Diplomacy of Passports and Visas in International Relations: United States and China as a Case Study

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The choice of the United States of America (US) and the People’s Republic of China (simply China) as a case study in the quest to understand the diplomacy of issuance of passports and visas is largely informed by three main factors. First, many people, regardless of their nationality, want to visit the two countries either for greener pastures in the US or for business in China because of its down-to-earth character and cost of doing so.

Rightly or wrongly, many people hold the view that the US is a terra cognita for unlimited opportunities for self-development, progress, and general human survival. As for the Chinese, many people, especially in Africa, see them as being sincerely more committed in their development assistance agenda. They also see them as possible successor of the US as global leader. In fact, African leaders consider that the Chinese are not saints but are still better than the Western allies in terms of preparedness to assist in the implementation of functional development policies in Africa.

Second, the issuance of visas to anyone by both countries is made difficult for some obvious reasons: need to prevent terrorists and others with extremist Islamic mentality from gaining entry into their countries; like every other country, no one wants criminally-oriented people or people capable of creating situations of unrest to mix with their citizens; nobody wants any visiting foreigner to become a landed immigrant; and true, nobody wants a visitor who will not be able to measure up or unable to adapt to the living standard of the host population.

Thirdly, the US and China came up of recent with new visa policies. While the visa policy of the US is more of a review, adopted within the framework of President Donald Trump’s new immigration policy, that of China has a character of newness that goes beyond a mere review of policy. It is more of a political strategy aimed at laying a special foundation for a long-term influence in Africa. This policy should also be understood from the perspective of China not having many Chinese-trained people at the helm of political affairs, particularly in Africa.

In both cases, however, it is still the play of politics and the quest to protect and advance the national interest. But before investigating the politics involved, there is the need for a clear understanding of what a passport and a visa means within the context of international law and relations.

Passport and Visa
There are different types of passport as there are different categories of visa. A passport, like a visa, is an important instrument of good and political governance, by the mere consideration of right to grant or not to grant it. Unlike military regimes under which governance is driven by decrees, governance is largely done by executive order, presidential proclamation, presidential memorandum and bargaining with other arms of government, especially the National Assembly, in matters of foreign policy. In this regard, the issuance of passports and visas constitute a major feature in and aspect of immigration policies. It is, in fact, the issue of non-reciprocal visa treatment that prompted President Donald Trump to seek a policy review.

The categorisation of passports and visas is done on the basis of purpose: service, individual identification, citizenship identification, etc. For instance, as regards Nigerian passport, its issuance is to identify the holder, recommend him or her to whom it may concern in an accredited diplomatic mission in Nigeria to whose country the holder of the passport intends to travel. It also introduces the holder as a citizen of Nigeria. The introduction is done on the basis of trust in the holder.

It is important to underscore, at this juncture, that both passports and visas are nothing more than a recommendation from one sovereign state to another, meaning that there is nothing like an exercise of a supranational authority, and therefore, an imposition of authority by any state. More important, the holder of a passport holds it on behalf of the government. It does not belong to him or her. In fact, it can be withdrawn at any time. It is issued on the basis of trust in the holder that he or she would behave well, will not use the passport in a manner capable of embarrassing the issuing authority. In this way, the holder of a Nigerian passport is necessarily an ambassador of Nigeria.

However, this type of ambassadorship is quite different from the category identified by Ambassador Nkem Wadibia-Anyanwu, former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her category of ambassadors, which she said are ambassadors with small ‘a’, covers those who are sent abroad within the framework of Nigeria’s Technical Aid Corps scheme. And perhaps more interestingly, The ambassadors with small ‘a’ should again not be confused with ambassadors with capital ‘A’ who are governed by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

For purposes of this category of ambassadors and their diplomatic team, a special passport, referred to as Diplomatic Passport is approved for them. Diplomatic passports are issued to representatives of government given a diplomatic status. They are generally referred to as Foreign Service Officers. It should also be stated that the mere possession of a diplomatic passport does not make the holder a diplomatic agent to be given privileges and immunities in a receiving state. To be recognised as a diplomatic agent of a sending state, the sending state must have officially accredited the holder by stating his or her status and the receiving state must have not only accepted, but must have also inckuded the name of the diplomat on the official list of accredited diplomats normally published periodically for records order of precedence purposes.

Apart from diplomatic passports, there are also official passports, normally issued to senior-level civil and public servants who are not Foreign Service Officers; standard passports, issued to other low-level government officials and the general public; service passports, etc.

