POSTED: 05:19 a.m. HST, Nov 23, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 10:10 a.m. HST, Nov 23, 2012
TAIPEI, Taiwan >> China has enraged several neighbors with a few dashes on a map, printed in its newly revised passports that show it staking its claim on the entire South China Sea and even Taiwan.
Inside the passports, an outline of China printed in the upper left corner includes Taiwan and the sea, hemmed in by the dashes. The change highlights China's longstanding claim on the South China Sea in its entirety, though parts of the waters also are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
China's official maps have long included Taiwan and the South China Sea as Chinese territory, but the act of including them in its passports could be seen as a provocation since it would require other nations to tacitly endorse those claims by affixing their official seals to the documents.
Ruling party and opposition lawmakers alike condemned the map in Taiwan, a self-governed island that split from China after a civil war in 1949. They said it could harm the warming ties the historic rivals have enjoyed since Ma Ying-jeou became president 4 1/2 years ago.
"This is total ignorance of reality and only provokes disputes," said Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, the Cabinet-level body responsible for ties with Beijing. The council said the government cannot accept the map.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters in Manila that he sent a note to the Chinese Embassy that his country "strongly protests" the image. He said China's claims include an area that is "clearly part of the Philippines' territory and maritime domain."
The Vietnamese government said it had also sent a diplomatic note to the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi, demanding that Beijing remove the "erroneous content" printed in the passport.
In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry said the new passport was issued based on international standards. China began issuing new versions of its passports to include electronic chips on May 15, though criticism cropped up only this week.
"The design of this type of passports is not directed against any particular country," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily media briefing today. "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."
It's unclear whether China's South China Sea neighbors will respond in any way beyond protesting to Beijing. China, in a territorial dispute with India, once stapled visas into passports to avoid stamping them.
"Vietnam reserves the right to carry out necessary measures suitable to Vietnamese law, international law and practices toward such passports," Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said.
Taiwan does not recognize China's passports in any case; Chinese visitors to the island have special travel documents.
China maintains it has ancient claims to all of the South China Sea, despite much of it being within the exclusive economic zones of Southeast Asian neighbors. The islands and waters are potentially rich in oil and gas.
There are concerns that the disputes could escalate into violence. China and the Philippines had a tense maritime standoff at a shoal west of the main Philippine island of Luzon early this year.
The United States, which has said it takes no sides in the territorial spats but that it considers ensuring safe maritime traffic in the waters to be in its national interest, has backed a call for a "code of conduct" to prevent clashes in the disputed territories. But it remains unclear if and when China will sit down with rival claimants to draft such a legally binding nonaggression pact.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam are scheduled to meet Dec. 12 to discuss claims in the South China Sea and the role of China.
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves in Manila, Philippines, Chris Brummitt in Hanoi, Vietnam, and researcher Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report.