China's latest action to stamp its claim over the entire South China Sea—and even beyond—is backfiring.
In a discreet move, Beijing has printed a map on new Chinese passports showing contested territories in the South China Sea and those near its border with India and Taiwan as part of China.
Even though Chinese official maps have long incorporated most or all of the contested territories, including Beijing's nine-dash line—sometimes called the "Cow Tongue" line—which demarcates its territories in the South China Sea, the neighborhood is seeing red.
The Southeast Asian nations which have competing claims with Beijing over the South China Sea as well as India and Taiwan are worried that stamping and affixing their official seals on the microchip-equipped Chinese passports would be tantamount to endorsing China's territorial claims.
They have all protested to Beijing.
But Vietnam and India have taken the issue a notch higher by launching tit-for-tat measures even as China downplayed the diplomatic fallout by saying that the map is "not made to target any specific country."
India is issuing Chinese citizens visas embossed with New Delhi's own maps.
It says Beijing's passport map showing India's Arunachal Pradesh state and the Himalayan region of Aksai Chin in Kashmir as part of China is "unacceptable."
Two of Taiwan's most famous scenic spots—Sun Moon Lake and Cingshui Cliffare—are also part of the Chinese map, enraging the island's president Ma Ying-jeou, under whom relations with the mainland have improved rapidly.
To counter Beijing's move, Vietnam has refused to stamp visas on the new Chinese passports.
Its passport control offices are allowing Chinese passport holders into the country but issuing visas on separate documents, China's state-run CCTV and Vietnamese media reported.
This is an assertion of Vietnam's non-recognition of China's Cow Tongue line "under any form," an official at Vietnam's easternmost Mong Cai city checkpoint along its border with China told the Vietnamese state run Tuoi Tre newspaper.
The nine-dash line, which takes in about 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer (1.35 million square mile) South China Sea on Chinese maps, violates international law, especially the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the paper quoted Le Minh Phieu of Vietnam’s so-called East Sea Research Fund as saying.
He asked Vietnam to join other Southeast Asian nations in finding "an effective means of protest" against the latest Chinese action.
Four of the 10 ASEAN states—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—have competing claims with China in the South China Sea.
And the four are to hold talks in Manila on Dec. 12 as part of a Philippine initiative to push for a multilateral solution to their disputes—in contrast to the bilateral approach preferred by China, which has reportedly turned down the invitation to attend the rare meeting.
"This will be the first time that the four ASEAN claimant states can clarify to one another where their claims are," said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, an expert at the ASEAN Studies Centre of the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
He said the nine-dash line pressing Beijing's massive claims in the South China Sea requires urgent clarification because it cuts into the 200-mile (322-kilometer) exclusive economic zones of all the coastal states in the South China Sea, including Indonesia's off Natuna Besar Island.
"China has yet to clarify what its 'Cow Tongue' U-shaped line signifies. If it represents the Chinese maritime boundary, China is actually claiming sovereignty and/or jurisdiction behind the nine-dash line," Termsak said.
"One serious implication is that China can then claim to have legal right to regulate shipping and other activities in most of the South China Sea," he said.
Against such a possibility, he said, the issue clearly concerns not just the four ASEAN claimant states but all 10 member states, as well as other countries that use the international sea lanes in the South China Sea for shipping and commerce.
Code of conduct
Despite 10 years of diplomacy, China has refused to hold formal talks with ASEAN on devising a binding code of conduct aimed at reducing any chances of conflict in the vast sea, which experts say is Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint.
At a meeting in Cambodia last week, ASEAN again failed to convince Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the need to hold formal talks to replace the low level, informal discussions between the two sides.
A plea by ASEAN to establish a hotline to defuse tensions over the maritime dispute has also been shrugged off by China.
In fact, China went on the offensive at the talks.
It has been accused of manipulating meeting host Cambodia, Beijing's chief ally in Southeast Asia, by pushing it to adopt a declaration saying ASEAN has agreed to not "internationalize" the South China Sea dispute. The move however failed after objections by several ASEAN nations.
"The episode was destructive and dangerous," said Ernest Bower, head of Southeast Asia Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"China has effectively proven that it intends to sustain passive-aggressive pressure to weaken any unified ASEAN position on the South China Sea."
He said the ASEAN leaders left Cambodia "wondering, still, what China wants and what it wants to be."
"This is very uncertain ground, and uncertainty means the emergence of an inherent instability in the region that undermines a solid foundation for regional growth."
Upping the ante
China is also beginning to show a trend of upping the ante over the South China Sea issue after meetings with ASEAN.
Hardly a week after the ASEAN meeting last week, Beijing's strategy of using Chinese passports to stamp its South China Sea claims has been unveiled.
Similarly, after the key July meeting with ASEAN, China moved to establish a tiny city—Sansha city—and a military garrison in the disputed Paracel chain in a bold bid to administer the vast South China Sea and assert control over disputed and potentially oil-rich islands in the region.
Despite protests against the move by the ASEAN states and the United States, China announced at the weekend that it has published the first official map of the newly-established Sansha city.
It is the first map that reflects the geological information of Sansha city and the South China Sea islands in a comprehensive, accurate and specific manner, according to a statement issued by its publisher Friday, the Xinhua state news agency said.
Amid the territorial disputes, China is also beefing up its overall military power.
Outgoing President Hu Jintao made a pointed reference to bolstering China's naval forces, protecting maritime interests and the need to "win local war" when he this month opened the ruling Chinese Communist Party's party congress, which endorsed a once-in-a-decade leadership change.
"We should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguard China's maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power," Hu said.
State media also said on Sunday that China has carried out its first successful landing of a fighter jet on its first aircraft carrier.
"This is a landmark event for China's aircraft carrier ... and [moves it] one step closer to combat readiness," Zhang Junshe, a vice director at the military's Naval Affairs Research Institute, told state television.