The diplomatic storm in Asia over Chinese passports printed with Chinese maps showing disputed territories with its neighbors like India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Philippines as its own may now affect Bhutan.
This paper has found that Bhutanese Immigration and Visa officials for the past few months have been unknowingly stamping official government seals on the new Chinese passports which show maps with parts of Bhutanese territory as being under China.
Millions of such new Chinese passports were issued in May 2012. Bhutan in 2012 alone had 3,448 Chinese tourists visit as the third highest group after Japan and America. In November, 2012 alone there were 360 Chinese tourists visiting Bhutan. It is compulsory for Chinese tourists to have their passport and visa stamped by Bhutanese Visa and Immigration officials when they come to Bhutan.
The areas in question is Bhutanese territory under Haa Dzongkhag and comprises four pasture areas of Doklam (89 sq km) and Giu, Sinchulumpa, Shakhateo and Dramana (180 sq km) coming to a total of 269 square km (see picture) all adjoining the Chumbi valley in China.
In the 20 boundary talks held so far Bhutan has maintained these areas as Bhutanese territory and is so reflected in maps issued by Bhutan. However, the Chinese representatives during the boundary talks laid claim to the 269 sq km on Bhutan’s Western Borders in addition to another 495 sq km area in Pasamlung, Bumthang which is also Bhutanese territory.
Official Chinese Maps show the two Western Bhutan areas of Doklam and the Giu, Sinchulumpa, Shakhateo and Dramana areas coming to a total of 269 sq km as Chinese territory. This same official map has been replicated in a smaller version on the passport.
In the seventh boundary talks in 1990 China had offered to give up its claim on the 495 sq km in Bumthang if Bhutan accepted its claim over the 269 sq km in Western Bhutan. Bhutan, however, did not accept this as it would affect livestock herders in this area who needs the area to graze their cattle and Yaks.
The Bhutanese got in touch with Foreign Ministry officials in Bhutan but senior officials were either not aware of the issue at all or did not want to comment at this stage. The Minister in charge of Foreign Affairs Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk and Home Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji were both outside Thimphu and not available when the paper contacted them on the phone.
Meanwhile, Immigration Director Thinley Wangchuck said “when it comes to passports specifically, it is being dealt by the foreign ministry and the immigration department hasn’t received any directions from the ministry.”
“We do the visa stamping but when there’s a new passport or a revised one coming in, normally the ministry sends us a copy and instructions. I have not received that. Foreign ministry should tell us whether we should recognize a passport or not,” he added.
Internationally most countries with unresolved territorial disputes have their own version of the maps which is different from that of its neighbors as both countries lay claim to the same areas. However, this is the first time that a country has placed its version of the political map on passport pages which have to be signed by officials from the other country.
In this case the dilemma for the countries is the stamping of these Chinese passports with official government seals could be seen as acknowledgement of China’s territorial claims over its own claims.
The Indian Embassy and consulates in China have responded by stamping its own version of the Map on Chinese passports, Vietnam and Philippines have refused to stamp these passports and instead issued separate visas, Taiwan does not recognize Chinese passports.
According to international media reports the Washington state department, will raise concerns with China over a new map in Chinese passports.
These countries have also fiercely criticized the Chinese passports.
The map printed inside the new Chinese passports encompasses the entire South China Sea and effectively extends China’s land and sea borders to take in parts claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and areas of India that have been the subject of dispute for some 50 years. The new map also includes areas of Bhutan that has been a subject of dispute with China since 1984.
During the 20th round of boundary talks between Bhutan and China that was held in the capital on August 10, earlier this year, both the countries reaffirmed their commitment to resolve boundary issue at the earliest, which was more or less a repetition of many such meetings between the two countries.
The delegations from both the countries reaffirmed their commitment through mutual consultation, understanding and accommodation on the basis of the Four Guiding Principles. The principles were agreed upon in 1988 and 1998 under the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in the Bhutan-China border areas.
The Bhutanese delegation was led by the Minister in-charge for Foreign Affairs, Khandu Wangchuk. The Chinese Delegation was led by the Vice Foreign Minister, Fu Ying.
Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met in a first-time head of government level meeting between the two countries at the Rio de Janeiro on the sidelines of the Rio+20 Summit, earlier this year. Mr. Wen at the meeting told Lyonchhen that China was,” willing to complete border demarcation with Bhutan at an early date,” telling his counterpart that Beijing has “a foreign policy of good-neighborliness.”
This map controversy also comes when international attention including that of the USA under Barack Obama’s new Asia policy is increasingly focused on the South-East Asian region which is emerging as a global economic growth engine.
Meanwhile International media reports also show that China’s foreign ministry had sought to downplay the issue with its neighbors. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the design of this type of passport is not directed against any particular country,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily media briefing Friday. “We hope the relevant countries can calmly treat it with rationality and restraint so that the normal visits by the Chinese and foreigners will not be unnecessarily interfered with.”
Bhutan and China have so far had 20 rounds of border talks with China since 1984 till 2012. The latest passport controversy and the uncertainty will put increased pressure on Bhutan to resolve its borders and demarcate them at the earliest.