The conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea by powers such as China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia have long been a point of contention. However, on Friday the Chinese government issued new passports with a map of China that includes a disputed area of the South China Sea in its territory. Countries who accept these passports would be tacitly agreeing to China’s claims, which include the Spratly Islands. However, the map does not include the islands in dispute between China and Japan.
China justifies its claims by citing that Zheng He crossed the South China Sea during the 14th century, with historical maps that predate the founding of the PRC in 1949. The Foreign Ministry states that its discovery of the Spratly Islands goes back 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty.
In a faxed response to Business Week, China’s Foreign Ministry said, “The outline of China’s map in the passport wasn’t targeted at specific countries. China is willing to communicate with relevant nations and promote the healthy development of contact between China and foreign personnels.”
This “nine-dash” inclusion has sparked outrage from its neighbors. Taiwan condemned these new maps, while the Vietnamese government lodged a complaint with the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. The Philippines’s foreign affairs ministry spokesman, Raul Hernandez, said in a text message, “The action of China is contrary to the spirit of the declaration of conduct of parties in the South China Sea.”
Leaders in Washington have also exhorted the Chinese government to follow a proper code of conduct. John Blaxland, with the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at Australian National University, notes the importance of rules of interaction. “When you think back to the days of the Cold War, there was a clear code of conduct between Soviet or NATO or Western ships, that when they encountered each other, there was a protocol. Well there isn't one at the moment for the South China Sea, and that is problematic.”
The U.S. president’s visit to the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in mid November emphasized the United States’ interest in helping maintain stability in the region to members of the ASEAN. Although the Obama administration has mentioned that it currently does not want to intervene or take official sides in the dispute, the U.S.’s actions have raised suspicions for top Chinese leaders.
During his stay in the Cambodian capital, President Obama convened leaders from Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam. He urged them to form a free-trade bloc called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) composed of all ten ASEAN members along with the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Peru. The TPP would have 16 countries with a projected GDP of $15 trillion.
Notably excluded from the partnership is China. Meanwhile, the framework for one of the largest trade blocs in the world called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) had already been established last year between the ASEAN members and China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea. If the plan is adopted, the RCEP will be composed of 16 countries, three billion people, and possess a GDP of $19.78 trillion.
Moreover, with the establishment of stronger relationships between the U.S. and countries such as Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam, China fears that its political, trade, and energy interests in Southeast Asia will be further undermined by the U.S. presence. This rising tension is increasingly heightened by the U.S.’s “Asian Pivot” strategy that includes increased American military presence in the Pacific region.
Although China’s new passports are largely a symbolic gesture, it is a manifestation of real concerns from Chinese political leaders. They not only consider the territories and potentially vast resources in the South China Sea as a historical birthright, they are increasingly responding to what they perceive as outsiders’ attempts to curb China’s rise to economic and military dominance.
As Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi note in a Brookings study, although the U.S.’ and China’s fundamentally different political traditions, value systems, and cultures are hard to reconcile, the “strategic distrust” in their relationship can be reduced by having both countries’ leaders address each other’s underlying concerns, and discuss practical strategies moving forward. Even if there may never be complete trust, a greater degree of transparency would dispel some misconceptions, and encourage dialogue rather than breed mutual contempt that could result in a major economic or military crisis.