Whenever a country issues new passports, someone almost always complains about the new design. But China's latest edition of travel logs is drawing formal criticism from countries across Asia.
The passports feature a map of China that includes areas of the South China Sea claimed by other countries, as well as territory claimed by India.
Taiwan's government objected to the passports Friday, following similar protests by the Philippines and Vietnam. Officials at the Indian Embassy in Beijing are protesting in their own way, stamping Chinese visas with a map showing the disputed territory belonging to India, according to The Press Trust of India.
John Blaxland, with the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at Australian National University, called China's move "pretty clever."
"It basically forces everyone who's a claimant of South China Sea elements to acknowledge it by stamping it," he said.
As China's military and economic influence has grown throughout the world, Beijing has become more brazen in its claim to territories believed to be rich with oil and natural gas across the Asia-Pacific.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the “nine-dash” map of the sea printed in the new passports wasn’t targeted at any specific countries.
Blaxland described China’s move as part of a "long game" being played by a new generation of leaders who will steer the country for the next 10 years.
"We've just seen a major transition in China … They can act deliberately and slowly, and slowly get their way. There's really not very much anyone is seriously prepared to do about it," he said.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations discussed the territorial disputes at a summit in Cambodia earlier this week but failed to achieve a united stand on how the 10 member countries should respond to China.
Carl Thayer, a professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales, said the map in China’s new passports may partly be in response to Vietnam’s passage earlier this year of a Law of the Sea. The law asserts Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands, which are claimed by both Hanoi and Beijing.
“It's just finding one more way of turning the screw that China has jurisdiction,” Thayer said.
Although Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines have been most vocal in their opposition to China’s moves, Brunei and Malaysia also have rival claims in the South China Sea, and Japan is embroiled in its own dispute over islands in the East China Sea. All the territorial spats have raised concerns about a potential maritime conflict, prompting the United States to wade into the controversy.
The Obama administration says it is not taking sides but is pushing for the countries to adopt a code of conduct, which China opposes.
Blaxley said the United States wants to secure its freedom of navigation in the region.
“When you think back to the days of the Cold War, there was a clear code of conduct between Soviet or NATO or Western ships, that when they encountered each other, there was a protocol. Well there isn't one at the moment for the South China Sea, and that is problematic,” he said.
Despite that, Blaxley said neither the United States nor any of the other countries directly affected by China’s moves have much of an appetite to take action regarding the passports or the territorial claims.
As a result, Thayer said the passports will not change the reality on the ground, and will serve more as a political stunt than anything else. A stunt, he said, that other countries are as capable of performing.
"I flew Air Vietnam," he said, "and it had a map up there clearly indicating that the Paracels and Spratlys were Vietnamese."
Additional reporting by Victor Beattie.