MANILA (Reuters) - China is issuing passports containing a map marking its territorial claims in a maritime dispute with neighbouring Southeast Asian nations, triggering an angry protest on Thursday from the Philippines.
It means other claimant countries will have to stamp the microchip-equipped passports of thousands of Chinese tourists and businessmen containing the Chinese claims that they are disputing.
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.
"The Philippines does not accept the validity of the nine-dash lines that amount to an excessive declaration of maritime space in violation of international law."
Chinese carrying the new passport would be violating Philippine national sovereignty, said Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez.
Vietnam had also protested to the Chinese over the passport, Hernandez said. Officials in Vietnam could not immediately be reached for comment.
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; writing by Stuart Grudgings in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Nick Macfie