China's Latest Diplomatic Train Wreck
China's latest diplomatic train wreck, this time involving new passports containing watermarked maps of Beijing's hotly contested territorial claims, prompted the familiar protests of its oft enraged neighbors. It's just too bad nobody was at home to hear them.
"The aim of China's new electronic passports is to strengthen its technological abilities and make it convenient for Chinese citizens to enter or leave the country," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a media briefing on Wednesday.
(Read More: China's Passport Propaganda Baffles Experts)
"The issue of the maps in China's new passports should not be read too much into. China is willing to remain in touch with relevant countries and promote the healthy development of the exchange of people between China and the outside world."
Translation: Shut up, and take it.
"The Chinese are disingenuous. The maps are the latest example of them trying to fabricate a new precedent, but when countries protest, they pretend that everybody is delusional or overly emotional," said an official from Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Beijing attempted to cushion the diplomatic blow earlier this week by arguing the maps were "not made to target any specific country."
If that's true, they've done a pretty poor job of it. They've also done a pretty poor job of making it "more convenient for Chinese citizens." The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Chinese travelers to Vietnam and the Philippines were encountering waits of "a few hours" at immigration checkpoints.
(Read More: Asean Chief Warns on South China Sea Disputes)
Vietnam and the Philippines — who along with Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia claim parts of the vast South China Sea — will not issue visas for Chinese nationals using the passports because they say it would be tacit acknowledgment of China's claims. Both countries are issuing visas on separate pieces of paper.
The maps, depicting China's demands of the entire resource-rich sea, Taiwan and parts of Indian-controlled Himalayas is just the latest spat involving the Asian superpower and a growing clique of its increasingly distrustful neighbors.
Distrust is mounting.
Taking a page out of China's book, India is stamping visas for Chinese nationals with its own competing map of the Himalayas. The US and Asean's top diplomats have said they will raise the matter with Beijing.
"We do have concerns about this map which is causing tension and anxiety between and among the states in the South China Sea," US State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland told a media this week. "We do intend to raise this with the Chinese in terms of it not being helpful to the environment we all seek to resolve these issues."
Taiwan, which mainland China considers a rogue province and has threatened to use force to annex the island republic, doesn't recognize Chinese passports and issues visas to Chinese tourists on a separate travel document.
"It's unclear what Beijing's motivation was. It seems to be a hasty decision made by hardliners within the government. Given the strong reactions from several neighbors, it's apparent that the move has backfired," said Zhiqun Zhu, an expert on Chinese politics at Bucknell University.
Zhu says hawkish elements within China's military and the ruling Communist Party used the maps as a tool to "take advantage of the leadership transition to attempt to set the tone of China's foreign policy."
China unveiled a once-in-a-decade power transition earlier this month that ushered in Xi Jingping as paramount leader of the world's second largest economy.
(Read More: CNBC's Full Coverage of Changing China)
Beijing argues its fishermen plied the South China Sea and established outposts on its rocky outcrops centuries ago, and as such, it is theirs by "historical right," despite much of it being within the exclusive economic zone of other countries.
This year marked a rapid escalation of tensions in the region — with China taking a front row seat for all of it. China and the Philippines engaged in a naval standoff at a shoal close to the Philippine island of Luzon early this year.
In June, a state-owned Sino oil company called for foreign exploration rights bids for blocks close to the Vietnamese coast. A month later, it angered claimants further when it announced it would station troops on a South China Sea island it had seized from Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War.
"This is not a domestic issue any more. Beijing may have to reflect upon this: What has it achieved by issuing the new passport? And how should it remedy the prickly situation and pacify its infuriated neighbors," said Zhu.
In other news, the Voice of America reported Thursday that China will permit its border police to board and search foreign ships that enter waters in the sea. Accordng to the Voice of America, "police in the southern island province of Hainan will soon be authorized to land on, check, seize and expel foreign ships that enter the area illegally."