ePassports and Sovereignty

by Brian Tsui
The old passport and the new side by side. Source: Baidu Baike

The old passport and the new side by side.
Source: Baidu Baike

On 15 May 2012, the Bureau of Exit and Entry Administration of the Ministry of Public Security (Gonganbu churujing guanliju 公安部出入境管理局) began issuing new biometric passports to mainland Chinese citizens. With these, the People’s Republic of China joined more than ninety other countries in embedding chips containing critical information like the holder’s name, date of birth and photo in its ePassports. The Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions, which maintain separate immigration regimes, have been issuing passports with the same technology since 2006 and 2009 respectively.

What appeared to be a mundane administrative measure made international headlines half a year after it was launched. And, while the changes were made by the Ministry of Public Security, it was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that had to deal with the not-inconsiderable international fallout. In November 2012, Vietnam and the Philippines lodged complaints that a watermark map on a visa page, which depicted a large swathe of the South China Sea as belonging to China, infringed on their sovereignty. India also voiced displeasure that Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin and parts of Arunachal Pradesh — which China calls South Tibet — were included in the map. Taiwan cried foul over the incorporation of landmarks under Republic of China rule, including Sun Moon Lake and Green Island as illustrations in the document. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa revealed in March 2013 that his government, too, had lodged a protest with Beijing shortly after the passports were issued. The controversial Chinese map, Jakarta claimed, extended into Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Natuna Sea.

The international controversy surrounding the ePassport is both figuratively and literally a graphic illustration of China’s simmering territorial disputes with its neighbours. As Richard Rigby and Brendan Taylor observe in this chapter, the last few years have seen Beijing robustly pursuing its territorial claims in the South China Sea. In diplomatic arenas and occasionally at sea, Beijing has been at loggerheads with both Hanoi and Manila. Meanwhile, despite the haltingly improving relationship between Beijing and New Delhi, the Indian media have frequently reported on Chinese incursions into disputed border areas. Finally, Taiwan’s objection to having its tourist attractions featuring in mainland passports highlights the sensitive and contested nature of national identity on the island. The current Nationalist Party administration, while retaining sovereign claim on mainland China, rolled out its own biometric passport in 2009 that depicted only scenes from Taiwan and Kinmen county.

Controversial map in the new passport. Source: Baidu Baike

Controversial map in the new passport.
Source: Baidu Baike

The different countries involved adopted divergent approaches in dealing with the situation. Vietnam said it sent a diplomatic note to the Chinese embassy in Hanoi demanding correction of the map and refusing to paste visas into the new passports. The Foreign Secretary of the Philippines told reporters that he also wrote a note of protest to the Chinese embassy. Like Vietnam, the Philippines refused to stamp the Chinese documents and recognise what it sees as Beijing’s ‘excessive’ territorial claim. While not lodging a formal complaint, India began affixing visas bearing its own map in Chinese passports. Indonesia, which enjoyed warming ties with China, opted for what its Foreign Minister called ‘nice low key diplomacy’ and refrained from issuing a public statement on the dispute.

In Taipei, the Mainland Affairs Council issued a statement reprimanding Beijing for including territories that the latter did not have ‘authority to govern’ (tongzhiquan 統治權). In a subsequent statement, the Council distinguished ‘authority to govern’ from Republic of China sovereignty (zhuquan 主權), which claims to cover mainland China. The convoluted definition of the controversial ‘one China with respective interpretations’ (yi Zhong gebiao 一中各表) principle meant, however, that Taiwan didn’t need to act to avoid implicitly endorsing sovereignty claims on the latest passports issued by the People’s Republic. Taiwan has always issued separate entry permits for mainland Chinese visitors to be used alongside mainland travel documents. Taiwan officials only place stamps on these permits.