Brazen China keeps pushing the line

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Motorcyclists drive over the Chroy Changvar Bridge (R) as the Cambodia-China Friendship Bridge stands under construction on the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Several ASEAN members have accused China of pressurizing the bloc's rotating chair Cambodia not to raise the East Sea dispute at key regional summits this year.

Vietnam has refused to stamp the controversial Chinese passports and issues their holders with separate visas to be tacked on.

India has begun stamping its own map on the new Chinese passports when it issues visas for Chinese citizens.

The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Wednesday that immigration personnel would stamp "a separate visa application form" instead of the Chinese passport.

Unsurprisingly, China's new computer-chipped passports that include a map showing almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea and disputed border areas as Chinese territory have irked its neighbors.

The move has also drawn complaints from Chinese netizens who say the new e-passports are causing delays and other inconveniences on arrival in affected countries.

But despite the backlash at home and abroad, analysts say Beijing is unlikely to back down from its expansive claims in the region, stretching from the eastern Himalayan mountains to the South China Sea.

"I think that this is only partly because of the nationalist fervor in China [surrounding territorial claims], but even more, because China seems to believe that there is a growing power disparity between itself and its neighbors," said Dean Cheng, a China analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank based in Washington D.C.

"I'm not sure China feels it necessary to back away from its claims," Cheng told Vietweek.

"˜Net loss'

In a move that has exacerbated tensions in the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea, China has introduced a new e-passport design which has a map with the spurious nine-dashed line. Beijing has been using the line to claim sea areas that cover most of the East Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and natural resources and straddles important shipping lines.

The map also shows India's Arunachal Pradesh state and the Himalayan region of Aksai Chin as part of China. New Delhi has dismissed the claim as "unacceptable."

Given the increasing Chinese adventurism, analysts said Vietnam, India, and even the Philippines would have no option but to take action and show Beijing that they are going to fight it.

They also said the new Chinese passports would neither carry legal weight nor help promote China's image on the international stage.

"Such actions by China are not going to help Beijing as they are generating a perception that China's rise is not going to be good for the region, especially for those states that have differences with China," said Harsh Pant, a security analyst with King's College in London.

 "In the long term this will be a net loss to China," he said.

No turning back

But despite all the diplomatic furor and flak it has received, including that from the US, China would show no sign of backing away from its aggressive actions, analysts said.

The latest aggression is apparently boosted by China's belief that its military clout is far ahead its neighbors and by its relative economic strength that fuels huge spending on defense.

China conducted the first landing of a fighter jet on its new aircraft carrier recently. The Chinese-made J-15 made the successful landing on Liaoning, a former Soviet carrier, during recent exercises, news agency AFP reported, citing a Sunday report by the Chinese defense ministry.

As the moves stoked anxiety among its Asian neighbors, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said Tuesday that its military buildup poses no threat to the world, Reuters reported.

The US, Japan and many other Southeast Asian states have frequently expressed worries about China's double-digit defense spending increases and expanding naval reach, saying Beijing's plans lack transparency, the newswire added.

China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - are embroiled in sovereignty disputes over the East Sea. China's claim is the largest, covering most of the sea's 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), a move that has been emphatically rejected by international scholars.

 The area is thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place China, the Philippines, Vietnam and other claimant nations alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia and Qatar. It is the shortest route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and straddles shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East. More than half the globe's oil tanker traffic passes through it.

Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based maritime analyst, said China has intensified the conflict by essentially putting on a "full-court press."

According to Valencia, Beijing has verbally threatened its rival claimants; enforced a ban on fishing in its claimed waters; offered oil blocks for lease on Vietnam's claimed continental shelf; designated a new administrative headquarters and garrison for the East Sea; confronted the Philippines over the disputed Scarborough Shoal; challenged petroleum exploration in waters claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia; and pressurized ASEAN's rotating chair Cambodia not to raise the dispute at key regional summits this year; all the while telling the US to "butt out."

"Basically, China sees itself as a victim, previously of colonial powers and currently their successors, small Southeast Asian countries who are stealing its maritime resources - and are being backed by the US," he said.

"The sense of victimization feeds its nationalist discourse and underpins its moral outrage and righteousness in foreign policy. Most important, it reinforces public demand for tough uncompromising positions, making management of the conflicts difficult and compromising on or resolving them near impossible."

Since US President Barrack Obama announced a "pivot" toward the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region late last year, the US has maintained it will play a neutral role in the East Sea dispute. But skeptics say the US "pivot" toward Asia in foreign and defense policy has already rattled the region and increased tensions between the two superpowers. China perceives the US move as an attempt to contain its rise.

Some ASEAN nations do not want to have to choose between the two individually or collectively. While some welcome the US policy shift, others are a bit wary.

Though analysts consider the Chinese map gambit very ill-advised because it will lead to a tit-for-tat policy with other countries, they say it was just another move by China to reassert its ambitious maritime claims.

"While it is [an] arguably non-confrontational approach, there lingers the prospect of action-reaction dynamics which could lead to an escalation of tension," said Ristian Supriyanto, an expert with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

"It could make each party retrench their claims, thus denying benign circumstances for dialogue to peacefully settle the disputes, let alone for compromises," he said.

A slew of squabbles between China and ASEAN claimants in the East Sea have prompted protracted negotiations on a formal code of conduct aimed at easing tensions in the waters.

But ASEAN has remained at odds over the drafting of the code. Some are urging the regional body to first agree on a common position before meeting with China, but others argue Beijing should be involved from the start.

Capitalizing on this, Beijing has always been against internationalizing the dispute and instead preferred a bilateral approach. Several ASEAN members have also accused China of stalling progress on the code.

With the major leadership transition underway in China, analysts are not expecting a change in approach to Beijing's handling of the East Sea dispute.

Cheng, the Washington-based expert, said: "The new leadership is likely to be more obstinate, rather than more flexible."

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