Another Twist to the South China Sea Dispute

By Chris Lundry

Various news organizations reported this week that both Vietnam and the Philippines are refusing to stamp new Chinese passports with a map of China’s claim to the entire South China Sea (VOA report here). India has joined the fray as well, angered because the map shows disputed parts of the Himalayas in Chinese possession as well.

Detail of the new Chinese passport

Although the dispute has simmered for years, with a status quo of unresolved competing claims and minor incidents, China is becoming increasingly assertive. The assertiveness reflects China’s economic rise and its accompanying increasing military capabilities. This week, China celebrated its first aircraft carrier landing , on a ship it christened just a few weeks ago. Although experts agree that China’s ability to project its force effectively is still years away, these events are nonetheless symbolic.

The messages are being received loud and clear by the countries of Southeast Asia. Passport squabble aside, the Philippines renamed the area that it claims in the South China Sea to the West Philippine Sea; Vietnam already called its claimed territory the East Sea.

Cambodia, which has no claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea, is viewed as appeasing China by its statement that ASEAN should not “internalize” the dispute (as recounted by my colleague Norm Vasu in this comops post).

None of the claimants desire escalation in an overtly military way. China’s new passport map can be viewed, however, as a way to help legitimize its claim in the long term. Territorial disputes arbitrated by the International Court of Justice often rely on historical documents, including maps, to settle claims.

China is likely pursuing a long-term strategy in which it could potentially argue that not only did it possess centuries-old maps showing Chinese possession of the region, but that recent maps stamped by other claimants reflect their claims as well. The Philippines and Vietnam aren’t playing the game, however, and will not stamp the passports but rather issue Chinese nationals a visa on a separate piece of paper.