Analysis

‘Coalition of the willing’ rising against China

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By disregarding its passport, China has sparked a torrent of diplomatic protests. The new passport carries a map that shows China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and on its border with India.

China did not need to occupy the disputed territories through invasion by the People’s Liberation Army. It did not have to fire a shot to validate its claims based solely on a map, making the whole affair a paper coup.

According to Bloomberg, three separate pages in the passport include China’s “nine-dash line” map of the South China Sea (parts of which are known in the Philippines as West Philippine Sea), first published in 1947. The dash lines extend hundreds of kilometers south from China’s Hainan Island to the equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The map includes the Spratly island chain, the subject of overlapping claims by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency website.

The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom reported that the Philippines, Vietnam, India and Taiwan had vehemently protested  against the new passport, “which essentially forces neighboring countries to  validate China’s position on contested regions.”

Vietnam and the Philippines have lodged formal complaints with Chinese embassies in Hanoi and Manila. India’s external affairs minister, Salman  Khursid, called the map “unacceptable.”

Hi Yinhon, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, warned the row could have long-term consequences.

“Especially in the East and South China Sea, both sides have taken a confrontational approach,” Hi said.  “This kind of situation will have a long-term impact on East Asian security and relations between these countries.”

Bruce Jacobs, a professor of East Asian studies at Monash University in Australia, said the map “underscored China’s increasing boldness in laying claim to the disputed territories,” adding that the country “lacked institution such as a free media that could keep its foreign policy decisions in check.”

US concerns

The new passport has raised concerns in the United States, which, while saying it is neutral in the territorial disputes, has been supplying the Philippines with military weapons to enable its Armed Forces to stand up to the increasing encroachment of Chinese maritime forces into territories in the sea claimed by the Philippines.

The United States said the map on the new passport was “causing tension and anxiety” among claimant states in the South China Sea.

Washington said that while it had no territorial claim, it had a national interest in the stability in a region vital to world trade and freedom of invitation in one of the world’s strategic waterways in both military and economic terms.

China heightened tensions in the region by announcing last week, following the issuance of the new passport, that it had granted Hainan’s border patrol police power “to board, seize and expel foreign ships illegally entering the province’s sea areas.”

The announcement came with an insult. The state-run Global Times said the power to board was granted to Hainan, implying that it was the police patrol of the provincial authority, not the Chinese Navy, that would enforce the new rules.

Asean worries

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which has been divided on how to deal with China in the territorial disputes, was so alarmed by the Chinese plan to board and seize ships, even those belonging to claimant nations patrolling their own areas, that Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan warned that the plan was “a very serious turn of events.”

What if Philippine Navy or Coast Guard ships have an encounter with the Chinese patrol ships in the Spratlys or at Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal)? The Chinese plan is fraught with risks; it could spark a war.

And this is what worries Asean.

The Philippines has refused to place its visa stamps on the new Chinese passports because that could be construed as recognizing the Chinese claims in the West Philippine Sea that the Philippines is disputing.

Instead, Manila will issue a separate visa form for Chinese nationals holding the new passports.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said the decision to issue a separate visa form reinforced the Philippine protest against China’s claims to territories in the West Philippine Sea.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario sent Beijing a formal protest letter last week, calling the passport maps “an excessive declaration of maritime space in violation of international law.”

Vietnam has also refused to place its visa stamps on the new Chinese passports, according to Al Jazeera, while Taiwan has objected to the maps’ maritime borders.

India, angered that the map shows its state of Arunachal Pradesh and the Himalayan region of Aksai Chin as Chinese territory, is issuing Chinese citizens visas embossed with New Delhi’s own version of the map.

Security alliance

In the wake of the revulsion at China’s acceleration of its land-grabbing in the South China Sea, an ad hoc security alliance is emerging among Japan and the Asean claimants, including the Philippines and Vietnam, to block China’s assertive interventions through diplomacy or possibly by other means. China’s moves have compelled these states to close ranks.

The map on China’s new passport does not include islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by both China and Japan. Tough negotiations have been taking place in which Japan has been standing up to Chinese pressure.

Japan is the only naval power in East Asia that can face off with the burgeoning naval power of the People’s Liberation Army.

In a recent article, the International Herald Tribune reported that Japanese officials say Japan has been “building up ties with other nations that share worries about their imposing neighbor.”

They acknowledge that “even building the capacity of other nations’ Coast Guards is a way of strengthening those countries’ ability to stand up to any Chinese threat.”

The report quotes Yoshide Soeya, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Keio University in Tokyo, as saying: “We want to build our own ’coalition of the willing’ in Asia to prevent China from just running over us.”

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