bases in the Northern Territories as well as in Perth in western Australia. Ships are moving from the Atlantic to waters north of Australia. It is expected that when US troops leave Afghanistan in 2014 some will be deployed in this region. Washington has made clear that the South China Sea is of strategic importance. It wants freedom of navigation to be retained. If China dominates these waters it could close the Malacca Strait which allows passage from the Indian Ocean to the region.
The China patrols will start from Hainan, an island off south east China. It is a popular tourist resort and Russians can holiday there without needing to obtain visas. It is also a submarine base. Gradually it is being developed into a major Chinese naval base. This reflects the rising importance of the Chinese navy. It has already an aircraft carrier – bought from and refurbished by Ukraine – and is building one of its own. It should be stated that the aircraft carrier is mainly for training purposes and is no match for US aircraft carriers.
The new leader, Xi Jinping, is declaring that China will vigorously pursue its national interests even if this makes others uncomfortable. It will use its naval power to intimidate its smaller rivals. On their own, they have no chance. So it is no surprise that they want the protection of the US Fifth Fleet.
How will other countries respond to the new Chinese passport? If the US and other western states refuse to recognise it, it would have to be withdrawn. Will it come to that?