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China angers neighbors with sea claims on new passports

By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines and Vietnam condemned Chinese passports containing a map of China's disputed maritime claims on Thursday, branding the new design a violation of their sovereignty.

The map means countries disputing the Chinese claims will have to stamp microchip-equipped passports of countless visitors, in effect acquiescing to the Chinese point of view.

Stand-offs between Chinese vessels and the Philippine and Vietnamese navies in the South China Sea have become more common as China increases patrols in waters believed to hold vast reserves of oil and natural gas.

"The Philippines strongly protests the inclusion of the nine-dash lines in the e-passport as such image covers an area that is clearly part of the Philippines' territory and maritime domain," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Thursday, referring to the lines on the passport map.

Vietnam had written to China in protest against the new passports and had asked it to "reverse their incorrect content", said Luong Thanh Nghi, a spokesman for Vietnam's foreign ministry.

"This action by China has violated Vietnam's sovereignty to the Paracel and Spratly islands as well as our sovereign rights and jurisdiction to related maritime areas in the South China Sea, or the East Sea," he told a news conference.

Malaysia and Brunei are also claimants in the dispute which overshadowed an Asian leaders' summit in Cambodia this week. China is also embroiled in a territorial dispute with Japan.

China's foreign ministry said in a faxed response to questions that the new passports met international standards.

"The passports' maps with their outlines of China are not targeting a specific country. China is willing to actively communicate with the relevant countries and promote the healthy development of Sino-foreign personnel exchanges," it said.

It was not clear when China began printing the new passports.

The dispute spilled over into Southeast Asia's normally serene government summits this year, with China accused of seeking to stall debate and divide the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the issue.

Philippine diplomats accused China at this week's summit in Phnom Penh of using its influence over host Cambodia to push a formal statement saying that ASEAN did not want to "internationalize" the dispute.

The Philippines, which sees its alliance with the United States as a crucial check on China's claims at a time when the United States is shifting its military focus back to Asia, protested to Cambodia and succeeded in having that clause removed from the final statement.

(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing and Ngo Chau in Hanoi; writing by Stuart Grudgings in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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