State Department seeking ‘a conversation’ about China’s controversial passport map

November 27, 2012

My annotation of a photo of China's new passport. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

China's new passport includes, on its eighth page, a watermark that has sparked minor diplomatic disputes with several neighboring countries. The passport displays a map of China that includes a piece of territory disputed with India, an Indian territory that China claims, an outlined demarcation of South China Sea islands claimed by several other nations, and the entirety of Taiwan. My annotation (apologies for the poor artistry) of the passport map is above.

Several countries have formally protested the map; Vietnam is refusing to stamp the new passport, and India is stamping its own version of the map on Chinese passports. It might sound silly, but the issue hits on much larger and more complicated territorial disputes, which are themselves an extension of China's changing relationship with its neighbors as it grows stronger and perhaps a bit pushier.

At a State Department news conference Monday, spokesperson Victoria Nuland was asked whether the United States is endorsing the map on the passports by virtue of accepting it from Chinese travelers. It's not, but the resulting exchange seems to demonstrate the degree to which the U.S. is striving to not take sides in the issue. Still, toward the end of Nuland's comments, she hints that the U.S. will play some sort of role in the intra-Asian diplomatic dispute. Here's the exchange, with the relevant lines about the U.S.'s role bolded:

Nuland: No, it is not an endorsement. ... Our position, as you know, on the South China Sea continues to be that these issues need to be negotiated among the stakeholders, among ASEAN and China, and you know a — a picture on a passport doesn't change that.

... Question: (Off-mike) do you care what China has, and what — what they print in their — inside of their passports? Does it raise any concern at all with you? Or is it simply their business, and (inaudible) they can put whatever they want in their passports?

Nuland: My understanding is that we — and I looked into this a little bit, and didn't get a complete sort of brief on this — but my understanding is that we have certain basic international standards that have to be met in a passport in the way its presented in order for us to — to honor it, and — and you know stray maps that they include aren't part of it.

Question: Okay, does that — does that — that wouldn't go for any country?

Nuland: Yes.

Question: So — so then — I mean, if Mexico put a new passport with a map that had, you know, Texas, and Mexico on that, that wouldn't be ...

(Laughter)

Nuland: Again, that's a hypothetical we're hoping not to confront.

Question: Well, right, but — but in terms of — but in terms of this — and I realize you know we're talking about it lightheartedly, but I mean, it — that would be something that I think the government would probably object to in the Mexican case. So I just want to make clear — or understand, the appearance of this map in the — in the Chinese passport doesn't really — does it raise concerns for you, or not?

Nuland: As a technical legal matter, that map doesn't have any bearing on whether the passport is valid for U.S. visa issuance or for entry into the United States ...

Question: No I understand that.

Nuland: There are a bunch of other issues.

Question: But is the broader issue of whether this signal — symbolizes a claim that you think should be worked out in negotiation, do you have — do you have any concerns about that?

Nuland: Again, I'm not sure whether we've had a chance to have that discussion with the Chinese, frankly, the first time this issue came to the attention of — of some of us was over the weekend when the passports started being rejected in various countries. So, you know, presumably from the perspective that it is considered provocative by some of those countries, we'll have a conversation about it, but in terms of the technical issue of whether the passport is ...

Question: Right, quite apart from the take — when you say that you'll have a conversation about it, that means you'll have a conversation about it with the Chinese? Or, you'll have a conversation about it with the countries that are refusing to accept them?

Nuland: No, I'm — I'm — I would expect that we'll probably have a conversation about the fact that this is considered — considered difficult by — by some of the countries.

The U.S., as part of the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia," has seemed to seek out daylight between China and its neighbors, positioning itself as the friendlier alternative to Chinese leadership in East Asia. This has included playing a greater role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which represents China's southern neighbors; President Obama's historic tour this month of Burma, Cambodia and Thailand; and the opening of Burma itself, which spent decades as a China-allied dictatorship before recently liberalizing.

This passport skirmish is not going to dramatically change regional politics, of course, but the State Department might be seeking out a "conversation about it" as yet another way to emphasize the U.S. as a friendly regional mediator – especially when it comes to dealing with China.

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Max Fisher | November 26, 2012