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    South Asia
     Dec 1, 2012


Passport to a Greater China
By Derek Henry Flood

The ongoing uproar across the Asian political spectrum surrounding a map of a Greater China in an updated biometric version of the country's passport has made headlines around the globe, particularly in the neighboring nation-states who found this cartographic territorial grab a deep diplomatic affront.

Beyond the fairly simplistic matter of the map itself, the issue has shed light on a host of territorial disputes in which Beijing clearly seeks to maintain the upper hand, all the while insisting the controversy regarding the vexing map is either overblown or misinterpreted.

Though the passports were introduced on May 15, they began being scrutinized in the media last week when it became widely circulated that the offending map on the document's eighth page

 

illustrated that Taiwan, the Spratly and Paracel Island groups, and Himalayan territories held in dispute with India were components of a sovereign China.

Under the umbrella of China's "peaceful rise", the Middle Kingdom is continuing to expand its influence and presence in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean maritime realms through a number of means. China's well-documented deep sea port construction projects in Hambantota (Sri Lanka) and Gwadar (Pakistan), along with the lesser-known port projects in Kyaukpyu, on Myanmar's Ramree Island, have received a good degree of reportage in the Anglophone media in noting China's commercial expansion into the Indian Ocean. This is heralding a degree of peer competition from the Indian Navy, which views the region as its inherent domain.

China will almost assuredly be a major stakeholder in a controversial newly inaugurated port project underway on the Kenyan island of Lamu that aims to transport South Sudanese crude to the coast and lessen landlocked Ethiopia's dependence on Djibouti while further isolating its hermetic Eritrean rival.

For India, China's hyper-speed spate of large-scale construction initiatives spread far and wide throughout its historical maritime sphere is akin to a form of strategic future encirclement somewhat analogous to the manner in which the Kremlin perceived the mushrooming of US/NATO military facilities and opportunistic, post-revolutionary states in Russia's "near abroad" in the name of combating Sunni Islamist terrorism in the decade after 9/11.

When possible, Delhi has worked at outmaneuvering the Chinese in archipelagic states such as the Maldives, Mauritius, and the Seychelles and directly competing with them in the cases of Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.

West of Gwadar along the Makran Coast in Iranian Baluchestan, India has begun to match what Delhi perceives as the encroaching Chinese presence on the Gulf of Oman by countering the advanced state of the Gwadar project with future development of the nearby port of Chahbahar, which would eventually give India access to Afghanistan's ring road with Iranian acquiescence.

Irrespective of the extensive sanctions imposed on Iran, New Delhi sees cooperation with Tehran as an avenue to expand Indian influence in Afghanistan and compete with China's Pakistan strategy for potential Afghan resources by bypassing Pakistan altogether, having the dual effect of simultaneously undermining Islamabad's traditional "strategic depth" in that country.

Whether India and Iran can efficiently cooperate to outfox both China and Pakistan remains to be seen. India - with its complex web of pragmatic foreign relations - has quite amicable relations with Israel to the point of launching an Israeli spy satellite in 2008 for use in monitoring Iranian activities from space.

Pakistan is in the incipient phases of playing a critical role in China's two key objectives of consolidating the ideologically contested territories of Xinjiang Province [historically known as East Turkestan] and Tibet while setting the stage for an increasing Chinese presence throughout the Indian Ocean. China's massive road project in improving the Pakistani side of the Karakoram Highway in Gilgit-Baltistan (until recently known as the "Northern Areas") coupled with the Gwadar port mean that China may soon have a friendly conduit from Kashgar, Xinjiang, to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and wider Indian Ocean.

This race for port, and hence resources, access among weaker states along the Indian Ocean's periphery carries the risk of reinvigorating dormant yet very much unresolved half-century old disputes between India and China in Kashmir and along the Line of Actual Control commonly referred to as the McMahon Line. The McMahon Line is a 1914 delimitation created by a Raj-era diplomat called Lieutenant Colonel Sir Arthur Henry McMahon that agreed upon the boundary between British India, pre-communist China and its Tibetan suzerain. Mao viewed such treaties as humiliating colonial vestiges that a strong anti-imperial China need not respect if it saw fit.

For ASEAN member states, the passport map controversy may come across as confounding and quixotic in light of China's increasing trade relations and efforts at economic integration with its Southeast Asia neighbors. In Southeast Asia however, the issue is slightly more of an abstraction in that the disputes, though fervently nationalist in character, involve places far from their shores where no one actually lives.

