Propaganda, Passports, and the Geopolitics of the South China Sea

one of the disputed Spratly Islands

This tiny island in the disputed area of the South China Sea is just large enough for an air landing strip. Photo credit: dokientrung (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Unfortunately for the world, the most intense maritime territorial disputes are in East and Southeast Asia. East Asia, of course, is one of the three main engines of the world economy. And, with the recent transition of top political leadership in China, tensions are again flaring in the South China Sea (and in China’s important neighbor, India).  Beijing’s neighbors are understandably protesting the propaganda map included in China’s newest passports.

The Chinese passport map is hardly a creative propaganda piece.** The visualization simply, but unequivocally, assigns Chinese sovereignty to the key disputed islands of the South China Sea. As with similar “sovereignty maps” from the Arab-Israeli conflict or other territorial disputes, the passport map attempts to silence debate about a disputed area. (The Chinese government map also lays claim to two areas disputed with India.)

Though this Chinese geopolitical propaganda is not novel, it is brash. Passports, after all, are key symbols of a state that circulate outside its territory. It is one thing to create such a map, but it is quite another to stick it in the face of your neighbors in a recurring and routine way.

The intense dispute about the islands and exclusive economic zones of maritime Southeast Asia are baldly pointing to the limitations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into effect in 1994. Although UNCLOS has brought order to global maritime claims, the treaty cannot resolve fundamental issues of land disputes. With the recent controversy over these new passports, China and its neighbors do not appear to be on a quick path to resolution.

** For a classic work on cartography and propaganda, see Mark Monmonier’s How to Lie With Maps.

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