MANILA, Philippines, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- The Philippines said it will no longer stamp its visa on China's new passports containing maps showing disputed islands in the South China Sea as its territory.
The action by Manila comes after it lodged a strong protest over China's new e-passports. Vietnam also has taken a similar step as China continues to aggressively assert its territorial claims over much of the South China Sea, a vital maritime route for global commerce over which other Asian countries have overlapping claims.
Under its new policy, the Philippines will stamp its visa on separate papers, Edwin Lacierda, a spokesman for the president, said, the Philippine Star reported Thursday.
"This action is being undertaken to avoid the Philippines being misconstrued as legitimizing the 9-dash line every time a Philippine visa is stamped on such Chinese e-passport," the Philippines' Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement.
"Through this action, the Philippines reinforces its protest against China's excessive claim over almost the entire South China Sea including the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines views the expansive 9-dash claim as inconsistent with international law, specifically United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."
The map depiction on China's passports is in the form of a U-shaped "nine-dash line," which the Philippines says covers its territory. In its protest, Manila said it does not accept the validity of the nine-dash lines "that amount to an excessive declaration of maritime space in violation of international law."
The presidential office also said Manila would not speculate on reports the United States would raise its concerns with Beijing over the map as it was causing "tension and anxiety" among claimant states of the disputed territories, the Star said.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the United States intends to raise the map issue with China, while also stressing it'd be up to each country to decide on how its passport should be designed.
Beijing is also involved in a dispute with India over a map that shows two of Indian states as part of China.
Philippine officials have said the Chinese action is a violation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which Beijing signed in 2002 along with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that includes the Philippines. The declaration calls for the signatories to "refrain from actions that complicate and escalate the dispute."
Besides Vietnam and the Philippines, other countries with overlapping territorial claims include Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Vietnam and the Philippines already have had separate incidents with China over the dispute.
The Philippines says the region in the sea -- which it calls the West Philippine Sea, including the waters, islands, rocks and other maritime features -- form an integral part of the Philippine territory and maritime jurisdiction.
At the recently concluded East Asia Summit, Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III urged all participants to respect the exclusive economic zone and continental shelves of all coastal states, irrespective of their size or naval power.
The summit was also attended by U.S. President Barack Obama during his three-nation Asia tour.
Speaking at the same summit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea is an integral part of Chinese territory and China's sovereignty over them is indisputable. China refers to the Shoal as Huangyan Island.
China insists on bilateral negotiations with related parties to resolve the issue, while the United States prefers a multilateral approach. Critics of the bilateral approach say it would allow China to influence those with whom it has economic ties. Last July, the Chinese military set up a garrison in its newly created Sansha City in south Hainan province, which is seen as being designed to strengthen its claims.
In a report earlier this week on Vietnam issuing separate visa sheets to new Chinese passport holders instead of stamping directly on visa pages, China's Global Times quoted scholars as saying the passport dispute "does not change the fact that the disputed territories belong to China, nor does it mean that China plans to solve the disputes by issuing a new passport."
The Wall Street Journal reported China's latest response seemed to be playing down the passport controversy.
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: "The picture on the passport should not be over-interpreted. China is ready to maintain communication with relevant countries and promote the sound development of personnel exchanges."
The Journal, quoting regional officials and experts, said the dispute isn't likely to seriously damage China's relations with other Asian nations. However, the report said, it pointed to China's growing economic and military prowess and its increasingly assertive attitude relating to territorial claims.
China is also involved in a worsening territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
"While it is far-fetched to consider the new Chinese passports as an act of provocation, it is damaging to ASEAN-China ties, and will further inflame the already tense situation in the South China Sea," Tang Siew Mun at the Malaysian think thank Institute of Strategic and International Studies told the Journal. "If anything, this shows Beijing's lack of regard for ASEAN sensitivities."