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China’s Passport style Encirclement

November 30, 2012

– Dev Lewis

It is a well accepted fact that when the question is sovereignty Chinese leadership adopt a conservative, nationalistic and increasingly aggressive posture; this has been manifesting itself with increasing intensity with the various disputed territories it contests with India, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan (a unique case) and Japan. For the past couple of years, particularly since 2011, there have been flare-ups and violent protests coupled with military naval drills, with its neighbors to its south and east, most recently with Japan. Earlier this month the Chinese released its new microchip passports, and printed as watermarks inside are maps of China that include each of its disputed areas in South and South-East Asia, proudly displayed to be a party of the People’s Republic of China.  Unsurprisingly this has caused a diplomatic uproar from the offended countries, which see this move as another example of China displaying indifference to their concerns and part of a trend which sees China expecting increasing acquiesce to its actions.


China is in effect asking each country to stamp its passports that contain territories it officially disputes. The truth is this is not the first time that China has chosen to take action via passport and visas; in controversial fashion it recently denied visas to Indian residents in Arunachal Pradesh(part of which it considers south Tibet), on the grounds that they are not recognized as Indian citizens, even denying entry to an Indian military official who was part of an official military delegation heading to meet their Chinese counterparts, quite an insult. Henry Kissinger in his book On China explained that Chinese Foreign Policy through the principles of Weiqi, a Chinese board game that basically involves encircling the opponent till all avenues for escape no longer exist, and one person claims majority of the territory. Using the same principles, a Chinese overall design in regards to Asia seems to emerge.

Weiqi style encirclement

For the past decade China aggressively moved to increase trade between itself and the Asian region, part of a win-win scenario it championed across the globe.  China played down conflict and land disputes as not significant enough to prevent trade, a pragmatic approach that certainly has broad great dividends to the entire region. Sino-Indian trade increased from $2bn to an estimated $75 million since 2000, with China becoming India’s largest trade partner. In South-East Asia, under the ASEAN umbrella, China’s trade with this region stands at 329 Billion, an increase by 29% from the previous year and expected to reach half a trillion by 2015. These economic links have proved prosperous for all involved, but there has been a steadily growing asymmetry in these relations.  While China has become India’s largest trade partner, India remains only China’s 11th largest, with whom it runs a $45 billion trade deficit with China, importing more than it exports. In an article I wrote earlier this year (in Chinese) I explained the intricacies and geopolitical implications this trade deficit.  Meanwhile, within ASEAN, China’s GDP is 3 times the size of the entire region (in PPP terms), therefore South East Asia is more prone to risks and proportionally has more at stake.  There has been massive Chinese FDI in investment projects across the region, including ports and major roads and highways, all of which involve Chinese firms. Joseph Nye, the architect of the soft power theory, explained that asymmetrical economic relations gives the country that relies more on the other a distinct disadvantage and creates lopsided sharing of power.  Over the past decade China has successfully integrated itself multilaterally with the region, and is now beginning to test its newly gained power.

Consolidation of Power

It is unwise to ignore the effect of China’s internal changes on the foreign policy. The new Chinese leadership under Xi, having only formally taken power for less then two weeks, has been looking to consolidate its power both within the party as well as rally the Chinese people around the communist party. Xi has impressed many with his confident, jargon free, and candid demeanor outlining China’s future just two days ago,

“We are at the closest point towards the Chinese nation’s renaissance than any time in modern history … and I am sure we will accomplish our goal,”

A look at micro blogs such as Weibo shows that Xi has impressed many young Chinese, who finally see a leader they can relate to.  China’s latest aggressive stance asserts more power within Asia, and reflects very highly on the new leadership,

Who will blink first?


The Indian & Philippine government have immediately stated it will not stamp these passports and instead will staple a temporary piece of paper that will act as a visa. Vietnam has gone one step further and refused point blank to allow entry to holders of the new passport. Overall, this creates a negative environment for trade, along with a host of diplomatic nightmares.  Consider Vietnam.  A Chinese company is in charge of building a highway that runs from Nanning in China and passes through Vietnam, offering major trade benefits to the country.  If it follows through with its threat and deny entry to Chinese citizens who carry the new passport, how would any further business regarding the highway continue? This is merely one of a multitude of scenarios and this article does well to explain the implications of this reaction and its harmful effect on the business environment. China surely must have expected such a reaction, and therefore has calculated that these countries have more too loose than to gain by adopting such a stance, expecting countries to transiently back down. It is interesting to note that the disputed islands with Japan- China’s second largest trade partner with whom its bilateral relationship doesn’t share similar asymmetry, were not included in the map- hardly a coincidence.

How this issue moves forward could set a precedent for China’s behavior towards its neighbors, but will surely cost China a large portion of the goodwill and soft power it has garnered over the years.  It would be unthinkable for the Chinese leadership to revert its decision to print these controversial maps, for it would be a criminal display of weakness.  Yet, if countries such as India and Vietnam choose to accept the change in status quo it will bode ill for any successful future negotiations, who should worry that eventually its disputed territories will become increasingly accepted as Chinese. It seems that Chinese leadership is surely evolving from its “peaceful rise” doctrine as it looks to close in on what it sees as rightfully Chinese, we will find out over the coming months and years, at what cost.

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