As regards visa, it is not only an acceptance of the recommendation by the passport issuing-state but also a further recommendation by an embassy concerned to its homeland border security that, to the best of its knowledge, the holder of the visa given by the mission is eligible to be further considered for authorisation to enter the country. This means that the mere possession of a visa is not yet a right, but a privilege issued to facilitate a trip. It is an instruments of administrative and security control, regardless of the type of visa: student, immigrant, tourism, business, etc. Espying these observations through the cases of the US and China is apt at this juncture.

US Visa Policy
The US visa policy has its foundation rooted in Section 9 of an Execute Order on immigration signed by President Donald Trump in May 2019. The Executive Order provides that ‘the Secretary of State shall review all non-immigrant visa reciprocity agreements to ensure that they are, with respect to each visa classification, truly reciprocal insofar as practicable with respect to validity period and fees, as required by Section 221(c) and 281 of the INA, 8 USC 1201(c) and 1351, and other treatment.’ More significant, the Executive Order also has it that, ‘if a country does not treat United States nationals seeking non-immigrant visas in a reciprocal manner, the Secretary of State shall adjust the visa validity period, fee schedule, or other treatment to match the treatment of United States nationals by the foreign country, to the extent practicable…’ The implementation of the policy took effect from May 14, 2019.

Two points are noteworthy in the Executive Order: purpose and means. The cardinal purpose of the order is to protect US nationals. In this regard, the notion of US nationals must be understood in its appropriate context. In other words, there is a fundamental difference between a national and a citizen of the US. Citizenship is of two types in the US: the ‘natural-born’ or ‘citizens at birth,’ on the one hand, and ‘statutory citizens,’ on the other. Besides, citizens that are native-born and those born on American soil, that is, by the principle of ius soli, do not enjoy the same privileges and rights.

As we have noted in another publication (Bola A. Akinterinwa, Nigeria’s Citizen Diplomacy: Theoretical Genesis and Empirical Exegesis, Ibadan: BIP, 2010, 234 pp), all persons born in Puerto Rico between April 11, 1899 and January 12, 1941 are considered native-born Americans and are not considered as being the same as those born on American territory for a reason that is not far-fetched: ‘the difference is that the United States Congress is vested with the power to withdraw the citizenship of statutory citizens at any time, something that cannot happen with US citizens born on the mainland, as their citizenship is protected, not by Act of Congress, but by the US Constitution (The Fourteen Amendment itself).

More interesting is the case of other citizens. The non-citizen nationals are given passports in which it is written that the holder is a national but not a citizen of the US. In this regard, any non-citizen US national has the right to reside and work in the US without restriction and can also apply for the status of a citizen. He can vote in elections organised by the federal or state government. However, their status is still not the same thing as that of a citizen.

As regards the means of attaining the purpose, the principle of reciprocal treatment is provided for. In the event US nationals cannot have a reciprocal treatment, the Secretary of State shall adjust the visa validity period, fee schedule, or other treatment to match the treatment of United States nationals by the foreign country, but this is subject to the factor of extent of practicability.

Even though reciprocity, as a principle governing the conduct and management of international relations is of two types (retorsion and reprisal), the Executive Order falls squarely within the context of a retorsion and not reprisal. Put differently, the US cannot take any sanctionary measure that goes beyond the diplomatic level. Reprisal action necessarily requires the use of force. An act of retorsion can only be a tit-for-tat that will not be allowed to degenerate from a crisis into a conflict.

What is particularly noteworthy about the implementation of the US Executive Order is the aspect of the Nigerian factor. The privilege of drop box policy was suspended either temporarily or sine die. The policy, before its suspension, was meant to facilitate the renewal of expired visas online and without having to go through the fresh interview hazards and visa application processes. But there is no disputing the fact that several holders of US visas might have, as reported, also abused the privilege in various ways.

Besides, an expired visa in a passport, even though it has expired, is still ‘cancelled without prejudice,’ making the visa an over-kill, is an interesting element of the new policy review. One may be wondering what need is there to overkill a visa that has expired. One possible explanation can be the need to ensure that the visa is permanently made invalid. It is possible that an immigration officer may carelessly overlook it. In some cases, a visa may still have one or two weeks validity. Holders of such visas may be given a longer period at the point of entry in the US. Cancelling the original visa that prompted the issuance of a longer period of stay cannot but necessarily also invalidate the longer-stay visa.

Whatever is the case, the suspension of the drop box policy is nothing more than a serious indictment on Nigeria and its foreign policy, especially in terms of incapacity to respond and negotiate with the Washingtonian authorities in order to either prevent Nigerians from illegal stay abroad or protect the genuine Nigerian visa applicants. As noted earlier, the policy took effect from May 14, 2019.

