A page from a Chinese passport displays a Chinese map which includes an area in the South China Sea inside a line of dashes representing maritime territory claimed by China, in Kunming, Yunnan province, in this November file photo.

In passport kerfuffle, Taiwan is stickin' it to China

Taiwan is fighting back with stickers after China issued passports showing ownership over the entire South China Sea.

China hasn’t started a military war with Taiwan – as has been feared since the 1940s – but a battle that began on paper last month has met with a fiery pulp-and-ink response that could burn a hole in goodwill between the two once-hostile governments.

Pictures on Beijing’s latest passports show a map of China that includes two parts of Taiwan, including its scenic showpiece Sun Moon Lake. The travel documents also depict islets in the South China Sea as China's, despite competing claims by Taiwan and several Southeast Asian countries.

China, already a regional heavyweight, is believed to have issued 5 million of the passports between April and November when they inflamed a regional dispute with neighbors. Now Taiwan is joining the chorus of protest, not by refusing to stamp them as Vietnam has announced it is doing, and not by issuing their own maps as India has done, but with some provocative stickers with a message to China.  

China has claimed Taiwan as part of its turf since the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists set up a government to rival mainland China's about 100 miles offshore after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists. The relationship between China and Taiwan has been up and down for the past few decades: Both formal reunification with the mainland and full Taiwanese independence have been suggested, but a tempering of relations has kept many content with the middle ground status quo, with Taiwan considering itself an effectively independent territory. 

Still, the maps in China’s passports were taken as a bold affront to that. In response, Taiwan’s main opposition Democratic Progressive Party gave away 10,000 pink stickers at the foreign ministry consular office in Taipei. The stickers that read “Taiwan is my Country” can be slapped onto the back cover of a Taiwan passport or onto a plastic passport protector. 

The stickers went fast two weeks ago, so the party copied off another 20,000. “People just love them,” says its policy coordination executive director Joseph Wu. “It’s quite clear that what China is doing trespasses into our sovereignty. Taiwan is not under any country’s jurisdiction.”

Across town, the smaller Taiwan Solidarity Union Party printed out oversized paper effigies of the Chinese passports and marred or burned them at a rally, according to local media.

Taiwan and China have set aside differences over sovereignty since 2008, when the island’s conciliatory President Ma Ying-jeou took office. Mr. Ma’s government has signed 18 deals with China, drawing Taiwan closer to the world economic powerhouse. Talks on those agreements built mutual trust that didn’t exist before.

The island’s foreign ministry says that trust is now being questioned. The ministry’s news release calls China’s passport issue “a provocative act that will … damage the mutual trust laboriously built by the two sides in recent years.”

Taiwanese opposition forces are protesting the Chinese passports because they worry that the government is courting China rather than standing up to it, but analysts say officials in Taipei are just as irked as their skeptics.

“Our government thinks that China betrayed common ground, which is that there’s one China but subject to different interpretations,” says Nathan Liu, an associate international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan, citing the basis for talks and deals since 2008.

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