China's passport to trade and gunboats

THE diplomatic uproar over China's new passport design, which allegedly includes Beijing's territorial claims against its neighbours, is a good reminder that even otherwise sober-minded nations can sometimes be driven to seemingly childish acts of retaliation.

Vietnamese border guards are rejecting the validity of the offending new documents, the Philippines refuses to stamp them, while India counter-stamps visas for Chinese nationals with its own map of the disputed Himalayas.

From a legal perspective, the affair is a storm in a teacup. In purely legal terms, China cannot establish or beef up any of its territorial claims by simply printing these in passports, regardless of whether these documents are accepted by other nations. The real significance of the dispute is not in its supposed international law ramifications but, rather, in the subtle indications it provides about China's long-term strategic designs.

It is by now largely forgotten that the first passports issued in modern history - in both Europe and Asia - had no connection with the nationality of the bearer; they were essentially letters of safe conduct, travel documents. So people would choose the passport they needed: Britons who went to France during the 18th century would get a French passport from the French Embassy in London, because this was more practical.

And most early European passports were not even written in the national language, but in either Latin or French, the then languages of diplomacy. Indeed, the British government continued to issue passports written only in French even while Britain fought a desperate battle against Napoleon's France in the early 19th century.

Matters only changed in 1858, when an Italian revolutionary named Count Felice Orsini travelled from Italy to France on a British passport and tried to assassinate Emperor Napoleon III. Orsini failed, was caught, tried and executed, but the row this created between France and Britain brought down a British government and established the principle that passports should be issued only to those who were citizens of the country.

Passports as national identity

BUT right until 1914, passports were rarely used: The overwhelming majority of those who immigrated during the 19th century to the United States or, for that matter Singapore, had no passports at all. Passports only returned with a vengeance during World War I, partly because countries wanted to keep out undesirable foreigners, but also because they sought to prevent their own citizens from avoiding military service. Either way, for much of their existence, passports were seldom regarded as expressions of national identity, and were never treated as implying sovereignty claims.

China is not alone in currently using passport designs to display national pride, either by showcasing its scenery or its achievements. All nations do this to some extent and, arguably, the most extreme example is the US, whose latest passport design includes large passages from its Constitution, mugshots of its founders and pictures of all the key historic landmarks. Foreign diplomats joke that the next version may also include a chip playing the national anthem each time the passport is opened. However, propaganda values aside, there are plenty of examples to prove that the controversial use of passports creates few legal consequences.

During the Cold War, West Germany never recognised Berlin as the capital of East Germany, yet allowed West German passports to be stamped with a "Capital of Berlin" visa applied by East German border guards. The East Germans thought that this advanced their claim to Berlin, but nobody else around the world did.

To this day, millions of people travel each year carrying passports issued by "The Republic of China". They get their passports stamped, but this does not imply that Taiwan is recognised as representing China by most of the countries which accept the passports.

And, more amusingly, the People's Republic of China may have ensured that its new passport can never be used to advance Beijing's territorial demands, at least not in legal terms. For although the new passports include the "nine-dash" map line in the South China Sea and the Chinese-claimed territory in India, the documents make no reference to the Diaoyu islands dispute with Japan. Should this omission be interpreted as an abandonment of China's sovereignty over the territory, which the Japanese call the Senkaku islands? China cannot have it both ways: It cannot claim that the inclusion of some disputed territories in its passports carries legal consequences, while the omission of another claim does not.

This does not mean that the dispute over passports is devoid of any significance. International law governing the exercise of sovereignty over territory and people is constantly changing, and the Law of the Sea is in a particular state of flux at the moment. The result is that governments are very apprehensive about establishing any precedent, however flimsy, just in case this is used against them at a later stage.

So they over-compensate by officially protesting at the smallest development which they consider unfavourable, just in order to make sure that their future legal positions remain covered. That is the main reason the dispute with China is so vociferous.

Making future plans

BUT the true significance of the passport episode is in what it tells us about Beijing's strategic thinking. Since 2010, when Chinese officials first told the US in private that they regarded the South China Sea as their "core interest", many governments have speculated about whether this meant the start of a Chinese assertion of a regional sphere of influence, or whether it was merely a "trial balloon", an attempt to see how far the US could be pushed on such matters.

There was also subsequent speculation about whether Beijing's more assertive South China Sea policy was centrally driven, or whether it was the consequence of a competition between various Chinese government departments and commercial entities, all vying for influence, money or glory.

The issuance of the new passports does not settle these questions completely, but it does offer some clear pointers: The decision to assert China's territorial demands has been taken at the highest political levels in Beijing. It carries the approval of the top leadership. For it is inconceivable that Chinese officials did not anticipate a storm of international protests once they decided on the designs to be incorporated into their passports.

And it is equally inconceivable to anyone who knows how the Chinese political system works to believe that a decision to print millions of these new controversial booklets could have been taken without an explicit "green light" from the very top.

It is very likely that the new passports are a calculated building block in a broader Chinese strategy, which also includes the almost-permanent stationing of Chinese navy vessels in disputed waters. The aim of this strategy is not to squeeze any particular concessions from China's neighbours, nor to settle the matters comprehensively, since Beijing knows that neither is achievable in the near future. Instead, it may consist of simply increasing pressure on neighbours, by tightening the noose around them with a view to extracting future concessions.

Seen from this perspective, whether Vietnamese border guards stamp or refuse to stamp Chinese passports remains immaterial. China proposes to settle its territorial demands not through the establishment of novel legal precedents, but through more traditional means of persuasion, such as trade and gunboats.