All the Nigerians who had been given approval of submitting their application forms without having to be interviewed, lost the privilege and by so doing, became ordinary applicants, without respect.
But true, many, not to say most Nigerians, are ignorant of the fact that Nigeria’s immigration rules, and particularly its visa conditions, are one of the toughest, not only in Africa, but also in the world. For instance, while the Embassy of the US in Nigeria charges US$160 for a two-year B1-B2 (Business and Tourism) visa, The Embassy of Nigeria in the US charges US$180 for a one-year business and tourism visa, which is still different from the US$35 charged for visa processing. This means that the Government of Nigeria is charging the sum of US$215 (two hundred and fifteen naira) for a visa valid for one year. In the eyes of the US, this situation cannot be considered to be fair for Americans travelling to Nigeria. This is why the US Executive Order provides that the Secretary of State should adjust the visa validity period, or adjust the fee schedule, or consider any other necessary treatment.

Apart from this, the US cannot be blamed for deciding to sanction the abuse of trust given by the US Embassy to Nigerians issued with American visas. In other words, one major reason for the suspension of the drop box or the interview waiver privilege is the fact of increasing number of immigrants who overstay their visas. Immigrants from Nigeria are in the majority and the reason cannot be far-fetched: as revealed by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, Nigeria had the highest number of non-immigrant B1-B2 visas issued to African nationals in 2018 with 132,137. South Africa and Egypt followed with 51,964 and 50,905, while Kenya and Ethiopia had 17,458 and 16,699 respectively.

Put differently, the total population of the other four countries coming after Nigeria is still lower (122,026) than that of Nigeria with 132,137. In other words, more Nigerians travel to the US than any other country in Africa. This is also an expression of interest in the US and likely reason for their visa overstay, even though this may not be tenable a justification for the overstay. In all, it is useful to note that the implication of the US government seeking to ban any country, like Nigeria, whose nationals persistently overstay can only be myopic for three reasons.

The first is that the sins committed by some Nigerians cannot be justifiably visited on the law abiding others. In the same vein, the sins should not be visited on Nigeria as a sovereign state. Secondly, Nigerians are generally a potent force wherever they found themselves legally or illegally. They add value to the societal development efforts of their host communities. A country without a regular inflow of Nigerians cannot but create a vacuum that has a great potential to adversely affect that country’s bilateral ties with Nigeria. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, even though Nigeria has the highest number of issued B1-B2 visas in 2018, she is in the third position on the list of countries of immigrants who overstayed. Certainly not the first and not the second

But most unfortunately, however, the weakest point in Nigeria’s foreign policy under President Muhammadu Buhari is the inability to be actively engaged in the defence of Nigerians. PMB’s foreign policy is that of unnecessary subservience, no articulated focus, no strategy. In fact, the already well-articulated economic diplomacy under Ike Nwachukwu has been bastardised. What is obvious now is nothing more than foreign policy reactions. The US should therefore not be blamed for protecting its own national interests.

China and Nigeria Visa Policy
Like the United States and any other country, China has a general visa policy but the implementation of the policy is largely defined by the nature and extent of warmth in the relationship with the country to which the policy is to be applied. As we have shown above, passport and visa are about immigration or instruments of control of people’s movement from one national territory to another territory under a different sovereign authority.

Last week, 17th June, Chu Maoming, the Consul General of China in Lagos announced the preparedness of his government to make plans aimed at easing procurement of visas for Nigerians willing to travel to China. In his words, ‘within the framework of the agreement on the Belt and Road Initiative…, we do know that more Nigerians would be travelling to China and more of Chinese businesses and investments coming to Nigeria. We therefore know that the need to provide more Nigerians with visas is very important.’

The US visa policy towards Nigeria is more of a reaction to perception of abuse of trust on the part of some Nigerian holders of B1-B2 visa. We do not have qualms with the policy decision except the sanctioning of everyone because of the offences of others. Rightly, offenders can be denied the privilege of a drop box.

On the contrary, Chinese visa policy towards Nigeria does not distinguish between or among frequent travellers to China in terms of privileges. In fact, the policy as announced is simply pointing to preparedness to prevent noisome obstacles that have the potential to impede the quick processing of visa applications by Nigerians because of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) agreement between Nigeria and China. The general conditions of eligibility for issuance of entry visa into China will still apply unless there is a specially-negotiated agreement, either to protect Nigerians travelling to or from China on the basis of the BRI cooperation framework, or articulate conditions peculiar to Nigeria to be met by Nigerians. As the Chinese government has reportedly said it is making plans to ease procurement of visa for Nigerians, no one can precisely talk about how it will affect Nigerians. What can be currently relied upon is the assurance given by the Chinese Consul General, according to which the process for applying for Chinese visa for purposes of business, investment and other purpose ‘is one of the fastest and most convenient.’ Let the Government of Nigeria learn how to protect its own nationals and citizens..