For India, the conflict with China involves what it sees as patches of its contiguous territory. In a nuance beyond that, India's two disputes are quite different in nature. Since 1962, Aksai Chin has been occupied by the Chinese military whereas Arunchal Pradesh was only briefly conquered by the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
The PLA then withdrew allowing the routed Indian forces to regain their territory which their opponents claimed was in fact part of "South" Tibet and therefore rightfully Chinese.

Complicating matters further and only adding the Nehru government's aggravations, in 1963 Pakistan ceded an area of Kashmir called the Shaksgam Valley - also known as the Trans-Karakoram Tract - which is still claimed by India as is the totality of Kashmir, to China.

It was thought that then Pakistani leader Muhammad Ayub Khan allowed a friendly China to administer the area in order to strengthen military ties between the two states as a bulwark against both India and the Soviet Union. In effect, by the end of 1963 the Kashmir dispute had transformed from a bilateral to a trilateral one, making its possible political resolution that much more intractable.

China's long game could eventually help Beijing develop deeper commercial ties with Afghanistan and more importantly help to quiet its restive Uyghur population through the strengthening of transport and trade links while denying radical Uyghur elements sanctuary in Central Asian spaces where China has managed to resolve its disputes peacefully.

So while Chinese issues in Central Asia and Pakistan's north-south corridor have all been swept under the rug in the face of cross-border development projects busily humming along in the name of shoring up some of its most deadly ethnic schisms in the hinterlands far beyond its Han core, the quelling of its more vigorous disputes in South and Southeast Asia will likely continue to remain perpetually over the horizon in the near term.

Beijing has been managing a series of nationalist-inflected, multi-front feuds with many of its neighbors over the status of once rather insignificant archipelagos that are off its eastern seaboard and to the country's south. The Spratly and Paracel chains comprising previously uninhabited islets, atolls and rocks protruding from the sea could stand to gain immense geopolitical importance in the context of potential gains from energy exploration.

The one immensely important ongoing dispute the passport approaches somewhat less stridently is the Senkaku/Diaoyu flap with Japan in the East China Sea. Out of all the territorial spats highlighted by the map issue, the Senkaku/Diaoyu has the power to stoke nationalist rivalry with Japan within China. According to The Telegraph's Malcolm Moore "the scale of the [Senkaku/Diaoyu] islands is so small as to be invisible", unlike the bold dashes with which China encompasses the Paracels and Spratlys further south.

The irate states have taken an ad hoc stance on how to deal with the problematic new passports. Vietnam has reacted by refusing to stamp them and is instead issuing new visas on separate sheets of paper while canceling the originals. Vietnam inherited the languishing Paracels conflict following its absorption of the Republic of [South] Vietnam which had fought a day-long naval battle with the People's Liberation Army Navy in 1974 before South Vietnam collapsed.

In a July report, the International Crisis Group described the creation in June 2012 of a Chinese civilian beachhead titled the "Sansha prefecture" on Woody Island in the Paracels as being in direct defiance of Hanoi's maritime policy. Sansha is meant to be an administrative center to help Beijing govern the sprawling disputed region and create facts on the ground by artificially populating the tiny Woody Island with bureaucrats and other expeditionary workers. Xinhua then announced in late July that a "military garrison" was to be established on Sansha in case there was any doubt about Beijing's intentions.

The Philippines initially took a more subdued wait-and-see approach by lodging a formal complaint while continuing to accept the new passports. But after Manila briefly deliberated, it then adopted Hanoi's approach and began refusing to stamp the passports of incoming Chinese visitors, instead issuing on separate documents fearful that it would be inadvertently acquiescing to Chinese claims over the Spratly chain by doing otherwise.

Beijing is in the process of vast power projection project in the South China Sea while having largely wound down its Soviet-era legacy border disputes that were inherited by the politically stagnant independent successor republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. China has made concessions in order to resolve the respective disputes in Central Asia, where its main interests are containing political Islam, suppressing Uyghur irredentism and increasing modest trade and energy linkages with three fairly weak states rather than an overtly assertive land grabbing policy. Turn to China's maritime stance however, and it appears far more aggressive.

Particularly troublesome is China's decision to include India in its embossed version of a neo-Greater China. This comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the Sino-Indian war. India seems to have had the most original response. It is issuing new visas in Beijing that reject the Chinese territorial claims on large swaths of its northeastern Arunchal Pradesh state and the Aksai Chin plateau in Kashmir's desolate far north.

