A new watermark on freshly issued Chinese passports portrays disputed territories as belonging to China. The move has outraged the country's Asian neighbors and fueled concerns about Beijing's motives.
China's claim to disputed territories has evoked strong responses from its neighbors. Experts warn that the Chinese move may seriously undermine the delicate balance in bilateral relations with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and India.
New passports issued by Beijing show a map indicating Arunachal Pradesh, parts of Jammu & Kashmir and disputed islands in the South China Sea as Chinese territory. The map is published in the form of a watermark in the Chinese passport booklet.
Vietnamese authorities have refused to stamp Chinese passports. They are, instead, issuing visas on a separate sheet of paper. Taiwan and the Philippines are concerned that stamping the new Chinese passports would mean accepting China's claims to the disputed territories.
While many countries have expressed their outrage and anger, India refuses to be bullied and gone a step further. The Indian Embassy in Beijing has started issuing visas printed with Indian maps showing the disputed territories as part of India.
Uday Bhaskar, a political analyst in India, told DW that India had "made its point by issuing similar visas to Chinese visitors. Both sides will perhaps review where they have reached; China, particularly, because it has generated a strong response from the ASEAN countries and they, in turn, feel they need to draw a line."
What are China's motives?
Experts are mulling over China's reasons for putting the map on the passport in the first place.
”This is unprecedented because it is the first time that any country has actually inserted or embossed its own map on its passports. Clearly, China is moving into new practices, new norms, and has raised the ante, and therefore India is responding in a like manner.” said Bhaskar.
Bhaskar believes that China has triggered something with no strategic logic underpinning it.
TCA Rangachari, Director of Third World Studies at Jamia Millia University in New Delhi, expressed his concern over the implications of the issue on Indo-China relations.
”Is this a new way of dealing with issues? What we need to look at is the kind of attitude China adopts in regard to its neighbors with whom it has a history of differences and how it chooses to deal with those differences," he said. "India remembers that 50 years ago China wanted to 'teach India a lesson.' Is that the attitude that is going to dominate again?”
Indo-Chinese ties: A complex relationship
“India and China are the two largest Asian powers. In the last 50 to 60 years, if you look at the way the relationship has played out, it is a combination of a certain amount of engagement, of differences, of trickery. The two countries went to war in 1962 over a territorial and border dispute, which has not been resolved yet.” said Bhaskar.
2012 is the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Indo-China war. The timing for Beijing's passport provocation could not have been worse.
“There is a certain amount of introspection going on in India - fairly open and debated at various levels - about where India went wrong, where India could have done things differently, what it is that the Chinese have done in the course of that war; and subsequently, in what way Indian interests are affected by whatever Chinese policies are presently and were in the recent past," said Rangachari.
He added that India was considering how it could make sure that its interests are protected, while ensuring that anything similar did not happen again.
Both sides are wary of each other for a complex set of inherited reasons, to which now the current compulsions of globalization have been added, notes Bhaskar. "They do engage," he said, "but now India and China are in the middle of this rather awkward passport issue where territoriality has entered the diplomatic domain." At the same time, however, they are engaged in a strategic economic dialogue, which is just an indication of the various facets of their relationship, Bhaskar explained.
Other Asian countries worried
Southeast Asian countries, too, have their own concerns about China and that was evident at the recent ASEAN summit in Cambodia, where many complained about Beijing's more assertive, even aggressive, pursuit of its economic interests in the region, and its large, highly visible, military presence in the South China Sea.
Bhaskar went on to say that he thought India was trying to acquire the appropriate capacities and ability to engage with China and with other neighbors in Southeast Asia. But, he said, India was still seeking to formulate its own national interests at the economic, strategic and security levels.
“We cannot pretend that India is not concerned about the way in which China is asserting its claims because it has a direct bearing on the [Indo-Chinese] territorial and border dispute," Bhaskar said.
"The current Indian position is that international law, norms and practices should be respected, and whatever the nature of the resolution, the modus vivendi will have to be consensual and that is something that China will have to accept as a code of conduct," Bhaskar emphasized.
“I do not see any of the ASEAN or Southeast Asian countries being able to take a more definite position toward China because all of them have a very strong trade and economic relationship with China and they are the subordinates,” Bhaskar pointed out.
The United States, meanwhile, is working to provide a certain degree of support, or some kind of underpinning for the Southeast Asian position. But Washington does not want to get drawn into the whole affair.
Southeast Asian countries are asserting their own positions as diplomatically as possible. It is a balancing act. They know that it is economically prudent for them to maintain their relationships with China, but are sticking to their respective positions on territorial issues.
For Rangachari, India cannot remain oblivious to the fact that Chinese military expenditures are more than India's and Japan's combined and, as its economy grows, China will become a more militarily powerful country.
The question is how far is China willing to go to enforce its interests, including its territorial claims?