Though the prospect of renewed land warfare in the heart of Eurasia may seem a remote possibility in light of the increasing trade between the two Asian giants, tension remains with regard to these delicate border issues that have sat unresolved for five decades since the PLA retreated back across the McMahon Line. Today's China of Hu Jintao seems no more eager to back down in its attitude toward the question of Indian sovereignty in the literal and figurative frozen territorial conflicts plaguing bilateral relations.
India's hosting of the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan adherents in exile and tourism by his Western spiritual admirers are thorns in the side of Sino-Indian talks, while Chinese Communist party officials were incensed when the Tibetan leader visited Arunchal Pradesh's Tawang monastery in 2009 marking the 50th anniversary of his harried flight from Tibet.

Chinese authorities viewed the relative pomp and circumstance of the Dalai Lama's tour of Arunchal Pradesh - where he was formally greeted upon arrival by the state's chief minister and met by an Assamese minister en route - as an affront to legitimate Chinese sensitivities on their claim to all of historical Tibet.

In the past, China has rejected India's claims of sovereignty over the entirety of Jammu and Kashmir by issuing Kashmiris visas on separate chits that labeled Kashmir a "disputed territory" while entirely refusing to issue visas to residents of Arunchal Pradesh.

The nagging issue that seems to have escaped this latest diplomatic row is China's stance toward Sikkim. Shortly before the final year of Mao's rule, the monarchy in Sikkim was abolished through a 1975 plebiscite, those guarding the palace of Palden Thondup Namgyal and his American socialite wife were overrun by Indian Army soldiers, and Sikkim acceded to the Indian Union.

Wedged between Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan, Sikkim had essentially been a protectorate state and was formally absorbed into India as Delhi continued to consolidate territory in the decades after independence from the British crown. When the single party state calling itself the People's Republic of China was declared on October 1, 1949, the PLA leadership wasted little time in aggressively asserting itself in Tibet the following year - revolutionary China insisting its action was one of "liberation" - while Jawaharlal Nehru's nascent Indian republic looked on, quietly aghast.

Unlike with the incredibly intransigent issues regarding Aksai Chin and Arunchal Pradesh, China appears to have slowly come around to de facto accepting that Sikkim is indeed Indian turf after a memorandum was signed in 2003. On November 19, a trio of diplomats from China's Delhi embassy somewhat curiously visited Gangtok, the Sikkimese state capital. It was speculated that the presence of Chinese officialdom in Sikkim indicated the end Beijing's dim view of the Indian state by inquiring about a jailed Tibetan trader who was being held under espionage charges after taking photos of the border area, behavior Indian authorities deemed suspicious.

It was then speculated in a Northeast India daily that what prompted the Chinese official visit was the possibility of the suspect joining the Tibetan diaspora in Dharamsala rather than returning to China (Tibet) and risking torture.

Despite relative success of resolutions along the border of a vulnerable Xinjiang with the three aforementioned Central Asian states, China's land disputes with a rising India and the tiny, but Delhi-aligned Bhutan appear as far from coming to a conclusion as at many points during the Cold War.

In August, Thimphu and Beijing - who have still yet to establish formal diplomatic relations - marked the 20th round of talks between the geographic David and Goliath, according to the Press Trust of India. While Chinese claims on Bhutanese land may seem like the least exciting of its many unresolved border disputes, it is considered extraordinarily critical to policy makers in Delhi for its proximity to the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor, often called the "Chicken's Neck" because it rather tenuously connects India's peninsular demographic core to its insurgency-wracked northeastern states.

If Beijing can deftly wrest Bhutan from its current Indian orbit and formally gain a slice of Bhutanese territory, it may be able to apply more pressure on the Arunchal Pradesh front or could perhaps later revert its opaque stance on Sikkim.

All of this is against the backdrop of the US so-called "pivot"' to Asia by President Barack Obama - who has been referred to as America's first "Pacific president" - and the fading of the Cold War-centric Atlantic theater as the locus of international relations.
What the contest between China and India and ASEAN members also signifies is the decline of the United States Navy as a unilateral post-war Pacific military hegemon and the rise of a far more complex multi-lateral geopolitical environment with all of the emotional, nationalist baggage each state actor will lug to the table.

What China in particular does not desire is for its territorial ambitions outlined in its new passport to drive competing lesser powers into American arms to unite against Beijing in the name of a common threat. Only such an unvarnished realpolitik could adequately drive such bitter foes like Vietnam and the United States into an alliance or encourage an India that once "tilted" toward the Soviet Union to possibly tilt toward Washington.

Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and South and Central Asia.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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